When David Bakke visits Savannah, he loves dining at the upscale Olde Pink House. But Bakke, a writer for personal finance site MoneyCrashers, has figured out how to avoid the high price tag—he sits in the restaurant’s basement section, the Planters Tavern. “By taking the trip downstairs,” he says, “you get extraordinary ambiance and affordable food.”
It’s a good example of why the quaint, accessible Georgia city made the top 10 for affordable getaways, according to Travel + Leisure readers. In this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 35 metropolitan areas in qualities such as fine dining and cultural offerings, which become especially enticing when offered in a lower price range.
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Even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, plenty of travelers still want to maximize value. According to the Traveler Sentiment Index from marketing firm MMGY Global, 57 percent of Americans are planning a vacation sometime within the next six months—but high gas prices worry 51 percent of them. Hotel rates have also ticked up about 7 percent since summer 2012, according to Kayak.com.
No. 1 Kansas City, Mo.
It’s one of the few cities where hotel prices have stayed the same or even dropped in the past year (the average summer rate is $137, according to Kayak). Sightseeing also remains a great value: you’ll get in free at three of Kansas City’s main art museums, as well as two fun factory-style tours (the Hallmark Visitors Center and the Boulevard Brewing Company). The savings continue at dinnertime. KC won the survey for its budget-minded slow-smoked barbecue: a classic “burnt ends” sandwich at Danny Edwards’ Boulevard BBQ is just $5.99.
No. 2 Nashville, Tenn.
Voters increasingly love affable Nashville for its locavore-friendly food scene, ranking the city highly for burgers, cafés, and microbrews. At East Nashville’s Pharmacy Burger Parlor & Beer Garden—where toppings include wasabi aioli, stroganoff béchamel, and “beer gravy”—the local-beef burgers start at $7. Meanwhile, you can see early shows for free at the legendary Bluebird Café (where a kid named Garth Brooks once played open mikes). To boost your odds of getting in, reserve your seat online.
No. 3 San Antonio,Texas
The Texas city inched two spots closer to No. 1 this year and ranked near the top for its free attractions—such as all five of the city’s historic missions, including the Alamo. The city has become more eco-friendly. Along the Mission Reach section of the Riverwalk, a 15-mile stretch of urban ecosystem restoration, you can rent bicycles (through B-Cycles) for $10 a day. Voters preferred San Antonio during cooler months, particularly around Christmas, when the city is full of luminarias and one of the holiday’s best cheap eats, tamales.
No. 4 Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.
With 20 lakes and more than 200 miles of biking and walking trails, this down-to-earth metro area climbed nine spots for affordability this year. No surprise, the Twin Cities scored at the top of the survey for those easy-access parks, where trails even get plowed during the long winters. Voters also commended the cities for their brainy, offbeat locals—which seems to translate into a wealth of affordable, hipster-friendly fun: check out Bryant Lake Bowl’s weekly Cheap Date Night (dinner for two, a bottle of wine, and bowling for $28).
No. 5 Memphis, Tenn.
Memphis ranked in the top five for the free, omnipresent tunes of street performers. You can also sit down and hear free music at the city’s WPA-built Levitt Shell, which has its own historical relevance: Elvis was the opening act here one night in 1954, which many consider the Big Bang of the rock ’n’ roll era. Finger-friendly gourmet food is also easy to come by: at Hog & Hominy—named by GQ as one of this year’s best U.S. restaurants—you can try the duck sausage with brussels sprouts slaw, or a mortadella corn dog, for under $10 each.
No. 6 Salt Lake City
While the Utah city dropped four spots in the survey’s affordability category this year, readers still found it to be family-friendly, peaceful, and pleasantly spic-and-span. Like a lot of reasonably priced cities, Salt Lake offers a discount pass on its tourist board website: Connect Pass easily pays for itself by bundling a long list of free meals and attractions, such as tours of Olympic Park or admission to the Natural History Museum of Utah and Hogle Zoo.
No. 7 Houston
Business travelers will like how this city affects their per diem: according to Zagat, restaurant meals are about $3 cheaper than the national average. You can bring that average down even more if you stick with the city’s old-school Tex-Mex—like Ninfa’s on Navigation, which claims to be home of the nation’s first fajitas (Mama’s Tacos al Carbon, $9.99). Hotel values, meanwhile, include Midtown’s new La Maison, which starts at $159 a night. The city also scored in the top 10 for its classical music, which can be heard for free at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park.
No. 8 Savannah, Ga.
This southern town may have strolled into the affordable top 10 using its pedestrian-friendly charm. Voters appreciate the portable happy hours (thanks to open-container laws) and the rich history, which you can access with walking-tour apps such as Historic Savannah and Haunted Savannah ($2.99 each). You could also call it a history tour when you check out the city’s top-ranked frozen desserts at Leopold’s Ice Cream parlor (est. 1919). The downtown institution sells old-fashioned sodas and rum bisque, lemon custard, and tutti-frutti ice cream.
No. 9 Austin, Texas
Many of the Texas capital’s diversions are geared toward local college students and young techie types. Among the best food trucks, for instance, is Gourdough’s on South Lamar, which may finally legitimize the donut as a complete meal: its Boss Hog donut ($5.50) is topped with pulled pork, potato salad, and honey BBQ sauce. Meanwhile, one of the most classic, all-ages Austin experiences costs just $3: taking a dip in Barton Springs in Zilker Park; it’s great for some free and colorful people-watching.
No. 10 Providence, R.I.
The diverse Rhode Island capital is the only northeastern city to make the budget-friendly top 10 this year, perhaps thanks to its crowd-pleasing dining, arts, and theater scenes. No-cover-charge events are especially common in summer: on the third Thursday of the month, for instance, you can take part in the free Gallery Nights, which feature free rides on an Art Bus. In summertime, it’s also free to stroll through the WaterFire displays, evening bonfires that line the city’s rivers.