If you’ve been around the country, there’s really no denying it: A huge portion of the U.S. is pretty dull. We’re talking about huge stretches of barren, featureless land throughout the Midwest. Brown, smelly rivers winding their way across desolate landscapes, and sometimes entire cities, which have downtown cores that are somehow depleted of businesses and human beings, even on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon.
Of course, this is in contrast to America’s many amazing highlights, which you could easily fill a tome listing. Yes, there is an astounding amount of natural beauty, hip and modern cities, and lively, culturally vibrant small towns all across the country to make up for the less-exciting portions of the U.S.
But then there are the hidden gems. Cities or towns that are, for one reason or another, hip, happening, and full of life. Places that you would never expect to be, well, awesome — yet somehow, they are. Cities like Minneapolis — with its urban sights and sounds, sophisticated residents, and numerous restaurants and galleries — are a good example. The surrounding countryside, in the upper Midwest, is pretty bleak. And yet, like a beacon in the storm, Minneapolis stands out, offering an oasis in an ocean of farmland that is the Great Plains.
And there are others just like it — cities that either have a bad rap for whatever reason, or that stand out in comparison to their surroundings. Regional havens boasting art, history, food, and fun, where there is seemingly little to be found. We’ve compiled a small list of some of these standouts that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Here are six surprisingly awesome American cities you should definitely check out, if you have the chance.
1. Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore gets a bad rap — and it’s hard to deny that there are valid reasons for that. Baltimore has earned a reputation for being a dirty, violent, and somewhat scary city, as profiled on television shows like The Wire. While there is that side to this mid-Atlantic city, there are an awful lot of positive aspects that shouldn’t be ignored.
Baltimore is filled with history, with landmarks like Fort McHenry and the historic waterfront — including the U.S.S. Constellation — all near the city’s core. There are tons of restaurants to choose from, as well as nice hotels and entertainment options in the Inner Harbor and Harbor East. But venture out into the neighborhoods (though there are some to avoid) and see places like Hampden or Fells Point. It’s an iconic city that has fallen on some rough times, but economic resurgence seems imminent.
2. Providence, Rhode Island
The relatively short distance between Boston and New York City is often just drive-through country for a lot of people, and that makes it easy to miss one of the eastern seaboard’s true hidden gems: Providence. Rhode Island’s largest and capital city, Providence, like Baltimore, is rife with history and culture. There are museums and colleges that boast plenty of things to check out, and the city’s colonial architecture will satisfy history buffs.
Check out the arts scene, including the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art, or hit any number of the town’s more talked-up eateries. Oh, and the bar scene isn’t too shabby either. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to visit the Drunken Clam from the show Family Guy, as Quahog doesn’t actually exist. Book a room at a cool hotel like The Dean, and don’t overlook this classic New England city the next time you’re in the northeast.
3. Albuquerque, New Mexico
There’s a lot more to Albuquerque than you know — which may only be what you’ve seen on Breaking Bad. While it’s highly recommended that you avoid tossing a pizza on top of the house where Walter White famously turned into a drug kingpin, you can still hop on the Breaking Bad tour, to get a glimpse of all the sights you saw on the show. And that’s just the beginning. Albuquerque is an out-of-the-way city, but is definitely worth the effort for a visit.
The natural beauty surrounding the city is enough to get any nature or outdoorsy-type salivating. Hiking, camping, rafting, mountain biking — there’s no place better to do it, and in the beautiful New Mexican desert, you can make lasting memories. The city itself is home to thousands of college students, meaning the nightlife is always buzzing as well. More than 300 days of sun a year means there’s almost always good weather, and cultural hub Santa Fe is only a short drive away.
4. Bozeman, Montana
Bozeman is located in south-central Montana, right along Interstate 90. Noted for its incredible surroundings and relative close-proximity to Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman is the outdoors-lover’s dream come true. You’ll get a taste of the Old West, with lots of modern flavor thanks to the town’s college atmosphere. But what you’re really going to want to do in Bozeman is get out and explore.
Bozeman is the nearest sizable city to Yellowstone, so it’s well-worth the drive to check out the park. There are also a multitude of outdoors activities to get lost in — from horseback riding to fly-fishing to skiing. Stay in a rustic cabin-like hotel, and eat bison, or even bear meat (which you might be able to find) to conclude your Montana adventure. Montana may sound boring, but a trip to Bozeman should forever alter that notion.
5. Bend, Oregon
Another western diamond-in-the-rough, Bend is a drinker’s paradise. The city, located in central Oregon, is noted for being home to 20 breweries, with more in surrounding towns. That means there is also a ton of awesome food options to pair up with your beer or wine selection, as well as events and concerts at the Les Schwab Amphitheater. There’s no shortage of entertainment, art, and food and drink.
But getting out of Bend, and into the surrounding countryside, is just as important. You’ll be awestruck at the volcanic peaks dotting the distance around Bend. Crater Lake is a day trip to the south, and Mt. Hood and Sisters aren’t too far away, either. That means hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, mountain biking — all of it is a short distance away.
6. Des Moines, Iowa
After a long drive through the Great Plains, nothing is more exciting than seeing a city — and some actual people. Des Moines, Iowa, is one of the Great Plains’ marquee cities, though it’s often overlooked, or simply driven-through by many driving along I-35 or I-80. But there is a lot to see and do in Des Moines, even though it may lack the natural beauty of places like Bend, or Bozeman.
The state capitol building is worth a visit, as its unique appearance and close-proximity to many historical monuments and markers will easily trap your interest. For sweeping views of downtown, check out the Principal RiverWalk, which is flanked with gardens and some of the city’s great architecture too. There are events at Wells Fargo Arena to check out, and farmer’s markets as well. There’s lots to do, and lots to see — in contrast to much of the surrounding countryside.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger