Sick of $400 hotel rooms, tourist-flooded attractions, and overpriced restaurants? Take a trip to one of America’s hippest small towns. Offering equal parts art, culture, and cool factor, towns like Boise, Kansas City, and others are giving XXL metropolises like NYC and LA a run for their money. Here, 7 unexpectedly hip towns worth downsizing for.
Cincinnati has plenty of Old World charm—19th-century Art Deco architecture, historic breweries, European-style neighborhoods. But the city has also seen a great cultural revival in the past couple of years, with buzzy storefronts, boutique hotels, standout restaurants and hip bars popping up. This transformation is no more apparent than in the city’s Over-the-Rhine district—the once epicenter of German immigrant society—where an $80 million revitalization has added cool new shops (we love the craft shop MiCA 12/V), local art galleries, and charming cafes (check out Iris BookCafé, which has a secret garden replete with sculptures). Stop for a sweet bite at Holtman’s Donuts, a family-owned chain dating back to 1960, before heading to the Zaha Hadid-designed Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, the first freestanding American museum designed by a woman (inside, you’ll find cutting-edge photography, film, and performance art). Another must-stop: The Video Archive, a Quentin Tarantino-themed speakeasy concealed behind a door in a storefront made to look like a VHS rental shop. Make your home base the art-filled 21C Museum Hotel, where there’s a free contemporary art gallery, a rooftop bar, and a see-and-be-seen restaurant.
Boise has earned a reputation as a culinary hotspot in recent years— its third-wave coffee roasters, gourmet donut shops, and tasting-menu restaurants on par with what you’d find in Portland or Seattle. Start your eatathon off with the three-hour Boise Food Tour, which covers 1.5 miles of downtown and may include stops at Juniper, a farm-to fork restaurant with an emphasis on local ingredients; Guru Donut, which sells cake and vegan varieties inspired by a handwritten 1940s donut recipe; and Mai Thai, home to some of the best Asian food in the city. Work it all off by hiking, running, or biking through The Boise Foothills, which surround the city and offer 180 miles of trails. We recommend you stay at The Modern, a motel-turned boutique hotel in the city’s Linen District, where you can unpack in your retro-chic guestroom and grab a drink at the buzzy cocktail bar.
Hot hotels, a booming culinary scene and an increasingly youthful vibe are transforming the hippest part of North Carolina’s bookish research triangle (which also includes Raleigh and Chapel Hill). Check into the 21 C, a 125-key modern stunner occupying a 1930s-landmark building downtown, where contemporary arts and cultural programs are held across 10,500 square feet of exhibition space. Or there's The Durham across the street, with 53 rooms done up in poppy colors--bright yellows, blues and reds-- and a slick rooftop bar. Grab a coffee and a sweet bite at Cocoa Cinnamon before heading to the Duke University campus to stroll through the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, one of the premier public gardens in the U.S., with 200+ colorful plant varieties, and see the latest show at the Nasher Museum of Art, where previous exhibitions have included work by Henri Matisse, Ed Ruscha and Joan Miró. For dinner, tuck into fresh seasonal dishes like paneer stuffed squash blossoms and farm duck with shiitake mushrooms, wheatberries, and sweet potato mostarda at Piedmont before catching a show at the $48 million Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC).
What's not to love about Louisville? It's got killer food, music, and a unique Southern style. Bardstown Road is lined with lively bars serving local ales, craft cocktails, and of course, bourbon—just make sure to fill your stomach with a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich before you set out. As for where to stay? The 21C Museum Hotel Louisville is our favorite crash pad, thanks to its vast contemporary art collection, airy guestrooms with high ceilings and exposed brick, and an award-winning restaurant. If the hotel's art collection isn't cutting it, check out the Speed Art Museum, which recently underwent a $50-million renovation and expansion, and has a collection spanning 6,000 years.
KC offers the perfect mix of high and low culture: world-class museums, next-level BBQ joints, lively sports bars, boutique shops, and more fountains than Rome (allegedly). Stay in the heart of the city at The Fontaine, which has design-forward interiors (dark woods, Persian-style carpets, chandeliers made of hand-blow Venetian glass) and an outdoor rooftop pool. From there, take an Uber to the Crossroads arts district to shop at local spots like Coki Bijoux, a French-inspired jewelry boutique tucked away in a brick alley, and Hammerpress for exquisitely designed cards and posters fresh off the printing press. For more shopping, head to Baldwin KC to rifle through stacks of selvedge denim and shop the line’s iconic vintage-inspired “KC” baseball hats. Or check out the city's thriving art scene—you can catch a concert at the Moshe Safdie-designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, or browse the Bloch Galleries at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art (we especially love the new collection of Impressionist art and Art Nouveau artifacts). Our favorite spot for dinner is Port Fonda, which serves authentic Mexican eats, and hosts an unbeatable happy hour with margaritas and carnitas tacos.
It may be known for its Midwestern friendless and summer lake culture, but Minneapolis has a seriously creative side, too. Just look to the North Loop's Hewing Hotel, a 19th-century logging warehouse that brings together masculine, contemporary design and rustic lake house vibes. The brick-and-timber building has original pine timber beams, walls covered in work by local artists and photographers, and a rooftop Social Club. It’s a great starting point to check out dining hotspots like Bar La Grassa and The Bachelor Farmer, a slick, but inviting, Scandinavian restaurant. If you're pining for some culture, hit up the Walker Art Center for contemporary works and the Mill City Museum, which is built into the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill, to take in exhibits by local and regional artists.
The funky college town that produced bands like R.E.M. and the B-52s has a personality all its own, which is evident in the quirky shops and restaurants of its Victorian downtown streets. The racks at Dynamite Clothing are a vintage lover’s dream, while midcentury furniture enthusiasts might prefer the digs at Starlite Showroom. If shopping isn’t your thing, grab brunch at Five & Ten, which consistently ranks among the South’s best restaurants, and features an innovative menu driven by sustainable ingredients (order the braised lamb hash with fingerling potatoes, fennel, tatsoi, maitake mushrooms and garlic). Your crash pad is the funky Graduate Athens, a onetime iron foundry with retro-fabulous décor, an outdoor pool, coffee shop, and a music venue that doubles as a restaurant. After checking in, catch a live act at Georgia Theater, an Athens institution, then end your evening with the locals at Normal Bar.