Skip the throngs of tourists this summer and head to a lesser-known destination to experience incredible food, one-of-a-kind hotels, eclectic festivals, and more.
Instead of Washington, D.C., try Charlottesville, Virginia
Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe both once called Charlottesville, Virginia, home. While this history-rich city of 47,000 is only about 100 miles southwest of our nation’s capital, it feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle. The nearly 300-year-old Boar’s Head Inn makes a great home base for exploring the Virginia countryside. Have a picnic at Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards, which The Washington Post dubbed a “sumptuous landing spot for lunch,” or take in an aerial view of the city via hot air balloon. No visit is complete without a tour of Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson. This summer, catch events like CURED Central Virginia Bacon Festival in July and Virginia Craft Brewers Fest in August. Also, see 15 of the best vacation spots for summer travel in the United States.
Instead of Philadelphia, try Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Seventy miles north of the City of Brotherly Love is Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home to 75,000 and the nation’s largest free music festival. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, Musikfest will feature more than 450 performances from artists including Dierks Bentley, Daughtry, Kesha, and Jason Mraz over ten days in August. Music isn’t the only attraction here, though: History buffs can explore the area’s deep industrial heritage at the National Museum of Industrial History, which opened in 2016, and walk the elevated Hoover-Mason Trestle. Favorite dining spots in town include the solarium-like 1741 on the Terrace, Fegley’s Brew Works, and Apollo Grill.
Instead of New York City, try Greenwich, Connecticut
Only a 45-minute train ride from Grand Central Station lies Greenwich, Connecticut, a walkable city with all the charm and convenience of a small town. For a town of 62,000, it’s surprisingly diverse: About a quarter of its residents were born outside the United States, and nearly 29 percent speak another language in addition to English, according to U.S. Census data. Summer is polo season in Greenwich, with matches at Greenwich Polo Club drawing thousands. Stay at European-inspired Delamar Greenwich Harbor, a pet-friendly property on the water with a spa and award-winning French restaurant. Leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs: Family-owned stores like Richards, Betteridge, and Hoagland’s of Greenwich are must-shops.
Instead of Seattle, try Tacoma, Washington
A more affordable alternative to its neighbor to the north, Tacoma, Washington (population 211,000), is a family-friendly destination that’s easy to get around (thanks to the Link Light Rail through downtown), rich in art and culture, and close to many outdoor activities. As one resident puts it, Tacoma is “all the beauty you love about the Puget Sound with none of the crowds.” Visit in summer to take advantage of free, all-you-can-pick blueberries until your teeth are stained purple at Charlotte’s Blueberry Park in East Tacoma. The city also has many free concerts, including the Point Ruston Summer Concert Series every Saturday evening through September 2. The latest Tacoma attraction, Pacific Seas Aquarium, will open in September at Point Defiance Zoo. Don’t miss other family vacations that won’t break the bank.
Instead of Portland, try McMinnville, Oregon
The nearly 35,000 residents of McMinnville, Oregon, have fallen under the spell of this alluring city in the Willamette Valley. A destination for wine aficionados, McMinnville boasts more than 20 of the valleys best wineries within walking distance. Don’t miss IPNC, a three-day event celebrating local food and some of the country’s best pinot noir, in late July. Atticus Hotel, the city’s first full-service boutique property, opened in April, and each room features unique local artwork and décor. If wine’s not your thing, craft breweries are popping up all over town, including Allegory Brewing, which debuted last summer. No matter your sipping preference, you can fill up on farm-to-table cuisine at local favorites like Pura Vida Cocina, Nick’s Italian Café, and Thistle Restaurant & Bar.
Instead of Denver, try Missoula, Montana
Though its home to the University of Montana (and first-class NCAA Division I football with the Montana Grizzlies,), Missoula, Montana, is much more than a college town. As its 72,000 residents know, the state’s second-largest city is an outdoor lover’s dream, surrounded by seven wilderness areas and at the confluence of three rivers: Think world-class trout fishing, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, and more within a few minutes of the city. Downtown Missoula is undergoing a major revitalization, with hundreds of millions being invested in additions like a Marriott hotel, restaurants, and breweries. Thirty minutes outside Missoula, The Resort at Paws Up offers a true Montana experience via cattle drives, glamping, and long-table dinners in a field.
Instead of Chicago, try Traverse City, Michigan
Often likened to hip destinations like Asheville, North Carolina, or Portland, Maine, Traverse City, Michigan, is home to incredible dining, wineries, breweries, and beaches—and as such, has been nicknamed “the Hamptons of Michigan.” People flock here for events like the National Cherry Festival in July, which celebrates the area’s No. 1 crop, and the Traverse City Film Festival in August, one of the best attended in the country. Stay at Hotel Indigo or Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, and go hungry to check out modern restaurants like Alliance or Mama Lu’s taco shop. The sweetly named Cherry Capital Airport launched new direct flights this summer from cities including New York, Atlanta, and Chicago, making getting to this Northern Michigan city of 15,000 easier than ever. Don’t miss these 15 other American food festivals worth a pit stop.
Instead of Minneapolis, try Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is frequently cited as the next Austin. With an indie vibe and creative culture, this Midwest city of 68,000 is also a music lovers’ paradise. The wildly popular Tuesday Night Blues concerts celebrate their tenth anniversary this year, drawing thousands each week to Owen Park, rain or shine. Visit The Lakely for farm-to-table fare and craft cocktails paired with live jazz and a game of Kubb on the patio. Sleep in at The Oxbow Hotel, a boutique property on the Eau Claire River downtown; then get in line for breakfast at The Nucleus, ordering the Blue Bucks (buckwheat pancakes with heaps of blueberries) when your turn finally comes.
Instead of Indianapolis, try Bloomington, Indiana
Of Bloomington, Indiana’s 84,000 residents, about half of those are students at Indiana University Bloomington—so it makes sense that this quirky Midwest city is chock-full of progressive dining and drinking options. Among those is Upland Brewing Co.’s Wood Shop, which has an all-sours tasting room; Cardinal Spirits, which produces Pride Vodka; and Hopscotch Coffee, a local roaster and café. More than 75 international restaurants represent 18 countries. The city also has Indiana’s largest farmer’s market, attracting more than 10,000 people every Saturday. Confirming Bloomington’s stature as a cool college town: a Graduate Hotel is planned to open there soon.
Instead of Louisville, try Bowling Green, Kentucky
rade horses for muscle cars by visiting Bowling Green, Kentucky, a city of 65,000 two hours south of Derby City, where you can check out the National Corvette Museum (and test drive a Corvette) and tour the GM Corvette assembly plant. Explore Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the world’s longest cave—if you dare. Less adventurous types can head to Chaney’s Dairy Barn to see the milkers in action and watch ice cream being made. While Bowling Green has more than 30 hotels to choose from, two boutique lodging options are The Kentucky Grand Hotel & Spa, with eight suites overlooking downtown; and Candle Loft, a one-of-a-kind bed and breakfast that includes a morning meal at one of four local restaurants. Also see the most charming small-town bed and breakfasts in every state.
Instead of St. Louis, try Branson, Missouri
Think Branson, Missouri, nestled into the Ozark Mountains, isn’t for thrill seekers? Think again. This underrated city of 11,000 quietly debuted Time Traveler, one of the world’s fastest, steepest and tallest roller coasters, in March at the 1880s-style Silver Dollar City theme park. After getting an adrenaline rush at the park, head to the legendary Chateau on the Lake for a calming spa treatment and relaxing stay. Branson is known for its entertainment and theaters, but when visiting during the summer, make time for lots of outdoor activities, like walking and biking Dogwood Canyon, water sports on three pristine lakes, and golfing at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Top of the Rock course. Don’t miss more of the scariest roller coasters in America.
Instead of Asheville, try Hendersonville, North Carolina
Twenty-five miles south of Asheville is Hendersonville, North Carolina, a city of 14,000 that has all of Asheville’s vibrancy, culture, and outdoor adventure without the crowds. Your first stop: Main Street, a picturesque, tree-lined scene with curving sidewalks leading to two dozen locally owned restaurants, retail shops, museums (including the Appalachian Pinball Museum, opened in 2017), and Flat Rock Playhouse. Visit in autumn to capture the beautiful fall foliage of the Blue Ridge Mountains and take advantage of the area’s bountiful apple harvest—three cideries in the area, including Bold Rock, do the same. You can also explore DuPont State Recreational Forest, a filming location for The Hunger Games.
Instead of Memphis, try Tupelo, Mississippi
When most people think of Elvis, they think of Memphis, home to Graceland. But the town of Tupelo, Mississippi (population: 39,000) lays claim as the birthplace of The King, and is drawing more attention to its famous history with the launch of the Elvis self-guided bike tour, where you can see where he got his first guitar, where he went to high school, and more; and King’s Chicken Fillin’ Station, a converted gas station reopened in March that serves the best fried chicken around. Bring your appetite when visiting Tupelo, as other can’t-miss bites include the “meat-and-three” (a Southern staple) at Romie’s Grocery, smash burgers at Neon Pig Cafe, and pulled-pork baked potatoes at Clay’s House of Pig. These are the best—and cheapest—small town weekend getaways around the United States.
Instead of Nashville, try Florence, Alabama
Home to the University of North Alabama, the previously quiet town of Florence, Alabama,has changed immensely over the past decade—just in time for its 200th birthday this year. This city of 40,000 with deep roots in music history (Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, and many other greats got their start in the Shoals area, of which Florence is a part), gained its first two boutique hotels in the last year: The Stricklin Hotel, across the street from the famous Trowbridge’s ice cream shop; and GunRunner, with 10 luxury suites inspired by famous locals. Celebrity chef John Currence opened Big Bad Breakfast, further adding to Florence’s growing food scene. Visit in late July to catch the W.C. Handy Music Festival, a celebration of the area’s musical history.