The most interesting thing about the United States from a travel perspective is how vast and varied it is. Not only is the U.S. one of the largest countries in the world when it comes to geographical area, but it is also one of the most diverse in terms of the types of destinations it offers. You may have seen here previously, in fact, a look at some of the strangest places to visit in America, which touched on off-the-beaten-path destinations showcasing the dynamism of the country. Here we’re going to do something somewhat similar, but look instead at some unexpected cities.
These cities are not necessarily obscure, at least to Americans or in terms of population. But beneath the 10 or so cities that tend to rise to the top of American tourism lists (as well as innumerable destinations outside of urban areas altogether), these can still be easy to overlook. Each one is quite pleasant and enjoyable though, and if you do plan on visiting the U.S. we’d recommend you keep them in mind.
1. Madison, Wisconsin
There are a few different prevailing images of the American Midwest. Some think of this area and imagine wide-open, flat lands primarily used for farming; others might envision clusters of factories and major businesses, so commonly referenced in connection to this region by U.S. politicians. But on top of these, there is also a certain idea of a pleasant, laid-back city, perhaps with easy access to the Great Lakes and a college-town appeal. This is largely what Madison, Wisconsin has to offer.
It actually isn’t a small city at all - nor is it obscure, being the capital of the state of Wisconsin. But with better-known destinations like Chicago, Illinois and Minneapolis, Minnesota relatively close, it can be overlooked. We’d consider it a worthwhile destination though simply because it really is so pleasant. It’s a city known for a diverse collection of local museums; for its seemingly-constant festivals and cultural events; for beautiful bodies of water within driving distance; and for excellent local food and breweries. It’s also home to the University of Wisconsin, which offers some of the better collegiate sports experiences you can find in America, and contributes to the laid-back vibe of the city.
2. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Maybe the best-known city on this list, Pittsburgh is still somewhat overshadowed by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is also a little bit harder to get to from the East Coast (where so many international travelers will be flying to begin with). It’s a lovely place to visit though, due in large part to its little-advertised picturesque quality. Once known essentially as a coal miners’ town, Pittsburgh has become truly beautiful. From local parks and the rivers around the city, to specific attractions like the zoo and the Phipps Conservatory, there’s a lot to enjoy simply via observation.
Pittsburgh is also an excellent town for those inclined to seek out sports while traveling. The University of Pittsburgh is typically quite competitive across a number of collegiate sports, and the local professional teams are a major draw. The NFL’s Steelers have one of the proudest and most enthusiastic fan bases in the U.S., and the MLB’s Pirates play in an unusually gorgeous stadium. Some sports fans will also enjoy that in Pittsburgh, betting on the events is legal. Pennsylvania has become one of the leading U.S. states of late to embrace online casino play, which has quickly expanded to include sports betting as well.
3. Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins, Colorado actually boasts some of the same Midwestern appeal we noted with regard to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a pretty town where people enjoy being outdoors, participating in local festivals, riding their bicycles, and stopping by favorite breweries. It’s a nice place to go if you simply want to relax and soak up a pleasant atmosphere, in other words. We’ll also note specifically though that Fort Collins has one of the better “Old Town” districts you’ll find in an American city. It’s also very close to Rocky Mountain National Park, making it an excellent destination for those who want a little bit of outdoor adventure, but would prefer a city to stay in between excursions.
4. Iowa City, Iowa
Unless you happen to follow American presidential politics (which revolve disproportionately around the state of Iowa), you may never have heard of or thought about Iowa City. Despite being a state capital, it’s a fairly small place, and one that - if we’re being honest - people don’t give a second thought to simply because Iowa is primarily associated with cornfields. Perhaps it’s because of this, though, that Iowa City seems, in the most charming way possible, to be somewhat stuck in time.
That’s not to say it isn’t a modern city, and in fact it’s grown up a lot in the last few decades. But there’s still a sort of old-fashioned vibe that can sweep you up and make you fall in love with the city. Families stay in town for generations, the best bars and restaurants have been in place just as long, and the pace of living is on the slower side. It’s a college town to be sure, and in fact the University of Iowa’s football program offers perhaps the best attraction in town (with one of the top-rated tailgate experiences in the country). But above all else, Iowa City will show you a friendly, relaxed version of American culture that doesn’t tend to show through in the headlines.