Most Underrated Cities in the USA
Mention that you’ll be spending a long weekend in San Francisco, Miami or New York City and you’re guaranteed to get “oohs” and “ahhs.” Mention that you’re traveling to Cleveland or Detroit, and you’re more likely to hear crickets.
But just because people haven’t wisened up about these cities yet doesn’t mean that they aren’t exciting. After all, sometimes popular opinion is just plain wrong (remember how many people loved the “Twilight” saga?).
If you want to go to the coolest emerging cities — or the ones that have been quietly amazing for a while now — before influencers get there, plan your next vacation to these sadly underrated U.S. destinations.
You won’t get bragging rights now, but you’ll get to be that person who claims you went to them before they were cool.
20. St. Petersburg, Florida
Overshadowed by nearby Tampa, Saint Pete is truly a hidden Gulf of Mexico gem. Floridians in the know go here for quiet beaches with impossibly soft sand and the chance to watch wild dolphins at play as the sun sets over the horizon.
Fresh seafood, a laid-back vibe and the Guinness World Record for the most consecutive days of sunshine ever recorded combine to make this one of the best beach vacations you can take. Away from its sandy shores, the city also touts a top-rate craft-beer scene (you can even explore multiple brew stops along the cleverly re-branded “Gulp Coast).
Must-See in St. Petersburg: Salvador Dalí Museum
This museum dedicated to the master of surrealism houses the largest collection of the artist’s works outside of Europe, including his masterpiece, "Hallucinogenic Bullfighter."
19. Knoxville, Tennessee
You don’t need to go to Nashville to experience Tennessee’s music scene. If you don’t want to rub shoulders with cookie-cutter influencers, head instead to the thriving college town of Knoxville.
Here, live music shows at unassuming venues are an every-weekend thing. Prepare for a night out by getting your fill of local food in the Market Square area, where Southern staples (think fried chicken, mac n’ cheese and collard greens) reign.
Once the show is over, let the night go on at one — or a few — of the city’s countless bars.
Must-See in Knoxville: Ijams Nature Center
An impressive 300 acres of protected wildlife habitat and natural areas, mere minutes from downtown, provide visitors with a myriad of outdoor activity options, including zip-lining, paddleboarding, hiking and biking. This is the perfect way to explore Knoxville by day.
18. Greenville, South Carolina
Greenville has long passed unnoticed, but people are beginning to wake up to its perfect combination of culture, gastronomy and nature.
Considered one of the fastest-growing cities in the region, this South Carolinian destination has all the comfort food you could ever wish for, along with unexpected hints of experimental and fusion cuisine. Its Downtown area is modern, boasting numerous works of public art and green spaces.
Culture tourists enjoy the Greenville County Museum of Art, families cycle and play at the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and foodies never skip the Main Street Corridor.
Must-See in Greenville: Falls Park on the Reedy
You don’t normally see waterfalls in city centers, which is what makes this fluvial park one of Greenville’s best assets. Add in fragrant gardens and excellent public art, and you have the perfect spot to spend a few hours not far from downtown’s bustle.
17. Louisville, Kentucky
Get ready for a bourbon-filled adventure in surprisingly eclectic Louisville, which might just be Kentucky’s most exciting city.
Of course, getting on the Urban Bourbon Trail and enjoying the city’s most famous product is an absolute must. But your culinary experience need not end there as you also enjoy a wide selection of farm-to-table restaurants and sip home-grown brews at a robust collection of craft breweries.
Make sure, too, to explore the outdoors at an excellent arboretum or aboard the “Belle of Louisville,” the oldest Mississippi River-style steamboat still in operation in the U.S. (it’s over a century old!).
And then of course there’s the Kentucky Derby, which lands on many a bucket list for a reason.
Must-See in Louisville: Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory
The history of baseball and the city's iconic Louisville Slugger bat get their due at this museum where — among other home-run attractions — a bat vault showcases 3,000 original models.
16. San Antonio, Texas
Texan barbecue, Spanish colonial churches and a gorgeous River Walk are just some of the offerings of this wonderful Texan city. Lost within the massive size of the state, and overshadowed by Austin, Dallas and Houston, San Antonio can more than hold its own against any of these cities.
The famous Alamo is its biggest draw, closely followed by the San Antonio Missions, made up of four 18th-century churches built during Spanish colonization. After taking in these historic attractions, stroll around the city’s riverfront, which has earned its nickname as “The American Venice” and, by night, is the place to be for live music, dancing and bar-hopping.
Best yet, the cuisine here is just as good as in Texas' more popular cities — don’t leave without trying a breakfast taco, a local favorite.
Must-See in San Antonio: Market Square
This gigantic open-air market delivers on the Texan promises of authentic Mexican food and delectable Tex-Mex fusion cuisine. Its 100-plus locally owned shops also sell authentic Mexican goods, from wood carvings to painted guitars to candies.
15. Providence, Rhode Island
Travelers seeking a New England getaway tend to consider other destinations before thinking about Providence. But make no mistake: This capital city and lively college town is equally if not more appealing than the Bostons and Portlands of the region.
This is a destination for art lovers who also want a great dining scene and the East Coast seasons New England is so famous for. There are plenty of galleries where you can see local art, while Westminster Street is lined with restaurants and small breweries.
Make sure to check the schedule for WaterFire events, which light the city’s riverfront with bonfires for an immersive cultural experience.
Must-See in Providence: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art
A magnificent collection of around 100,000 objects, from ancient Greek sculptures to contemporary art, can be found at this museum connected to one of the country’s premier art schools.
14. Saint Louis, Missouri
Like nearby Chicago, which tends to get all the attention, Saint Louis feels like several cities instead of one. Each neighborhood — from artsy Cherokee Street to the trendy Loop to the historic downtown — has its own flavor, enriching the experience of locals and visitors.
Of course, you can’t miss visiting its iconic Gateway Arch, but once you’ve gotten the biggest landmark ticked off, you can head to other attractions like the Missouri Botanical Garden or Laumeier Sculpture Park.
For a mix of culture and fun, take a tour of Anheuser-Busch Brewery, where you can taste local beer at a National Historic Landmark.
Must-See in St. Louis: Forest Park
The 1904 World’s Fair was held at this 1,326-acre green space that also houses some of the city’s excellent cultural institutions, including a zoo, art museum, history museum and opera theater.
13. Albuquerque, New Mexico
Albuquerque is a magnificent destination for all kinds of travelers. Its old town retains Spanish colonial architecture and houses several museums dedicated to Native American history. Outside the historic center, you’ll find a much more modern side to New Mexico’s largest city.
Nature-lovers, meanwhile, can get their kicks in the nearby Sandia Mountains and the high desert, which hides petroglyphs within.
If you visit during October, you can enjoy the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, one of the largest hot-air balloon festivals in the world.
Must-See in Albuquerque: Indian Pueblo Cultural Center
Learn about the indigenous communities that have populated the area at this adobe museum that also hosts immersive arts festivals.
12. Buffalo, New York
Like other Rust Belt cities, Buffalo was once one of the most important commercial centers in the country but has since seen its economic fortunes turn. These days, most people see the city as little more than a gateway to Niagara Falls.
While there is something tragic to this, it’s also what has kept Buffalo gritty and real in a way that was lost long ago in Manhattan and Brooklyn. These days it is so much more dynamic than most people know.
Here, you won’t feel claustrophobic as you take in Neoclassical and Art Deco architecture through the downtown area, or as you enjoy great street art and some original Picasso and Warhol pieces at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The city also has a dining scene with far more to offer than the chicken wings it’s famous for, as up-and-coming restaurants serve staples from India, Korea, Mexico and beyond. (And, yes, the wings are amazing too.)
Must-See in Buffalo: The Park System
Buffalo’s park system, inspired by Paris’ parklands and boulevards and designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (famous for designing NYC’s Central Park), offers respite from the urban hustle.
11. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Like Detroit, Pittsburgh's bad streak seems to be over. In recent years, it’s transformed from the “Steel City” to a trendy cosmopolitan center whose warehouses now house concept bars and fusion restaurants. Meanwhile, few city hubs these days are as vibrant as Pittsburgh’s Market Square, where art installations and evolving pop-ups keep a focus on what’s new and next.
Pittsburgh has also reinvented itself as a tech hub, with its very own Robotics Row hosting several tech companies and startups. A trendy dining and nightlife scene have naturally followed.
Must-See in Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol Museum
This extensive homage to Warhol, whose unique style continues to influence contemporary art today, proves the iconic American artist and iconographer is worth far more than 15 minutes of fame.
10. Springfield, Illinois
Given its fame as the home of President Abraham Lincoln, it’s strange that Springfield doesn’t feature on bucket lists more often. Most of the attractions in the city are tied to the former president, including the Lincoln Home and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — the city’s main landmarks. You can also visit the State Capitol, where Lincoln made his now-renowned “House Divided” speech.
Outside its connection to an iconic president, Springfield is an arts mecca with tons of theaters and arts centers.
Must-See in Springfield: Dana Thomas House
Take a break from Lincoln-related attractions at this gorgeous Prairie School house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
9. Helena, Montana
Helena’s history as Montana’s capital might be shady (in a race against Anaconda, both sides bought votes), but it sure is interesting. Before becoming the capital, this city near the mountains was once a mining camp, where people came with a strong lust for gold.
Of course, the city is much larger than it was when it was a mere western settlement, but its historic main street — appropriately called Last Chance Gulch — maintains some of its beautiful original brick buildings.
Not surprisingly considering its location amid Montana’s epic wilderness, Helena is also a city that caters to outdoor enthusiasts. Hike, bike, cross-country ski or kayak; whatever you do, just make sure to get outside. (For good measure, both Yellowstone and Glacier national parks are within striking distance of the city as well.)
Must-See in Helena: Saint Helena Cathedral
This Gothic church is the city’s most iconic landmark, with two red-roofed towers that perfectly contrast the mountainous setting.
Nebraska as a whole is often overlooked, so it makes sense that its capital city would also be privy to this misfortune. Most people don’t know anything about Lincoln, nor do they imagine it as the modern, laid-back and artsy haven it is.
Spend time in the city’s beautiful Sunken Gardens or historic Haymarket District, featuring bookstores, coffee shops, galleries, brewpubs and a lively monthly art walk.
The city also has some surprisingly interesting nightlife, ranging from the low-key (tiki bar, Irish pub) to the sophisticated (jazz club, cigar lounge). This town isn't nearly as sleepy as you may think it is.
Must-See in Lincoln: Museum of American Speed
Explore a wide collection of racing vehicles and memorabilia explaining the history of automotive racing at this one-of-a-kind museum.
7. Detroit, Michigan
For a long time, Detroit was the poster child for booming cities that succumbed to globalization. Known as Motor City for its past as the headquarters of American car manufacturing, and later known as the birthplace of the Motown music scene, Detroit's almost complete economic crash is infamous.
Luckily, the clouds seem to have parted for Detroit, which now is one of the country’s more interesting purveyors of all that’s new and cool. To take one example, the city offers not only breweries and distilleries, but a collection of meaderies serving the rarely enjoyed sweet libation. And its street art is among the most thought-provoking in America today.
Spend some time in the shiny downtown area, shop around for alternative souvenirs and rare vinyls, and listen to Motown at underground bars as you discover (or rediscover) a city reborn.
Must-See in Detroit: Eastern Market
This 19th-century market offers everything from fresh produce and organic honey to fusion cuisine and handmade knits. The area around the market is also where you’ll find the city’s best street art.
6. Olympia, Washington
Independent restaurants, small thrift stores and a taste for the quirky and weird dominate Olympia’s scene. Often ignored in favor of busy Seattle, Olympia is like the cool local band only those in-the-know are aware of.
Visit the state capitol, spend time at Percival Landing Park — the best of the city’s trio of waterfront parks — and catch a local live-music show.
Must-See in Olympia: Downtown
From the city’s downtown center, a National Historic District, enjoy the best views of magnificent Mt. Rainier.
5. Sacramento, California
It might be the Californian capital, but Sacramento falls in the shadow of larger and shinier cities like LA and San Francisco. If you’d rather spend your vacation in a city where your money goes farther and you don’t have to pay just to drive down a street, this is the place to be.
Get a crash course on California history by walking around the Old Sacramento Historic District and Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, where the state's western pioneer past is brought to vivid life.
Then get a sense of where the state is today by hitting up the city’s newly developed Downtown Commons, where bars, game lounges and restaurants ring the splashy new arena for the NBA Kings.
Must-See in Sacramento: California State Railroad Museum
Families in particular love exploring this museum dedicated to the contributions of the railroad to the development of the state. You can even hitch a ride on a vintage locomotive.
4. Indianapolis, Indiana
Indianapolis largely falls outside the tourist radar. Known for its famous Indie 500, many visitors come to witness the achievements of some of the world’s best racers. But even if you’re not much into cars, Indianapolis might just surprise you.
The city is perfect for families, as it boasts the largest children’s museum in not just the country, but the entire world, as well as extensive and safe bike paths.
Plus many of its attractions veer toward the delightfully unexpected, including museums devoted to topics like percussion and medical history, a memorial library celebrating the literary brilliance of native son Kurt Vonnegut, and one of the country’s best burlesque scenes (seriously).
Must-See in Indianapolis: White River State Park
This 250-acre park brings a necessary splash of green to the city, and houses a rotating selection of eclectic outdoor sculptures.
3. Cleveland, Ohio
Set on the shores of Lake Eerie, Cleveland is grossly unappreciated. Once one of the most important industrial cities in the country, it seems to have fallen out of the public eye in the past decades.
The upside? This makes it perfect for travelers looking to avoid clichés and crowds while still enjoying world-class dining, cultural events and other perks of cosmopolitan cities. The city's zoo, natural history museum, botanical garden and live-music venues rival the best in the nation, and deserve to no longer be slept on.
Must-See in Cleveland: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Designed by I.M. Pei (who also designed the Louvre’s iconic Pyramid), this waterfront museum has helped to revive the city’s tourism scene thanks to its extensive collection of rock-god artifacts and hands-on exhibits.
2. Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore has had its ups and downs throughout history — it’s gone from being one of the East Coast’s most important port cities to a city crushed under its (sometimes exaggerated) reputation for crime.
But recent years have been kinder to Balmer (as the locals affectionately call it), as the city experiences a rebirth of trendy restaurants, start-ups and commerce. Stroll through the scenic Inner Harbour, get cultured at the Baltimore Museum of Art and visit Edgar Allan Poe’s former home in this city that deserves another look.
(Oh, and make sure to try the city’s famed steamed blue crabs — and don’t forget the Old Bay seasoning.)
Must-See in Baltimore: Fort McHenry
The defense of this National Monument during the War of 1812’s Battle of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to pen a little song called "The Star-Spangled Banner." Learn about this and other historical details at the fort’s barrack exhibits.
1. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
It is baffling to think that Milwaukee is not a much bigger deal, considering that it has a long, rich history of craft breweries tied to its German roots. When you’re not trying local beers, you can be stuffing your face with famous Wisconsin cheese, cycling around the city’s extensive bike route or pursuing works at the excellent Milwaukee Art Museum, one of the largest in the U.S.
The city, which will host the Democratic National Convention in July 2020, even recently landed in the No. 1 spot on Airbnb’s list of trending destinations around the world. Go now before more people catch on.
Must-See in Milwaukee: Harley-Davidson Museum
The collection of classic bikes here includes one that was owned by Elvis Presley.