From Maine to California, from Minnesota to Mississippi, we’ve found amazing budget destinations in each state, plus Puerto Rico. Where will you go next?
We’re setting the bar high in 2019, and you should too. When it comes to finding budget destinations, with lodging under $200/night, peerless natural beauty, arts and culture, a vibrant food scene, or just a relaxing place for a family vacation, we firmly believe all 50 states, from Alabama to Wyoming plus the beautiful American island of Puerto Rico, offer world-class bargain trips for every taste. Consider this your 2019 bucket list, and get packing.
(Courtesy Montgomery CVB)
Montgomery’s future is history. More visitors than ever are making their way here to explore American history and culture, thanks to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. The Rosa Parks Museum is a civil-rights museum focused on the life of the African-American activist who triggered the Montgmery bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The Freedom Rides Museum, in a former bus station, commemorates those who traveled to Montgomery from across the U.S. to stand against segregation, often facing violent attacks upon their arrival. After feeding your mind and soul with Montgomery’s history lessons, the city offers a rich menu of Southern food traditions, including, of course, incredible soul food.
(Courtesy Brian Adams)
The town of Haines borders 20 million acres of protected wilderness and serves as a gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. From June to September, bears and bald eagles descend on the Chilkoot River Corridor to feed on the salmon heading upriver to spawn, and in late fall, the town is home to nearly twice as many eagles as people. Visit in November during the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival to catch one of the continent’s largest gathering of the majestic birds. Indoors, the Haines Sheldon Museum chronicles the region’s diverse cultural history, while up the road in Klukwan, the Jilkaat Kwan Heritage Center shines a spotlight on the First Nations settlement of the area's Tlingit people. A National Historic Landmark built in 1902, Fort William H. Seward was once the only active military base in the state, and its hospital building is now occupied by Alaska Indian Arts, a nonprofit collective selling Tlingit-style silkscreens, jewelry, and more. Thirsty yet? Head for Port Chilkoot Distillery’s tasting room, where you can sample the small-batch vodka, gin, bourbon, rye, and absinthe.
Budget Travel named Bisbee one of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Situated eight miles from the Mexican border, this mile-high funky, laid-back artists’ colony is a two-hour drive from Tucson or a 30-minute drive from the classic cowboy town of Tombstone. To say Bisbee has a “mountain setting” is an understatement: The Mule Mountain Pass into town will appeal to rollercoaster fans. But once you arrive, you’ll feel as if you’re looking at the Old West sprung miraculously back to life. Cool boutiques and galleries await, as do restored Victorians. There are also old-timey saloons in the Brewery Gulch neighborhood, plus stately accommodations like the Copper Queen Hotel, the oldest in the state. And you’ll appreciate this artsy community’s custom bumper sticker, "Keep Bisbee Bizarre.”
HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, ARKANSAS
(Courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)
Sure, we tend to associate our national parks with natural beauty and a certain degree of wildness, but in central Arkansas there's something else. In the north end of the city of Hot Springs, Hot Springs National Park invites you to add indulgence to your list of things to do. The hot springs here have long been a destination for their thermal waters, known to relax and soothe. Not surprisingly, a luxurious spa scene flourishes here, including bathhouses, saunas, soaking tubs, and deep-tissue massages. Bed down at the Springs Hotel, with rooms starting at under $100 per night, and try the nearby Quapaw Baths & Spa for a dip in the thermal pools, a massage, or even a facial.
(Courtesy Visit California/Carol Highsmith)
Well north of the San Francisco Bay Area, north of Marin, north of Sonoma, a wilder side of California awaits, and one of its crown jewels is Mendocino, perched on cliffs overlooking the ocean. Life moves at a different pace here, inspired by generations of artists, free spirits, and adventurers who carved out a unique community amid peerless natural beauty. This town of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents delivers outdoor activities galore: exploring the rich inland forests, hiking the headlands and watching for whales passing in the deep blue Pacific, savoring the rich artistic and cultural offerings in galleries and unique shops, or just stopping to chat with locals who are eager to tell you all about their home. Hungry? Of course seafood is on every menu, but so are local mushrooms, one of the major produce industries here, with more than 3,000 varieties growing in the wake of the winter rains. There’s only one drawback to visiting Mendocino: saying goodbye.
WINTER PARK, COLORADO
Locals call Winter Park “Colorado’s favorite playground,” so it’s easy to understand why many deem it one of the region’s most kid-friendly destinations. Toss in the affordability factor (most hotels won’t run you over $200 per night in the winter and $150 per night in the summer), and you’ve got a family getaway that practically plans itself. Winter is prime time to visit: Winter Park Resort, which clocks in at 3,000 acres, has trails for newbies and seasoned skiers, while Ski Granby Ranch, a smaller, more intimate pick, is popular for its weekend night-skiing events. Cross-country skiers should check out Devil’s Thumb Ranch. And that’s just to name a few of the many choices. When the snow melts, there’s hiking trails, alpine slides, a summer tubing hill, music festivals, and 600 miles of marked and unmarked bike trails. Winter Park is also home to the National Sports Center for the Disabled, making it a welcoming and inclusive destination for families from around the world.
(Courtesy Connecticut Office of Tourism)
Our nation’s past, present, and future intertwine beautifully in the Constitution State’s capital city. Home to art spanning five millennia, the historic 1842 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum is just blocks away from the hip Infinity Music Hall and Bistro, where live blues, folk, and rock are served up with four-star cuisine. Right around the corner, the Connecticut Science Center offers up tomorrow’s discoveries today, while the Old Connecticut State House features a look back at Colonial politics. Hartford also has a rich literary history; the adjacent homes of writers Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (arguably the most famous woman of the 19th century) have been turned into museums where artifacts, family furnishings, and memorabilia are on display. Fitting nicely into Hartford’s mixed-generation landscape is the Goodwin, an upscale 19th-century apartment building turned boutique hotel.
REHOBOTH BEACH, DELAWARE
Between the stands selling soft serve and oversized buckets of fries, the gift shops hawking postcards and memorabilia, and Funland’s collection of rides and games, the boardwalk at Rehoboth is one of our favorites—and that’s just the start. This family-oriented community is a year-round destination for seaside high jinks. The main beach and nearby Bethany Beach can get very crowded in summer, but if you want unblemished sand minus the masses, Gordons Pond at Cape Henlopen State Park is a relatively undiscovered gem. Rehoboth’s main street is walkable, with a nice selection of shops and eateries: Delaware-based brewery Dogfish Head has a pub here, as well as a restaurant, Chesapeake & Maine, where you’ll find one of the best happy hours in town (and great seafood and cocktails any time).
Sure, Kissimmee is near Orlando, but it’s also a destination of its own with an Old Town filled with more than 70 shops and restaurants, rides, and entertainment. Kids love the magic shows and exhibits at the Great Magic Hall and the arcade at the Family Day Amusement Center, while adults dig the cocktails and live bands at Trophy Row Stage. Adventure-seekers are well suited here: There’s zip lining and a ropes course at Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park, airboat rides that offer an up-close look at gators, and hot air balloon excursions that bring Disney World into view on a clear day. Kissimmee has a cultural side too. More than 20 vintage aircraft from World War II to Vietnam are on display at the Kissimmee Air Museum, and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, in nearby Winter Park, is home to the largest collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany. And there’s certainly no lack of places to stay: Kissimmee offers an amazing 45,000 options, from high end resorts to rough-it style campgrounds.
The 19th-century home where Blind Willie McTell wrote the classic blues song "Stateboro Blues" is now the Historic Statesboro Inn, a homey B&B listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The eponymous McTell Trail takes visitors through Statesboro, past its parks, and to its magnolia-tree-lined downtown, with historic buildings and cute shops. Local favorite Charlie’s Funky Junk sells offbeat vintage items; expect to find treasures like a graffiti-style hand-painted guitar, collectible toy cars, or a restored wooden desk from an old schoolhouse. Eagle Creek Brewery is a popular hangout, serving a dozen local small-batch beers and live music at night. But the town is perhaps best known for Georgia Southern University. Its 11-acre botanic garden is filled with 20 of the state’s protected species, and a campus museum features exhibits in archaeology, history, and science.
HANA HIGHWAY, MAUI, HAWAII
This narrow 64.4-mile drive connecting Kahului to Hana in east Maui snakes through 620 hairpin curves and over 59 bridges, many of them one lane, earning it the nickname “Divorce Highway.” But the trip, through lush rain forests with mountain views and waterfalls everywhere you turn, more than makes up for the challenges. First stop: Twin Falls, about 20 miles out of Paia Town, where a short hike takes you to a swimming-hole oasis with views of the falls. The Halfway to Hana Stand at mile 17 is your stop for homemade banana bread and coconut ice cream. Moving along to Wai’anapanapa State Park, known for its black-sand beaches, freshwater caves, and ancient temples, you'll pass Ke’anae Arboretum, home to 150 varieties of tropical plant life. Pitch a tent at Wai’anapanapa or find Hana's creature comforts a few miles away in studio cottage rentals. About six miles before Hana, stop at Nahiku Marketplace for coconut shrimp and fish tacos. Wrap things up at Hana's Wailua Falls, known for its double-tier falls and spectacular rainbows.
(Courtesy Visit Idaho)
In the last few years, Boise has earned the moniker “Little Portland” thanks to its farm-to-table restaurants, abundant and centrally located breweries, farmers’ markets, vibrant arts scene, and easy access to all kinds of outdoorsy thing to do. There’s a 90-mile trail system that runs from the Boise River Greenbelt to the Boise Foothills that surround the city, and the Payette River, located 30 minutes north, offers intense Class V rapids. But what really sets this city apart is its Basque heritage. It’s said to be home to the largest Basque population outside of Europe, and that culture is available for everyone to partake. There are shops selling provisions from the homeland, restaurants with cider-heavy drink lists, and a comprehensive museum that showcases the history of the Basque people in Europe and the story of how they got to Boise.
Illinois's Galena River is flanked by rolling hills where the charming town of the same name beckons. Named one of Budget Travel’s Coolest Small Towns in America in 2014, this vibrant Midwestern community has a bustling downtown with unique, locally focused boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants. Grownups will want to experience at least one of the area’s three local wineries, take a hike in the hills just outside town, paddle the area’s rivers, and try a round of golf at one of Illinois’s most popular courses. And save time to learn more about Galena's favorite son at the Ulysses S. Grant Home and Museum, once the dwelling of the Civil War general and 18th president. Exhibits here are dedicated to Grant's life and the major historic battles he led, like the siege of Vicksburg.
INDIANA DUNES, INDIANA
Yes, the Midwest has beaches too, and the beach at Indian Dunes is part of a National Lakeshore Park and a State Park. Located on the southern tip of Lake Michigan, just an hour’s drive from Chicago, the Dunes hug 15 miles of pristine shoreline perfect for swimming, boating, sunbathing, and sandcastle-making. Inland, there’s more than 70 miles of oak savannah, marshes, prairies, rivers, and forest for hiking, birding (more than 350 species) and fishing are big activities. When you’ve worked up an appetite, there’s seafood, of course, but also beach fare like pizza, burgers, and ice cream. Craft beer is big here, with four local brewpubs to choose from. Nearby accommodations are plentiful too, including campgrounds, cabins, cottages, hotels, vacation rentals, and bed and breakfasts.
DES MOINES, IOWA
Des Moines, a capital city in the heart of the heartland, has a lot to brag about, from its varied food options to boutiques hawking locally made goods and antiques to access to nature and proximity to wineries. But this is the Midwest. Bragging isn’t its thing. A visit here is a low-key retreat with all the trappings of a big city and all the relaxed friendliness that Americana dreams are built on. The Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, held May through October, is perhaps the best way to sample the local flavors, with nearly 300 purveyors and farmers. Or try favorites like Harbinger, where the veggie-focused menu is inspired by the chef’s time in Southeast Asia and the warehouse-chic Aussie café St. Kilda. Rent a bike and head beyond the city limits to see a landscape dotted with the covered bridges that inspired The Bridges of Madison County. Then check out the work of titans like Warhol and Lichtenstein at the Des Moines Arts Center, mosey through Water Works Park's 1,500 acres of woodland, and go home happy.
(Courtesy Doug Stremel)
With its tree-lined brick streets, Victorian-era architecture, and more than 20 sites on the National Historic Registry, Atchison is one of the most historic cities in the Sunflower State. Located along the Missouri River, about an hour north of Kansas City, its cafes, boutiques, and historic homes add plenty of Midwest charm. Amelia Earhart was born here, and the home she lived in from 1897 to 1909 is not to be missed. Today it's a museum filled with original furnishings and family memorabilia. There’s also an amazing one-acre portrait of the pilot made of plants and stones, with a viewing deck that guarantees Insta-worthy pics. An Amelia Earhart Festival is held in her honor every summer, with live music, crafts, a carnival, and fireworks. Not to be forgotten, the city’s rail history is well represented, with an outdoor collection of rail cars, steam engines, and a caboose from the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Lebanon doesn’t waste time making a first impression. Approach it on KY-55, and the first thing you’ll see is a soaring water tower painted with a Maker’s Mark bottle that, thanks to a skilled mural artist, appears to pour bourbon down the tower's entire 135-foot height. Lebanon, home to Maker’s Mark distillery and dubbed “the heart of Kentucky,” is about 65 miles south of Louisville and features murals a’plenty that pay homage to the Bluegrass State’s world-famous industry. There’s a smaller bourbon maker, Limestone Branch Distillery, to visit here, but the true attraction for whiskey-lover—or for anyone fascinated by craftsmanship and artistry—is Kentucky Cooperage, the country’s largest cooperage. Visitors can tour the facility and watch the skillful coopers shape the staves, char the inside of the barrel, then deftly assemble the staves to form a leak-free cask. Old-timey eateries and cute cottages, homesteads, and old-houses-turned-bed-and-breakfasts seal the deal.
GRAND ISLE, LOUISIANA
(Courtesy Jackson Hill & Jefferson Convention & Visitors Bureau)
You already know Louisiana for its history, food, and original Sazerac cocktails. But even though the state is situated on the Gulf of Mexico, traditional sandy beaches are not as common as other wetlands, like cypress swamps and bayous—except in beautiful Grand Isle, at the very end of Louisiana’s Highway 1. Here, you’ll find dunes, waves, and a gorgeous state park with a campground, an iconic pier, and a wide array of seashells that’ll keep every family member enthralled. Pack binoculars and insatiable curiosity, because Grand Isle is a pilgrimage-worthy destination for bird enthusiasts, drawing migratory birds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors.
BAXTER STATE PARK, MAINE
(Courtesy Maine Office of Tourism)
Right in the center of Maine lies Baxter State Park, a stunning 210,000-acre wilderness area often described by Mainers as “New England’s Grandest State Park.” And rightfully so: This park is home to the state’s largest mountain, the majestic Mount Katahdin standing proudly at 5,300 feet tall. The Appalachian Trail ends here, and the park has 40 peaks that reward with lush, brilliant foliage in the fall, plus diverse wildlife to discover, from moose, black bear, and deer to eagles, hawks, and warblers. Camping is popular at one of the 11 campgrounds, some only accessible by hiking or canoeing. Don’t expect any modern comforts; the land was donated in 1931 with a mandate that it remain “forever wild.” Translation: no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms, no gas, and (gasp!) limited cell service. For those who don’t want to rough it, there’s lodging outside the park, including nearby Big Moose, which offers inn rooms, cabins, and lakefront camping.
KENT ISLAND, MARYLAND
If you’re traveling to the largest island in the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll want to take a boat, because once you dock on the Kent Narrows Waterfront, you won't have far to go for the wealth of seafood that made Maryland famous. Steamed crab, however, is just one aspect of this community's nautical lifestyle. You can kayak, bike, or hike around the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, a 510-acre nature preserve, take an angler expedition and bring home your own catch, or tour the Harris Seafood Oyster Facility for an understanding of how oysters end up on your plate (groups only). Or just take it all in with a walk or a bike ride along the six-mile Cross Island Trail, or soak up the views from the observation tower at the top of the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitors Center.
(Courtesy North of Boston CVB)
Cambridge has Good Will Hunting, South Boston has The Departed, and Gloucester has The Perfect Storm, a thriller that showcases the stunning nautical landscape in all its raucous glory. The coastline is the main attraction here, what with Gloucester being the oldest seaport in America. That, logically, lends itself to the other main attraction: local seafood. From crab shacks to sports bars to cozy taverns to higher-end eateries, kitchens here turn out oysters, crabs, and a whole lot more from the morning catch. Around town, some 35 miles north of Boston, quaint New England charm is in full effect. Maybe that's because it's home to the nation’s longest-running artists colony. Or the abundant, charming B&Bs and cottages. Beaches, some of which overlap with neighboring Rockport, are diverse, offering scuba spots, harbor walks, lighthouses, historic parks, calm waters, waves, silky soft sand, and rocky shores. One city, 100 percent satisfied beach-goers.
(Courtesy Destination Ann Arbor)
A creative instinct is the motor of Ypsilanti. Before Ypsi, as locals call it, was a magnet for enterprising and artsy types, it was a hub of progressive manufacturing, the history of which is told in institutions like the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, home to many classic cars, and the Yankee Air Museum, which houses more than 5,000 artifacts. Fun fact: Rose Will Monroe, the woman that “Rosie the Riveter” was based on, worked at a bomber factory here during WWII. The town’s storied manufacturing legacy is honored at The Bomber, a historic aviation-themed diner where locals happily overindulge. And speaking of hearty eats, Ypsi is a bounty of choice. Cuppy’s Best is soul-food central, Corner Brewery at the Arbor Brewing Company pours house beers, and Cream and Crumb is the go-to for Michigan-made ice cream. Top if off with vintage shops and outdoor activities, and you’ll need more than a weekend to fit it all in.
RED WING, MINNESOTA
This town on the Mississippi River is known for the world-class work boots that gave rise to a national chain of shoe stores bearing its name. The brand certainly looms large in local lore. (See: the sprawling flagship store, complete with a museum and a collectors’ society.) But its past is present in many more ways, from architectural attractions to historic buildings, including one that houses the Red Wing Maritime Museum, a tribute to the area’s rich river history. A hike up to Baypoint Park or Colville Park offers bluffs with breathtaking views of the river-dominated landscape. Or hit one of the walking loops or bike paths—both paved and mountain terrain—for an afternoon in the outdoors. A charming downtown has many options for dining and shopping, including plenty of stores that sell Red Wing pottery made with clay from the Mississippi. It doesn’t get more local than that.
For a long time, the college town that William Faulkner called home has been a bastion of fried chicken and all things traditionally Southern—not to mention University of Mississippi (aka Ole Miss) football. But the city has recently seen a very contemporary energy flood in and jumpstart its dining, design, and culture scenes. Local chef and James Beard award-winner John Currence has built an empire revolving around Southern fare, from the elevated plates at City Grocery to down ’n’ dirty familiar Creole fare at Bouré. The downtown has welcomed numerous shops that showcase local designers. Browsing their contemporary goods complements an afternoon of antique bingeing at the area's myriad shops and sprawling markets. But no visit here is complete without paying tribute to the literary native son. You can tour Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, or visit his archives on the Ole Miss campus, a Magnolia State treasure trove.
CAPE GIRARDEAU, MISSOURI
We love communities in which local history and creative energy come together to offer a truly unique experience, and in Cape Girardeau, visitors will enjoy looking both back and forward. Drop by the Conservation Nature Center for a glimpse of what the region looked like in centuries past, and explore beautifully preserved historic buildings dating back to the 19th century; a number of landmarks and historic districts will tell a rich story of the town’s significant Civil War history. And about that local creativity? Check out the nine-block outdoor sculpture exhibit, and, if you can, put First Friday on your calendar for the monthly celebration of Cape Girardeau’s vibrant and ever-evolving arts scene.
SEELEY-SWAN REGION, MONTANA
Shhh! Don’t spread this around, but Western Montana’s Seeley-Swan Valley, south of Glacier National Park and north of the city of Missoula, is one of the most perfect hidden gems in the U.S. Offering incredible mountain views, secluded, serene glacial lakes, and superb opportunities for paddling kayaks and canoes, the Seeley-Swan basically feels like a national park without the crowds. Whether you visit for the day on your way to or from Glacier or Missoula, or you book a charming vacation rental on one of the valley’s chain of lakes, this is a spot you’ll never forget. The highlight for many visitors will be paddling the Clearwater River Canoe Trail, a two-hour trip that includes the river and several lakes, with the chance of spotting loons, beavers, and other Western Montana denizens.
SANDHILLS REGION, NEBRASKA
The 272-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Highway 2 is the most scenic drive you've never heard of. The route takes motorists from Grand Island to Alliance, passing through the beautiful Sandhills Region, a mix of hills, farmland, wetlands, and the largest hand-planted forest in the U.S. The Sandhills are a magnet for migratory birds, including the iconic Sandhill crane. In Grand Island, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer delivers a taste of pioneer days, and the Pawnee Earth Lodge is a lesson in the history and traditions of the Plains Indians. Sip local wines at Cedar Hills Vineyard, get in touch with your inner cowboy (or cowgirl) at Double R Ranch, and get a full-on Old West experience at Dobby’s Frontier Town, a recreation of a turn-of-the-20th-century town, complete with cabins, mercantile shop, jail, and post office.
(Silver Trails Territory/TravelNevada)
In the early 1900s, miners found a massive deposit of silver that kept this boomtown's local economy humming for more than two decades. Today, its remote desert location, between Reno and Las Vegas, means remarkable night skies, and stargazers professional and amateur alike make the pilgrimage to take it all in. By day, the Historic Mining Park offers 100 acres to explore, right on the site of the original "lucky strike" where the town's silver was first found. Check out the restored equipment and historic exhibits, then go underground via the Burro Tunnel to a steel cage suspended over a 500-foot-deep stope (the space left behind after the ore is extracted). You can also visit the town’s richest mine: Just stand over the restored, lighted mineshaft, and try your best to see the bottom. (Spoiler alert: You can’t.) Each Memorial Day weekend, Jim Butler Days celebrates the town’s founding, but you can stop by the Central Nevada Museum anytime for a crash-course in Old West history. Grab a beer and a plate of barbecue at the family-owned Tonopah Brewing Company, but beware the ghosts—the town’s paranormal residents have been known to play pranks on unsuspecting visitors.
CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE
(Courtesy Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce)
Concord is in the public conversation whenever the presidential primaries roll around, but with its healthy mix of arts and politics, the Granite State’s capital deserves attention year-round. The gold-domed State House celebrates its bicentennial this year, and a slew of educational, cultural, and commemorative events are in the works. While you’re downtown, take in the public art on Main Street and browse the Concord Art Market, a seasonal, open-air bazaar in Bicentennial Square. Catch a show at the historic Chubb Theatre, a former vaudeville venue that’s now the centerpiece of the Capitol Center for the Arts, and make time for the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, an aeronautics museum with interactive exhibits, a planetarium, and fun activities on the first Friday of the month. History buffs, take note: New Hampshire produced just one U.S. president, Franklin Pierce, and you can visit his family homestead in Hillsboro, just half an hour outside the city limits.
PATERSON GREAT FALLS NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK, NEW JERSEY
In 1778, now-hip founding father Alexander Hamilton decided to develop Paterson, the nation’s first planned industrial city, around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Impressed by its intense energy, Hamilton saw the falls as a renewable power source for the newly built factories. The result was a manufacturing boom in the textile, railroad locomotive, and gun industries. Today, the falls, among the largest in the U.S., are designated as a National Historic Landmark District and a National Park. A visit to its Mill Mile includes stunning views of the 77-foot waterfalls and the Great Falls bridge, open parkland, several original mills, and homes dating back to the 1830s. Visitors can see an impressive collection of products made at the mills, including early Colt revolvers, silk looms, and aircraft engines at the Paterson Museum, the former home of the Rogers Locomotive Works.
TURQUOISE TRAIL NATIONAL SCENIC BYWAY, NEW MEXICO
A 50-mile scenic byway linking Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Highway 14 is a treasure trove of museums, shops, restaurants, and galleries—not to mention incredible desert vistas under wide-open blue skies. If you’re traveling from south to north, start at Albuquerque’s Turquoise Museum (scheduled to reopen in February) for a look at the trail’s namesake gemstones. There are Southwest-mined beauties on display, and the museum offers demonstrations of the lapidary process. Stop in Cedar Crest for a green-chili cheeseburger at Burger Boy, then continue to Sandia Park and the Tinkertown Museum, which features cute hand-carved figures and animated Western scenes. Next stop: Madrid, known for its artist-owned galleries and pedestrian-filled streets. A few miles north is Cerillos, a former mining town that’s seen its share of Hollywood action. (You may recognize the facades from films like Young Guns). These days, it's a creative community, home to independent galleries, shops, and cafés—no chains allowed.
SARANAC LAKE, NEW YORK
For elegant lodging and great food right in the heart of Adirondack State Park, Saranac Lake is a uniquely wonderful place to spend a few nights, a week, or more. Miles of hiking trails and rivers and lakes for paddling wind through the town, and jaw-dropping mountain peaks are easy to come by. Saranac Lake is also home to Hotel Saranac and its exceptional Camp Fire restaurant. You could spend hours wandering through charming artsy shops such as Art at the Pink House, Small Fortune Studio, Ampersound for musical instruments, the Community Store (a contemporary riff on the general store concept), and even a loon center where you can learn all about the local icons, black and white birds with haunting calls. Kids of all ages will love the town’s carousel, whose carved animals represent local species.
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA
Centrally located in the heart of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, Durham serves as one leg of the state’s famed Research Triangle, but it more than qualifies as its own destination. Now’s a great time to visit: The city turns 150 this year, and it’s throwing a big party to celebrate. Home to Duke University, not to mention historic sites and artistic endeavors of all stripes, Durham was once a bastion of the tobacco industry. Along with other brands, Lucky Strike cigarettes were manufactured here, and the former factory is now a sprawling entertainment complex, complete with restaurants and a theater, that regularly hosts art shows, pop-up shops, and free summer concerts. If you can score tickets, a Duke basketball game is an event unto itself, and the university’s Nasher Museum of Art is a world-class institution. And, of course, the food here is stellar—you’ll have ample opportunities to sample the Southern fare in venues both traditional and modern.
FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA
(North Dakota Tourism)
Darkness may underlie the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo and its spinoff FX series, but the real Fargo is a far cry from that. Public art, an active community of creative types, a lively brewery scene, and more define this municipality near the Minnesota border. Ranked number four among the fastest-growing small towns in the U.S. by Forbes in 2014, Fargo has fulfilled its potential. Fill a visit to this youthful city with brewery tours, art walks, strolls or bike rides along the meandering trails along the Red River, and excellent eats—everything from fine dining and artisanal pizza joints to retro diners and German beer halls. The Air Museum, which houses aircrafts of different eras, and the Roger Maris Museum, a tribute to the native son and New York Yankees right fielder who broke Babe Ruth’s home-run record, are a few of the quirky institutions that can teach you something you never thought you’d learn in North Dakota.
(Courtesy Experience Columbus)
With a thriving artistic community, a great dining scene, and several very enthusiastic sports fandoms, Ohio’s state capital is a family-friendly destination in the heart of the Midwest. It’s probably best known for Ohio State Buckeyes football, but Columbus Crew soccer and Blue Jackets hockey draw loyal followings, too. On campus, the Wexner Center for the Arts features high-profile contemporary exhibitions, and the extremely cool Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum has a massive collection of comics-related material, including original editions and rarities. There’s a new dinosaur gallery at the Center of Science and Industry, and the sprawling National Veterans Memorial and Museum just opened this fall. The North Market is great for a snack (try the Himalayan dumplings called momos), and the Short North Arts District offers gallery-hopping galore. When you’ve had enough of the urban scene, head an hour out of town for the serenity of the Hocking Hills, one of our favorite state parks in the country.
BROKEN BOW, OKLAHOMA
(Kim Baker/Oklahoma Tourism)
Nature’s treasures run deep and wide in Broken Bow. The gateway to Beavers Bend State Park and home to Hochatown State Park, Oklahoma’s largest, a visit here can include fishing in the Lower Mountain Fork River, boating on Broken Bow Lake, backcountry camping in the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area, horseback riding on the David Boren Hiking Trail, and bird-watching at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area, which is home to about 300 species. And that’s just your first day. Zip lining, scuba diving, paddleboating, kayaking, and angling are a few other ways to spend your time outdoors. Break it all up with visits to local wineries and breweries, the Forest Heritage Center, and the Gardner Mansion & Museum, the 1880s-era home of a native American chief whose many historic artifacts are on display. And as far as accommodations go, don’t expect to find many familiar chain hotels. Cabins and lodges tucked away in the woods are the best way to make the most of a visit here.
Located on the south end of the Willamette Valley, 110 miles south of Portland on the banks of the Willamette River, Eugene is Oregon’s second-largest city, and one of its most quirky. An artsy college town that’s home to the University of Oregon, with a strong counter-culture history and a great location (in the heart of wine country, an hour east of the coast and an hour west of the Cascade Mountains), it draws a well-rounded mix of professionals and activists, hipsters and athletes, plus outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. Amble through the downtown city center and browse the designer offerings, snap a few photos in front of the world-class murals (follow the walking trail to see them all), cycle the network of bike trails, and take full advantage of the farm-to-table dining scene—the chefs here make the most of that Pacific Northwest bounty.
Perhaps best known these days as the setting of TV’s The Office, Scranton and the surrounding region of Lackawanna County, in northeastern Pennsylvania, is an easy escape from the New York and Philadelphia metro areas. There's plenty here to make for a memorable family getaway, from lakes and mountains to unique museums devoted to important aspects of American history. Steamtown National Historic Site, for starters, lets you get up close to 19th-century steam-powered trains. The nearby Anthracite Heritage Museum engages visitors with great interactive exhibits that explain the region's coal-mining history. Once everyone's had their fill of trains and coal mines, head downtown to Coney Island Lunch. This vintage lunch counter serves superb comfort food with a special emphasis on hot dogs and fries. The Holiday Inn Express in Dickson City is an affordable spot to bunk down, and the Radisson in Scranton’s former train station is a unique upscale experience.
OLD SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO
The strongest hurricane to make landfall here since 1928, Hurricane Maria was one of the biggest catastrophes to ever hit Puerto Rico. While much of the island is still recovering (you can spot the blue tarps as your plane approaches the airport), the capital has mostly rebounded, and in historic Old San Juan, the cobblestone streets, lined with colorful buildings, are flooded with people. Peek in the shops that line Calle del Cristo, snap a few pics on Calle Fortaleza, where dozens of umbrellas hang overhead, and cut across Calle San Francisco for a sweet treat: frozen hot chocolate at Chocobar Cortés, or pastries at the circa-1902 La Bombonera. Indeed, excellent food abounds here, from traditional fare to gussied-up takes on classic plates, not to mention icy-cold delights like piña coladas and paletas. After you’ve had your fill, head northwest to Castillo San Felipe del Morro. A towering fortress overlooking the sea, built by the Spanish over the course of 250-some years, it’s an excellent place to catch the sunset.
CLIFF WALK, NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
Famous for its nearly-60-year-old folk festival, its even-older jazz festival, and its miles of sandy beaches, this coastal town draws record crowds for its picturesque summers and prestigious reputation. Established in 1639, the seaside haven was adopted as a summer retreat by wealthy Gilded Age families like the Astors and Vanderbilts, and you can sneak a peek at their ritzy abodes from the Cliff Walk, a public-access footpath that winds along the water from Memorial Boulevard to Narragansett Avenue. A National Recreation Trail within a National Historic District that passes through private property via a public right-of-way, the 3.5-mile walk covers terrain both smooth and rugged, combining impressive architecture with diverse geological formations and oceanic wildlife. Climb the Forty Steps and pause at Marine Avenue to watch the surfers, but don’t get too close to the edge—in some spots, the cliffs drop more than 70 feet.
TRAVELERS REST, SOUTH CAROLINA
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Travelers Rest has made our list of America’s Coolest Small Towns not once, but twice. That’s a testament to a come-stay-for-awhile charm that’s endured since the early 1800s, when settlers stopped here after trekking through the western Carolina mountains. But TR, as it’s also known, isn’t all R&R. The 22-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail greenway is perfect for biking and walking along the Reedy River into neighboring downtown Greenville. A revitalized downtown is chockablock with funky shops filled with antiques, shabby-chic décor, and vintage clothing and restaurants serving creative eats, like blackberry duck tacos at Farmhouse Tacos and smoked pork-belly corndogs at the Monkey Wrench Smokehouse. Trailblazer Park features a farmers market, holiday celebrations, and an open-air pavilion for free concerts and live performances in the warmer months. Accommodations close to downtown, like a small cottage at the Swamp Rabbit Inn, are your best bet.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH DAKOTA
For spectacular prairie landscapes, canyons, and wildlife, Badlands National Park is unparalleled, yet lesser-known than many of its fellow western parks in Montana, Wyoming, and Utah—a bit surprising, considering that Badlands is right off I-90. You can arrive along the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, from the town of Wall, and then enjoy a relatively uncrowded, unhurried national park experience complete with bison, pronghorn, deer, prairie dogs, hawks, and eagles, and ample opportunities to pull off the road for unforgettable scenic overlooks. Ranger programs are excellent, from talks about the park’s geology, native animals, to opportunities for stargazing. Reasonable lodging well under $150 per night can be found at Frontier Cabins, just off I-90.
Tennessee is a gold mine of charming small towns, and Townsend is just one of the jewels among them. Its tranquility is part of the allure for nature lovers traveling to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as it serves as an access point to the 520,000-acre destination, and it’s a serene alternative to bustling Gaitlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It’s home to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, which presents thousands of years of civilization in the area, and small museums that tell the region’s big story, like the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum. But the area’s rich heritage is perhaps best communicated outdoors. Find it in Tuckaleechee Caverns, a veritable gallery of massive stone formations, and Cades Cove, a mountain-rimmed valley in the Great Smokies that delivers top-rate wildlife viewing. It’s encircled by an 11-mile loop that’s popular among motorists, cyclists, and hikers alike. Options for sleeping under the stars, like Cades Cove Campground, abound.
Everything is bigger in Texas. Except Marfa. This tiny desert town boasts a population of less than 2,000 and is about 200 miles to the nearest airport, but it’s generated a ton of hype in recent years, thanks to artists and creative types from the coasts settling here in pursuit of a simpler life. And there’s the standalone Prada store—rather, a life-size art installation of the shop and Instagram catnip, if ever there was any. The town’s cultural vibrancy took root when NYC artist Donald Judd moved here in the 1970s and bought an airplane hangar. Today the site hosts epic indoor and outdoor installation pieces, and other artists' institutions, including some with residency programs, abound. In one of his last episodes of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain spotlighted Marfa for its down-home Mexican fare and massive helpings of Texas meat. If you make it there, raise your margarita to him.
ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
It’s difficult not to sound like you’re going overboard when discussing Zion National Park. But with jaw-dropping hikes like Angel’s Landing and the Narrows, this gem of the NPS is taking its place among better-known western parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, and rightly so. With amazing canyons, red sandstone, and some of the most extraordinary hiking opportunities in the U.S., Zion can keep you busy for days. Camping is always the most affordable lodging option, but reliable hotels can be found a short (and lovely) drive away, in the town of Hurricane. Before you head into Zion, be aware that, in contrast to just about every other major U.S. national park, Zion restricts cars from most of its roads, opting instead for an efficient bus system that you’ll come to really appreciate.
Of all the accolades earned by Montpelier, “best arts town” might stand out the most. The nation’s smallest capital city offers professional stage performances at the Lost Nation Theater, live music at Montpelier Alive!, and the Green Mountain film festival at the Savoy Theater. An impossibly quaint downtown is filled with art galleries and museums, bookstores and coffee shops, with the beautifully restored Vermont statehouse standing guard across the Winooski River. Community involvement is big here, with outdoor concerts held on the capital lawn and in parks around town, a co-op gallery called the Front that displays works by local artists, and a quarterly Art Walk that encourages more than two dozen galleries, shops, and cafes to open their doors.
CAPE CHARLES, VIRGINIA
Call Cape Charles a “beach destination” and you’re missing half the point. This picturesque hamlet on the Chesapeake Bay, on Virginia’s eastern shore, was settled in the 1880s and retains a lot of its antique charm. Cute Victorian houses dot the streets, and the Art Deco-era Historic Palace Theatre anchors the downtown. Against that backdrop, you'll find two nationally ranked golf courses designed by golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, classic seafood shacks, an old-timey soda fountain, and waterfront restaurants. Seafood is, of course, the area’s primary culinary lure, and you can take a deep dive into the local industry on the Virginia Oyster Trail; this region is one of eight in the state with “aqua-artisan” sites (restaurants, food shops, nautical-themed design stores) on the self-guided trail. And then there’s the beach. The mile-long stretch is a perfect perch for a lazy afternoon. Or skip the sand and kayak to a winery. Because you can.
VASHON ISLAND, WASHINGTON
(Courtesy Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce)
Can you keep a secret? A 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle brings you to the charm, beauty, and relative seclusion of Washington’s Vashon Island. Here, you’ll find strollable Pacific Northwest beaches, hiking trails, kayak and cycling adventures, and some inspiring shopping opportunities downtown, not to mention live music and other nightlife. Stop by the Hardware Store, a restaurant situated in a landmark building that serves creative American fare that comes highly recommended by the locals. Vacation rentals range from beach houses to—wait for it—treehouses. And, of course, one of the perks of discovering Vashon Island for yourself is the bragging rights you get next time someone asks where you spent your last vacation.
HUNTINGTON, WEST VIRGINIA
Once a coal town, and before that, the westernmost terminus of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, Huntington sits on the banks of the Ohio River at the tri-state junction of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. Home to Marshall University, with a historic downtown district, a recently revitalized riverfront, and a nationally recognized public park with a rose garden, it’s a community on the up and up. The Huntington Museum of Art houses a permanent collection that rings in at a jaw-dropping 16,000-plus pieces, and its 52-acre grounds boast sculpture courts, a tropical and subtropical conservatory, a coral-reef aquarium, a sensory trail for the visually impaired, and more. There’s also the Heritage Farm Museum & Village, honoring Appalachian cultural heritage, and the Museum of Radio & Technology, which has a huge collection of antiques. Catch music and other performing arts at the Keith-Albee Theatre, a Spanish Baroque venue dating to 1928, and wash it down with pints at Summit Beer Station, a bar with 27 taps and a wide selection of bourbon.
(Courtesy Travel Wisconsin)
For the days when the circus doesn’t come to you, you can go to the circus. Baraboo, about an hour north of Madison, is where the circus as we know it today took root—it's the hometown of the Ringling brothers and the famous show’s winter quarters. Al Ringling’s opulent mansion, listed on the National Historic Register, is a museum chronicling the evolution of the modern circus. True Big Top lovers will want to book a stay at Ringling House B&B, the address that Al’s brother Charles once called home. And Circus World houses a dazzling collection of restored antique circus wagons and all manner of memorabilia. But there’s more to Baraboo’s wildlife than the animals featured in the three rings. The International Crane Foundation is said to be the only place in the world where all 15 species of cranes dwell. And the Leopold Center, named for Aldo Leopold, the godfather of wildlife management, houses exhibitions that explore of his legacy as well as trails that wind through woods, prairies, savannahs, and wetlands.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a city where cowboy culture looms larger than it does in Wyoming’s capital—and not just for the 10 days in July when Cheyenne Frontier Days, America’s biggest rodeo event, attracts tens of thousands of visitors, doubling the city’s population. Frontier history abounds here, and you can learn about it at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, a collection of Smithsonian-worthy rodeo artifacts, and the Cowgirl Museum of the West, which illuminates the bold pioneering ladies that helped make Wyoming women the first in the nation to gain the right to vote. Pick up some cowboy boots at the Wrangler Store, tour the landmark Atlas Theater, head to the Outlaw Saloon for the live country music, and mosey on over to the stunning Nagel-Warren Mansion for an elegant Victorian-style high tea experience. You'll swear you traveled through time.