What small cities in the US should I visit?
May 5, 2019 2:52 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I like taking road trips, and recently got back from a great trip to Oklahoma and Kansas. We especially, and unexpectedly, fell in love with Tulsa, which we never would have thought to visit if we weren't in the area. It made us realize there must be a ton of other small, interesting cities scattered around the US (or Canada??) that we should put on our list for future road trips. What are they?

We especially like cities that:
1. Have a couple of good breweries
2. Have delicious (not necessarily fancy) local food culture
3. Have a few artsy or weird or interesting attractions, museums, or parks
4. Have at least some section that is dense enough to walk around in
Bonus for some cool nature nearby that is easy to access.

Other small cities that have hit the spot include Duluth, Madison, and Chattanooga. This previous question is very helpful, but I think we're looking for slightly bigger cities than are listed there, plus it's a couple of years old and maybe we can uncover a few more gems.

Assume that we have already been to, or plan to visit, all the larger cities and obvious suspects, like Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Charleston, and Asheville. We are open to any geographical region in the US.

What cities (especially with population between around 100,000 and 300,000 or so) would someone not think to visit, but should?
posted by EmilyFlew to Travel & Transportation around United States (52 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up near Dayton, Ohio, and it checks most of your boxes. Maybe all; I don't know about the brewery scene, but everything else is covered.

Buffalo also fits, if it's not too big.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:55 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

posted by sallybrown at 4:32 AM on May 5 [14 favorites]

Burlington VT checks all your boxes. Great breweries like Switchback and Magic Hat. Amazing parks, museums (I'm thinking of a fantastic outdoor museum) and food.
posted by transient at 4:38 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Kalamazoo or Grand Rapids, MI.
posted by Empidonax at 4:41 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

Traverse City, too.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:44 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

Champaign-Urbana, Illinois seems like a good option. A huge university in town stimulates a lot of cool cultural stuff that you wouldn’t normally find in a city that size.
posted by obfuscation at 4:50 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

Along the same lines as obfuscation's suggestion: Bloomington, IN and Ann Arbor, MI would probably be up your alley.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:21 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Gainesville, FL
posted by Dalton at 5:35 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

St petersburg FL (my answer to literally anything). Funky growing arts scene (public art everywhere!). Like 48 breweries per square inch. Several amazing museums including the museum of the west, and the chiluly glass museum. Amazing walkable downtown. Super easy bus to the beach (20 minute ride) and truly world class food. Drive south 30 minutes and there are several terrific state parks (like Myakka).

Memail me and we can arrange a meet up. There are some other cool mefites here too!!
posted by chasles at 5:40 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

Cities I've been to awesome small cities:
Portland ME (just unbelievable number of breweries)
Providence RI
Madison WI
posted by sandmanwv at 6:03 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Pittsburgh is probably on the larger side of this ask, but it has a real small city vibe to it.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:14 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Did you visit Lawrence in Kansas? It’s been a while since I’ve lived there, but it’s my favorite small city. It looks like they have some microbreweries now too. It also puts you an hour away from Kansas City, Missouri, a cool but less obvious big city.
posted by FencingGal at 6:30 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Portland, Maine. The ONLY Portland as far as I'm concerned. Ticks all your boxes except for size, it's smaller than it seems (unless you live there.)
posted by Floydd at 7:13 AM on May 5 [4 favorites]

Richmond VA seems to be on every list of trendy foodie cities lately. We do have great restaurants, and about 40 breweries last time I saw a count. The James River runs through downtown and I believe this is the only place in the eastern US where you can kayak level 3 or level 4 rapids in sight of a downtown skyline. If you are into history we just opened a brand new Civil War museum, and Virginia Commonwealth University opened a modern art museum in the last couple of years. We also have our own Holocaust museum. If you drive here or rent a car you can be in the mountains to the west or on the beach to the east in 90 minutes.
posted by COD at 7:32 AM on May 5 [3 favorites]

Recently visited Cincinnati and Indianapolis and they were SO NICE in exactly the ways you want.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:43 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Immediately thought of Birmingham AL.
posted by saladin at 8:01 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Bend, OR is pretty much exactly what you’re looking for here.
posted by katie at 8:22 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

A little too big by the numbers, but within the spirit of your ask, I think: Cleveland, OH and Kansas City, MO. Right on target: St. Louis, MO and Lexington, KY.
posted by merriment at 8:26 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Seconding Birmingham—GREAT food especially. I haven’t been in a few years but I loved Highlands Bar and Grill and Hot and Hot Fish Club.

Greenville, SC
Charlottesville, VA
posted by sallybrown at 8:31 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Portland, Maine is even smaller if you do live there, but it's a very pleasant place to visit. Check out the Holy Donut and Dobra Tea in addition to the breweries. The restaurant scene is great. Take the ferry out to the islands for ice cream and the Umbrella Cover Museum. Go in the summer.

Also consider

Burlington, VT
Portsmouth, NH
Coeur d'Alene, ID
Spokane, WA
Birmingham, AL
Jackson, MS
Roanoke, VA
posted by bile and syntax at 8:39 AM on May 5

Asheville NC is my favorite small city, it has 60 breweries, great food, a fun downtown with lots of good bars, and is up in beautiful mountains. You can also visit the Biltmore if you want to see old rich people stuff
posted by JZig at 8:41 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

+1 Spokane.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:00 AM on May 5

Heartily endorsing Pittsburgh.

Also nthing Portland, ME. If you go, the summer is high season and the best weather, but we kind of like going just after Labor Day, when the summer rush has died down a bit but the weather is still decent. Note that the popular restaurants book up, so make advance reservations to avoid disappointment. Also, if you can swing it, don't just take a ferry ride to the Casco Bay islands, but actually try to spend the night somewhere on one of them.
posted by gudrun at 9:42 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Honestly if you’re looking for quirky small cities there are a few in Texas I’d recommend before Austin. Fredricksburg is a popular choice, but honestly there are a ton in the Texas Hill Country that are fun and if you’re making a road trip out of it, you could hit up one a day and have a lot of local fun. Boerne has several brew pubs, New Braunfels has more town festivals than you can shake a stick at, and although San Antonio is huge, the Missions (not just the Alamo!) are super cool.

That’s just me though! I think Austin is suffering under its own success a bit and I always feel like I spend more time in traffic and finding parking than eating and drinking.
posted by itsamermaid at 9:50 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Pittsburgh absolutely, Buffalo yes yes, and I will toss in Rochester as well. Especially the brewery part and the weird part.
posted by oflinkey at 10:41 AM on May 5

If you’re into Canada and driving farther (like, much farther) I would recommend Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ticks all of your boxes. There are a few universities so it’s got a nice youthful vibe, some small breweries, very close to nature, very walkable, local food culture is of course seafood. It’s also got a good local music scene if you’re into that. I lived there for five years and it was the best. Nova Scotia itself is also worth a broader road trip.
posted by fso at 11:45 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]

Adding another vote for the Spokane, WA / Coeur D'Alene, ID combo. Very close together, so you can visit both.
posted by jimmereeno at 12:00 PM on May 5

Tucson AZ hits all your points. Great food, great nature. They have a bunch of local breweries as well.
posted by permiechickie at 12:01 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Seconding Bloomington, IN.

I was going to recommend Chattanooga but you've already made it there. Lexington, KY has some solid breweries and Frankfort, KY has some good and interesting restaurants. Plus it's a beautiful but often overlooked area of the country.
posted by arachnidette at 12:11 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Cincinnati, Ohio!! But not in the middle of the summer.
posted by metahawk at 12:16 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

Syracuse NY
Population 143,000
Home to Middle Ages Brewing Company
Also many great cider makers and wineries.
For quirky museums go to the Salt Museum, then go see the upside down traffic light and eat at Colemans.
Learn something at the Skanonh Great Law of Peace center.
You can walk, bike, ski the Eirie Canal. Walk around Onanadaga Lake park and watch the rowers.
Lots of restaurants downtown. Catch the Polish festival or Greek festival for some amazing food.
All of Upstate New York makes a great road trip.
posted by SyraCarol at 1:02 PM on May 5

Dubuque, Iowa. Home of Monk's Kaffepub, a beautiful park overlooking the Mississippi whose name I am totally spacing on, and some weird funicular cars that surmount the Mississippi bluffs.
posted by transitional procedures at 1:32 PM on May 5

Lafayette, Louisiana.
posted by Leontine at 2:22 PM on May 5

Nelson, British Columbia!
posted by just_ducky at 3:15 PM on May 5

if you hit Spokane, head south and touch Walla Walla (“the town so nice they named it twice!”) as well. Not sure about breweries, but it’s a major wine destination and I hear there are some very nice restaurants.
posted by lhauser at 7:08 PM on May 5

When you went through Kansas did you make it to Derby? It's a few miles out of Wichita. They just recently opened a park with 30 animatronic dinosaurs!

I was in school in that town for 3 years. As much as I hated high school I'm still tempted to go back, just for that.
posted by bendy at 8:28 PM on May 5

Atlanta!! The traffic is bad and our public transportation is terrible (our Uber and Lyft is wonderful!) but we have tons of great IPA’s and amazing restaurants and you can see a major motion picture being filmed just about anywhere you go. You are just 2 hours from the gorgeous, North Ga mountains and 4+ to Savannah which is an absolute jewel of history and beauty. And the Golden Isles of Ga are just a little further down the coast. I could go on for days about the beauty of my state. Come visit!!
posted by pearlybob at 10:49 PM on May 5

OK, this is getting out of hand. Indianapolis and Cincinnati are both nice cities, but not small by any definition. But Atlanta is the ninth-largest metro area in the US. There is no conceivable definition of small that includes Atlanta. The metro area is seven times as large as that of Tulsa, the original point of reference. There are suburbs of Atlanta larger than the city of Tulsa. Many of these answers are missing what the question is asking for.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:47 AM on May 6 [2 favorites]

My very random list of random small cities/large towns in the US that I have enjoyed spending an afternoon, at least, in, is below. I'm more into the good coffee shops than the hip brew pubs, but availability of good food, some walkability, and some nearby or in-town additional point of interest (often nature related) are things that make me enjoy a location too.

Iowa City, IA
Ithaca, NY
Portland, ME, and Portsmouth, NH for a similar vibe
Northampton, MA, or basically any town in that region large enough to have a couple walkable downtown blocks
Kingston, NY
Asheville, NC
Hot Springs, AK
Exactly what itsamermaid said about Texas towns
Bend, OR
Eugene, OR
Olympia, WA
Boulder, CO
Milwaukee, WI

Places that I've been that are larger cities, but have neighborhoods with that same smaller city or large town vibe:
Boston, MA
Washington, DC
Memphis, TN
Sacramento, CA
San Diego, CA
Seattle, WA
Denver, CO
Albuquerque, NM

Places that I've been that might not have been interesting for more than an afternoon, but where I had a memorable, positive food or coffee experience:
Fargo, ND
A random suburb on the outskirts of Amarillo, TX that was neither walkable nor interesting in any way, but had a truly fantastic coffee shop
Kalamazoo, MI
Knoxville, TN (probably also a nice town or area to spend longer in, but I just passed through, so can't say definitively)
Louisville, KY
Raleigh, NC
Portland, OR
Spearfish, SD
Livingston, MT had good kombucha
Nevada City, CA

Bonus category: the best vegetarian tacos I've had so far have been from a food truck in Oroville, WA and a taqueria and grocery store in a strip mall in Statesboro, GA
posted by eviemath at 5:53 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]

Sheboygan, WI for Hmong food and lake fun.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:49 AM on May 6 [1 favorite]

Columbus, Ohio
Savannah, Georgia
Palm Springs, California
posted by soelo at 9:05 AM on May 6

The Internet (TM) says Taos > Santa Fe. I suppose that might have been true once upon a time, but I loved Santa Fe. While in that neck of the woods I'd suggest Cortez, CO (not really a city, but close to Mesa Verde) and Durango, CO. Amazing Rocky Mountain town
posted by TravellingCari at 9:53 AM on May 6

You want Buffalo. I promise it checks all of your boxes and more.

And if you are anything like myself or my spouse, you may love it so much you move here.

PM me if you want to know more, or are coming to visit :D
posted by RhysPenbras at 12:06 PM on May 6

I like Longmont and Loveland, CO
posted by azalea_chant at 4:10 PM on May 6

My husband and I just got back from Savannah, GA and we loved it. Bonus: if you're beach people (we are), Tybee Island is less than a half hour away and is a nice little beach town with a pier and a lighthouse. Nice for a day to just relax and not do anything after a lot of driving.
posted by AlisonM at 4:57 PM on May 6 [1 favorite]

Recently went to Eerie,PA on a drive and did not think I would reccomend it but here I am

1. Have a couple of good breweries - Southern Tier, Eerie Brewing Company, Voodoo Brewery
2. Have delicious (not necessarily fancy) local food culture - Not necessarily local food but mix of immigrants live in Eerie and we had a great middle eastern food.
3. Have a few artsy or weird or interesting attractions, museums, or parks - Eerie Museum was charming, Presque Isle state park has beaches, lighthouse and a great biking path
4. Have at least some section that is dense enough to walk around in
Bonus for some cool nature nearby that is easy to access. - Erie Lake duh!
posted by radsqd at 9:11 AM on May 7

OP, as more suggestions are posted, I increasingly think you should check out the book Our Towns by Jim and Deb Fallows. As the socio-economic criticism it's intended to be, I have misgivings, and I wouldn't recommend it for that. But many of the recommendations here are profiled in the book: Pittsburgh, Burlington, Bend, Greenville, Columbus, and Erie. Some others (e.g., Grand Rapids, which, IMO, is the best answer so far) are touched on as they visited other towns in the same region. Jim Fallows in particular is interested in the beer culture of places, and they admit that the first step in their methodology of getting to know a town is to visit a local microbrewery. So, if nothing else, you'll have brewery suggestions for half the answers so far, plus some other interesting local info.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:54 AM on May 7

Very happy to see Cincinnati suggested a few times. As a Cincinnatian, I do think it is on the larger side of what you're looking for, but it's larger than Dayton and also smaller than Pittsburgh if that gives you an idea of scale. We are just a few ticks over 300,000 for city population.

Your criteria:

1. Have a couple of good breweries

Check, check, and check. Most neighborhoods now have a local brewery in them. The big dogs are Christian Moerlein, Madtree, and Rhinegeist which all have big tap rooms.

2. Have delicious (not necessarily fancy) local food culture

May I introduce you to CINCINNATI CHILI? Haters are going to talk trash, but look, I fed it once to my drunken housemates in Britain and they loved it. Don't think of it as chili, think of it as a delicious bolognese meat sauce (since you eat it on top of spaghetti). Go to the big chain, Skyline, then go to my favorite 24/6 diner, Camp Washington.

If you hate our chili, you'll at least enjoy Graeter's ice cream. Check out Findlay Market, spring-early fall is the perfect time of year

3. Have a few artsy or weird or interesting attractions, museums, or parks

American Sign Museum
A nuclear processing plant that is now a phenomenal park
You may have heard of our very famous hippo
You can stay in this art gallery/hotel which is also next to the Contemporary Arts Center which was shut down by law enforcement for obscenity when it showed a Mapplethorpe exhibit

4. Have at least some section that is dense enough to walk around in

We have this too. On the Ohio side of the river, check out Northside, Over the Rhine, and the Gaslight Clifton area anchored by Ludlow Avenue (where you can get Skyline and Graeter's two blocks from each other). If you would like a great view of the city, head up to Eden Park/Mt Adams for gorgeous views of the Ohio River. Across the river, Covington and Newport have some good walking around bits.

And if you just can't get enough, or if it ends up feeling too big, Cincinnati is within two hours of several other good destinations that totally fit your description - Louisville, Berea, and Yellow Springs are some of my favorite day trip spots.
posted by mostly vowels at 5:58 PM on May 7

Akron (population 199k), but only in nice weather. Includes a National Park that you can check off the list if you're into National Parks and a cute zoo.

Columbus, Indiana is under your population range (47k), but it's an architectural wonderland.

I think you'd probably enjoy a Dayton-Yellow Springs combo trip given what you wrote here.

I also think you'd probably do well to look into medium sized college towns. Places like Madison, WI (255k) are going to hit many of your points.

I've seen Columbus, Ohio mentioned - it's a great city and I live here, but the population is almost 900k. I also dunno about some of the other cities being mentioned that do technically fit - if you care about metro population something like Pittsburgh is way too big (there's 2.3 million people in Pittsburgh's metro area).
posted by imabanana at 1:07 PM on May 8

I'm in Pittsburgh, PA, and yeah, we'd fit that. 350k people, so a bit of a stretch, but here goes.

Breweries new (and very old!) scattered throughout the city. I'd start with Independent Brewing in Squirrel Hill, look at their beer list, and track back where it came from, as their taste is good.

Food culture is very, very solid in the last ten years, weaker on the fancy end, but has everything from award winning traditional szechuan to grandmas making pierogis.

Museums: Randyland, the Mattress Factory, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Warhol Museum, and Phipps Conservatory all hold up. Schenley Park, Frick Park, Kennywood Park, all solid. Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, 60-90 minutes out, are Frank Lloyd Wright houses and national heritage sites in the woods.

There's also five or ten spots with full urban density; not Manhattan or Chicago in the Loop, but lower stress, lower cost, and high levels of awesome.
posted by talldean at 2:28 PM on May 8

If you're doing Spokane, the drive down Hwy 95 to 55 to Bosie is one of my favorite drives of all time. Boise is on it's way to cool.
posted by Uncle at 9:49 PM on May 10

nthing Pittsburgh (and make sure to check out La Hutte Royal while you're there).

New York's Hudson Valley is not a specific city, but has a bunch of smaller cities which fit the bill and could be visited in one trip. Beacon, Newburgh, New Paltz, and Poughkeepsie are all within 45 minutes or so, there are a bunch of breweries, a bunch of art stuff (Storm King, Dia: Beacon, a whole bunch of galleries), and a few different walking areas in the cities proper. And lots of cool nature nearby.
posted by taltalim at 9:32 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

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