The Woodlands, TX
Photo by: John Hark
Sure, Atlanta has its attractions. But head 20 miles north and you’ll find yourself surrounded by art galleries, boutiques, creative restaurants, and not many generic chain-filled strips. This hip little town is called Roswell, and it’s…wait for it…a suburb.
Americans have a love-hate relationship with the ever-sprawling communities outside the country’s big cities. The quest for more space than cities can afford often means giving up the unique stores and restaurants that spring up in urban centers. Of course, Hollywood hasn’t helped the suburban profile, typically portraying these communities as boring, conformist places, spiced up by a few desperate housewives here and there. Yet a number of suburbs around the country blow up the stereotype and are worth a visit on your next trip.
This suburb is a master-planned community built within 28,000 acres of forest, 25 miles from downtown Houston. After opening in 1974, the town has wooed many young Texans; the average age is 36. One main attraction is its thriving town center, filled with great restaurants, bars, and major retail outlets, all accessible by foot or trolley. Fox Sports Network and Anadarko Petroleum are headquartered here, and an elaborate park and lake system is navigable by water taxi.
See: Check out a concert with 17,000 of your friends at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Taste: How can a town that is less than 40 have a pub that’s 107 years old? Simple: it was shipped from Ireland. At the well-traveled Goose’s Acre Bistro and Irish, dine on sirloin shepherd’s pie or a Monte Cristo O’Brian sandwich.
Photo by: John Lee
Montclair is one of the few New York City suburbs that can legitimately call itself cool. It’s home to many New York artists and a growing population of media professionals, including New York Times reporter David Carr and New Yorker contributor Ian Frazier. The town features the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair State University, and a mix of smaller theaters offering indie film and live performances. Funky shops, galleries, and tempting restaurants line Bloomfield Avenue.
See: Many well-known music acts—Lyle Lovett, the Smashing Pumpkins, and more—are booked at the Wellmont Theatre.
Taste: A favorite among locals, Palazzo offers a modern take on classic Italian fare.
Photo by: Sarah Hadley/Alamy
One of Chicago’s vintage inner-ring suburbs has its own distinct vibe. Home to Northwestern University, Evanston is a midwestern intellectual hub and a regional incubator for high-tech industries. Besides the gorgeous campus, Evanston is home to four miles of wide, sandy public beach along Lake Michigan. Along Dempster Street, a diverse sidewalk café scene has emerged along with small, specialized shops catering to the community’s young, hip crowd.
See: The Grosse Point Lighthouse was once a primary beacon for guiding ships to Chicago.
Taste: Oenophiles will feel at home at the Stained Glass Bistro, where veteran Chicago chef and owner Victor Hernandez offers 32 wines by the glass.
Courtesy of Ohio Tourism Division
Set along the cliffs of Lake Erie, this inner-ring suburb of Cleveland has been on the radar of the young and urbane for some time. It has a well-established (and thriving) nightlife and gastronomic scene along Detroit Avenue, as well as a sizable gay and lesbian community.
See: Every Sunday the Lakewood Band Shelter at Lakewood Park offers free performances, often big band ensembles. Rock and blues acts play the Winchester Tavern and Music Hall.
Taste: Sip on a signature Red Delicious martini while taking in the magnificent view of Lake Erie and downtown Cleveland from the nautically themed Pier W. For heartier fare (though not necessarily healthful), head over to Melt Bar & Grilled, where chef Matt Fish has elevated the grilled cheese sandwich to gourmet status.
This onetime sleepy suburb of Seattle (just across Lake Washington) has undergone a flash of development in recent years, including the completion of the Bravern, a massive high-end shopping, office, and condo complex where Microsoft has taken space. The younger crowd is making its presence felt in the scene-y sections of Lincoln Square and the area around Bellevue Towers.
See: No boring strip malls here. Check out the gleaming shops at Bellevue Square, including 7 For All Mankind and Michael Kors Lifestyle. Just across the street is the Bellevue Arts Museum.
Taste: Drop by the sophisticated Taphouse Grill, where you can feast on fish tacos and down them with one of the 160 beers on tap.
Courtesty of the Historic Roswell Convention and Visitors Bureau
Located 20 minutes north of downtown Atlanta, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, Roswell has been winning over young urbanites (the population’s average age is 35) with its mix of Old South and the culture and food of a cosmopolitan city. This bike-friendly, walkable community has an established restaurant base, exquisitely repurposed 19th-century architecture, and an evolving arts scene that includes three theaters.
See: The Chattahoochee Nature Center is one of the Southeast’s largest natural science and learning hubs. And East Roswell Park is a favorite among Frisbee golf fans, who come for its regulated course.
Taste: Once you get past the fact that Relish was once Roswell’s funeral parlor, you’ll see that the place is nicely light-filled and spacious. Chef and proprietor Andy Badgett is known for his new southern cuisine, including fried black-eyed peas and Krispy Kreme bread pudding.
Because of its geographic isolation—an island just off Oakland, in San Francisco Bay—and a strict 25 mph speed limit, life here hums at a slow pace. The town is filled with large Victorian homes, pristine beaches, and wonderful views of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Dozens of niche restaurants and shops—as well as the beautifully restored Alameda Theatre—are located along Park Street.
See: Try your hand at a game of Mystic Marvel or Daisy May, just two of the classic pinball games found at the nostalgic Pacific Pinball Museum.
Taste: Bay Area residents know all about Forbidden Island and its fresh spin on the classic 1960s tiki bar. Ask one of the smart (and proudly tattooed) mixologists for a China Clipper, a concoction of five secret spices, fresh lemon juice, and rum.
West Hartford, CT
Courtesy of Blue Black Square
This well-kept nabe is five miles from Hartford, but its vibe is a world away. And new transplants have spurred a flurry of activity and buzz along Farmington Avenue, where a young, trendy set can be found late at night ordering bottle service and grooving to house music at Shish Lounge.
See: West Hartford Reservoir (entrance on Farmington Avenue) is West Hartford’s version of Central Park. The 3,000-acre reserve has nearly 30 miles of paved and gravel trails and is frequented by people from neighboring towns who come to bike, hike, and cross-country ski.
Taste: Chef Billy Grant says the Italian comfort fare he serves at Restaurant Bricco is inspired by childhood memories of his mother’s cooking. Order some orecchiette with sautéed shrimp, then wrap up with a dish of homemade olive oil gelato.
Photo by: Ian Freimuth
It’s not uncommon to see Detroit Red Wings players milling about in this posh Detroit suburb, or to find yourself in a local bistro seated near a major Hollywood celebrity: Madonna, Clint Eastwood, and Bette Midler have all stayed in Birmingham while on business in the region. Tap into the social scene at the Townsend Hotel, home to the Rugby Grille and the Corner, a favorite among Birmingham’s cocktail crowd.
See: Dinner and a movie go hand-in-hand at Birmingham’s Palladium 12 Theatre. For $27 you get a movie ticket and access to a dinner buffet prepared by in-house chef Ian Forest.
Taste: On the upper floor of 220 & Edison you’ll find a relaxed local crowd that comes for dishes like the sautéed lake perch piccata. Downstairs, it’s about socializing over well-crafted mixed drinks or wine.
Photo by: T. Charles Erickson
Ashland, 20 minutes from downtown Medford, put itself on the map with its internationally renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, now in its 75th year. The town is also home to Southern Oregon University and is a favorite launching point for the mountain-loving outdoor set—it’s only an hour and a half from the ever-awe-inspiring Crater Lake.
See: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs from February to November.
Taste: For mid-century style ambience, complete with red leather booths and tiny martini glasses, try Omar’s, which cooks up highly regarded steaks and classic seafood recipes.