Assuming your been-there-done-that list includes New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans, there's a much wider travel menu available south of the border that highlights one undeniable fact: America is the home of great cities, from gritty metropolises to old-school charmers and reinvigorated hipster hangouts.
And while the big guys will always appeal, there are dozens of enticing alternatives ripe for discovery.
First up: Louisville, Ky. Dubbed by Lonely Planet as a 2013 must-see U.S. destination, the home of that horse race you may have heard of has reinvented itself. Local blogger Melissa Chipman of Insider Louisville (insiderlouisville.com) has the lowdown.
"We're not all horses and bourbon here. And Louisvillagers are the nicest people imaginable: We're both Southern and Midwestern," she says by way of introduction. A great visit, she says, starts with a cool sleepover.
"21c Museum Hotel is the new Louisville – innovative, creative and modern. Also, there's a 40-foot gold replica of the statue David outside: Nothing here makes me smile more than seeing a naked gold giant downtown," she says.
Once you've finished ogling the nude dude – plus Old Louisville's picturesque Victorian homes – Chipman suggests dining with the locals at Rye, Decca or Mayan Cafe – "in fact, don't leave without eating in the NuLu district," she says. As for nightlife, head to the Back Door. "It's everyone's favourite hometown dive bar. They pour big, cheap drinks and the food is fantastic."
While my own road-tested fave cities include quirky twins Austin, Tex. and Portland, Ore., my current to-do list is topped by Memphis, Tenn., home of sacred music sites Graceland and Sun Studio. I'm also partial to those blue-collar cities where Springsteen soundtracks rule and grand buildings pop out like flowers in a grubby parking lot.
Philadelphia wins kudos for its thriving art scene, but Baltimore, Md., plus the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minn., also appeal – along with Pittsburgh, Pa. The sports-mad Pennsylvania city has never lost its cultured vibe: The Andy Warhol Museum here recalls its most famous son. Local blogger Mundania Horvath (steeltownanthem.com) says visitors should hit the ground running.
"There are 90 neighbourhoods, so I recommend getting in your car and exploring. My favourites include the Strip District, North Side and Garfield," she says, adding an insider tip for vista-lovers: "The best Pittsburgh view is the West End Overlook. It looks at the city from where the rivers meet and is very peaceful."
Horvath's hangout tips include Strip District restaurants Salem's Market & Grill and the Enrico Biscotti cafe. "Brillobox is also a great bar, with cool artwork and great music. And Jerry's Records is a gigantic record store that's amazing and overwhelming," she says.
But the east doesn't have a monopoly on intriguing cities. Deep South charmers Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., plus New Mexico hotspot Santa Fe also reward the curious, while the country's western half offers options worth gambling some Aeroplan miles on. I'm a fan of rising California star Oakland, but I'd suggest combining it with San Francisco, a BART train hop away.
If you're taking your ironic facial hair on a hipsteresque road trip beyond the out-west lures of Portland and Seattle, consider Colorado and the plaid-shirted mountain communities of Boulder and Denver. The outdoorsy, microbrew-loving latter has a cozy, small-town vibe, according to Dave Pennington, managing editor of local booze-themed blog Denver off the Wagon (denveroffthewagon.com).
"We're pretty small, so bikes are fine for getting around here – our bike-share program will get you most of the way," he says, adding that visitors should definitely save time to join the locals for a beer or three.
"Craft beer fans should hit Star Bar. It's as old as dirt, but it's a great place to drink. Then try brewery taprooms Black Shirt Brewing and TRVE Brewing – if their stout is on tap, you might just be having the best beer in the world."
OUR READERS WRITE
- Chapel Hill/Durham, N.C. Cheap, authentic, unexpectedly nuanced/sophisticated. @RemyScalza
- Kansas City, Mo. Lots of history, great food/BBQ, Boulevard Brewing Company and cool shopping/entertainment districts like downtown's Power & Light District and the Country Club Plaza. @Miss604
- Laguna Beach, Calif. Set on the Pacific, nestled in the hills, it has art and great food. Camden, Me. also has gorgeous galleries and cafes.
- Memphis.: Graceland, Civil Rights Museum, rock, soul, BB King, Beale Street, big beers, BBQ, blues and so much more. @ngottselig
- Santa Fe, N.M.: great Mex food, awesome spas and easy access to outdoor adventures. @CongoLover
- Seattle, for diversity from arts to drinks to cuisine, architecture and great neighbourhoods! @shelorafromvict
- Chicago for architecture, museums and music; New Orleans for music, festivals and food; Portland for food, beer, shopping and hanging out. @indie_traveler
- PHILLY! It’s insane how many people overlook it. I’m constantly defending its merits. It’s the cultural cradle of the East Coast, with rich history, a large urban park and a food scene that rivals the one in New York. @LostNCheeseland
- There is no question in my mind that Portland, Ore., would be a good pick. Excellent restaurants, museums, jazz, markets, parks and gardens, all linked by convenient public transportation. Boston on the East Coast is a close second. Geoffrey Thornburn
Follow John @johnleewriter.
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