We all know the big US cities. But what about the rest? Discover Indigenous cultures, European relics, revolutionary history and incredible art and food in some of America’s overlooked stars…
You could argue that Europe still doesn’t quite get the United States. You can see it in the way we travel. New York. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Big cities, famous sights and Hollywood – that’s what we tend to focus on. But that isn’t really America; it’s just part of it. Some would argue the least authentic part.
This is a huge country, and more often than not the places we fly over are invariably some of the most interesting: Midwestern industrial hubs reinventing themselves through art and culture; Southwestern border towns blending Spanish, Indigenous and Mexican heritage; New England enclaves where the aristocracy of the Gilded Age once thumbed their noses and flexed their wallets in glittering Italianate piles to rival any in Europe. There are 50 stars on the flag for a reason. Limiting yourself to a handful of states has never made much sense.
We can’t help but think that a tiny amount of snobbery – innate in all of us – comes into play. For example, most wouldn’t hesitate to seek out some medieval French hill town, far from the big city; Instagram posts declaring it to be the new ‘this’, the next ‘that’ would inevitably follow. Why doesn’t the same apply to the USA? In many cases there is just as much history, art and culture as you’ll find in some European backwaters.
There are colonial towns, Pueblo adobe villages, pioneer tales, revolutionary battlefields – heck, Hawaii even had its own monarchy. There is plenty to see and a wealth of stories to discover; it’s just that more often than not we only seem to accept the US for its national parks or its metropolises. Why not the rest of it? The details in between are often far more juicy.
The Northeast is the perfect example. There are many different states within easy reach of heaving New York City, from tiny Rhode Island, where towns like Newport dazzle with 19th-century mansions, to history-rammed Massachusetts, where you might explore the ‘witch country’ around Salem, to the spruce forests and rocky coast of Maine. Any would make a fascinating detour for a few days. There are stories on top of stories here.
Then there are those cities that demand your attention. The Deep South is full of them. Complex places, like Charleston and Savannah, where the horrors of the slave plantations funded antebellum towns as delicate and fragile as they are beautiful; and where museums and institutions have finally started to ask the right questions and bring to light the tales of those left out of the history books. It’s the same for those cities where the dawn of the Civil Rights movement met with such fury and resistance; now their troubled backstories are part of what makes them special, as visitors trace trails that narrate a difficult past.
In the West you’ll find plenty of towns where Indigenous heritage is more pronounced than that of the European colonists who took the land. There is nuance; the kind you find in a huge country that is more like 50 nations under one banner. Sure, in places like Anchorage, glaciers and grizzlies tend to be the focus. But the Alaskan city is more than just a jumping-off point – it has its own fascinating sights and vibrant Indigenous culture.
It’s time to reassess how we look at the USA. You might find that it opens the doors to more destinations than you could visit in a lifetime, but that’s rather the point: there are 50 stars and they all deserve a chance to shine.
Why go: Seattle is no shrinking violet. In the 1990s its name was rarely out of the news. From grunge music to the rise of Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft, to the success of the TV show Frasier, it felt cool and innovative, its UFO-like Space Needle tower seemingly prepped to blast off and leave us all behind. The world moved on but Seattle did too. The only thing unchanged is the city’s chef’s kiss of a setting: beneath the Cascade Mountains, sandwiched between Lake Washington and the great Pacific inlet of Puget Sound. You can browse bookstores and cafés in Pioneer Square (Seattle’s oldest neighbourhood), SUP in sight of skyscrapers on Lake Union and spot orca among the nearby San Juan Islands. Lesser known is nearby Tacoma, an hour south. It’s the birthplace of glass artist Dale Chihuly, creator of the spectacular Garden and Glass exhibit next to the Space Needle. Yet Tacoma’s Museum of Glass exceeds even this, and with its brewing culture and art museum focused on Pacific Northwest artists, it makes an ideal small-town companion to any Seattle stay.
Also see: Drop by Seattle’s Pike Place Market for its great food and famed fish throwing.
Why go: Anchorage is more functional than beautiful, but location is what matters here. This is a city where the salmon on your plate has likely just been pulled fresh from the waters of downtown Ship Creek, and where moose and bears regularly stop the traffic. It can sometimes feel like the wilderness is closing around you, as the Chugach Mountains press right in, reminding you they were here first. Above the city, hikes along the Bird Ridge Trail gaze down on the fjord-like Turnagain Arm below. Rent a bike and strike out on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (18km), which wraps Cook Inlet and offers sightings of beluga whales and the USA’s highest peak, Denali (6,190m). Anchorage is also an amazing launchpad for adventures further afield, including riding the Alaska Railroad to Spencer Glacier or catching a seaplane to see grizzlies at Katmai NP. The thin veil of civilisation falls just as soon as you leave the city limits.
Also see: Take some time to learn about the state’s Indigenous cultures at Anchorage’s Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Why go: Many would struggle to name California’s state capital. LA? San Francisco? No, Sacramento. A curious mix of small-town courtesy and leafy, artsy escape, it flies low under the radar, despite being the state’s oldest incorporated city. It owes its existence to the Gold Rush of 1848; a time when the Sierra foothills flushed with prospectors and the town bloomed from backwater to big-hitter. Its Old Waterfront historic district is still something of a ‘Wild West show’; it’s fun but you’ll find more context at the California Museum, which is a good primer for how the state and its Indigenous peoples fared (spoiler: not well) as gold fever took over. The State Capitol building and the Crocker Art Museum, housed within an exquisite Victorian mansion, are the obvious stars, but a close third is the food: the city has gained a deserving reputation for its excellent farm-to-fork ethos.
Also see: Explore surrounding Gold Country. At South Yuba River State Park follow the Independence Trail, part comprised of old gold-mining flumes converted into boardwalks leading into the hills.
Why go: Few cities can compete with what lies on the doorstep of Phoenix, Arizona’s low-key state capital. To the north, the Grand Canyon slashes deep into the state’s bedrock, some five million years in the making, and nearby are sights such as the spectacular meander of Horseshoe Bend and the multi-coloured sandstone walls of Antelope Canyon. Nature is a tough act to follow here.
But while Phoenix – the USA’s fifth-largest city – is not a place of bold statements, it has perfected the art of living well. Some liken its sun-baked sprawl to that of Los Angeles, and Phoenix’s outdoorsy spirit, abundant golf courses, fine food, spas, boutiques and endless blue skies compare well with the City of Angels. You’ll definitely need a car (like LA, it spans far and wide), but even the suburbs spring surprises, and the wilderness has a habit of creeping in.
Phoenix also isn’t without history. The excellent Heard Museum explores the heritage of the Indigenous peoples of the Southwest through a range of engaging exhibitions, art and film. Out by the highways, the Pueblo Grande Museum Archaeological Park affords a chance to walk amid the adobe ruins of the Ancestral Hohokam, who lived here until the 15th century, long before the first inklings of a frontier town formed in the 1860s.
The city filters east into Tempe (worth a visit for its splendid Desert Botanical Garden) and Scottsdale, though these aren’t so much suburbs as towns in their own right. The latter was where architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his beautiful winter retreat and studio, Taliesin West (open for tours). The house lies in sight of Camelback Mountain, which offers a taste of Arizona’s wilds just 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Phoenix. Scrambles along its rocky slopes are popular day-hikes for locals looking to stretch their legs.
South of Phoenix lies Tucson, an arty university town on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, flanked by sawtooth mountains and the sky-scraping cacti of Saguaro NP. Tucson is famed for food – its strong blend of Indigenous, Mexican and Southwest traditions led to UNESCO citing it as the USA’s first City of Gastronomy in 2015. It certainly has a unique vibe. The city’s 19th-century buildings and small-town feel lend it undeniable charm while miles of marked urban trails help draw all that wilderness in. There is history here too: south of town you’ll find Mission San Xavier del Bac, founded by Jesuit settlers in 1692 – one of a chain of Spanish missions established across the Sonoran Desert.
Also see: Phoenix has a lively cultural scene. Its vast Art Museum and Roosevelt Row arts district, which is packed with galleries, bars, shops and street art, reveal a wealth of historic and modern Southwest talent finding their voices.
Why go: Forget the beach and soak up the culture of Hawaii. As a former royal capital, Honolulu (Oahu Island) still retains a regal vibe away from its sands. While most flock to the busy resorts of Waikiki, the city has a wealth of history to explore, from its historic Chinatown to Pearl Harbour where the 1941 bombing by the Japanese drew the US into the Second World War. A must-visit is the former royal residence, Iolani Palace, a resplendent American Florentine pile. Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, lost her throne in 1893 as a republic was declared and she was imprisoned in her former home; now it is an excellent museum. Add it to a dozen institutions worthy of your time, including the city’s Museum of Art, which has a collection of Asian antiquities to rival any in the world. Elsewhere, visit Kailua-Kona (Big Island), an old royal escape known for its traditional buildings; its Hulihe‘e Palace and 19th-century mission church offer a glimpse into the pre-revolution years. Or head to Lahaina (Maui), an old whaling town and capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1820 to 1845. A fitting end to any tour of Hawaii’s culture capitals.
Also see: Humpback whales (now protected here) can be spotted off the coast of Lahaina on boat tours from December to May.
Why go: The Mile High City is no secret these days. Over the past decade, some 120,000 people have relocated here, fuelling the local tech boom and driving down the average age – 70% of residents are now under 45. This new youthful exuberance has only added to the city’s outdoorsy vibe. Rocky Mountain NP is less than a 90-minute drive away and even downtown has its surprises – the 64km Cherry Creek Trail starts from inner-city Confluence Park and leads through the wooden cabins of Four Mile Historic Park out to Castlewood Canyon. Despite all this progress, the bones of old Denver still poke through. The Victorian buildings of Larimer Square speak of the city’s evolution from Gold Rush outpost to modern hub, and while the Five Points neighbourhood may now be a hip mix of cafés, breweries and marijuana dispensaries, this was once the ‘Harlem of the West’ – a little-known history told at the Black American West Museum. The Denver Art Museum is also a must-visit. Home to one of the USA’s largest Indigenous art collections, it now sits at the heart of a busy cultural quarter worth more than an afternoon’s wander.
Also see: Nearby Red Rocks Park has great hikes and one of the USA’s best outdoor venues: an open-air rock-carved amphitheatre with wild acoustics. It’s best visited on dark, starry nights.
Why go: To experience authentic New Mexico means learning more about its Indigenous history. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. The state is home to 19 Pueblo tribes, each a sovereign nation whose reach once spread as far as Colorado and Arizona. Today their influence survives not only in ancient villages set apart from everyday life but on every single street corner.
Santa Fe, like many cities in the state, is filled with magnificent adobe buildings made in the Puebloan style, which was copied by Spanish settlers. Even the city’s Palace of the Governors, which dates back to Santa Fe’s founding in 1610, was built this way. It’s been modified over the years but remains the USA’s oldest European-built public building in continuous use. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll see many adobe-style recreations (‘faux-dobe’), but the past is everywhere in this tiny capital of 80,000 where cultures – Spanish, Mexican, Puebloan – mingle across food, art, festivals and religion.
That’s not to give the impression Santa Fe exists in some historical bubble. It has a thriving food scene (chilli peppers are a whole culinary genre here) and an outdoorsy vibe, with skiing, hiking and climbing all on offer in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo range. Indeed, at 2,195m above sea level, the city is the highest state capital in the US. It was these landscapes that captivated the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived here in her later years. A downtown museum dedicated to her work is due to move and triple in size, hopefully opening in 2025. Santa Fe is also a hotbed of Puebloan art, and its 250 galleries have become a mecca for collectors, while the Museum of New Mexico oversees a number of institutions in a city where Indigenous history and folk art often take centre stage.
Puebloan influence extends all across the state. Pueblos (villages) surround the cities of Santa Fe and also Albuquerque, a city whose annual hot-air balloon festival (October) sees hundreds of balloons decorate the skies over the Sandia Mountains. Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center offers a fine primer on local history, but it’s in Taos, further north, where you’ll find the oldest Indigenous community. The five-storey adobe complexes here, thought to have been completed between 1000 and 1450 AD, still appear much as they did when the Spanish first encountered them.
In the 20th century, Taos became a bohemian escape for artists and thinkers. There are excellent Hispanic art museums in town, while the alien-like Earthships (sustainable homes built into the land) nod to the more ideological aspects of outsider living. A fitting end to any visit.
Also see: Ascend on Albuquerque’s Sandia Peak Tramway, which affords sweeping views of the valley below from a height of 3,165m.
San Diego (Alamy)
Why go: More than 30 beaches – from sugar-white to cliff-backed to surfy – fringe the edges of San Diego. But, for all that ‘America’s Finest City’ (as it’s modestly dubbed) has the breezy seaside charms of countless West Coast towns, it has substance too. In 1769 the city’s Old Town became the first Spanish settlement in what was then ‘Alta California’. Now a state park, many of its adobe buildings (mostly from the 19th century) have been restored and help tell the story of those early colonial years. To see even older architecture, head to the Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, which was the first of 21 Franciscan missions established in California. Elsewhere, Barrio Logan switches era to when this Mexican-American neighbourhood was transformed by an influx of refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution (1910–17). The murals of Chicano Park reflect the district’s rich heritage, while the food is also delicious – local taco joint Salud made the recent Michelin guide. Finish at Balboa Park, which shows yet another side of San Diego cultural life. You can lose yourself for days among its many museums (there are 17!), Spanish-revival architecture and iconic zoo, which remains a pioneer in animal conservation and open-air cage-less exhibits.
Also see: Pacific harbour seals and Californian sea lions can be spied around the beaches of La Jolla – walking trails offer good views.
Salt Lake City (Alamy)
Why go: In some ways Utah’s capital feels like a super-sized Mormon take on Vatican City. Salt Lake was founded by the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in 1847 and every street has some link to this past. Museums and heritage parks narrate the tale of LDS founder Joseph Smith and the church’s main temple (closed to the public) dominates the centre. Around it, Temple Square is a likeable cluster of buildings that includes the Tabernacle, where an impressive 360-strong choir regularly struts their stuff – catch free performances on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. Times have changed, however, and now many of the city’s 1.2 million people have little to do with the church. Quirky laws, like the requirement to have a ‘Zion curtain’ in bars to hide liquor bottles, have disappeared. What’s left is a modern, laid-back city watched over by the Wasatch mountains. In winter, skiers hit the slopes of Olympic Park; summer sees the city’s namesake lake fill with boats and kayaks, as well as walkers and cyclists circling the shores looking out for pelicans. In autumn, make for nearby Antelope Island to see the annual round-up of its free-roaming bison. It’s a city of many faces.
Also see: The Dinosaur Diamond Highway driving route, between Salt Lake City and Moab, takes in many of the fossil-filled region’s
prehistoric sites and natural history museums.
Why go: It isn’t hard to see the appeal of Charleston, a city that is equal parts beauty, history and tragedy. South Carolina’s oldest town (founded by the English in 1670) is certainly easy on the eye. Its grand waterside antebellum mansions evoke a genteel air, their magnolia-filled grounds spilling to the coast, while the city’s historic district – all cobbles, carriages and old-world appeal, where whole-hog roasts are a rite of passage – is seriously seductive. In years gone by, the knowledge that all this was built on the horrors of the cotton industry undercut much of its charm, but the city’s willingness to engage with its past has given it fresh energy. The new International African American Museum sits on the wharf where transported slaves first disembarked. Plantation tours, such as those of Magnolia and Middleton Place, narrate the dark background of these grand estates that once housed thousands of slaves, rather than just letting you explore the pretty gardens. Just as fascinating are the Sea Islands where local Gullah culture (the Creole-speaking descendants of freed slaves) was born and thrived. Combine this with Civil War tours – Fort Sumter saw the first clash of Confederate and Union soldiers – to understand the full journey from slavery to freedom in the South.
Also see: Even the swamps are beautiful here. Kayak tours of the flooded Blackwater Cypress Swamp (October–June) reveal magical woodland, magnificent birdlife and the odd alligator.
Why go: Horses, bourbon and bluegrass music – that’s what makes Kentucky tick. The state’s largest city, Louisville, lies on the banks of the Ohio River and is best known for its annual Derby horse race, when the town floods with visitors. Outside race season, it’s much quieter. Visit the Old Louisville historic district, which owes a debt to the Southern Exposition fairs of the 1880s, when grand Victorian mansions sprang up everywhere – it was often said of the city’s St James Court area that it was the only place you could live in London without actually being there. Taking a walking tour around its avenues is a good way to stroll off hefty meals of mutton barbecue and tastings at the state’s century-old bourbon distilleries. South of Louisville lies the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, the farm where the future US president grew up. It makes for an interesting side-trip as you head east to ‘horse country’, around Lexington. There you’ll find a lush land of stables and bluegrass pastures, where you can visit some of the 450 horse farms to learn about the industry that dominates local life.
Also see: Red River Gorge, east of Lexington, is one of the wildest day trips in Kentucky. Take kayak cave tours or hike trails into the hills where black bear and elk roam.
Memphis, Tennessee (Alamy)
Why go: Tennessee is the bourbon-drinking, country-singing heart of the South. But amid the rhinestones and whiskey shots, its big cities also have surprising depths worthy of song. Nashville, in particular, is changing. A few years ago the state capital overtook Memphis as the largest city in Tennessee. Now a slew of new boutique hotels, arts venues, cycle lanes and celebrity honky-tonk bars have arrived. You’ll still find plenty of biscuits, barbecue and hot chicken, but even the food scene is evolving. Historic Germantown and the Gulch neighbourhoods are seeing chefs rediscover their Southern roots as well as those of the migrants who settled here, and the results are mouthwatering. That said, ‘Music City’ will always be synonymous with one thing: country. Nashville didn’t invent country music, it just changed it forever. The pebble-smooth ‘Nashville sound’ that charmed wirelesses from the mid-1920s onwards took Southern folk roots (bluegrass, Delta blues, Appalachian folk) and machine-tooled it in the studios of Music Row for a new audience. Its Grand Ole Opry radio show made stars of Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and others, and tours of its original venue (Ryman Auditorium) or the Country Music Hall of Fame are central to understanding its impact. You can still see live recordings of the show (now pushing 100 years old) at its regular slot at the Grand Ole Opry House. Some things change here; others just never will.
Back along Interstate 40, Memphis is a little overshadowed by Nashville, though it does have the biggest star of all. Many arrive here for Elvis – the King’s mansion-museum, Graceland, garlands the city fringes, forming a district of Elvis-themed days out. But he’s not the only star. Johnny Cash and Otis Redding also found their voices here, and both the legendary Sun Studio and Stax Museum Of American Soul Music fill in the respective blanks. Like its musical output, Memphis isn’t as polished as Nashville. It’s more ragged around the edges, with bourbon and neon in its veins. Both are found at the blues clubs and juke joints of lively Beale Street. The city also had an important – if ultimately tragic – role to play in the Civil Rights movement. This was where Martin Luther King was shot while giving a speech on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel. The site has since been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum. Pair a visit with seeing the tiny Withers Collection Museum on Beale Street, a powerful gallery charting the early days of the movement by a local photojournalist.
Also see: The 715km Natchez Trace Parkway – a historic travel corridor used by Indigenous Americans – passes by Memphis and Nashville, letting drivers and cyclists see the slower side of the state.
Why go: On the surface, this small port town on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay makes for a surprising state capital, given Baltimore long overtook it in size and renown. But like everything in Annapolis, the past is all important. Few US cities can match it for sheer density of 18th-century brick buildings – some 50 pre-date the Revolutionary War, while the Maryland State House, built in 1783, remains the oldest continuously used legislative house in the US. It was here that the Treaty of Paris was ratified, officially ending the American Revolution. The city dubs itself a ‘museum without walls’ and it’s hard to argue otherwise as you stroll the Georgian mansions of its once-resident Founding Fathers. Take a historical walking tour to tease out the architectural and cultural nuggets from a town where every building has a story to tell.
Also see: Annapolis is also a bustling port, famed for its sailing and delicious crab cakes – who serves the best is a hotly debated local topic. Don’t miss a cruise out onto Chesapeake’s waters.
Why go: The history of the Civil Rights movement burns bright across Alabama, and in Birmingham in particular. Its Civil Rights Institute and Memorial Trail document the struggle for equality through photographs, plaques and sculptures dotted across several blocks. As you wander you’ll also discover a town in full revival mode. In the late 19th century, Birmingham was dubbed the ‘Magic City’ on account of how fast it grew; these days its wizardry is seen in the wealth of galleries, shops and restaurants playing with old Southern traditions. The hip Five Points South neighbourhood is at its centre, and its elegant Art Deco buildings now fill with boutiques, bars and inspiring eateries. Some put it down to locals having gone away to bigger cities to hone their craft before returning. Whatever the secret, it should be bottled and sold.
Also see: Birmingham pioneered the first electric bike-sharing scheme in the US. Bag one to ride out to Red Mountain Park, where you’ll discover plenty of lush woodland trails.
Why go: We’re certainly not the first to observe that Texas is huge (nearly three times the size of the UK). Sure, everything is bigger here. We get it. But it’s also a bit lopsided. Life tends to cluster around the four main cities in the east: Dallas-Forth Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, better known as the Texas Triangle. Driving between them, it’s startling not just how different they all are, but how many of the widely held preconceptions about the Lone Star State are wrong.
Austin, in particular, is the poster child for live-music-loving, barbecue-eating hipster Texas – a liberal oasis in a sea of blue. From the historic bungalow bars of Rainey Street to the 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that migrate here in spring to roost under Congress Avenue Bridge, it just has its own way of doing things. Rowing teams heave their oars under the skyscrapers lining the Colorado River while culture-lovers cluster The Contemporary Austin gallery or the Renaissance-revival Capitol building. You just want to embrace it all.
To the south, San Antonio is the home of the state’s proudest defeat: the Alamo. This Spanish mission (one of many surrounding the city) was the site of a poignant battle in the Texas Revolution, as a tiny band of Texians held off the armies of Mexico’s General Santa Anna for two weeks before they inevitably fell. “Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry as the state finally fought off Mexico’s attentions. But Mexican culture is still a big part of life here: both in the city’s lauded Tex-Mex food and the huge market that forms every
weekend, with mariachi bands soundtracking shoppers’ every step.
Houston is the face of modern ‘megacity Texas’, where highways and skyscrapers abound. However, with progress comes the desire to preserve what was. In the city centre you can still find remnants of Houston’s old roots at Buffalo Bayou Park, while the city’s museum district is a gem, comprising 19 institutions. Spare time for the Museum of Fine Arts, whose collection spans a wealth of Texan and Latin American artists. A trip to the city’s Space Center is also a must.
Finishing in Dallas-Fort Worth is like getting two for one – it’s just that those two things are very different. Cows and oil fuelled the rise of countrified Fort Worth, which still manages to juggle a mix of skyscrapers, culture (Kimbell Art Museum is one of the finest in Texas) and longhorn cattle drives down in the Stockyards, where it still looks like 1866 and you can imagine the days when some 10 million head of cattle used to thunder in via the Chisholm Trail. Dallas is a different story entirely. It has little of its neighbour’s tolerance for its roots, and no lack of self-esteem. But all that oil money has bought the city a fine cultural district (the enormous Museum of Art is especially good), while the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, within the former Texas School Book Depository building, tackles one of the biggest moments in modern US history: the shooting of President John F Kennedy.
Also see: Austin’s Zilker Park, at the junction of Barton Creek and the Colorado River, is the green heart of the city. It also hosts the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Tampa skyline (Alamy)
Why go: Florida’s urban centres are rarely why people come to the Sunshine State. In fairness, when you’re competing with the Everglades, the Florida Keys, the beaches of Miami and – whisper it quietly – the House of Mouse, the subtler charms of its cities have to shout pretty loud to be noticed. Yet there are plenty of reasons to head to the Gulf Coast. For a start, Tampa is where a number of direct flights from the UK land, often making it people’s first steps in the state. It’s just that they often don’t spare the time to explore the city properly.
Tampa isn’t as sprawling as Miami or Jacksonville, and it’s a town that has found joy in its multiculturalism. This largely stems from the late 19th century, when thousands of immigrants, mostly escaping the growing unrest in Cuba, moved here to work in the city’s booming cigar factories, settling in the historic Ybor City neighbourhood. Even though the cigar industry waned long ago, the area still feels vibrant, comparable to Miami’s Little Havana. Walking tours do much to unravel its complicated history and louche charm. Tampa is probably best known for its giant Florida Aquarium, but it has some unexpected sights too. The Mediterranean Revival-style Tampa Theatre is an exquisitely designed open-air auditorium where old flicks play to a soundtrack of live organ music. Street-art walks in the Heights area reveal the city in a different light entirely. Or just stroll the downtown Riverwalk, hugging the banks of the Hillsborough all the way to city’s excellent Museum of Art.The Bay Area is more than just Tampa city. Day trips around its fringes offer a different take on Gulf life. St Petersburg, on the Pinellas peninsula, has the largest collection of Salvador Dalí works outside Spain, plus 30-odd more galleries and museums. The beaches here are also touted as among the finest in the world and, come June, the biggest Pride parade in Florida brings rainbow-bright fun to the city’s boardwalks and craft-beer bars. Or instead head down to laid-back Bradenton where you can glimpse sea cows grazing in the shallows of the Manatee River or relax on nearby Anna Maria Island.
In the state’s north-east, sprawling Jacksonville is another city that hides its tenderer side. Within the larger metropolitan area nestles the town of St Augustine, founded in 1565 and the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the US. It’s like finding Córdoba on the outskirts of Birmingham; it’s certainly hard to believe you’re still in Florida. St Augustine’s 144-block historic district seems to stretch on for days; Spanish Colonial and Moorish-style architecture decorate the centre while the Castillo fort overlooks the bay. There are plenty of tales to toy with as you explore – not least that of Juan Ponce de Léon and his alleged search for the Fountain of Youth, which he was said to have found here. Proof that if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything in Florida’s cities.
Also see: The state parks of Jacksonville’s Talbot Islands, just off the city’s north-east coast, are a wild blend of wetlands, dunes and woodlands where live oak and cedar poke through white-sand shores.
Why go: It’s a cliché but it’s hard not to use the phrase ‘Southern belle’ when talking about Savannah. Its elegant antebellum architecture rolls like a lilted Georgian vowel alongside the city’s eponymous river, where even the oaks, draped in chiffon-like shawls of Spanish moss, seem to affect an old-world ennui. It’s a living elegy for a more genteel time that perhaps never existed – at least, not for most. Yet, with the city’s many ghost tours, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the drama of it all; to feel the sense that something grand was lost. By daylight, the historic centre unfurls across some 22 garden squares. Here, among Gothic Revival churches and elegant mansion houses, you’ll find one of the oldest theatres still running in the US (Oscar Wilde once lectured here). On the city outskirts lie darker remnants of the past: the remains of the old
plantations that paid for Savannah’s beauty. Little of their history is left: Bonaventure has been turned into a cemetery, impossibly elegant in its mossy repose, while Wormsloe is now a Historic Site, with a grand avenue of oaks now leading to the ruins of the old house.
Also see: Just 20 minutes from the city is the barrier island of Tybee, which has hiking trails, great kayaking (look out for dolphins) and
a Civil War-era fort to explore.
Why go: The drive up to Asheville, via the Blue Ridge Parkway, yields wild views of the Appalachians and sets the scene for yet another rugged mountain town. But this city walks a different path entirely. The Art Deco buildings of its downtown area recall the gilded Jazz Age, when literary stars such as Thomas Wolfe (his former home is on Spruce Street) and F Scott Fitzgerald walked here. In later years the hipster crowd moved in, and Asheville now has more breweries per capita than any US town and a thriving farm-to-table ‘New Southern’ food scene. Walk it off in the River Arts District, where a collection of disused mills and old warehouses have been turned into galleries and studios, continuing the town’s creative heritage.
Also see: Asheville’s elegant Biltmore Estate (pictured) is a 250-room mansion commissioned in the French Renaissance style in the 1890s by the wealthy Vanderbilt family. It is still the largest private home in the US. You can take a self-guided tour of the interior and gardens and explore the vast grounds on horseback treks.
Why go: When the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened in Jackson in 2017, it became the first state-sponsored museum about the movement to open in the US. For a subject so integral to local history, that might seem shocking, but the ‘City with Soul’ has often led the way. Follow markers along the Mississippi Freedom Trail to learn more about the fight for equality, including the house of Medgar Evers, a local civil rights leader assassinated at his home in 1963. Indeed, African American history reverberates through a city best known for two things: soul food and soul music – and Johnny T’s is still a mecca for both. For more history, finish in the Fondren district, once home to the Mississippi Lunatic Asylum and now a hip collection of boutiques, bars and galleries. Or head to Jackson’s outskirts to take a walk through a 36-million-year-old petrified forest.
Also see: Jackson has two State Capitol buildings. The oldest, built in 1839 in elegant Neoclassical style, has been turned into an excellent free museum.
New Orleans (Alamy)
Why go: New Orleans might seem an odd pick for an unsung escape. Nola, as it’s known, is to many travellers the ultimate Deep South party town. A place where sultry jazz pours from the red-brick basements on Frenchmen Street; where Cajun and Creole collide over bubbling pots of gumbo and spicy jambalaya; and where Mardi Gras, that most bucket-list of festivals, sets inhibitions loose. Yet, for all it exceeds those expectations, like any city that relies on tourism, it was hit hard by the pandemic, as visitors fell away and events were cancelled. It’s a city that needs us back.
New Orleans might not be the state capital (see Baton Rouge), but it’s Louisiana’s calling card. Days spent strolling the colonial Creole architecture of its French Quarter and the antebellum mansions of the Garden District show the town in its best light. Then, as you strike west to the plantations that made up the ‘Sugar Coast’ between here and Baton Rouge, the stories of the slaves who lived and died there flesh out a darker, more rounded tale of its colonial past.
Moving through Louisiana, you’ll find this balance everywhere. Take capital Baton Rouge, for instance, a lively town that is often a bit of an afterthought for travellers. Despite being one of the largest ports in the US, a slew of antebellum mansions line this stretch of the Mississippi, belying its industrial image. It also has a habit of doubling up. As well as a pair of universities, it has two Capitol buildings: an eccentric Gothic Revival castle dating from around 1850 that now hosts a fine museum narrating the state’s early days, and a modern replacement, completed in 1932 with all the Art Deco wit and ambition the era demanded. The latter is still the tallest state building in the US. Between this and the city’s reputation for its food and boutiques, it’s a worthy stop.
Further east is Cajun Country, home to the largest French-speaking minority in the US. Lafayette is its unofficial capital and as vibrant as you can imagine: a musical town of incredible food – boudin sausage,
peppery etoufée stew, fresh-boiled crawfish – and wild fringes. The area is characterised by a large network of lush swamps and waterways, and thrilling airboat tours of the Atchafalaya Basin reveal a lost and ecologically rich world of forested wetlands, bayous, birdlife, folklore and atmospheric moss-draped cypress trees.
Also see: Rides on New Orleans’ vintage streetcars conjure another era, especially heading down St Charles Avenue to the Garden District.
Why go: If you want to see where it all started, head to Virginia. It’s the home of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown – together dubbed the ‘Historic Triangle’. This is the area where the first permanent English-speaking colony was founded, in 1607, and it’s where the American Revolution finally came to a head, as George Washington’s men won the last major battle of the war in 1781 and independence was sealed. In a compact area, you can trace US history from the first rumblings of a nation up to its dramatic birth. The whole triangle can easily be explored in a weekend (shuttlebuses even run between the sites), though the crowds are at their thickest then. It’s best to drive yourself, following the 37km Colonial Parkway that weaves a storied trail between the towns.
The star is arguably Williamsburg, the city that took over as the capital of the Virginia colony in 1699. A chunk of it is given over to Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum where what survives from the 18th century (some 88 buildings) has been augmented with hundreds of historical recreations built in the 1920s, reviving the town after it had fallen into disrepair. Actors in full period dress (from blacksmiths to historical figures) deliver speeches and interpret the talking points of the day. There is a slightly cheesy showmanship to it all, but recent years have also seen an attempt to resurrect the tales of the city’s minorities and other people written out of history, and that’s no bad thing.
Jamestown tells a darker tale. It was here that English settlers, bearing a charter to search for gold and other precious metals, built their original colony in 1607. All they found was hunger and disease, and most of them died. Historic Jamestowne marks the original site, and tells the story of the mission, led by Captain James Smith, and the Indigenous American leader, Powhatan, who helped the men survive the gruesome ‘starving time’. Its remains were only found when an archaeological project was launched in 1994 but are sadly now at risk due to rising water levels in the James River. Elsewhere, the nearby Jamestown Settlement is a recreation of the fort that was built here, and offers a more polished take on the period.
Yorktown is both the culmination this era and, typically, most visits. This was where, in 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis, cut off from the sea by the French, surrendered to Washington, effectively bringing to a close the American Revolution. Start at Yorktown’s Visitor Centre, which preps you with the basics, then join a guided walking tour or drive the 7-mile Battlefield route, which explores key sites ranging from the fortifications to Surrender Field.
Also see: The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a hoot and also home to an early printing of the Declaration of Independence.
Why go: Minneapolis and its twin city, St Paul, rose from the prairies in the mid-19th century, swiftly growing into a Midwest powerhouse. Then, just as quickly, they faded away. These days Minneapolis lives largely in popular memory for its brutal winters, huge Mall of America, massive state fair (over a million visitors) and affable locals – for whom the term ‘Minnesota nice’ was coined. But there is plenty to get excited about. The Twin Cities also have large, vibrant Latinx, Somali and Ethiopian communities and a thriving – if sometimes overlooked – arts scene. Of the ten largest art museums in the US, two of them are found here, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art (home to over 90,000 works) and the Walker Art Center, whose Sculpture Garden is home to the unofficial symbol of the city: the quirky ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ – a big cherry atop an enormous spoon, laying across a pond. Beyond its cultural centres, this is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and locals flock to its Chain of Lakes Regional Park for outdoor fun in all seasons, with plenty of walking, biking and cross-country skiing on offer.
Also see: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness runs along the Canada border; canoe tours here open up a slice of pure isolation.
Why go: You might wonder why we’re so excited by a tiny city west of Chicago, just off the banks of the Mississippi. History is the answer. A lead-mining boom in the 1830s saw money pumped into the town and it quickly grew. When that income faded away, locals opted to preserve rather than rebuild. Now some 85% of its 19th-century buildings are listed on the National Register, and it exists in a kind of period bubble. You won’t find any chain stores here, just antique frontages and local folk (barely 3,000 of them). This is where Chicagoans come for a bit of peace, away from the Windy City. The town also played a discreet role in US history. Abraham Lincoln once gave a rallying speech from the balcony of the DeSoto Hotel, and former resident General Ulysses S Grant was given a fine Italianate home on Bouthillier Street when he returned victorious from the Civil War – discover more at the Galena & US Grant Museum.
Also see: Galena sits in the heart of Illinois’ wine country. Tours lead into the lush hills and vineyards on the outskirts of town.
Why go: For a mid-sized Midwest state capital, Indianapolis is arguably more famous than you’d expect. In part, this is due to its sporting prowess, in particular the city’s speedway and Indy 500 race. But this is also a city that just regularly punches above its weight. Take the Newfields Campus, a charming former private estate, home to the early-20th-century Lilly House. Its owners donated the land for the city’s Museum of Art, whose American Neo-Impressionist collection is one of the finest in the US. Or perhaps take some time to explore the city’s burgeoning food scene; local’s favourite diner Milktooth is often touted as one of the best eateries in the state. It’s also a very walkable city. Take a stroll around the five-block Mass Ave Arts District, which is filled with boutiques and galleries, or hit the Canal Walk, a
refurbished 5km trail along the 19th-century canal, popular with walkers, runners, bikers and, on the water, pedal-boaters.
Also see: If you have a family, the city’s Children’s Museum is one of the largest of its kind and packed with interactive exhibits.
St Louis & Kansas City (Alamy)
Why go: St Louis was once known as the gateway to the West. Sat at the junctions of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, it was a meeting point for pioneers and prospectors in the early 1800s and the last big city on the Great Plains before the wilderness took over. The idea stuck, and the city’s 192m-high Gateway Arch eagerly leans in to this even if, these days, you’re more likely to see it from a plane. Missouri is the definition of a flyover state, though like others of that title it deserves better. St Louis alone is a marvel, with its gigantic Forest Park (larger than Central Park in New York) being one of the great green spaces in the US and home to the magnificent beaux-arts palace of St Louis Art Museum. Nearby, you’ll find the city’s Cathedral Basilica, a Neo-Byzantine Catholic church built in the early 1900s and known for its gorgeous mosaics. Then there’s Kansas City, which straddles the state border. As the birthplace of barbecue and the home of the American Jazz Museum, an aura of cool envelopes the city despite its eccentric design (it has more fountains than anywhere but Rome). And if you’re not eating burnt ends in Joe’s Kansas City Barbeque, you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Also see: Visit the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in St Louis to see where the legendary pioneers set up their camp on Dubois River before beginning their historic expedition.
Why go: When Nebraska became a state in 1867, the furore over where to put its capital began. To the dismay of the people of Omaha, the town of Lancaster (home to just 30) was chosen and swiftly renamed Lincoln. For decades, it struggled to live up to its lofty billing. These days, this lively university town has no such trouble. At its centre lies the Historic Haymarket District. Here, restored 19th-century warehouses host slick eateries, speakeasy bars and galleries a stone’s throw from the Art Deco Capitol building. The university has also attracted some fine institutions, with the impressive Sheldon Museum of Art relocated to its campus from Italy, one marble brick at a time. Off the busy Capitol Parkway, you’ll even find the city’s Great Depression-era Sunken Gardens, an elegant urban counterpoint to the wild Salt Valley Lakes that surround the city.
Also see: When Memorial Stadium is full, its 81,000 capacity is greater than the populations of all but two of Nebraska’s cities.
Why go: Milwaukee is often wrongly lumped in with all the other rust-belt cities in Chicago’s shadow whose manufacturing industry fell apart in the 1980s. Yes, it’s an industrial town, but it’s also one that’s thriving these days. An influx of German immigrants in the late 1800s fermented its nickname of ‘Brew City’, and while many of the big breweries left (walk the ‘Beerline Trail’ to trace their history), what replaced them was a raft of well-regarded craft brewers. This is now a liberal, hip, artsy town where axe-throwing bars and late-night ramen joints replaced the old blue-collar hang-outs in busy neighbourhoods like Walker’s Point – and it’s growing. There’s also strong coastal vibes from its perch on Lake Michigan, where sail boats dot the horizon and the bold, Santiago Calatrava-designed Art Museum peers defiantly over the water’s edge.
Also see: Even if you don’t drink, brewery visits tell the city’s story through its suds. The tour at Lakefront is one of the most popular.
Why go: Deadwood – even its name conjures images of grizzled prospectors. The Gold Rush town, buried in a hollow of the Black Hills, saw some 6,000 eager-eyed gold diggers arrive in the late 1800s. What they built became notorious across the West, as famed for being a place where you could lose a fortune at the dice tables as for its legendary outlaws (“Wild” Bill Hickok was shot here and still lies buried in the cemetery at Mount Moriah). The eponymous TV series of the mid-2000s stoked the city’s aura further, and while the daily Main Street Shootout re-enactments can be a bit cheesy, visits to the town’s historic saloons, Victorian mansions and museums (particular the Adams Museum) narrate the blunt realities of life in the Wild West. Beyond lie the lush plains of Custer State Park where you can watch round-ups of its 1,300-strong buffalo herd.
Also see: Many come to see Mount Rushmore, but the story of the area’s Indigenous people is just as compelling, even if the Crazy Horse Memorial, honouring the Lakota Sioux leader, still lies unfinished.
Why go: By the 1980s, Detroit was the poster child of the Rust Belt as industrial decline tore across the Midwest. It even filed for bankruptcy in 2013, some $18 billion in debt. For a while it looked bleak, but shoots of recovery can now be seen. Abandoned buildings with peppercorn rents have been turned into cool distilleries, craft brewers and galleries. It might not all be pretty but there is both life and depth here now. Downtown, in particular, is much changed. Art Deco skyscrapers, such as the Guardian and Fisher buildings and the vast 1,000-room Masonic Temple have been polished anew, and a slew of bars and restaurants here and in Midtown have given it a new heart. There’s history too. The Motown Museum charts the sound that once made the city world famous, while Corktown (the old Irish neighbourhood) now bustles with shops and cafés. Everyone loves a comeback, and it’s hard not to root for a city that had so far to go.
Also see: The Detroit Institute of Arts has one of the finest collections in the US, all displayed in a vast site spanning over 100 galleries.
Why go: Newport is the quintessential New England coastal town. Its elegant mansions hark back to the days when this was the retreat of choice for America’s aristocracy: old-money families like the Vanderbilts and Astors, who all kept summer homes here. These vast estates have been kept as eulogies for the Gilded Age, with many of them lying off Bellevue Avenue. Here, Italian Renaissance villas like that of The Breakers or the Versailles-inspired “cottage” known as Marble House lie in wait. Tours are de rigueur, with those mentioned among the most popular, though the grounds of The Rosecliff (setting for the 1956 film High Society) are exquisite. America’s aristocrats came for the sea air and yachting, and life here still revolves around the harbour. Down by the waterfront, with its views across to Narragansett Bay, remains the place to be seen and has some excellent dining. Otherwise, make like the Vanderbilts: drop by the polo, skim the coast on a chartered yacht and hit the sands – Easton’s Beach is the start of a fine Cliff Walk (5km) that rises up behind the old mansions.
Also see: The harbour is home to a fleet of ex-America’s Cup yachts, many of which are available for tours that discover the coast in style.
Why go: As one of the original 13 colonies settled by the English, Pennsylvania began life as a lonely Quaker settlement. Years later it would become the heart of an empire in North America, and at its centre was Philadephia, a city whose name comes from the Greek for ‘beloved/dear’ (phílos) and ‘brother’ (adelphos). The town was envisioned by founder William Penn as a place where all religions would come together, and in some ways this sentiment proved prescient.The ‘City of Brotherly Love’ had a central role to play in sealing the future of a free America. This was where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 in the city’s Independence Hall. Philly even hosted the US capital during the American Revolution, yet despite its prestigious past and well-maintained centre, it is still frequently passed over by visitors for DC or New York. It’s a shame in many ways. The land of the Philly cheesesteak (thinly sliced rib-eye and melted cheese in a hoagie roll) has, arguably, a more tangible history than its neighbours. The Old City along the Delaware River is often dubbed ‘America’s most historic square mile’, and from the Liberty Bell (which was rung upon the declaration’s signing) to Congress Hall, to the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which celebrates the life of the great statesman (and printer), it often feels like you’re walking through a slide presentation on American history. Museums on the Revolution, Quaker life, art (the Barnes Foundation and Museum of Art are both notable) reveal the city’s cultural hinterlands, but just wandering its neighbourhoods is eduction enough. This was once a busy migrant town, and Chinatown was where those who built the railroads first settled, while old neighbourhoods like the Italian area of Belle Vista are now home to Mexican and Vietnamese families – a microcosm of the city’s evolution.
Across the other side of the state, Pittsburgh, on the banks of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers, offers a revolutionary counterpoint of its own. Like Philly, it’s a city that lost its industry (steel, in this case) but is finding a new lease on life. An ongoing tech boom has brought youth and hope to the suburbs, and what was once a town overhung with smoke from its mills is now startlingly lush. It also stands at the gateway to the Great Allegheny Passage, an iconic trail that follows old rail lines up into the scenic Laurel Highlands. Downtown is still the heart of the city, from the busy riverfront up to the Wood Street Galleries, which turned an old light rail stop into a creative hub. The north bank of town is known for its art institutions, including the largest Andy Warhol museum in the US, while places like the Strip District, once filled with manufacturers, are now all about boutiques, distilleries and fine food. A modern-day revolution.
Also see: Outside Philly lies Longwood Gardens. Spread over more than 1,000 acres, it’s one of the USA’s grandest horticultural displays.
Why go: For some, Buffalo is New York’s other city; for the rest, it’s a handy pit-stop for Niagara Falls (32km away). But while post-industrial decline has left parts of the town – once dubbed ‘Queen City’ for its wealth – looking worse for wear, recent years have seen it find its feet again. Buffalo will forever be linked to the chicken wings that bear its name (deep-fried and sticky with hot sauce), and their birthplace, Anchor Bar, still dishes them up on Main Street. But the city is more than the sum of its snacks. The old Frank Lloyd Wright and HH Richardson buildings of its early-20th-century heyday have been restored and tours of Delaware Avenue and Downtown reveal Art Deco wonders, such as the 32-storey City Hall and the grand mansions of old industrialists. Meanwhile, 2023 sees the opening of the AKG Art Museum – Buffalo’s much-anticipated new cultural heart.
Also see: Visit the building in which President ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was inaugurated after his predecessor was shot in Buffalo in 1901.
New Haven (Alamy)
Why go: The Ivy League auspices of Yale University brush every corner of New Haven, a town almost made to be seen through a prism of falling autumnal leaves. Tours of its Gothic-revival campus reveal a long history and world-class institutions, including the Peabody Natural History Museum and University Art Galley, the oldest of its kind in the US. It’s these that define the city for many. Beyond them lies the 400-year-old New Haven Green, the town’s centre, which was envisioned by Puritan settlers as a kind of landing strip for the Second Coming. The only sight as iconic is Little Italy’s signature ‘apizza’, created by immigrants from Naples in the early 20th century. Its thin crust shuns its doughier Neapolitan roots; nevertheless, it is championed by locals as a match for all-comers. Stroll one off at Pardee Seawall Park as the waters of Long Island Sound rap the barricade.
Also see: The theatre scene here is as strong as you’ll find away from the big smoke, and the 1,600-seat Schubert Theatre is a beauty.
Why go: The Salem witch trials of the late-1600s were once a source of great shame for the city. Now it’s big business. Gift shops cackle with plastic hags year round, and tours, cemeteries, memorials and museums vie to tell their story – the Salem Witch Museum offers arguably the clearest eye of the bunch. Yet there is more to one of the oldest settlements in New England than Puritan hysteria. These days it’s a hip commuter city for nearby Boston with a food scene to match. Its centuries-old architecture hides gems like the 354-year-old House of the Seven Gables, on which Salem-born author Nathaniel Hawthorne based his eponymous novel. In fact, the town’s historic harbour and excellent Peabody Essex art museum are reason enough to visit, while the New England Pirate Museum shines a light on yet another fantastical facet of Salem’s past, with not a single witch in sight.
Also see: This is still a busy naval town, and tours of the wharves (the first National Historic Site in the US) tell the tale of Salem’s historic seafaring past and its Revolutionary War privateers.
Why go: Not to be confused with its Oregon namesake, this hip, folksy coastal city of just 66,000 often feels more like a small community. That spirit infuses everything here, from the creative boutiques, galleries, bookstores and antique shops that bundle the cobbles and handsome red-brick buildings of the town centre, to the city’s vibrant food scene, where fresh lobster (90% of that found in the US comes from Maine) scents the terraces. At the centre of its cultural district lies the Portland Museum of Art, which defies its tiny size with a finely honed collection charting the birth of American expression. Elsewhere, drop by Victoria Mansion, an elegant ‘Italian villa’ that once served as a mid-19th century summer home. It’s all rather genteel for a port town, but therein lies Maine’s enduring charm, as you soak up local hospitality and history in equal measure.
Also see: Maine’s oldest lighthouse – commissioned by George Washington – decorates nearby Cape Elizabeth. Visit the museum in the keeper’s house and take in the views as the water crashes below.
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