When you think about fun US cities to visit, which ones spring to mind? San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Boston, Asheville...
Hang on a second…Asheville?? There are certain places in America that will always be a big draw, and rightly so. (Personally, if there was a vote for “capital of the world” I’d put my X in the box next to New York: it’s a place that I can return to time and time again and always find something new, alongside the old haunts that pull me back.) But it’s time to put some other US cities in the limelight; some you may not thought of visiting, and some you might just not have heard of…
In tourism terms, Austin is the city that seems to have come from nowhere. Maybe it was the hip annual South by Southwest and Austin City Limits festivals that propelled it to fame, added to its friendly reputation and stonking live music and food (especially barbecue) scene. So much so that British Airways now flies there daily non-stop from London, and has even had to put on bigger aircraft to cope with demand.
Austin is a quick and easy reach for the surrounding 'Hill Country', with historic towns such as Georgetown and Fredericksburg and two dozen vineyards…yep, there’s more to Texas than just beer. Let’s not beat around the bush, one of the main reasons to come to Austin is to eat and drink, so trousers with an elasticated waistband – or 'buffet pants' as I like to call them – are a good idea.
Your first stop should be Franklin Barbecue, which opens from 11am till 'sold out', which generally means lunchtime, and is all about the brisket. But ask around in town for locals’ other favourites too. When the sun goes down, the beers get chillier but the reception in the bars a whole lot warmer, and when it comes to music you’ll find venues for everything from country and bluegrass to hip hop, jazz and Latin.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville – 'small town, big flavour' – is a friendly little spot, tucked away in the west of North Carolina, squidged between the Pisgah National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest. It’s not too far of a drive from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which happens to be America’s most visited.
But while Asheville is a good base for visiting the great outdoors on its doorstep, there’s lots going on in town too, highlighted by a great food, pub and live music scene (try the All Souls Breakfast Salad at the Corner Kitchen on Boston Way). The huge, 19th-century chateau-like Biltmore estate – it was once a private home with over four acres of floor space – is definitely worth exploring, with artwork by the likes of Renoir and well-known American painters. So too is the River Arts District, where you might find a contemporary masterpiece to bring home.
Ask most Americans where they think of as 'hipster central' and most will answer Portland…a city where tattooed beanie-wearing baristas serve up Flat Whites before cycling off to their other gig; in-house performance poet at a Wednesday night only vegan farmers’ co-op. What this translates to, for visitors, is an incredibly diverse food and drink scene, where it’s not so much farm to fork as back garden to spoon. It’s very bike-friendly, with lots of cycling lanes, and there’s also the bonus of no sales tax - so this is a good spot in which to buy that new laptop computer or camera you’ve been thinking about.
Two other things you need to know: the city’s officially unofficial motto is 'Keep Portland Weird' and the second is that marijuana is legal to buy here, in fact you can do pot tours by bike. But if that seems like a step too far, just keep sugar as your drug of choice and pop into Voodoo Doughnuts or ice cream from Salt and Straw.
Atlanta is hardly small – its population is around some 5.5 million people – but it’s not usually a place visitors stop over in. They are more likely to be just transiting through its airport, which is the world’s busiest.
The city played an important role in the Civil War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and for anyone interested in recent history that still impacts the US today, a trip to the Martin Luther King Jnr. National Historic Site and the home where Dr King was born is definitely worth it. There is plenty else to keep you busy in a city whose inhabitants are known for their good southern manners and which is the headquarters of Coca Cola and the CNN news network (you can do tours of both). The Georgia Aquarium, with more than 10 million gallons of water, is a good way to spend an afternoon especially if you have kids in tow.
When it comes to food and drink, check out Buckhead and Midtown neighbourhoods and follow local bloggers for recommendations. If you want to get your South on, go for the shrimp and grits or fried chicken and waffles at the One Eared Stag in Inman Park. If there’s a downside to Atlanta, it’s the traffic. In rush hour it’s as bad as LA so that’s the time to discover a decent cafe, park or a gallery and stay put for a while.
San Diego, California
In those 'best place to live' surveys, San Diego always ranks near the top, and it’s easy to see why with its coastal location next to the Pacific Ocean and balmy Southern California climate. “Hey dude” seems to be a phrase well suited to San Diego. It’s a good spot in which to finish a west coast holiday, and it’s tantalisingly close to Tijuana if you want to add Mexico into the mix.
In terms of things to do, you can chill out at Mission Beach or learn to surf: San Diego Surf School, for example, does 90-minute family lessons if you want a taster. The world famous zoo at Balboa Park is one for people who generally don’t do zoos, and is well known for its conservation efforts; while those who want to see what life is like on board one of the world’s biggest aircraft carriers can tour the 45,000-ton USS Midway, which left service 25 years ago. At night the Gaslamp Quarter is the neighbourhood to aim for, with lots of food and drink options.
Will Hide is a London-based travel writer who spent 12 years on the travel desk of the Times before turning freelance. He still writes regularly for the Times as well as the FT, Telegraph and numerous magazines. You can follow his travels at Been There, Done It.