Think you've seen the best of the USA? Think again. Whether you love action or architecture, wilderness or wild nights out, these underrated destinations are worth a second look.
1. Sun & Games
If you love: Santa Monica for beach culture
Endless waves and coastal cool, California girls and bronzed beach boys: Santa Monica is the place to enjoy the laidback Southern California lifestyle.
Then try: Huntington Beach, California
South of Santa Monica, Huntington Beach is the perfect place to hang 10. In SoCal’s self-proclaimed Surf City – home not only to the International Surfing Museum but also the Surfing Walk of Fame – it is all about shore things. Sign up for lessons in surfing, paddleboarding, kite surfing, even building sandcastles – or just go fly a kite (you can rent them on the pier). The fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down: 500 bonfire rings stud the sand, so you can keep the good times going.
Kicking back is a lifestyle here. On Tuesdays, Surf City Nights take over several blocks of Main Street, with music, food and plenty of kids’ activities. Friday afternoons is arts and crafts at Friday Art-A-Faire next to the pier. If that whets your artistic appetite, keep an eye out for the regular Art Walks held on the third Thursday of every month.
Looking for a change of pace? Try horseback riding in the sprawling Huntington Central Park or birdwatching on the Bolsa Chica Eco Reserve.
2. Metropolis Mindset
If you love: New York for the big city buzz
In love with New York? Of course you are. From art and culture to hip hangouts, the Big Apple ranks as one of the world’s greatest cities.
Then try: Chicago, Illinois
Chicago has pretty much everything NYC has apart from the attitude, which may be why this cosmopolitan city continues to fly under the radar. Yet in a head-to-head fight with New York, Chicago would easily hold its own.
For a cultural fix, start with the Field Museum of Natural History and the Shedd Aquarium, then head to the Art Institute of Chicago, where you will find not just masterpieces by Picasso and Miro, but also one of America’s most famous paintings, Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
You can trawl through multicultural neighbourhoods – from the Mexican murals of Pilsen to the Asian shops and restaurants of Uptown – then feast your fill in one of Chicago’s superb restaurants, helmed by acclaimed local chefs such as Grant Achatz.
As for architecture, this is the city that invented the skyscraper, and nowhere has a more striking collection of buildings, from the soaring Willis Tower to the Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade and numerous Frank Lloyd Wright gems. Throw in a colourful history (Al Capone, anyone?) and dozens of beaches, and you have a truly world-class city.
3. Totally In Tune
If you love: New Orleans for live music
The music never stops in The Big Easy, the hometown of Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Wynton Marsalis.
Then try: Memphis, Tennessee
Yes, you can get your Elvis fix at Graceland and Sun Studios, where the King recorded his first single, but the music doesn’t stop there. From Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash to Roy Orbison, musical history has been made in Memphis over and over again.
Come face to face with that history at the Stax Museum. Arguably the city’s most entertaining attraction – and perhaps the only museum with its own dance floor – the museum is dedicated to the legendary record label that launched the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and the Staple Singers. Among the classic memorabilia, keep an eye out for Isaac Hayes’ blinged-up Cadillac. Prefer your music live? There are always plenty of performances worth catching at the city’s rough-and-ready juke joints.
For a change of tempo, visit the moving National Civil Rights Museum or the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, with its collection of Impressionists such as Degas and Monet. Take a stroll through the sprawling Botanic Garden or catch one of their summer concerts featuring everyone from ZZ Top to Hall and Oates.
4. Into The Wild
If you love: Louisiana bayous
With alligator-filled swamps and trees draped with Spanish moss, the bayou is truly wild and wonderful.
Then try: the Florida Everglades
Marshes, mangroves, forests: the Florida Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Stretching more than one million acres, it is home to dolphins and manatees, pelicans and herons, and even the elusive Florida panther.
There are as many ways to explore as there are diverse environments. You can start on the main road from Homestead to Flamingo, which is lined with boardwalks, observation towers and hiking trails, or you can take to the water with a day trip along the scenic beaches of Cape Sable in the south. Feeling more active? Hire a canoe, a kayak or even a small powerboat to explore the 160-kilometre Wilderness Waterway.
You can even try your hand at undersea exploration, with colourful coral outcrops waiting to lure divers. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is home to 80 species of coral and more than 260 species of tropical fish. Alternatively, Biscayne Bay has half a dozen shipwrecks as well as coral reefs.
5. A Long, Long Time Ago ...
If you love: Boston for history and culture
Few cities offer as much culture and history – not to mention old-school style – as Boston.
Then try: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
From a powerhouse of the British Empire to the birthplace of the American Revolution and the new nation’s first capital, Philly has lived a thousand lives. Explore its earliest days at the Independence National Historic Park and the adjoining Old City district. Tick off attractions such as the Liberty Bell, which tolled at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, before heading into the Old City, where ancient warehouses have been converted into lofts, shops and restaurants. Take a detour past the brick row of houses on Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously occupied street in the country.
Philadelphia’s museums alone are enough to justify a visit. Art fans will love both the Barnes Foundation (181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes and 46 Picassos for starters) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well known for its front steps – famously featured in the movie Rocky – as for its collections, ranging from Asian art to Renaissance masterpieces.
Also worth a visit: the superb Academy of Natural Sciences; the Franklin Institute Science Museum; the African American Museum; and the Rodin Museum, where the artist’s most famous work, The Thinker, is displayed.
If you love: San Diego for brew culture
Drink up! Although San Diego is one of the country’s beer capitals, its historic Gaslamp Quarter alo gives visitors plenty to do between pints.
Then try: Sacramento, California
Sacramento’s new generation of beer barons is making an impression. There are around 40 breweries scattered around town, many of which are building national reputations. At Track 7, Geoff Scott’s collection of brews ranges from the subtle Bee Line Blonde, infused with local honey, to the power-packed Big 4, with a 10 per cent alcohol level.
Over at Mraz Brewing Company, Mike Mraz draws inspiration from around the world. His Coffee Pot Porter is made with coffee beans and hemp seeds; The Cardinal is a Flanders-style red ale brewed with cherries and aged in oak barrels to produce a complex beer that is at once fruity, oaky, malty and tart.
In between drinking sessions, there is plenty to explore. Sacramento is perhaps California’s most historic town: the gold rush was born here, and it was the first European settlement that was not a Catholic mission. Old Sacramento has retained the feel of a riverside settlement, with raised wooden sidewalks, and the historic park Sutter’s Fort.
7. Sand Or Snow
If you love: Aspen for outdoor adventures
From skiing in winter to hiking in summer, Aspen is action stations all year round.
Then try: Lake Tahoe, California
Towering trees, the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the cobalt blue waters of America’s largest Alpine lake: whatever the season, Lake Tahoe sure is pretty. When you choose to visit depends on whether you prefer to ski or splash. In winter, you can work up a sweat on the slopes, with runs to suit every level and the opportunity to try night skiing. In summer, the action shifts to the lake, with kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding as popular as swimming.
It is not just the choice of activities that makes Lake Tahoe a two-speed destination. Where you base yourself depends on your vacation style. Into buzzing bars and fine dining? Head straight for South Lake, where you will find 5-star hotels and the area’s best restaurants. The more tranquil north shore, by contrast, is the place to come if you feel like renting a cosy cabin and communing with the wilderness.
8. Revamped Resort Towns
If you love: Las Vegas for family fun
Vegas is a playground for children as well as adults, with theme parks and aquariums, not to mention the chance ride in a gondola.
Then try: Atlantic City, New Jersey
Here is one way Atlantic City resembles Las Vegas: it is a gambling centre that is reinventing itself as a family destination. Here is one way that it doesn’t: where Vegas is perched in the desert, Atlantic City is a seaside town. That makes a trip to the beach the number one option for anyone travelling with youngsters. Depending on their age, they may want to swim and build sandcastles, try their hand at surfing or kayaking, or just hang around the boardwalk.
The beach isn’t the only guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Entertaining families for generations is Lucy the Elephant, a six-storey structure that children love to climb. Just as venerable is the Steel Pier. Since opening 100 years ago, the Pier has hosted everything from circus acts to Frank Sinatra. Today it has evolved into a typical theme park, with dozens of rides aimed at youngsters.
The city’s other don’t-miss attraction is the Atlantic City Aquarium, which has plenty of interactive exhibits. Apart from petting sea urchins and horseshoe crabs, the kids can check out seahorses, turtles, sharks and rays.
9. Hipster Haven
If you love: Seattle for cool cred
Cool coffee shops, bearded bartenders and plenty of vintage shops – cities don’t get much hipper than Seattle.
Then try: Portland, Oregon
Ever been to a city that has not just bicycle lanes, but also skateboard lanes? Welcome to Portland, the town that has become of the country’s most-loved hipster havens. Where else would you find a boutique in a double-decker London bus (Lodekka), a colour-coded bookstore that is one of the largest in the world (Powell’s City of Books) and a fleet of food trucks that is almost beyond counting?
Still not convinced? Then pencil in a visit to The Hat Museum, the Vacuum Cleaner Museum or the Peculiarium, a museum of – well, things that are peculiar.
It is impossible not to fall for this city, with its rugged individualism and its can-do attitude, which is particularly evident when you reach for a beverage. Beer drinkers can head to one of more than 50 breweries, specialising in everything from sour beers to barrel-aged brews, while those who prefer something harder should head to Distillery Row. New Deal is known for its vodka; House Spirits for Aviation Gin; and out in the suburbs, you will even find some back-block wineries, such as the cheekily named Hip Chicks Do Wine.
10. Inspiration At Every Corner
If you love: Newport, Rhode Island for amazing architecture
The elegant mansions of Newport are a reminder of the days when New York’s wealthiest families would escape the heat in their grandiose ‘summer cottages’.
Then try: Charleston, South Carolina
Few visitors can resist the lure of Charleston’s honeysuckle-scented Southern charm. With more than 3,000 historic buildings gracing the downtown area, the city’s elegant architecture includes the pastel-painted townhouses of Rainbow Row, ornate Italianate mansions, gorgeous Greek Revival buildings and imposing Gothic churches.
Want to peek inside? Several historic mansions welcome visitors, including the Aiken-Rhett house, Charleston’s only surviving urban plantation, and the Heyward-Washington House, which contains a lovely collection of mahogany furniture and also has the city’s best-preserved historic kitchen.
Charleston offers more than just antebellum elegance. One of the most interesting residences in the Nathaniel Russell House, a lovely Neoclassical townhouse that gives visitors insights into the lives of the wealthy Russell family and the slaves who tended to them.
Slavery remains the dark side of Charleston’s past, and it is on display in a different sort of historic building: the grim Old Slave Mart, where slave auctions were held as late as 1863. Although sobering, it’s one of many reminders of the area’s complex history.
Words: Ute Junker