At Budget Travel, we love the authentic—you know, the stuff that locals like most about their hometowns. Well, here's a tip for finding out just that about all sorts of great towns around the U.S.
Before I visit a city or decent-sized town, I check to see if the place has an alternative weekly newspaper. If it does, chances are the paper puts together an annual "Best Of" edition, in which locals vote for their favorite places to eat, drink, hang out, sightsee, and more. Many of these polls give you a mix of quirky and practical info rarely found in guidebooks—like the best barber to talk politics with, the best art gallery for people who hate art, best free happy-hour crockpot (all from the Seattle Weekly, by the way). These lists can also be revealing about what an area does (and doesn't) do well: If, for example, Chili's is voted in as the best Mexican restaurant (or even in the top three), chances are the region isn't a hot bed of Mexican cuisine.
Finding these "Best Of" polls is generally as simple as a Google search, though if you're having trouble, Wikipedia has a handy list of alternative weeklies to get you started. But hey, the info doesn't have to come from an alt weekly. Some mainstream newspapers also round up great tips; San Diego's Union-Tribune is one such example.
Below are a few "Best Of" samples. Some are 2008 editions, but you get the idea. Look for new polls to be released later this summer—not to mention Budget Travel's ongoing Eat Like a Local series and our new My Town back page.