9 of the Most Surprising Cities in the U.S.

It’s never too soon to dream about your next great road trip.


Photo by Shutterstock

It was supposed to be uncomplicated.

Months ago, we vetted hundreds of U.S. cities to surface those that have blazed artistic, epicurean, and entrepreneurial trails yet remain bafflingly underrated. For every city that gets a turn in the limelight (Nashville, Santa Fe, Portland, OR), umpteen others fly under the radar (Cleveland, Tucson, Baltimore). We were about ready to reveal the list. Then COVID-19 hit.

As we went into lockdown, cities across the country essentially shut down. We had all hoped this summer would be one of recovery but it has become increasingly clear that, until we have a vaccine, we’ll be living with the virus in an ever-evolving reality. (There’s no “new normal"—just what’s normal right now.) While the country works out how to safely reopen, we wanted to share these cities—which need and want support—with you.

We recognize that everyone is in a different place at this moment: Some people are ready to travel again (and if that’s you, we’ve assembled a guide to responsible travel) and some are not. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we hope this list—written and reported by AFAR editor-at-large, Ashlea Halpern—opens your eyes to new possibilities and inspires future adventures. —AFAR Editors

Due to the virus, some of the following hotels, venues, and experiences may be closed and restaurants may only be open for delivery or takeout. Please check each venue’s website for the latest.



Photo by Drew Brown

Buffalo, New York

Western New York is one of our favorite weekend getaways and not just because of Niagara Falls.

Buffalo’s downtown revitalization has moved swiftly in the last five years. The centerpiece is the $300-million-dollar redevelopment of the Canalside waterfront, which includes Explore & More, a 43,000-square-foot children’s museum; a century-old restored carousel set to open this summer; and Silo City, a group of disused grain silos repurposed as a creative performance space, now hosting art installations, concerts, history tours, and poetry readings. At Buffalo RiverWorks, adrenaline addicts can even navigate a high ropes course and zipline strung between empty silos.

Form and function: Like Cleveland and Tulsa, Buffalo is blessed with an abundance of architectural marvels. The landmarked Richardson Olmsted Campus, formerly the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, houses Hotel Henry, an 88-room boutique inn with its own restaurant, bakery, bar, and rotating art exhibitions; the Lipsey Architecture Center of Buffalo is dedicated to the region’s most iconic buildings. When tailoring your own D.I.Y. tour, add Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, an early skyscraper prototype, to your list, as well as the recently restored Martin House Complex, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important projects.

Design eye: When it comes to souvenirs, is good for hand-dyed textiles and rose marble serving trays; we also dig the gift shop at SUNY’s Burchfield Penney Art Center. (The Western New York art collection is noteworthy, too—as are the exhibitions at AK Northland, the satellite location of the closed-for-expansion Albright-Knox Art Gallery.)

Grub hub: Food-wise, you probably already know about the nationally lauded chicken wings from Anchor Bar; what you may not realize is how delicious the Burmese food is at Lin Restaurant; how oven-fresh the loaves are at Five Points Bakery & Toast Cafe; and how creative the seasonal menu is at Las Puertas, run by Victor Parra Gonzalez, a Mexico-born, Montreal-trained chef nominated for multiple James Beard Awards.

After dark: What’s the best way to close out a long weekend? The Sunday night jam session at the historic Colored Musicians Club, going strong since 1935. If it’s good enough for Miles and Dizzy, it’s good enough for us.

If you go: Check Buffalo’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.

The AFAR Guide to Buffalo

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Photos courtesy of Nathan Migal/Destination Cleveland and Zhug

Cleveland, Ohio

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame may be what gets you in the door, but once you see how varied Cleveland’s offerings are—great art, historic architecture, trails for days—you’ll never want to leave.

Work up an appetite: The food scene is where Cleveland really rocks. We’re all about the soup dumplings at LJ Shanghai, curried lamb and apricot hummus at Zhug, and luscious pastrami sandwiches at Larder Delicatessen and Bakery.

Go green: For fresh air, the city’s “Emerald Necklace,” or Cleveland Metroparks system, offers 23,000 acres of greenery with more than 100 miles of paved trails. Another 125 miles of hiking are available at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, less than a 15-minute drive from downtown. If you’re pressed for time, the 1.5-mile gorge trail that takes you to Brandywine Falls is an easy option—and photogenic, too. At six stories high, Brandywine is the second tallest waterfall in Ohio.

Creativity everywhere: Theater, dance, and opera fans should check what’s up at the cutting-edge Cleveland Public Theatre, while social justice warriors will appreciate the thought-provoking work produced by Karamu House, the oldest black theater company in the United States. The world-class collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art befits a city five times Cleveland’s size, while the distinguished Cleveland Orchestra has been hailed as one of the finest in the country. Take a self-guided walking tour of the Hingetown murals in Ohio City and drop by the experimental galleries at Transformer Station and Spaces, before carving out some QT with the unusual collection of restored religious figurines at the Museum of Divine Statues. And don’t miss the city’s smallest gallery, housed in an old pay phone booth in the Waterloo Arts District.

Architectural digest: Cleveland is one fine-lookin’ town. You can’t throw a Browns jersey around here without hitting a marvelously designed structure. Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist Cleveland Trust Company Building; the art deco Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, flanked by a pair of 43-foot-tall guardian statues; and the luminous Grand Arcade, built in 1883 by a Victorian oil baron, rank among the standouts.

If you go: Check Cleveland’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.


Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The city was tapped to host the Democratic National Convention in mid-July,but ask any of its half a million residents and they’ll tell you the city is worth visiting year-round.

Stay and play: Drop your luggage at Saint Kate. Milwaukee’s first immersive arts hotel has a trio of galleries and artists’ studios, plus an intimate theater and resident acting troupe. See what’s new at the 138-year-old Milwaukee Art Museum, or for something quirkier, head to the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum. Home to the world’s largest collection of bobbleheads, it has more than 6,500 currently on display, spanning sports, cartoons, and pop culture. Check out the UFO-like Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, designed in 1956 by Frank Lloyd Wright, and swing by Swing Park, the once-vacant space beneath Holton Street Bridge that now houses a variety of playground swings.

Eat like a gourmand: Buy all the reserve cheddar you want from Wisconsin Cheese Mart, but don’t overlook Milwaukee’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Bavette La Boucherie is a top choice for homemade charcuterie, while Strange Town is home to the Upper Midwest’s most innovative vegan food (wild mushroom tortas, sea vegetable salad). Odd Duck is all about creative small plates that take their cues from abroad (Malaysian nasi lemak, Brazilian moqueca). Orange and Blue Co. is an appealing lifestyle and home goods boutique that shares a roof with Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern, which is even more fun than it sounds. The businesses are run by the city’s coolest husband-and-wife team, who happen to live upstairs with their young son.

Drink like a local: They don’t call this Brew City for nothing. Pabst was started here in the 1840s; today Milwaukee is home to more than 30 breweries. The Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery sells a variety of vintage barware and collectibles, plus PBR-themed clothing. For Wisconsin Old-Fashioneds, booze-infused ice cream drinks, and Depression-era tipples, hit up happy hour at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. At 82 years young, it’s still the swankiest boîte in town with cozy nooks for date-night canoodling, a vintage McIntosh stereo, and an old-timey cash register. Note: Seating at Bryant’s is first-come, first-served on weekends, with a no-standing policy.

If you go: Check Milwaukee’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.


Photo courtesy of Tulsa Club Hotel

Tulsa, Oklahoma

The former “Oil Capital of the World” is now an art deco beacon.

Even the hotels look like film sets from the golden era of Hollywood. Both the Tulsa Club Hotel, part of Curio Collection by Hilton, and the razzle-dazzle Mayo Hotel are resplendent with deco flourishes. The latter dates to 1925; the former opened last year, following a $36-million-dollar renovation of the Bruce Goff–designed landmark.

Building blitz: To continue your exploration of Tulsa’s architectural heritage, head to the Philbrook Museum of Art, arguably one of the finest collections in the country, set within a 1920s villa that once belonged to an oil tycoon. Next, hoof it downtown to the Deco District (walking maps available here) and check out the Tulsa Art Deco Museum in the polished-marble lobby of the Philcade building. Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, built between 1924 and 1929, is also worth a detour. The domed auditorium and 15-story skyscraper tower were decorated with 100 sets of praying hands and rank as one of Goff’s finest achievements. The interior, in hues of pink and purple with magnificent panels of stained glass, is as ornate as the exterior is intimidating.

Park life: Tulsa has one of the most extensive park systems in the country. Its newest pride and joy: Gathering Place, a $465-million-dollar riverfront park. Spread across 100 acres, it includes lawns, ponds, public sculpture, sports courts, a skate park, interactive water cannons and fountains, a swing perched atop a 56-foot hill, and kayak, canoe, and paddleboat rentals.

Hobo’s lullaby: For a dose of musical history, duck into the Woody Guthrie Center; the rabble-rousing Oklahoman was an early advocate of social justice. Opened in 2013 across from the inviting grounds of Guthrie Green park, the museum and research archive house some 10,000 items from the collection of Nora Guthrie, daughter of the folk icon. Look for original, scribbled lyrics for “This Land Is Your Land” and dozens of Guthrie’s hand-drawn political cartoons and paintings.

Black market: The Greenwood District, aka “Black Wall Street,” is the neighborhood next door and one of the best places to support Tulsa’s black-owned businesses. Fulton Street Books & Coffee, founded by Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, is a community space for exploring the narratives of people of color and other marginalized communities. Silhouette is a magnet for sneakerheads, selling limited-edition kicks and showcasing street art–inspired works in its gallery.

Come hungry: Start with woodfire-cooking wizard Kevin Snell of Argentinean restaurant Amelia’s; he was recently nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. Then sidle up to the raw bar at chef Kevin Nashan’s Peacemaker Lobster & Crab in the Blue Dome District. (The restaurant rotates in ultra-fresh oysters from the Gulf and Atlantic, as well as peel-and-eat shrimp.) Nico Albert, the executive chef behind Duet Jazz, is another one to keep tabs on: She is a leader in the regional indigenous food movement and draws culinary inspiration from her Cherokee and Acadian roots.

If you go: Check Tulsa’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.

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Photos courtesy of National WWII Museum and Memorial and Visit KC

Kansas City, Missouri

POTUS may not be able to find Kansas City on a map, but the cast of Queer Eye can and their opinion matters way more.

Fans of the Fab 5 will surely want to explore some of the cast’s favorite spots from Season 4, throwing back creative cocktails at Novel and Instagramming the eight-layer cake at Succotash. Also tempting: Pigging out on finger-lickin’-good ribs and spicy slaw at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, a cherished haunt of the late Anthony Bourdain.

Museum crawl: The grand dame of the KC museum scene is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which you’ll recognize by the 18-foot sculptures of shuttlecocks on the front lawn. The collection contains more than 35,000 works of art. The National World War I Museum and Memorial is another big attraction, albeit more somber in tone. The city is also home to a clutch of well-done smaller museums: the American Jazz Museum, with its large outdoor memorial for Charlie Parker, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the Airline History Museum, featuring a 38-foot replica of a TWA Moonliner.

Photo safari: After tooling around town, you’ll start to understand why Kansas City is nicknamed the City of Fountains: Upward of 200 ornate fountains dot the metropolitan area—more than any other city in the world. Check each one off your list using this robust photo directory. While your camera is at the ready, remember there is always something in bloom at Powell Gardens. Stroll through seven themed gardens, then follow the park’s 3.25-mile Byron Shutz Nature Trail, winding deep into the property’s woodland.

Get some rest: When you’re officially tuckered out, retire to a handsomely decorated room at the Crossroads Hotel, a conversion of a landmark Pabst building, or head to its stylish rooftop bar for a game of boozy bocce.

If you go: Check Kansas City’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.

The AFAR Guide to Missouri

A Comic’s Last-Minute Trip to Kansas City



Photos courtesy of Jason Varney/Visit Baltimore

Baltimore, Maryland

If your primary association with B-more is The Wire, it’s time to update your reference book.

A lot has been happening in this city of 619,493 residents, starting with Port Covington. The 235-acre mixed-use waterfront property is the second largest downtown development project in the country. Phase one is on track for a 2021 unveiling; the crab deck at Nick’s Fish House and distillery tours at Sagamore Spirit are already open.

Go all-in on grub: Another anticipated, multiphase opening is Whitehall Mill, an 18,000-square-foot food market located in a historic mill. Its anchor tenant, True Chesapeake Oyster Co., is the first oyster farm in Maryland to start its own restaurant. Ten minutes south, the 234-year-old Broadway Market also went through a whole-hog revamp last year; it added nine new vendors, including Thai Street from chef Kesorn Imsin. Fifteen minutes from Broadway Market, creative vegan soul food (carrot “tuna” sandwiches, veg-protein “crab cakes”) reigns supreme at Land of Kush. Or you can take a spin through the Socle complex, a former carriage house turned food counter and grocery store (Larder), coffee shop (Sophomore), and biergarten/sake bar/experimental music venue (Fadensonnen). Diners seeking a buzzier date-night option can dial up NiHao, the progressive Chinese restaurant from ballyhooed D.C. toque Peter Chang.

Get schooled: To learn more about Maryland’s black history, visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. The former recently debuted a waxy doppelganger for President Barack Obama; the latter’s exhibitions cover black superheroes and do deep dives into individual African American artists, such as sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett. The 25-year-old American Visionary Art Museum, meanwhile, focuses on the works of a diverse set of self-taught/outsider artists. Make an afternoon of it by brunching at AVAM’s forthcoming restaurant Cielo Verde, helmed by chef Irena Stein (of Baltimore’s beloved Alma Cocina Latina).

Think creatively: Also celebrating its 25th birthday in 2020: the Creative Alliance, a cultural institution working to launch a new community-centric Creativity Center in 2021. The building will be located in Highlandtown, a designated arts-and-entertainment district that hosts First Friday art walks in the summer. Station North is another notable arts district, housing the Institute of Contemporary Art Baltimore plus indie galleries, movie theaters, and music venues.

Sleep like a queen: Five minutes south, find a sweet sanctuary at the Ivy Hotel, Maryland’s only Relais & Châteaux property. The historic brownstone has 19 rooms, a tranquil spa, and a critically acclaimed restaurant and wine cellar.

If you go: Check Baltimore’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.

The AFAR Guide to Baltimore


Photo courtesy of the Iwan Baan/Institute of Contemporary Art

Richmond, Virginia

Richmond is one of the nation’s oldest cities, but you’d never know it. That’s because red brick colonial buildings blend seamlessly with inspired street art, creative boutiques, and hip eateries.

Arty vibes: One of the first things visitors notice about this town of a quarter million is its color-happy murals—more than 100 in total. Survey some of the most captivating works on two wheels with a Bike and Brunch Tour, or plan your trip around the city’s annual RVA Street Art Festival (postponed until September due to COVID-19). The new Rumors of War statue by Kehinde Wiley, at the celebrated Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is another must-see for art aficionados. The Richmond Arts District (RAD) is anchored by the year-old Institute for Contemporary Art and the aesthete-pleasing Quirk Hotel, whose on-site art gallery and courtyard patio are pure catnip for photographers. The RAD is also packed with wall-to-wall galleries (1708 Gallery, ADA Gallery, Candela Books + Gallery); record stores, vintage shops, and clothing boutiques (Steady Sounds, Pop City, Mod & Soul); and vegan-friendly ice cream parlor Charm School Social Club.

History lesson: The newly expanded American Civil War Museum is the only U.S. history museum to tell stories of the war through multiple perspectives, including citizens and soldiers, both Union and Confederate, and free and enslaved African Americans. Other institutional musts: the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, host of periodic “Unhappy Hours,” and St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry famously shouted, “Give me liberty or give me death!” (Locals stage a reenactment here during summer.)

Eat, drink, be merry: This here’s an eatin’ town, so come hungry. Brenner Pass and Restaurant Adarra showcase cuisine from the Alpine and Basque regions, respectively; Alewife deep dives on sustainable mid-Atlantic seafood; ZZQ smokes up plates of ’cue so authentic they’d make Texans weep; and new cocktail bar the Jasper fashions a mean Zombie cocktail on draft. For hops heads, 40 breweries line the Richmond Beer Trail; check out barcade newcomer Bingo Beer Company in Scott’s Addition. Another fabulous diversion: Hotel Greene, described as a “faux-hotel, highfalutin’ mini golf course” set in what is designed to resemble an early 20th-century Eastern Europe hotel. Wes Anderson couldn’t have dreamt it better.

If you go: Check Richmond’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.

The AFAR Guide to Virginia

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Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Bowling Green, Kentucky

Some out-of-towners might be surprised to learn that this small Southern enclave, whose population hovers just under 68,000, is a significant refugee resettlement city.

More than 5,000 Bosnian Americans thrive here today, most of whom were displaced by civil war in the mid-1990s. Moreover, the resettlement program is ongoing; between October 2017 and October 2018, for example, it welcomed 468 refugees and asylees, with the largest group coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Immigrant ties: Travelers can sample traditional dishes like cevapi at the Behar Cafe, a Balkan restaurant and grocery store, and learn more about the history, culture, faith, art, and folklore of the Bosnian community through the Kentucky Museum’s oral history project “A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green.” It’s also worth checking for special events at the International Center of Kentucky, a resettlement agency that has assisted more than 10,000 refugees, victims of human trafficking, and immigrants from 30 countries.

Niche quest: Museums in Bowling Green run the gamut of interests. Aerophiles can geek out at the Aviation Heritage Park, while racing fans may speed straight to the National Corvette Museum. Appreciators of abstract art will lose themselves in the collection of colorful multimedia works by the late Joe Downing and other Kentuckians at the Downing Museum at Baker Arboretum.

Family fun: Got kiddos in tow? Haul ’em to the Lost River Cave adventure park for an underground boat tour, lessons in gem panning, and a whoosh of a ride on a newly installed zipline. Or take them to another family-friendly mega tourist site just a half hour outside the city: Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest underground cave system on Earth.

If you go: Check Bowling Green’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.



Photos courtesy of Posada Tucson by The Joshua Tree House

Tucson, Arizona

The spirit of the Sonoran desert runs deep in this enchanting Southwestern city, an hour north of the Mexican border.

Today more than 535,000 people call the once-sleepy desert outpost home, but its name has been known to savvy travelers for years thanks to its hip midcentury architecture, creative culinary scene, and dark and starry nights.

Eat everything in sight: Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2015, and its chefs have garnered numerous James Beard nods. (Don Guerra of Barrio Bread, notably, was a semifinalist in the Outstanding Baker category in 2019 and 2020.) For a good overview of the city’s tastiest offerings, feast on birote, a traditional Guadalajara-style crusty bread made with beer malt and lemon, from Barrio Bread; Sonoran hot dogs at El Guero Canelo; juicy puerco verde tacos at Boca Tacos Y Tequila; and braised jackfruit po’boys at the midcentury-fab Welcome Diner.

Interior inspo: Another mid-mod champ worth a gander is the Ball-Paylore House, designed in the early 1950s by legendary Tucson architect Arthur T. Brown and fully restored last year. (Psst: Overnight stays are bookable via Airbnb.) Interior design inspiration also abounds at the Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, home to more than 500 hyper-detailed dioramas and dollhouses, including a full-on Chinese garden estate.

Night moves: Astro-tourism is another major draw here. The Tucson skies are clear most nights, and a city ordinance from 1972 limits artificial-light pollution. Peep the rings of Saturn through the Schulman and Phillips telescopes—the largest of their kind available to the public—at Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, 46 miles northeast of the city in the Santa Catalina mountains. Back downtown, another family-friendly interplanetary experience awaits at the 45-year-old Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium.

Cactus worship: To scout the cosmos with your naked eyes, settle into one of five zhuzhed-up suites at Posada, a beautiful new property from the team behind the Joshua Tree House in California. Set on 38 acres bordering Saguaro National Park, just west of the city, each room comes with a kitchenette, fireplace, and/or private patio for stargazing. Saguaro is its own adventure, named after its most prominent native plant: Saguaro cactus can live up to 250 years old and grow seven stories tall. Look for nocturnal park programming such as ranger-led moonrise hikes and star-viewing parties.

If you go: Check Tucson’s COVID-19 guide for the latest info on reopenings and restrictions.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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