Best Budget Destinations in America 2018, Part I: The Northeast

We’re rounding up value trips across the U.S. (one in each state, plus DC) to inspire Budget Travelers to see more of America for less money. Here, the best of the Northeast.

Each year, Budget Travel encourages its readers to “see more for less,” inspiring you to go beyond the well-known cities, beaches, and theme parks to experience mid-size cities, towns, natural wonders, and neighborhoods you haven’t yet seen, all at a price that won’t break the bank. We define a “Budget Destination” as a second-to-none vacation spot that offers plenty of value, with lodging well under $200 per night, outstanding culture, cutting-edge cuisine, and natural beauty. Budget Travel editors spent much of the past year getting to know 51 Budget Destinations 2018, one in each state, plus the District of Columbia, to deliver an inspiring all-new bucket list for American road trip enthusiasts, weekend warriors, and travel junkies. Here, the 12 Best Budget Destinations in the Northeast.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY

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For most who live in the tri-state region, Newark has long been an obligation, what with its massive international airport, a United Airlines hub. You could credit the city’s overall renaissance to Cory Booker, the sharp, witty once-mayor, now senator and social media darling, (over 4 million Twitter followers), but development has taken on a momentum of its own, reaching what appears to be an apex with the November 2017 opening of Marcus B&P, a downtown restaurant by star chef Marcus Samuelsson. It’s the neighborhood most visitors pass through, as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center--the New Jersey Devils’ home rink and huge concert venue--and the Newark Museum are all located here, as is the NJ Transit train station. (It’s a 19-minute ride to New York’s Penn Station.) Also worth checking out is Off the Hanger, a clothing boutique featuring designs from dainty and classical to eccentric, and GlassRoots, a studio/store/gallery, doubles as a school for the area’s young people, where they learn the art of glassblowing and entrepreneurship. Refuel at nearby local favorite Burger Walla, serving hamburgers with a pleasantly spicy Indian twist. Ironbound, which is separated from downtown by Riverside Park and bordered on the north by the Passaic River, is absolutely worth a visit. A residential neighborhood dotted with European-style markets, it recently welcomed businesses like All Points West Distillery and tasting room that joins the nearly 200 eateries in the vicinity, many of which are Portuguese, thanks to a large immigrant population that started in the 1960s.  

DOVER, DELAWARE

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Sure, Delaware may be one of the tiniest states, but you know what they say about good things coming in small packages? Dover, the state’s capital, is Exhibit A, embracing history that goes back before Colonial days that you can explore via exquisite, manageable museums and historic buildings, while also welcoming families, couples, and other travelers like never before. The marquee events here are the two NASCAR race weekends each year and the Firefly Music Festival, but, truth is, something’s always happening in Dover, and it often involved the gorgeous First State Heritage Park, the food and charming vibe in nearby Amish Country, and some find sipping at events like the Delaware Wine and Beer Festival. Affordable lodgings abound, the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino getting lots of the attention during popular events such as NASCAR. And you’ll definitely want to taste the gourmet burgers at Restaurant 55 and other upscale comfort foods done right.

BERLIN, MARYLAND

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We’re a little biased in favor of Berlin, MD, and for good reason: When we named Berlin the “Coolest Small Town in America 2014,” the town literally held a parade and welcomed Budget Travel staff as if we were visiting royalty. But even putting aside all those good vibes, what’s not to love about this town? Beautifully situated on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a short drive from Assateague Island (with its world-famous wild horses) and buzzy, always-fun Ocean City, Berlin is one of those charming American towns where time stands still - in a good way - and folks will always greet you with a smile, share their own personal locals-know-best travel tips, and make you feel like you belong. We love Berlin’s vibrant downtown (it’s so picture-perfect, its Main Street even served as the backdrop for the Julia Roberts flick “Runaway Bride”) and the artsy/crafty vibe, including opportunities to learn glass-blowing, shop for antiques and unique hand-crafted gifts, and sip local craft beer.

STOCKBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS

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Those of us who’ve come to know and love Massachusetts’s Berkshire Mountains know that the historic town of Stockbridge is one of those places where you really can “have it all.” The Norman Rockwell Museum honors the popular-yet-still-somehow-underrated 20th-century painter and illustrator perhaps best known for his moving visual portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms.” In fact, the Rockwell museum is just one of the artsy destinations visitors to central and western Massachusetts may want to explore (others include the Clark, in Williamstown, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams). But as alluring as the museums may be, you won’t want to spend all your time indoors. Hit the nearby trails into the woods and mountains for spectacular views (fall is, of course, when the forests burst into their fabled finery, but you’ll love the Berkshires any time of year). And save some time for browsing unique shops such as Vlada Boutique, which offers stylish steals for women of all sizes (for real). Rest your head at the Red Lion Inn, one of the iconic lodgings in Stockbridge, with a great restaurant and a history of hospitality going back more than 200 years.

WESTERLY, RHODE ISLAND

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Go to Westerly, Rhode Island for the outstanding beaches, stay for the winery, the water park, the golf, the Flying Horse carousel. (You see where we’re going with this.) The Ocean State’s southernmost town has long been a cherished local secret, but the internet doesn’t really allow for secrets any more. Plus with easy rail access to New York, Providence, Boston and beyond, it couldn’t really have stayed “off the beaten path” for too much longer. Yes, beach buffs have made up most of the visitorship in the past, flocking to Westerly’s coastlines to kayak, fish, paddle board, and swim. But the town’s has plenty of other things to see and do, making it a prime destination for a weekend or longer. Grey Sail Brewing’s tap room is a destination for the local beer; quaint sweet shops, like Grandma’s Gelato Café, embody New England small town charm and hand-made perfection; the Thomas Jefferson-commissioned Watch Hill Lighthouse, which dates to 1807, is open year-round and features a charming museum; the Flying Horse Carousel is said to be the oldest continuously operating carousel in the US. Add to that summer music festivals and restaurants run the gamut from Thai to classic seafood shacks to creative modern eateries dishing out creative globally inspired fare and it’s clear why celebrities hide out here. (We see you, Taylor Swift.)

WASHINGTON, DC: NOMA

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If someone told you about NoMa and you didn’t know it’s in Washington DC, you might think it’s somewhere on the outskirts of Paris or Milan. The neighborhood, which extends north from Union Station, DC’s transportation hub, is anchored by the buzzy Union Market, a restored specialty food hall with 18 stalls devoted to everything from Burmese eats to Venezuelan-style arepas to smoked fish to fresh veggies to meats to cheese. But it’s not just a modern food hall that draws foodies. The area has long stood as a culinary hub, thanks to institutions like A. Latteri’s, an Italian market packed top to bottom with pasta and other provisions. A few new businesses are poised to be tomorrow’s institutions, like Cotton and Reed, a rum distillery helmed by former NASA scientists, and Dolcezza Gelato, an ice cream factory. When you’ve had your fill, hit the National Public Radio HQ for a free tour (weekdays at 11AM) or the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, or just roam the streets and check out the recently pointed murals at every turn. The neighborhood, which has its own stop on the Red Line, is home to Gallaudet University, the country’s oldest university for the deaf. The Kellogg Conference Center Hotel on the campus offers excellent rates.

NORWALK, CONNECTICUT

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Norwalk, Connecticut might just be the most overlooked cultural destination on the east coast. Situated 40 miles from Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, on the northern shore of the Long Island Sound, this historic town, settled in 1649, is known for its world-class Maritime Aquarium, which features more than 30 fresh and saltwater exhibits. There is, however, a myriad of other options of museums to visit and historic sites to see that can easily fill an entire weekend—an entire long weekend, in fact. Keep kids entertained at the highly interactive Stepping Stone Museum. For the history buff, there are tours of the 10-room Sheffield Island Lighthouse, which dates to 1868 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, a National Historic Landmark. The 62-room Victorian spectacle is known for its design details, like stenciled walls. Speaking of design, the Center for Contemporary Printmaking features a gallery as well as work spaces. Register in advance for a workshop. But most unique of all is the SoNo Switch Tower Museum, a shrine to this the development that improved rail travel worldwide. Its entire history unfolds at a delightfully quirky institution in Connecticut

PORTSMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE

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With Colonial, Federal, and Georgian houses open to tours an endless stretches of brick sidewalks, Portsmouth, America’s third-oldest city, might seem like a well-preserved relic. But even a few hours in this seaside town reveals that it’s a lively, hip destination that’s trendy (see: Book & Bar, a bookstore/eatery, and Annabel’s Ice Cream, purveyor of eccentrically flavored scoops ) while remaining respectful of its maritime past. Old Ferry Landing, for one, is an old-school seafood restaurant in a long-abandoned ferry terminal, and Black Trumpet, a modern bistro with an impressive wine list in a 19th-century ships chandlery. There are endless things to do outdoors, like wander the waterside Prescott Park, where you can marvel at over 500 different types of flowers and, if you plan your trip right, catch a festival or live concert.

BANGOR, MAINE

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If you’re looking for a tranquil wood-cabin-style Maine escape, look elsewhere.  You’d have to try really hard to relax in Bangor, what with all the natural wonders to marvel at (see: Baxter State Park’s 200,000-acre wilderness preserve, hundreds of miles of Bangor City Forest, Cascade Park’s 20-foot-high waterfall). And that’s to say nothing of the cultural and historical spots to visit, from Fort Knox, a meticulously preserved fortification on the coast, to the Cole’s Land Transportation Museum, a repository of antique cars, to a Stephen King-themed tour of the city, honoring Bangor’s native son. And here’s a fun fact: the Bangor Symphony Orchestra is the oldest continuously operating orchestra in the United States. All that’s to say nothing of the abundant food and drink options. Of course, if you’ve never had a Maine lobster, you can check that off your bucket list at any number of eateries here. Or you could station yourself at one of the old-school diners or wander the Maine Beer Trail or sample the goods at Winterport Winery. Snowshoeing, white water rafting, bicycling, hiking are just a few options for burning off the calories in the morning.

BURLINGTON, VERMONT

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Nearly everything the world associates with Vermont goes back to Burlington. The storied jam band Phish started here when they were students at University of Vermont; Ben and Jerry’s was born here; Bernie Sanders was mayor of the town for eight years in the 1980s, and cultish beers—made by renowned craft breweries that draw suds lovers in droves to stand in line overnight for special releases—come from here. And, of course, there are bike rentals, green landscapes, and the stunning Lake Champlain, all of which beckon outdoorsy types like a siren’s song. You’ll also find creative eateries with lots of local beers on tap, cafés with coffee roasted nearby, and, since we’re on the topic of food, make time to visit Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark on 1,400 acres designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. You can milk your own cow here or watch cheesemakers at work.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA

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In the early 1980s, as steel mills shuttered in this industrial town, there was a mass exodus of working class types. Now people are flowing back. A young creative class has put Pittsburgh on the culinary map, opening stylish, modern eateries in reclaimed industrial spaces, craft cocktail bars, artisan butcheries, intimate bakeries, and a cidery, largely in neighborhoods that you once wouldn’t have gone near after dark. Even a hip Ace Hotel set up camp in a revitalized old rundown YMCA, a project that ultimately took seven years and $23 million. But the city’s roots are honored, showcased like a badge of local pride. To whit: saunter the trails that run along the Allegheny River and you’ll spot old industrial artifacts along the path. There’s also “The Workers,” two 20-foot-tall sculptures of men laboring with shovels, constructed of reclaimed steel from a nearby bridge. And as far as modern institutions go, the legendary Primanti’s restaurant and the Andy Warhol Museum (pictured), a tribute to the native son, are still stalwarts.

BUFFALO, NEW YORK

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If you’re looking for an urban getaway where you can also canoe and waterski without traveling too far from your hotel, Buffalo is the spot. The long industrial town, which sits about 20 miles from Niagara Falls, has undergone a serious makeover in the past few years, renovating homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and converting old historic properties into hotels and more. Plus Canalside, once a tapestry of parking lots along the Erie Canal, saw over $300 million in development and now stands as a destination for ice skating in the winter and outdoor yoga, performances, and makers’ markets—more than 1,000 events—in the warmer months. All this plus the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, the country’s biggest inland Naval park, complete with an historic lighthouse and observation tower. And there’s much more to come. A 43,000-square-foot children’s museum is slated to open in the neighborhood later in 2018. And yes, while there are plenty of new restaurants and brewpubs to explore, there’s still an ample number of spots serving the native claim-to-fame: wings.

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