Little known American city perfect for a lone woman of colour tourist?
May 17, 2015 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I would like to visit a city in the US that is not commonly thought of as a vacation destination, but still has a lot to offer a tourist. However, as a woman of colour that does not drive and will be travelling alone, I would like a safe and friendly choice. I would like ideas for places with a lot of history and fine dining, which are easy to travel by foot/ public transportation, and friendly towards different looking people. Examples of what I am and am not looking for inside...

I'm not looking for popular tourist destinations, such as New York, Boston, Miami, San Francisco, Dallas, Nashville, New Orleans, Las Vegas etc. I would be especially interested in suggestions for less marketed states in the Mid-West or South. I am interested in any area with lots of local history and well-run museums, great local cuisine, beautiful architecture (1930s and older), and possibly a fun local music scene (with an emphasis country and rock / metal). The city would need to be very walkable or have excellent public transport. I was thinking about Missouri or Iowa but know nothing about these places other than I have met friendly American tourists visiting my city (Halifax, Nova Scotia) who came from there.

Because I do not drive and am a very dark skinned petite woman who will be travelling alone, I am concerned about my safety. I am used to travelling alone and have a lot of common sense but I have found some cities (such as Madrid in Spain or Quebec City in Canada) unfriendly towards obvious non-locals while other cities were very welcoming. I have already visited Savannah, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Providence.

Any suggestions, along with specific recommendations for local attractions would be much appreciated. I would like to travel sometime between July and September.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose to Travel & Transportation around United States (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Fellow petite woman of color. I was going to suggest Savannah, but seeing as you've already been there, I've heard great things about Charleston, SC and it's on my list of cities to visit. Condé Naste Traveler has ranked it the top city in the US to visit for four years in a row, and it ranked second in the world in 2014 - that's gotta mean something, right?
posted by Devika at 9:43 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Chattanooga, TN is a really nice city with a very vibrant and walkable downtown area. Beautiful aquarium, 3d imax theater, lots of civil war history. It will be hot and humid in the summer. Check out Lookout mountain for beautiful houses and hiking trails.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 9:44 AM on May 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Austin, Texas or Portland, Oregon maybe?
posted by bluecore at 9:44 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest Charleston SC, Chattanooga TN and Savannah. I think if you liked Savannah, you will like those other two cities.

You might also enjoy Philadelphia, although I'm not sure which side of the tourist-hype line you would put it on. It's walkable and has good public transport, and has amazing museums.
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:59 AM on May 17, 2015

Seattle is culturally alive, has a great transit system, and is a very safe city. Taking a ferry ride across Puget Sound is a must and there are plenty of good museums to visit. Plus, that time in the summer is absolutely gorgeous and is what keeps Seattleites going through January. :) There are so many excellent restaurants that you'd never manage to visit them all! I live on the other side of the mountains but always love playing tourist when I'm visiting my children. It's a great city!
posted by OkTwigs at 10:15 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Let me pitch Cincinnati. The downtown area is compact with many fine dining choices (I'd be happy to provide many recos). The Over the Rhine neighborhood is a short walk north of downtown. As the link suggests, it is a largest collection of Italiante architecture in the United States. That neighborhood also is home many new restaurants, walking tours, a revitalized park, breweries and a gorgeous music hall.

As for museums, Cincinnati has the advantage of being a relatively old city for the mid-west which means that it has lots of cultural institutions like the Cincinnati Art Musuem (its collection rivals cities who are much larger), the Contemporary Arts Center (one of the first US museums to focus exclusively on contemporary art) and the Smithsonian affiliated National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center (Cincinnati was seen as the gateway to the north for escaping slaves).

Everything I've written about is comfortably within walking distance save for the Cincinnati Art Museum which is a short bus/taxi/Uber ride to the top of a hill overlooking downtown. I'm the wrong gender and color to comment on personal experiences of safety but I will say that these areas of the city are the most diverse in the city and the city is very friendly to non-locals. I often bring work colleagues (both from within and outside of the US) these areas and people are very well received.
posted by mmascolino at 10:18 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Okay, I know you said you're not interested in popular tourist destinations and cited New Orleans as one such popular tourist destination, but I really feel that it fits all of your requirements!

I'm not going to overlook the complicated ethnic history of New Orleans, which is no more of a multicultural utopia than any other US city, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much more open it was to its own racial diversity than most other US cities. Just sitting in a park in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, I observed men and women of different ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic classes not only making friendly conversation, but speaking to one another like neighbors as opposed to 'others'. This blew my brain, having grown up in the very ethnically diverse DC-metro area where I still feel like people are quite standoffish in relation to other ethnic groups.

New Orleans is also very walkable. I stayed in Bywater, which is two neighborhoods over from the French Quarter (the "touristy" part that I mostly avoided - you can still get a lot out of the city without ever visiting it). If you stay in Bywater, or a bit closer in Faubourg-Marigny, you feel like you have all of that gorgeous architecture to yourself. You can walk to Frenchman Street and bar hop from one great live music show (yes, country and rock included) to the next. Plentiful local history goes without saying. Also, the food. The food! My god, the food.

I also think it's a great place to travel alone because the attitude of New Orleans is relaxed and jovial enough to make me, an introvert, feel comfortable initiating conversation with strangers. I hesitate to romanticize it or any other city. But, I wouldn't rule it out as a place to visit.

By contrast, I have been told by friends who now live in Charleston, SC that it feels like a more conservative, less open-minded version of New Orleans. I don't know how much truth that holds but I thought I'd bring it up since Charleston was mentioned. I'd be interested to hear what others think.
posted by nightrecordings at 10:18 AM on May 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

Philadelphia! Not sure if it's too touristy for you (it's not really that touristy though, especially when you go off the beaten paths) but it fits ALL of your other criteria.

Also, it will be kind of hard to find an American city with interesting history and that is walkable, with good public transportation, and is diverse, yet does not attract tourists.
posted by bearette at 11:15 AM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Washington DC, with a day trip to Annapolis.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:28 AM on May 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you'd really like Austin, TX.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:31 AM on May 17, 2015

Best answer: Iowa City is tiny, but you might enjoy it. It's a liberal college town, and safe and friendly towards outsiders. It's quite small, so easy to navigate either on foot, by bike, or on the city or university buses. Not a whole lot going on, but you should be able to see some concerts, art, and very places like Prairie Lights, a fantastic independent bookstore frequented by writers from the well-known writers' workshop at the university.

Austin is like a larger version, with a much better music scene. But personally, I wouldn't want to visit Austin in the middle of the summer (Iowa City will also be hot, but Austin could be 100 degrees +humidity).

Portland, Oregon is very white, but welcoming, and ideal in the summertime. Plenty to do, great food, good public transit, great music scene.
posted by three_red_balloons at 11:39 AM on May 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'll 2nd nightrecordings regarding New Orleans. My father is pretty well traveled and he said that with New Orleans, you actually feel like you are someplace different than just another large city. That said, I would time your trip carefully - I've only been once, in February, and it was humid.

I'd be tempted to suggest Asheville - it'll be challenging but not impossible without a car. I live in and love DC but summer here is not ideal.

Here's a zany idea - Buffalo, NY, Niagara Falls, and Toronto. I'm from Buffalo and summers there are lovely - Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor concerts, minor league baseball, etc.

Other ideas: I've never been to the Twin Cities but have heard good things. I have visited Vancouver and enjoyed it.
posted by kat518 at 12:07 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sacramento, California? But not in summer. Lots of history, rail museum, good food, farmers market, easy day trip to Gold Country, nice people, walkable.
posted by mmiddle at 1:20 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Minneapolis. Has everything you're looking for: amazing food, great museums, excellent live music. Not at all touristy. Pretty good public transit.

Minnesota in general is known as a white place, but Minneapolis is much less so thanks to several large immigrant communities.
posted by lunasol at 1:33 PM on May 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

Here's a zany idea - Buffalo, NY, Niagara Falls, and Toronto. I'm from Buffalo and summers there are lovely - Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor concerts, minor league baseball, etc.

This is actually a really cool idea. I was only in Buffalo for about a day, but I was pleasantly surprised and it has basically zero tourists. Niagara Falls is touristy, but it's worth seeing and you need not spend lots of time there. Toronto gets tourists, but fewer than other cities of comparable size and reputation, it seemed to me. I can't say four sure whether you'd have any problems as a solo woman of color, but I doubt it (especially in Toronto).

Philadelphia is also a good suggestion. It's pretty diverse, and has good transit and lots do. It does get tourists, but they tend to stick very closely to a small handful of well-known sites in the same area. Lots of people seem to go there, go to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell (totally overrated IMO), maybe eat a cheesesteak at Pat's and/or Gino's (good, but there are better, off-the-beaten-path, places) and call it a day. But there's a lot more to it than that.

Other options: Pittsburgh or San Diego.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:25 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, I see you've visited Pittsburgh. Oops! Well San Diego's still a good place to go. The weather is beautiful, it's scenic and has lots of cool neighborhoods and good food. The transit - light rail and bus - isn't like the big Northeast cities, but it's OK for a visitor. And I'm not sure how much pre-1930s architecture there is, but there are some cool buildings (in a SoCal kinda way) and Balboa Park (big park near downtown) has this cool museum-campus type area that looks like an old Spanish Mission. I was there on business, so didn't get to see very much, but I liked what I saw.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:32 PM on May 17, 2015

Ithaca NY has lots of great hiking and architecture and but is very walkable.
posted by bq at 4:42 PM on May 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Santa Fe, New Mexico has a lot of plus marks from your list of desired options, if it's not too far from the Midwest/South region for you. I'd say it's very tourist-friendly and safe over-all, good weather in the summer, LOTS of history (oldest capitol city in the US, oldest city in New Mexico) plenty of museums and generally walkable, if a bit confusing (it's a very old city, so the streets are rather a jumble and can be a bit disorienting).

Public transit isn't great, but it exists, so you can also travel an hour or two to get to other, smaller communities, but I don't know if any one is in and of itself enough as a destination. The other Las Vegas is charming, but not a ton to do there, even though it is also a college town (of sorts). And in Santa Fe, you can get down to Albuquerque easily enough, but the train is mostly a commuter line, which is fine if you want to visit during the day, but it sucks for visiting for the more active night life in ABQ.

Albuquerque has plenty going on, but is less charming and more of a little Big City, when compared to Santa Fe, and it's a bit warmer in the summer. But with the bigger city come more options and better transit. I won't speak to the safety, but if you're interested, I can ping some local folks for a better sense of what it could be like visiting as a single lady of color. And if you're out this way, us local folks here usually overdue for a meetup.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:52 PM on May 17, 2015

Are you looking for something I would call "America by Americans" or just someplace different? By that I mean someplace locals to an area would consider a good place to vacation and not a huge tourist destination. I would consider Bend, OR something like that. I would never send an international traveller there on purpose but as a local I enjoy going there and would go there with my family.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:47 PM on May 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

This site rates the walkability of a number of North American cities, so you can get an idea of how easy it will be to get around by bike, transit, and foot compared to cities you have already visited. Philadelphia, Seattle, DC, and Minneapolis are generally rated quite walkable.

Annapolis + DC would be a great choice for history, walkability, city planning, and architecture. Annapolis also lies in the Old Bay seasoning cuisine belt, if you like crab. Depending on the length of your stay, you could do PHIL-WASDC by train. Seattle is beautiful in the summer and has excellent seafood, coffee, beer, and Asian cuisine, as well as a great music and outdoors scene. The architecture has less historical interest than other cities, but there are several buildings of note and the natural setting of the Pacific NW is unique in the world.

For the heartland, Iowa city, Ames, and Des Moines punch above their weight for hipster culture . Each of these cities has walkable areas, but they are small. For example, Iowa City has a walk score in the 50s (but a good bike score) while Chicago is in the 70s and NYC in the 80s. The more mid-sized Pittsburgh is in the 60s. Iowa is safe, open-minded, and friendly.
posted by Svejk at 6:15 AM on May 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Louisville, KY!

Also seconding Charleston, SC and Seattle.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:11 AM on May 18, 2015

How about Houston? Our cuisine and museums are fantastic. The music scene is actually pretty big, if you know where to look. Actual public transportation can be meh, but if paying for a taxi every so often is ok, you'd be fine. Our architecture isn't fantastic, but we do have some and several old cemeteries.

Also, San Antonio might be a valid option. I'm less clear on the museums (though I do know at least two are quite good) and transportation, but they do have the music, cuisine, and are really welcoming. Also, the missions (think Alamo and religion) are interesting and free.
posted by Jacen at 10:47 AM on May 18, 2015

Thirding DC. Has pretty much everything you listed, though I'm not totally sure about the specific music genres.

Summers are very hot and humid, but the museums are lovely and well-air-conditioned. You can walk down the street and hear a dozen different languages spoken, and the architecture is really lovely in places.
posted by Thistledown at 3:36 PM on May 18, 2015

Best answer: Denver, Colorado! It has everything you want, and I'm happy to buy your first (locally crafted excellent) beer.
posted by cyndigo at 9:07 PM on May 18, 2015

Response by poster: Excellent suggestions- so many great cities to research, and I am looking forward to my trip! If anyone is still reading, fiercekitten asked if I was looking for "America by Americans" or just someplace different?"... I would like to see what America is like for Americans, what it means to be American and proud of one's heritage, for a normal everyday American person. I have heard many people I know say it is like a giant Toronto but I feel this may not be accurate in a smaller city. I want to learn about other cultures in a laid back scenario which feels more authentic than a touristy area.

I marked as favorite the most exotic sounding areas but I will definitely take a look at all and leave an update in about two weeks when I decide. I don't mind the humidity or cold. As long as it is under 45C that's good.

As a note, I did live in Toronto for over a decade and have been to Niagara Falls dozens (hundreds?) of times. For other people who may read this, Toronto is an amazing city with plentiful free activities and friendly people, and Niagara Falls is full of kitschy sketchy fun - just beware they are both very expensive overall. I would definitely recommend these as well to the right sort of tourist.

I have heard lovely things about New Orleans and those I know who have visited only have positive and flattering things to say. I would love to visit as it seems to be a truly beautiful place as well (in addition to the other good qualities) - right now it's not quite what I want for a Summer vacation based on my statements above but definitely one day soon I will be visiting this gorgeous place.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 1:25 PM on May 21, 2015

One of the most American things I can think of is Civil War tourism. Visiting Gettysburg followed by Harper's Ferry will give you a view of American history pretty much nothing else can. It's a super popular with Americans and both are crawling with tourist weirdness. Especially Harper's Ferry.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:28 PM on May 21, 2015

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