With a blisteringly hot wind blowing a veil about my shoulders, I straightened my pointy green ears and took a deep breath. Here I was, dressed as a deconstructed bridal Yoda, about to get married in the world’s only sci-fi chapel, predictably housed in the basement of a Las Vegas casino. It’s an experience one can only describe as quintessentially American. And quite honestly, it was a riot.
Because there’s one thing you can always count on America to deliver: excess. The highest rollercoaster, the largest music festival, the most calorific burger, the greatest of the Great Lakes. The entire continent is a gluttonous clambake for the senses. And that, frankly, is why we like it.
I’ve lived and travelled throughout the States for more than half a decade and it remains an engrossing continent. But with so much choice there are still locations that rise above the grits, cementing themselves as the coolest cities to sling a greenback. Because these places will give you more bang for that buck without ever scrimping on that sugar-coated sensory overload America is known for.
Why: Oprah, Playboy and No 23 – all things synonymous with the Windy City. Chicago is a lot like your cool uncle, and while the Bulls and Cubs might be world-famous, Chicago is far more than just one big sports bar. From the oceanic Lake Michigan to the world-leading Art Institute of Chicago, it’s as though someone took all the things we travel for and plopped them smack-bang in the middle of America. Food reigns supreme – from the deep-dish pizza to high-end Alinea, one of the most famous restaurants in the world. Just be sure to wash it down with Malört – a herbal liqueur unique to Chicago – or risk missing the real taste of America’s most American city.
When to visit: Summer (or patio season as the locals call it) is undoubtedly the most dynamic time to be in Chicago. Catch events from Lollapalooza to Ravinia, the oldest music festival in North America.
Where to stay: The Chicago Athletic Association, with its Venetian Gothic shell and almost Masonic Lodge-like revamp, is ideally positioned in The Loop (Chicago’s downtown) for your Al Capone-charged adventures.
Don’t miss: As the home to the world’s first skyscrapers, Chicago has many river tours to best view the city’s architecture, but the First Lady cruise is considered by many to be the best boat tour in the entire US of A.
The local’s tip: Shermann Dilla Thomas – or just Dilla to his Instagram and TikTok fans – is known as Chicago’s urban historian and runs Chicago Mahogany Tours on the city’s Southside. He says the best way to see Chicago is simply by catching a bus. “Catch the Halsted Street bus from 63rd Street to Lawrence – the breadth of people, sights, and parts of Chicago you’ll see will be truly amazing. And it only costs around $2.”
Why: If America was a steak, Texas would be the fat. Austin takes that fat and turns it into the best confit you ever had. You only need to head to Lala’s Little Nugget to experience Christmas all year round, or The Little Longhorn Saloon for Chicken Sh#t Bingo, to see what I mean. It’s also the Live Music Capital of The World – a registered trademark but not one that isn’t warranted; there are over 250 venues. Austinites also like it weird. Honky Tonks and hybrid cars, cowboys boots and lunchtime lectures. Somehow the hippie-haven blends every dichotomous thing America is known for into one bombastic ball.
When to visit: The best time is mid-March, when South By Southwest is on. The town’s absolutely crawling with film, music and media boffins. You can’t do a quarter turn without some culture slapping you in the face.
Where to stay: With a prime location, The Driskill was built in 1886 for a cattle baron and is the most opulently Austin hotel in the capital city. Think cowhide bar stools and breakfast waffles in the shape of Texas.
Don’t miss: Customs officers won’t let you leave till you try some barbecue. Food trucks abound, but if you can, take the one-hour drive out to Snow’s BBQ – regarded as the best in Texas it’s only open on Saturdays and 87-year-old pit boss Ms Tootsie is a living legend.
The local’s tip: Michael Fojtasek, founder and executive chef of Olamaie restaurant (which has been named best in Austin many times over), says Austin’s outdoor spaces are where it’s at. “See an outdoor show, play golf at Butler Pitch and Putt, or run around Lady Bird Lake in the heart of the city.”
Why: Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks anchor Seattle like giant capitalist ballasts. The behemoths make their presence known, too. The city’s latest attraction, colloquially known as Bezos’ Balls (aka The Amazon Spheres), acts as a giant glass conservatory for over 40,000 plants. And while it has the classic seductions every big city boasts (in Seattle’s case, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, and Chihuly Garden and Glass), it’s the unexpected attractions that make it worthy. Like the tucked-away Walrus and the Carpenter restaurant, where you can slurp oysters straight from Puget Sound, or the aptly named Hot Tub Boats. Add to that some naturally spectacular surrounds (verdant mountains, lush forests) and you’ve got an ideal launch pad for Alaska, Canada and the rest of North America.
When to visit: Early autumn (or fall, if you want to be Yankee about it) is the sweet spot for Seattle – warm and hospitable but with less chance of the Frasier-esque downpours the city is known for.
Where to stay: For a truly Seattle experience, head straight to the Inn at the Market – the only accommodation inside Pike Place Market itself.
Don’t miss: When an 1889 fire buried Seattle’s downtown – the powers-that-be simply built a new one over the top. Since 1954, Bill Speidel’s Underground has been holding tours of the subterranean city that was left behind, and it’s just as spooky as it sounds.
The local’s tip: Bill Radke, host of NPR Network affiliate KUOW Seattle’s Week in Review radio show and podcast, says if you want to eat like a local, head to Chinatown. “My 13-year-old daughter and I love taking the bus to the Uwajimaya food hall to eat fish waffles and poke, and Beard Papa cream puffs.”
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Why: The crescent-shaped city is the birthplace of jazz, dental floss and, perhaps surprisingly, poker. It’s also home to The Causeway, a bridge so long police have had to rescue drivers who’ve found themselves unable to continue when they lost sight of land. There’s a lot more than Mardi Gras and Voodoo, is what I’m saying. Although you’d be hard-pressed to visit without experiencing at least a little revelry – New Orleans’ open container laws make drinking in public completely legal and definitely indulged. But you could also go just for the food, it has a culinary bucket-list all its own.
When to visit: Springtime is the Goldilocks season to hit NOLA. That’s when the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is on. It’s more eclectic than the name suggests (this year’s acts include Lizzo and the Wu-Tang Clan).
Where to stay: One of the French Quarter’s landmark buildings, Hotel Monteleone has a rotating bar and suites named after past guests like Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway.
Don’t miss: New Orleans’ most important invention – the cocktail. The Sazerac, regarded as the first ever invented, was dreamt up in New Orleans and is best taken at the Sazerac Bar in The Roosevelt Hotel.
The local’s tip: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen is exactly the kind of performer NOLA is known for. And her hot tip? Forget Bourbon Street. “Have a meal at Bayona, then walk down Frenchman Street instead – you’ll see music spilling out onto the sidewalk, among markets, food and swing dancers. And there’s not one bit of it that doesn’t feel entirely authentic.”
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Why: I do declare Charleston more storied than Stephen King’s bookshelf. Not only is it the site of the start of the American Civil War, the fact it can boast the first public college, museum, playhouse and golf club in America is testament. Everything moves a little slower down south to the point you’ll feel like human molasses. But you knew that. What you didn’t know is that you can go horseback riding on the beach or sunset paddle-boarding with dolphins. After which you’ll surely want to relax with some shrimp and grits – invented in Charleston in 1950, it became so popular that by 1976 South Carolina declared it the official state food.
When to visit: Charleston has two peak seasons: spring and autumn. That’s when the weather is mild and the lowcountry boil tastes best.
Where to stay: For a true taste of Southern hospitality, head straight to Wentworth Mansion. Crystal chandeliers, marble fireplaces – it’s everything you expect from a wealthy cotton merchant’s Gilded Age former home.
Don’t miss: Pineapple spotting, which is easy enough as they’re absolutely everywhere. On fountains, lamp-posts and houses. The tradition dates back to when captains placed pineapples on their porches to symbolise their safe return from sea.
The local’s tip: Jason Kempf, broadcaster for minor league baseball team the Charleston RiverDogs, says the Holy City is surprisingly competitive. “When baseball isn’t in season, there’s college football and basketball, in addition to professional hockey, soccer and tennis. There’s always a game worth watching.”
Originally published as 5 most underrated cities in the USA