But too often America’s hidden gems and smaller cities get ignored or perhaps overshadowed by the urban hubs with big tourism budgets. We carefully curated spots that have wide-ranging appeal but are still up-and-coming as tourist destinations. You’ve probably heard of them, but you haven’t put them on your bucket list yet. Let us tell you why you should.
From a Texas cowtown to an Arkansas art mecca, here are seven underrated cities truly deserving of a visit.
Fort Worth Stockyards (Photo: Corbis Images)
Fort Worth, Texas: Railhead Smokehouse BBQ has a statement on its website that reads, “Life’s too short to live in Dallas.” For Fort Worth residents, it’s OK that Big D steals the thunder. This city is unpretentious, laid-back, and charismatic in all the right ways. The Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District is a slice of American West history that earned the city’s Cowtown nickname. Twice daily, genuine Texas cowhands drive a herd of Texas longhorn cattle though the streets. But make no mistake — this boot-scootin’ business doesn’t take away from the sophistication that Fort Worth brings to the table. Southern chef darling Tim Love calls the city home, with a handful of high-end restaurants on his roster (check out Lonesome Dove and Woodshed Smokehouse while you’re in town). If culture is what you are after, head to the Bass Performance Hall, the Kimbell Art Museum, or the Fort Worth Opera. When it comes to lodging, we can’t rave enough about The Ashton. It is charming, opulent, and within walking distance of everything you want to see.
The Fox Theater (Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)
Oakland, California: This East Bay city is too often shunned by its fancy neighbors, but Oakland is on the rise — sometimes referred to as the Brooklyn of the Bay. The once-busted stretch of waterfront has been transformed into Jack London Square, and its Uptown is thriving with drinkeries like the cocktail-driven Dogwood (you’ll never want to order cured meats anywhere else) and Make Westing, which boasts indoor bocce. There’s also the Oakland Museum of California, which gives you a deep dive into the history and science of the Golden State that you never knew you needed, and the Fox Theatre, a historic gem that draws world-renowned acts. Best of all, the food scene here is new and edgy — from Camino, by Russell Moore of Chez Panisse fame, to the Michelin-starred Commis. Oakland is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation, which means that everything from Ethiopian to Korean food is available. And don’t forget, this is just about the best place in the United States for a Mexican food-truck crawl.
The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Photo: Siggi Churchill/Flickr)
Northwest Arkansas: This multicity area comprises the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers-Bentonville metro cluster, which is referred to as NWA. Major corporations such as J.B. Hunt, Tyson, and Walmart have driven massive growth here, resulting in a booming economy. Despite the facelift, the small-town charm has remained, and with a Main Street-meets-metro vibe, it’s never been more visit-worthy. For an art aficionado, a stay at the 21c Museum Hotel will knock your socks off. Located in the bike-friendly area of the impossibly quaint town square, the hotel is outfitted with seriously sleek rooms and boasts 1,200 square feet of rotating exhibition space, along with the Hive — home to Arkansas native executive chef Matthew McClure, who was named a semifinalist for “Best Chef: South” in the 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards. From 21c, it is just a short walk to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Alice Walton’s brainchild that’s located on 120 acres of dogwood trees, sparkling springs, and exquisite sculpture gardens. The museum also features the works of Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Benjamin West. In nearby Fayetteville, you’ll find the state’s university, along with a vibrant downtown area that’s home to Dickson Street Bookshop — one of the greatest independently owned used-book stores in the U.S.
Milwaukee Summer Fest (Photo: Getty Images)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Its nickname, “The City of Festivals,” is a good-enough reason to visit Milwaukee. Playing host to Summer Fest, the largest music festival in the world, along with Irish Fest, PrideFest, Polish Fest, German Fest, and loads of other fun fest-type happenings, is year-round fun. On the other hand, Milwaukee is home to the Florentine Opera Company, the Milwaukee Theatre, the Milwaukee Ballet, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — making it a hotbed of culturally rich happenings. Dining-wise, it’s no different: While the city may conjure up images of cheese, these days it’s of a more artisanal variety, as Milwaukee has amassed its share of James Beard nods — Justin Aprahamian’s Sanford being a standout. The cocktail scene has gained accolades for being free of pretension yet creatively sound. From Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge to Story Hill BKC, tipples here range from old-school classics to the draught variety.
The Andy Warhol Museum (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: This Western Pennsylvania city has long shed its steel mills, and the result is a transformation that makes one understand why locals are so fiercely proud of their beloved home. Flanked by three rivers, the downtown is often referred to as the Golden Triangle, where picturesque parks — with outdoor activities galore — lie at each bank, and more than 400 bridges, many painted a warm golden hue, add to the beauty. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie left his mark with four distinctive museums; the Andy Warhol Museum is the crown jewel. Pittsburgh is also home to three professional sports teams: the Steelers, the Penguins, and the Pirates, who play at the renowned PNC Park, a stunner of a stadium, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad seat. P.S.: Thank you, Pittsburgh, for your delicious sandwiches.
Mural depicting Negro League baseball players (Photo: Pam Morris/Flickr)
Kansas City, Missouri: There is so much more to this city than barbecue (though noteworthy options include the venerable Oklahoma Joe’s and Arthur Bryant’s). The incredibly friendly residents, first-class museums, and diehard sports scene make KC a must-visit. The 816 Hotel boasts Kansas City-themed rooms that provide the perfect home base from which to explore. Visitors should take a stroll around the hotel’s neighborhood, as well as the fountain-dotted streets of the Country Club Plaza, the Power & Light entertainment district, and the River Market. The city features the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, along with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum — a must-see because Kansas City was the home of the first professional league for black players, which formed in 1920. Be sure to make a reservation at Novel, Ryan Brazel’s New American restaurant that just earned a place in Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America. Kansas City is also home to two professional sports teams, the Royals and the Chiefs. If someone offers you the chance to tailgate with them at the Truman Sports Complex, don’t decline. This is where the barbecue truly shines.
Bourbon flight (Photo: Spablab/Flickr)
Louisville, Kentucky: While this city gets plenty of attention during the Kentucky Derby, Louisville might be the hottest up-and-coming foodie center of the South. Original locavore Kathy Cary of Lilly’s, Edward Lee of MilkWood and 610 Magnolia, and Coby Lee Ming of Harvest (included in Food & Wine’s Best Southern Food in the U.S. list) bolster the burgeoning food scene here. New Louisville, affectionately dubbed NuLu, is an impossibly hip smattering of art galleries, antique shops, local specialty stores, and — of course — stellar dining. There’s also the city’s Museum Row: 10 attractions within four blocks that include The Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Don’t forget about the bourbon — meander the classic Bourbon Trail or pop into downtown’s Evan Williams, an example of the city’s uptick in small-batch distillation.