America is so vast, it’s easy to fill your bucket list with big-name destinations, like New Orleans and San Francisco, and never tap into smaller cities that pack just as much culture. Whether it’s a burgeoning arts scene or a host of new, award-winning eateries, these six cities — that you may have discounted — deserve a second look.
In 2013, Paducah was named a UNESCO-designated Creative City for its long history of crafts and folk art, which are still woven into the fabric of the community today. In 2000, Paducah began offering incentives to artists to relocate downtown and restore old Victorian homes. Now, the once-blighted neighborhood has blossomed into the Lower Town Arts District, where you can browse a patchwork of galleries and studios.
The National Quilt Museum offers a striking look at an underrepresented art form. Check out the Market House Theatre for plays and musicals, or catch a concert at the Carson Center for Performing Arts, which has hosted performances from Crosby, Stills & Nash to STOMP. On Saturdays in summer, live bands perform in the gazebo on Broadway, Paducah’s main thoroughfare, and the large flood wall that separates the street from the Ohio River has become an evolving canvas for murals depicting Paducah’s history.
Des Moines, IA
To outsiders, Iowa is often oversimplified to cornfields and caucuses. But the state’s capital, Des Moines, is booming with creative opportunities, new restaurants, and ambling green spaces. In the heart of downtown, Western Gateway Park is home to a 28-piece sculpture garden, featuring works by Willem de Kooning and Richard Serra; the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden completed their outdoor gardens last year; and some 600 miles of bike trails and a new bike share program make the city more accessible. A crop of new eateries have opened in the last year, including the Iowa Taproom, with more than 120 local Iowa Craft Beers on tap; and Gilroy’s Kitchen + Pub + Patio, which helms “Stylish American Comfort Food” (read: fried mac and cheese bites and a massive grilled tomahawk pork chop with ginger BBQ sauce). And a set of chic boutique hotels is on the way: the 108-room Marriott-owned AC Hotel opens in the East Village in late December, and a 110-room Element Hotel opens next spring with electric vehicle stations and a free bike rental program.
In the past few years, Lafayette has made a name for itself as a haven for Southern and Cajun cuisine, separate from nearby, more widely visited New Orleans. While here, don’t miss the fried shrimp po’ boy at Olde Tyme Grocery. Come dinner, visit one of the more rustic, elegant eateries that have popped up in recent years: Social Southern Table and Bar (for elevated fried chicken) and The French Press (for escargot-and-crawfish ragout) won’t disappoint. Lafayette is also known for its blend of Cajun and Zydeco music. Catch a performance at bars like Blue Moon Saloon and Artmosphere; on the first Sunday of the month, head to music repair shop Tom’s Fiddle & Bow for folk and Cajun performances on the porch overlooking the bayou.
After the Erie Canal’s final western closure in the early 20th century, Buffalo went from a thriving industrial hub to a Rust Belt ghost town. Now, the abandoned waterway is the heart of the city’s waterfront revitalization project, where vacant warehouses and factories are reopening as breweries and beer gardens, roller derbies, and restaurants. And the rest of the city is following suit.
In the next year, two Buffalo landmarks are being transformed into trendy hotels: the 68-room Curtiss Hotel, which will have a high-end restaurant and a Roman Bath when it opens this summer, followed by The Richardson Hotel Buffalo, which is billing itself as an “Urban Resort.” A host of new eateries include Toutant, which serves Southern staples like fried chicken and supersize cinnamon biscuits; Allen Burger Venue and Marble + Rye, where burgers and craft beer are king; and O.G. Wood Fire, which makes proper wood-fired pizza on four wheels (a brick-and-mortar location is rumored to be opening later this year).
Though it’s home to the University of Arkansas, there’s far more to Fayetteville than football and dive bars. The Walton Arts Center draws artists from around the world, and the Arkansas Air Museum exhibits aircraft from the 1920s through the 1940s. Lit-lovers can catch a reading at Nightbird Books, or browse Dickson St. Bookshop’s labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling reads. The Fayetteville Public Library, named Library Journal’s Library of the Year in 2005, is a stunning 170,500 square-foot facility and the first Arkansas building to register as an environmentally responsible “green” building. Don’t miss the 112 Drive In theater — one of the few remaining in the state — where you can still see a double feature for about $8. Hugo’s is the go-to spot for burgers, beer, and homemade crepes; and scour the town’s vintage shopping at Grey Dog and Mae’s Emporium.
Bonus: A half-hour drive from Fayetteville gets you to Bentonville (best known for Walmart’s headquarters); it’s worth the trip for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where free admission gets you access to works by Andy Warhol and views of the Ozark Mountains. The city is also home to the art-focused 21c Museum Hotel, nose-to-tail restaurant Tusk & Trotter, and Bentonville Brewing Company for beers and bluegrass music.
With the rise of farm-to-table dining — and the rise of real estate prices in San Francisco — people are flocking to Sacramento, and slowly converting California’s state capital into its farm-to-fork capital. Magpie Café serves bánh mì with sustainable beef, and Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates uses fresh cream and seasonal ingredients in their confections. At Tower Cafe, the decor draws from as many cultures as the menu, which includes the Kingston grilled jerk chicken and Moo Ping Satay, pork marinated in garlic and turmeric with a sweet chili dipping sauce; and Garden to Grill serves vegan and gluten-free fare in a restored Victorian with a tented garden out back. Don’t leave without snagging the peanut-butter mochi from Osaka Ya, one of the only remaining businesses in the city’s dwindling Japantown.