There are cities and towns all over the country that need absolutely no help in the promotion department. If we never mentioned how great New York City or San Francisco are, you’d still probably want to visit. But there are also countless places in the United States that don’t get nearly the attention we think they deserve—places that we’d call underrated.
What makes a place “underrated?” Well, it depends. It might be that a city is well-known as a home base for exploring nearby attractions but visitors too often skip the city itself. It might be a city that has one famous sight but people rarely stick around to see more. And it might just be a place that is all but unknown outside the state.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, of course, though it’s a great place to start when you’re planning your next adventure and want to get beyond the usual highlights.
Note that as the coronavirus pandemic continues, cities are in different stages of reopening (and those stages could change). Check with local news sources before you make plans.
Maryland’s adorable seaport capital of Annapolis is the seat of power in the state, but history here runs deeper than the last legislative session. The historic streets of Annapolis are lined with 18th-century homes (mostly turned into shops now) and even the pretty state house (which you can tour) dates from the late 1700s.
The city also benefits from its location on the Chesapeake Bay, both in terms of the many water sports locals and visitors enjoy and in terms of seafood—Maryland Blue Crabs are famous for good reason, and waterfront dining options abound. And don’t miss a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy, started in Annapolis in 1845.
Nearest airport: Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) is about 24 miles away
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Traverse City, Michigan
Northern Michigan’s Traverse City isn’t very big, but it comes with a pretty long list of things to do—and to eat. Perhaps best known for its cherries (the National Cherry Festival happens each July), Traverse City’s bounty extends beyond its cherry orchards.
For instance, there are dozens of wineries just a few minutes from downtown, at the same latitude as the famed wine producing regions of Bordeaux and Piedmont. Local restaurants make good use of what comes from nearby farms, too, making Traverse City a foodie favorite. In between bites, though, you’ll have no trouble working up an appetite in any season thanks to the outdoor playgrounds that are everywhere you look. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and its miles of hiking trails are nearby, and don’t miss a chance to get out on Lake Michigan.
Nearest airport: Cherry Capital Airport (TVC); Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR) is about 150 miles away; Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Detroit International Airport (DTW) are farther options at about 250 miles away
Sample deals to Traverse City and Detroit:
Even if you haven’t heard of Athens, Georgia, chances are good you’ve heard from Athens. The city has produced a number of famous bands—including R.E.M. and the B-52’s—and live music is still a major draw for visitors. The University of Georgia is in Athens (it hosts the state’s official art museum), contributing to the city’s youthful energy and art scene.
There’s history in Athens, too. Several buildings date from the Civil War, including the T.R.R. Cobb House—it’s now a house museum featuring period furnishings. When you need some fresh air and flora, explore the serene State Botanical Garden, take a leisurely stroll through Trail Creek Park, or check out some of the local wildlife at Sandy Creek Nature Center.
Nearest airport: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is about 83 miles away
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The pretty city of Astoria sits at the very northern bit of the Oregon coast, where the mouth of the Columbia River stretches to more than four miles across. It’s Oregon’s oldest city, and one of the oldest in the west, and history still looms large. Lewis and Clark spent a winter at the end of their journey at nearby Fort Clatsop. (There’s a replica where the original log cabin once stood.)
The maritime boom years drove construction of the many beautiful mansions, including the Flavel Mansion (now a house museum). Astoria has long been a major port city—visitors still see cargo ships coming and going and the Columbia River Maritime Museum is a must—but increasingly noteworthy art and food scenes are making the city more of a tourist destination in recent years. Film buffs may not recognize the town as where the 1980s movie “The Goonies” was shot, but a visit to Astoria’s Oregon Film Museum helps.
Nearest airport: Portland International Airport (PDX) is about 98 miles away
Sample deals to Portland:
- San Francisco nonstop to Portland for $99 roundtrip
- Los Angeles nonstop to Portland for $115 roundtrip
While Knoxville, Tennessee is an excellent jumping-off point for a vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s also a great vacation spot of its own. Music is a big deal in Knoxville, especially if you like bluegrass and country, but you might be surprised at the musical diversity of bands that play around the city every night.
As Tennessee’s first capital, the city has a number of historic sites to visit, including the log cabin built in the 1830s by Knoxville’s founder, James White. The site of the 1982 World’s Fair is now a lovely public park. There’s also a buzzing maker culture in Knoxville, from glass blowers to furniture artisans to gluten-free bakers, which can make shopping for unique souvenirs especially fun.
Nearest airport: Knoxville McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS)
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Montana is well-known for its great outdoors, and the western city of Missoula is no exception. Its location roughly between five mountain ranges and near three rivers makes Missoula an excellent base from which to explore the region—but leave some time in your schedule to enjoy the city, too.
The Clark Fork River runs right through town, and the area’s fly fishing is legendary (they literally made a movie about it). Farm-to-table is a quick trip around Missoula, where locally-grown (or -caught or -brewed or -distilled) ingredients feature prominently on restaurant menus. Missoula is home to the University of Montana, which gives the city a more creative vibe than you might expect and helps fill the calendar with cultural events. And, yes, proximity to mountain ranges with names like Bitterroot, Rattlesnake, and Rockies means you’ll never run out of day trip options, either.
Nearest airport: Missoula Airport (MSO)
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Rapid City, South Dakota
Since Rapid City is so close to many of South Dakota’s tourism heavy hitters—Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, Custer State Park, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore among them—it’s often used as a base for visitors who head out of town for a series of day trips. People who take the time to explore the city itself, though, are treated to a lovely downtown with a variety of museums, galleries, shops and public art (look for the life-sized bronze statues of every former US president that give the city its nickname, “The City of Presidents”).
Rapid City is an epicenter of Native American culture for the region. Learn more about the 12 Native American tribes in the area at the Journey Museum and Learning Center, watch traditional ceramics being made at Sioux Pottery, and browse the enormous selection of Native American crafts at Prairie Edge Trading Company. And, if you can, visit in the fall to watch the dancing at the Black Hills Powwow.
Nearest airport: Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP)
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Idaho’s biggest city and capital is an unexpected delight. Boise is home to art galleries and museums galore, as well as theater companies (the Idaho Shakespeare Festival puts on outdoor productions every summer) and music venues. The culinary landscape goes way beyond the state’s famous potatoes—the farm-to-table movement is strong (and delicious). There are a number of wineries and craft breweries in the area, and since Boise has one of the biggest Basque communities in the country, Basque restaurants add some spice to the restaurant scene.
One of the biggest perks of a visit to Boise, though, is its proximity to so much outdoor recreation—including whitewater rafting on the Boise River, mountain biking or skiing (depending on the season) at Bogus Basin, and climbing at Table Rock.
Nearest airport: Boise Airport (BOI)
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Wyoming’s capital started out as a major railroad hub in the 1860s. It remains something of a transportation hub (three major interstate highways connect nearby), but Cheyenne offers plenty of reasons to stop and stay awhile, too.
Embrace the modern-day Wild West with a stop at Wrangler Western Store for a pair of boots, a visit to Terry Bison Ranch to hand-feed the mighty beasts, or a ticket to the biggest outdoor rodeo in the world—Cheyenne’s famous Frontier Days. The Cheyenne Botanic Gardens is surprisingly lush, Curt Gowdy State Park has 40 miles of fabulous mountain biking trails, and Vedauwoo Recreation Area is a favorite with rock climbers.
Nearest airport: Cheyenne Regional Airport (CYS) has very limited service; Denver International Airport (DEN) is about 106 miles away
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Burlington sits on the eastern edge of Lake Champlain, a short 45 miles from the US-Canada border. While it’s Vermont’s largest city and it’s home to both the University of Vermont and the state’s main airport, don’t let these facts deceive you into thinking it’s a big city; with a population of just 42,000 people, the city maintains a small-town feel that’s really appealing.
The arts thrive in Burlington, from the Fleming Museum of Art to the funky local galleries of the South End Arts District. The great outdoors beckons from nearly every angle, whether you want to go sailing on the lake, pedal lakeside on the nearly eight miles of bike trails, or head into the nearby mountains to hike in search of excellent views. And anyone with a sweet tooth can pay homage to the site of the original Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop in Burlington before a day trip to the nearby factory in Waterbury.
Nearest airport: Burlington International Airport (BTV)
Carmel’s full name, Carmel-by-the-Sea, certainly tells you something of the place. The gorgeous city on the Monterey Peninsula (two hours’ drive south of San Francisco) sits right on the water and is known for its natural beauty and artsy vibe. The lovely sand of Carmel Beach is a highlight of any visit, but there’s also kayaking at nearby Point Lobos State Reserve and the scenic 17-Mile Drive.
Carmel Village is almost impossibly charming—there are dozens of art galleries (Carmel was an arts colony in the early 20th century) and pretty homes, as well as several tasting rooms pouring wine from nearby Carmel Valley wineries. For a dose of local history, check out the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, one of California’s historic 18th-century missions.
Nearest airport: Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) is about five miles away; San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 100 miles away; and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 70 miles away
Sample deals to San Francisco, San Jose, Monterey, and Oakland:
- Nashville to San Francisco for $83 roundtrip
- Detroit or Atlanta to San Jose for $96 roundtrip
- Portland nonstop to Oakland for$97 roundtrip
- Boston to Monterey for $204 roundtrip
This southern Utah town on the border with Arizona isn’t a household name, but many of the attractions nearby are. Kanab is within easy reach of National Park heavy hitters like Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon (not to mention Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend), so it’s an ideal base for taking day trips. What’s more, Kanab itself is a beautiful town and you don’t have to go far to enjoy the great outdoors.
For example, there’s a slot canyon (with the adorable name Peek-a-Boo) just nine miles outside town. Check out the Little Hollywood Museum for a history of filmmaking in the area, and animal lovers absolutely can’t miss the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary—the biggest shelter in the United States for homeless pets. Tours of the sanctuary are available, as are adoptions.
Nearest airport: McCarran Las Vegas International Airport (LAS) is about 210 miles away; smaller St. George Regional Airport (SGU) is about 84 miles away
Sample deals to Las Vegas and St. George:
Wisconsin’s biggest city doesn’t have Madison’s hip reputation or nearby Chicago’s famous sights, but that’s part of what makes it such an unexpected pleasure. Milwaukee was an industrial city, part of the “Rust Belt,” but today many of those former factories and warehouses have been designated historic buildings and turned into galleries, restaurants, boutiques, and apartments.
German culture runs deep in the city, and some of the world’s best-known breweries used to be located in Milwaukee; these days dozens of microbreweries are making a name for themselves. The city has an enviable waterfront position on Lake Michigan where three rivers meet, so there’s plenty of outdoor recreation to enjoy. And if all that isn’t enough, it’s pretty hard to not be charmed by a city that commissioned a bronze likeness of The Fonz from (Milwaukee-set) “Happy Days” for its riverfront walk.
Nearest airport: Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE); Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is about 80 miles away
Sample deals to Milwaukee or Chicago:
Walla Walla, Washington
Even if you’ve never been there, Walla Walla may not be an unfamiliar name—yes, this Eastern Washington city is where those huge, sweet onions come from. (There’s even an annual onion festival in July.)
But that same fertile soil that produces the city’s famous onions is also perfect for growing wine grapes. The Walla Walla Valley is home to more than 100 wineries, dozens of which have tasting rooms right downtown to make a walking wine tour easy. Wine regions often boast fabulous dining options, and that’s definitely true in Walla Walla—local wines pair well with locally grown produce, after all. When you’re ready to explore the landscape that’s providing so much deliciousness, there are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the Blue Mountains just outside Walla Walla.
Nearest airport: Walla Walla Regional Airport (ALW); Portland International Airport (PDX) is about 239 miles away and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) is about 265 miles away
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The city of Flagstaff is only about 30 miles from Arizona’s red-rock capital of metaphysical healing energy, Sedona, but it feels worlds away. Flagstaff is a college town with much milder weather than you might expect in central Arizona—the 7,000-foot elevation means summer isn’t scorching and winter is a snowy playground. Locals positively love the outdoors, which is no surprise when the Grand Canyon is practically the city’s backyard.
Even without that world wonder, the surrounding area offers plenty of attractions, like a hike on the Kachina Trail to the highest point in the state or a visit to the Ancient Pueblo archaeological site of Wupatki National Monument. Don’t miss a stop at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory to take advantage of the city’s “Dark Sky City” designation—the facility is open year-round to visitors who want to take a peek through its powerful telescope.
Nearest airport: Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG); Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) is about 123 miles away
Sample deals to Flagstaff and Phoenix:
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Historic Portsmouth in southeastern New Hampshire is, as the name suggests, focused on the water. The city borders both the Atlantic Ocean and the Piscataqua River (Maine is on the other side) and it was once a bustling port and shipyard.
Today, while Portsmouth is still a working port, it’s also a charming and walkable city that woos visitors with Colonial-era buildings, beautiful scenery, and a charming city center. Several 17th- and 18th-century homes are now house museums, and the outdoor Strawbery Banke Museum downtown showcases 300 years of Portsmouth’s past. Having both a river and an ocean nearby means there’s a variety of water recreation options, from kayaking to whale watching, and of course the seafood is fresh and very local.
Nearest airport: Portsmouth International Airport at Pease (PSM); Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT) is about 48 miles away; Boston Logan (BOS) is about 55 miles away
Sample deals to Manchester and Boston:
San Antonio, Texas
If you’re raising an eyebrow at the inclusion of San Antonio on this list, a city that has two of Texas’ most popular attractions, you should know that it makes the cut partly because of those attractions. Visitors come to see The Alamo, of course, and the San Antonio River Walk is undoubtedly touristy. But San Antonio is a huge city that is so much more than an historic mission and a riverside walking path.
For starters, The Alamo is only one of the Spanish missions in the city. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves the other four, the oldest of which dates from the early 18th century. One of the oldest cathedrals in the country is also in San Antonio—San Fernando Cathedral was started in 1738. And when you’re ready to explore (and embrace) Texas cowboy culture, don’t miss a stop at the fabulous Briscoe Western Art Museum or the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum.
Nearest airport: San Antonio International Airport (SAT)
Sample deal to San Antonio:
Albuquerque, New Mexico
While Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico, it’s usually overlooked by travelers heading to smaller Santa Fe or even tiny Taos. But Albuquerque has its own charms. The International Balloon Fiesta fills the blue sky with colorful hot air balloons every October.
Outdoors enthusiasts have their pick of activities, including kayaking or stand up paddleboarding on the Rio Grande—which runs right through the center of the city. Local chefs proudly add traditional New Mexican ingredients to inventive menus, and the city has a burgeoning craft brewery scene, too.
Nearest airport: Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ)
Sample deals to Albuquerque:
- Austin nonstop to Albuquerque for $138 roundtrip
- San Francisco nonstop to Albuquerque for $86 roundtrip
Attention on Oklahoma’s second-largest city, Tulsa, has historically been dominated by oil production in the region. More recently, however, investments in the arts, some great museums, and urban parks have made Tulsa a city that delights locals and might surprise visitors.
Occupying the former home of an oil magnate, the Philbrook Museum of Art features works by Picasso, Rodin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The world-class Gilcrease Museum, founded by a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, contains an incredible collection of art and artifacts of the American West. At the Greenwood Cultural Center, visitors learn about the Tulsa neighborhood once known as “Black Wall Street” and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in this vibrant African-American district, killing more than 200.
The Woody Guthrie Center archives the life and music of Oklahoma’s favorite folk-singing activist, and Tulsa’s music venues showcase styles from rockabilly to the symphony. When you want to get outside, there are green parks and a network of trails running along the Arkansas River, which cuts through the center of town.
Nearest airport: Tulsa International Airport (TUL); Will Rogers World Airport (OKC) is about 100 miles away
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the biggest city in the country’s smallest state, which is one reason the Rhode Island capital may get overlooked in favor of nearby Boston. But Providence has its own history. The city was founded in the early 17th century, and several of its historic buildings date from before the Revolutionary War—including the oldest Baptist church in the United States (still in use today).
Modern Providence is increasingly known for its excellent dining options, thanks in large part to the fact that Providence-based Johnson & Wales University’s acclaimed College of Culinary Arts produces plenty of skilled chefs who don’t leave the city after graduation. There’s a thriving arts scene year-round, from high-end theater to underground music, but summer’s WaterFire art installation (bonfires on top of the river!) is a particular favorite.
Nearest airport: T.F. Green Airport (PVD); Boston Logan (BOS) is about 50 miles away
Sample deal to Providence:
Music fans need no introduction to little Tupelo, Mississippi. It is, after all, where Elvis Presley was born. And since it’s an easy drive from popular cities like Nashville and Memphis, Tupelo is a great addition to any music-focused road trip in the region. Visiting the tiny house where “The King” was born is a must, of course (it’s now a museum), but there are several other Elvis stops in town—including the hardware store where he got his first guitar (yes, they still sell guitars).
Summer visitors can check out a slate of Elvis tributes during the annual Elvis festival, and if you want to hear what local musicians are doing to keep Tupelo on the map you’ll want to hang out at Blue Canoe. Aside from all the good music history, you can also take in Native American history in Tupelo—it’s an important point along the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Nearest airport: Tupelo Regional Airport (TUP); Memphis International Airport (MEM) is about 98 miles away
Sample deals to Memphis: