When it comes to city-hopping trips in the USA, the big hitters get all the attention. Every year, we flock to the bright lights of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and New Orleans in our thousands, without even thinking to look further afield. Basically, when it comes to the USA, we’re all missing some of the best bits!

America’s headlining cities are only the beginning of what the USA has to offer. If you look beyond the obvious, you’ll find dozens of smaller cities with distinct personalities, delicious local specialities, and fascinating sights.

Here are 12 of the alternative best cities to visit in the USA. If you’re a second-timer to the States or you want to do something a little different, these cities will be right up your street. 

Food stalls at California State Fair, Sacramento | Photo credit: Zigz at Shutterstock

1. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh is perhaps the most underrated city in the USA. It’s packed with surprises yet receives very little publicity. Known as the ‘City of Bridges’, Pittsburgh sits in the west of Pennsylvania at a junction of three rivers, with 90 exciting districts and 446 bridges.

In Pittsburgh, you can see modern spacecraft being built at the Moonshot Museum, go to quirky Bicycle Heaven, visit the historical Heinz Exhibit, and shout yourself hoarse at sports matches – all in one day!

Don’t leave without… tasting an iconic Pittsburgh Primanti Bros Sandwich, stuffed with everything from fries to coleslaw and grilled meat.

Discover Pittsburgh's unusual districts and museums | Photo credit: Jin Wu

2. Santa Fe, New Mexico

If food and art float your boat, Santa Fe is the city for you. Unlike other American cities, Santa Fe feels truly multicultural, with Pueblo Revival posadas, Latin American flavours, and Native American spirit. No wonder it’s known as the ‘City Different’.

Set against a backdrop of the Sangre do Cristo mountains, it’s a thriving hub of artists, food producers and chefs. Sip original Santa Fe champagne, wander between taco trucks, follow the Santa Fe Margarita Trail, and soak up the sunshine, which shines for 320 days per year! In true Latino style, there’s always a fiesta going on somewhere, so you’re guaranteed a great time.

Don’t leave without… ordering a breakfast burrito complete with ‘Christmas chiles’, a mix of red and green chilli sauce.

Explore Santa Fe, New Mexico | Photo credit: Gestalt Images for Shutterstock

3. Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati is another city that seems to fly under the tourist radar, but it’s a brilliant base to spend a few lively days. From Cincinnati, you can explore the whole ‘Cincy’ region, which includes Northern Kentucky’s bourbon trail and ‘B-line’, a collection of homegrown breweries.

Another city built on brewing, Cincinnati has strong ties to German culture and heritage, as well as a large German population. This means one thing – Oktoberfest! In fact, ‘Oktoberfest Zinzinnati’ is the biggest Oktoberfest celebration in the States, so grab your lederhosen as well as your passport.

Oktoberfest aside, autumn is the perfect time to visit Cincinnati, with mild temperatures and sunny days. The city is home to heaps of beautiful parks, with leaves turning fiery autumn red in fall. Throughout autumn, you’ll find a classic farmer’s harvest festival every weekend, complete with corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and hayrides.

Don’t leave without… devouring a ‘Cheese Coney’ – a local hotdog smothered with cheese and chilli.

Explore Cincinnati | Travel Nation

4. Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Perched on the shores of Lake Michigan, 100 miles north of Chicago, Milwaukee is an under-visited city that runs on beer, bikes and ‘brats’ (bratwurst hotdogs). Known as ‘Brew City’, it’s home to over 25 breweries and countless microbreweries, so you’ll never be far from a bar. Spend an afternoon tasting beer at the historic Pabst Brewery before hunting down a classic Wisconsin Butter Burger.

Hop on ‘The Hop’, Milwaukee’s new streetcar, to explore the downtown districts, visit the Harley Davidson Museum and follow the scenic bike trails along the lake. In summer, hit the beach with a famous Milwaukee frozen custard. There are 1,400 acres of sandy beach in Milwaukee, so you’ll have no trouble finding a spot.

Don’t leave without… digging into a hearty bowl of Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup.

Visit the Miller Brewery in Milkwaukee | Photo credit: Nina Alizada at Shutterstock

5. Boise, Idaho

Pitched by the tourist board as ‘the city you’d like to have a beer with’, Boise is full of brilliant surprises. It’s outdoorsy, it’s artsy, it’s foodie and it’s beautiful. What more could you want?

Nestled in the foothills of the Rockies and lying along both banks of the Boise River, its setting is simply spectacular. There are endless opportunities for hiking, skiing, mountain biking and kayaking, and you’ll find stunning viewpoints by the dozen.

Downtown, you can see the street art in Freak Alley Gallery, visit the creepy Old Idaho Penitentiary, explore the urban winery, and wander between stalls at the Capital City Public Market. Interestingly, Boise is also home to the largest Basque community outside Spain and France, so you can learn about Basque culture while you nibble tapas in the Basque Block.

Don’t leave without… paying a visit to Bacon, a restaurant that only serves Bacon. We’re talking bacon drinks, bacon dishes, and even bacon tastings.

Basque paella in Boise, Idaho | Travel Nation

6. Tulsa, Oklahoma

Smack bang in the middle of Route 66, Tulsa is a must-visit place for anyone interested in the history of Native Americans and American Civil Rights. It was here that the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 took place, still widely considered the deadliest act of racial violence in U.S. history.

During the massacre, white residents decimated the 35-block Greenwood District, once the richest African American neighbourhood in the States. The recently opened Greenwood Rising centre commemorates Tulsa’s Black Wall Street and charts its tragic history.

Tulsa is believed to founded by the Creek and Cherokee tribes, so it’s also packed with Native American history and its residents are proud of this tribal heritage. At the same time, you’ll find country and western music halls, modern art museums, farmers’ markets and microbreweries. It’s the very essence of multicultural.

Don’t leave without… filling up on Oklahoma soul food and chicken fried steak.

Tulsa street sign | Travel Nation

7. Newport, Rhode Island

Lighthouses, cliff walks, bowls of clam chowder and brightly coloured houses – Newport is New England as you’ve always imagined it to be. Set on Aquidneck Island, Newport is still a summer playground for wealthy Americans, so the harbour here is awash with swanky sailboats. Dress like you own a yacht and wander past the Gilded Age mansions of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.

Newport is somewhere to dine on fresh seafood, set off on a vineyard tour, take a coastal drive and walk barefoot on Atlantic beaches. It’s the perfect opportunity to pretend you’re in the Great Gatsby, so grab your deck shoes and head for the harbour.

Don’t leave without… knocking back oysters and champagne in the sunshine.

Visit Newport, Rhode Island | Travel Nation

8. Austin, Texas

Cowboys, live music, BBQ, Tex-Mex – what more could you possibly want from an American city? Home to the largest pair of cowboy boots on the planet and known as the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’, Austin has a huge personality. Proud of its independent businesses, home-grown breweries, hippies, and artists, it’s a city that’s not afraid to stand out.  

With everything from hole-in-the-wall taco joints to swanky steakhouses and smoky barbecue grill houses, Austin’s food scene is hard to beat. Come with an appetite and bring elasticated trousers. Afterwards, play bizarre ‘chicken sh*t bingo’ at the Little Longhorn Saloon or learn the iconic Texan dance at a two-step Western Bar.

Don’t leave without… trying the legendary brisket at Franklin’s Barbecue.

Tuck into belt-busting BBQ at an Austin smokehouse

9. Savannah, Georgia

Dripping with Old World atmosphere and Spanish moss, Savannah is a real Southern Belle. The cobbled Historic District mixes graceful antebellum architecture with charming churches and towering trees. For the full experience, head to the Wormsloe Plantation and walk down ‘The Avenue of Oaks’, draped with otherworldly Spanish moss.

Savannah’s charm doesn’t stop downtown. Here, you can take a cruise along the Savannah River, laze on the beaches of Tybee Island and sit on Forrest Gump’s famous park bench. The soulful Southern fare certainly won’t disappoint, so get stuck into some shrimp and grits or biscuits and gravy.

Don’t leave without… filling up on fried green tomatoes followed by Georgia peach pie.

Visit the historic plantations of Georgia | Travel Nation

10. Portland, Oregon

Eccentric and fiercely eco-minded, Portland is America’s free-thinking city. Unlike Seattle, its Pacific Northwest partner, it’s more about village-like districts than downtown skyscrapers, and this makes it a great place to explore.

Portland’s indie vibe is stamped on every square mile of the city, with a jumble of independent coffee stores, craft breweries, home-grown art galleries, eclectic food trucks, and the largest bookstore in the USA. Outside, you’ll find dozens of glorious green spaces to explore on foot or by bike and, beyond the city limits, you’ll soon reach the wild beaches of the Oregon Coast.

Don’t leave without… dining on Dungeness Crab followed by sweet Marionberry Pie.

Admire the sunsets over Portland, Oregon

11. Sacramento, California

British tourists often bypass Sacramento, sticking to California’s Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to L.A. However, this quirky state capital, surrounded by glorious rural scenery, has buckets of nostalgic charm. Old Sacramento is a cobbled riverfront district, with Gold Rush-era buildings, horse-drawn carriages and a paddle-wheel steamboat. It’s like stepping back in time.

In Sacramento, you’ll find a mixture of independent coffee houses, off-the-wall art galleries, saloon-style bars, and classic museums. For a real vintage experience, spend an evening at Sacramento’s retro movie drive-in, one of the last of its kind. For something a little leftfield, head for the Dive Bar, where you’ll find swimming mermaids and mermen in a fish tank above the bar. Yes really.

Don’t leave without… trying a ‘Squeeze with Cheese’ at the Squeeze Inn, famous for its cheesy skirt!

Visit Old Sacramento, California | Travel Nation

12. Tucson, Arizona

Deep in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson is a natural playground for outdoor pursuits and gastro-hub for foodies and a marvellous cultural melting pot. You’ll find a mix of Wild West, Mexican and Native American heritage and every kind of cuisine under the desert sun. In fact, Tucson is one of only two U.S. that is designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, so eating needs to be part of your agenda.

For hikers, the landscape surrounding Tucson is heaven. Wander through cactus forests, see the rock carvings at historic Signal Hill and soak up the valley view from Mount Lemmon. If your feet get tired, saddle up for a trail ride through Saguaro National Park at before heading for Kitt Peak National Observatory to marvel at the star-spangled night sky.

Don’t leave without…. Sipping a Sonoran Del Bac mesquite smoked single malt whiskey.

See amazing sunsets over the deserts of Arizona | Travel Nation

Ready to explore the USA?

We’re experts at putting together one-of-a-kind holidays, so we can build you a tailor-made USA holiday to remember. Whether you want to hit the open road on a classic American road trip or fly between destinations on a city-hopping escape, we can help. Simply give us a call on +44 1273320580 or send us a quote request by email.

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