From New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, to Chicago, Miami and Dallas, the USA’s heavy hitters need no introduction.
But for every major player, there’s an understudy waiting in the wings – and whether you’ve already explored the big cities or find yourself looking for less-expected destinations instead, there’s an urban alternative to suit. Here are six lesser-visited cities in the US that are worth traveling to.
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1. Albuquerque, New Mexico
Though it’s been overshadowed by the cultural cachet of state capital Santa Fe, New Mexico’s second city is more than worthy of a second look. It’s the fictional home of Breaking Bad’s drug-dealing Walter White – and in reality, the 505’s melting-pot aesthetic and substantial natural charms are both serious draws.
Between its annual hot-air balloon fest and its easy access to earthly wonders, this gateway to the Southwest is heaven for outdoorsy types, with lots of sunny days, biking trails and hiking options. Across its 187 sq miles, there’s a mix of Indigenous, Hispanic and American cultures, with museums, food, festivals and more reflecting its diverse heritage.
Take your time in the adobe-housed galleries of Old Town, watch the nearby Sandía Mountains glow pink at sunset, enjoy a plate of chicken enchiladas smothered in red or green chile sauce (ask for it “Christmas style” if you can’t decide), grab a beer at the country’s first Native American woman–owned brewery and consider stopping by Los Poblanos for a jar of lavender salve while you’re nearby – it’s a lifesaver at ABQ’s high elevation and beyond.
Bend, Oregon is great for lovers of the outdoors © Irra / Shutterstock
2. Bend, Oregon
Often cited as a top destination for outdoor adventures and a stellar quality of life, Central Oregon’s Bend isn’t exactly a hidden gem. But for those who aren’t tuned into the worlds of hiking, biking, fishing and/or rock climbing, it might fly under the radar in favor of Portland to the north, especially given the Rose City’s name recognition these days. And that’s a shame, because while Bend’s outdoors offerings are quite impressive, so too are its shopping, dining and beer-drinking choices.
Snap a selfie at the last Blockbuster store on earth, then head downtown to rummage through the stacks of vinyl at Smith Rock Records. From there it’s a few blocks to Drake Park; grab a coffee from the on-site Commons Café and meander around the half-mile riverfront as you sip your java.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, commandeer a casual picnic table at Alebrije Oaxaca to chow down on excellent tacos and piles of fresh tortilla chips doused with mole and cotija, or pull up to the bar at the slicker Chomp Chomp for crunchy, chewy pork-belly bites, crispy flash-fried brussels sprouts and can’t-believe-it’s-vegetarian miso ramen. Wash it all down on the Bend Ale Trail, which features 30 breweries, plus wineries, cideries, distilleries and kombucha makers.
Buffalo is more than just Niagara Falls (though they’re unmissable) © Tony Shi Photography / Getty Images
3. Buffalo, New York
Once an industrial powerhouse, then an ailing metropolis that saw big swathes of its population fleeing to the suburbs and – notoriously – its pro-football team lose four Super Bowls in a row, New York’s second-largest city is turning things around. There’s been a decade-long effort to invest in housing, job training, public green spaces and the arts, among other things. Today, this city is hitting its stride.
And there’s more to come. A major 30,000 sq ft expansion of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) is scheduled to open in June 2023, and a new park and a collection of grain silos have been repurposed for mixed-use community on the waterfront. Check out the old stalwarts too: Niagara Falls, obviously, but also architectural gems such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style Martin House, Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Kleinhans Music Hall and parks by Frederick Law Olmsted.
In Greenville’s Falls Park, the Liberty Bridge overlooks a spectacular set of waterfalls © Alamy Stock Photo
4. Greenville, South Carolina
Sixty-some miles south of Asheville, North Carolina, in the same beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, the pretty city of Greenville is one part walkable downtown, one part nature escape, one part foodie haven and one part caffeine heavyweight (it’s a top pick for the best cup of coffee in the state).
For a small metropolis – roughly 72,000 people at last count – this Upstate charmer has plenty to recommend it. A stroll along Main St takes you past well-curated boutiques, buzzing farm-to-table restaurants and public art galore (keep an eye out for the adorable bronze mice hidden in plain sight). The picture-perfect downtown area is anchored by 32-acre Falls Park, with trails, gardens, green spaces and a suspension bridge overlooking a spectacular set of waterfalls on the Reedy River.
To get your heart rate going, rent a bike and hit the 22-mile Swamp Rabbit trail, or for an overall artsier vibe, head to West Greenville, a village billed as a Southern-style Soho, complete with galleries, even more restaurants and historic buildings in mint condition.
During the WaterFire festival, bonfires illuminate the river of Providence, Rhode Island © Getty Images
5. Providence, Rhode Island
When it comes to New England college towns, Providence might not come to mind as readily as, say, Cambridge or New Haven. But this small Rhode Island city of nearly 190,000 has an appealing energy, thanks not only to its own Ivy Leaguer, Brown University, but its other academic institutions too, including Providence and Rhode Island Colleges, Johnson & Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
As you’d expect from a community with a thriving student population, let alone one with an arts school, the cultural components here are outstanding, from museums, galleries and open-studio nights to art fairs, concerts and theatrical performances. A multisensory experience involving a series of bonfires on downtown’s three rivers, WaterFire pulls in the crowds – almost a million people annually beginning in April, with lighting events throughout the year.
The local dining scene also benefits from the school-to-community pipeline, with apprentices and alumni from Johnson & Wales’ culinary-arts program popping up in restaurants across the city. Look for classic Italian in Federal Hill, eclectic global cuisines in Fox Hill, veg-friendly fare in the West End and upscale or casual alternatives downtown (or Downcity, as you may also hear it called).
The Missouri Botanical Garden is a great place to visit © Shutterstock / RN Photo Midwest
6. St Louis, Missouri
Chicago tends to monopolize the conversation in the Midwest, but its neighbor to the south proves the region has room for more than one star. Ensconced on the west bank of the Mississippi River and famous for its iconic arch, St Louis is Missouri’s largest and most populous city, with some 293,000 residents estimated at last count. And it has the amenities to match, from arts and culture to major-league sporting events to a strong live-music scene – which tracks, given the city’s legendary relationship with the blues.
Visit in late spring to experience PrideFest, the African Arts Festival and, in Forest Park, the Shakespeare Festival. Or pack a picnic and enjoy the urban oasis’ 1300 acres at your leisure. Also on the outdoor-art tip, you can see large-scale works year-round at Laumeier Sculpture Park and blown-glass installations by Dale Chihuly at the Missouri Botanical Garden from May 2 through October 15.