Craving an easy-to-pull-off getaway? America’s small and midsize cities offer great fun and excellent value. Here, trip inspiration for five types of travelers.
For History Buffs: Santa Fe
To learn about our country’s founding, cities in the 13 colonies no doubt come to mind. But Santa Fe, New Mexico, should too: Spanish explorers established the city in 1610, a decade before the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock. Santa Fe has some of our nation’s oldest buildings, as well as opportunities to explore traditionally overlooked Native American history.
The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously operating government building in the United States. San Miguel Mission, the country’s oldest church, is an adobe structure where visitors can see flecks of straw in the original mud plaster on the exterior walls. Cross the street to the city’s longest-standing house, dating back to 1646.
To dive deeper into New Mexico’s history and native people, head to Museum Hill, a small area dotted with museums, such as the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, a local favorite. For a taste of frontier life, check out living-history museum El Rancho de las Golondrinas, which features original buildings from the early 1700s and actors demonstrating daily life as villagers. Many of the area’s pueblos, tribes, and nations host public events; go to santafe.org for a schedule and tips.
It’s worth the roughly one-hour drive to Bandelier National Monument to see cliff dwellings and carvings made by Pueblo people more than 1,000 years ago. —Shivani Vora
For Outdoor Seekers: Bend
If there’s one city that’s obsessed with the outdoors, it’s Bend, Oregon. With good reason: This year-round recreation hub offers everything from mountain biking to fly-fishing right in its backyard.
Family-friendly adventure begins on the Deschutes River, which runs through town; tubing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding on the river is a summertime rite. West of Bend, you’ll find the Cascade Range, where mountain trails abound. When it’s warm, locals swim and camp at the alpine lakes; in the winter, they ski at Mt. Bachelor, one of the largest ski areas in the United States. Located 22 miles from Bend, it offers 4,300 acres of lift-accessible terrain, plus cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Back in Bend, the High Desert Museum celebrates the region’s wildlife and history. South of Bend, don’t miss the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, site of the Lava River Cave, a mile-long hardened lava tube you can explore on foot. Maupin, a city to the north, is paradise for white-water rafters.
You don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie to get outdoors. Bend has more than 80 parks and 3,000 acres of developed and undeveloped parkland, as well as outdoor programming in the summer, like concerts at the Les Schwab Amphitheater. Boasting the most sunny days in the state each year, Bend gives visitors no excuse not to get out and enjoy it. —Jessica Flint
For Art & Architecture Aficionados: Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, may be known for its industrial roots and Heinz ketchup, but today it’s a must-visit destination for art-and-design-minded travelers.
Fans of modern art won’t run out of options here. Andy Warhol was a native, and the museum dedicated to his works includes approximately 900 paintings, 100 sculptures, and 4,000 photographs. For more experimental art, check out one of the frequently changing installations by artists in residence at the Mattress Factory. Then there’s the Carnegie Museum of Art, considered by many to be the world’s first contemporary-art museum, with more than 30,000 objects from around the world. Don’t skip the city’s outdoor art and sculptures either, or the interactive Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh if you’re visiting with budding creators.
Onto the architecture: Pittsburgh has a significant collection of neo-Gothic buildings, a style dating back to 18th-century Britain. The Heinz Memorial Chapel, with its gorgeous, 73-foot-tall stained-glass windows, is an essential stop. Bridges should be part of the lineup as well—with 446 of them in the city, they’re hard to miss. Smithfield Street Bridge, built in 1881, is the oldest, while the trio known as the Three Sisters, on the Allegheny River, are the most iconic. Consider, too, some of the city’s environmentally sustainable marvels, such as the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. —S.V.
For Foodies: St. Louis
There’s so much to eat in St. Louis, Missouri. Bosnian cuisine, for starters. Since the 1990s, the city has become home to 70,000 Bosnian refugees, and the lunch spot Balkan Treat Box represents their heritage, with wood-fired somun (flatbread) stuffed with savory meats, cheese, and veggies. Then there’s the whole pompano, a flaky white fish, at Lona’s Lil Eats, where chef Lona Lou serves food inspired by her upbringing in China’s Yunnan Province. And there’s the fried cauliflower in the Church Basement Plate, a special at SweetArt, a vegan/vegetarian café and bakery plus gallery. These are casual, order-at-the-front places, and that’s what the city does best. Even Vicia, with its nationally recognized, vegetable-focused tasting menu, hosts counter-service lunch.
Sample the bread at Union Loafers or the croissants at Comet Coffee. Stay at a hotel in the bustling Central West End or rent a house near Tower Grove Park and walk to the Saturday-morning farmers’ market, where you’ll find cured meats from Salume Beddu and goat cheese from Baetje Farms. Try one of chef Gerard Craft’s restaurants, like Pastaria. Check Urban Harvest STL’s website for a schedule of happy-hour events at their rooftop farm. Head over to Bulrush for cocktails made with native Missouri botanicals, like pawpaw (imagine a combo of melon, mango, and banana). —Jessie Kissinger
For Beach Lovers: St. Petersburg
If it feels nearly impossible to find a beachy destination that’s easy to get to, has plenty to do in case of rain, and is family friendly, St. Petersburg, Florida—or St. Pete, as the locals call it—may be the answer. This historic city is famous for its great weather and is just a 25-minute drive from the Tampa airport. After you’ve dropped off your bags in the city, take a 15-minute car ride to St. Pete Beach, the Gulf-facing barrier island just across the channel. Walk north along the beach from Pass-a-Grille to the iconic pink Don CeSar hotel. If you want to beach-hop, Treasure Island, Indian Shores, and Clearwater Beach are all close by. Itching to get out on the water? Make a reservation with See Through Adventure for an easy paddle through the bayous in a transparent canoe. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a majestic manatee.
In town, stroll down the marina from St. Pete’s other pink icon, the Vinoy Hotel, to the Dalí Museum, which houses the most Salvador Dalí paintings outside Spain. Head to the Sunken Gardens, a century-old botanical explosion of palms and orchids. Explore Central Avenue, a stretch of restaurants and boutiques that starts at the bay—about a mile inland, you’ll come to the hip Edge district, near the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field. Stop by Green Bench Brewing Company, the coffee shop and cocktail bar Intermezzo, and the Imagine Museum, devoted to studio glass, with works by Dale Chihuly and Toots Zynsky. —Anna Maltby