Some cities have an automatic slot on any must-visit list, others are hidden gems. Finding those that exceed expectations is one of the best parts of traveling. Here are five cities that won us over with combinations of history, culture and charm.
Though often overlooked due to its enormous neighbor to the south, Milwaukee is a big city in its own right, with a population of 600,000 and a metropolitan total of 1.5 million. Milwaukeeans roll their eyes at the description, but it does resemble a mini Chicago, with its river winding through downtown, distinctive neighborhoods and lakefront parks.
Our favorite hoods are the historic Third Ward, eclectic Brady Street, creative Bay View and up-and-coming Walker’s Point. Each offers a different experience and it’s own local flavor. The Milwaukee Art Museum offers world-class culture and its Calatrava-designed movable winged roof is worth a visit alone. The Milwaukee County Zoo is one of the best we’ve visited as well.
Any discussion of Milwaukee must include beer. Lots of local breweries like Brenner, Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing and Miller offer tours and tastings and the under-restoration Pabst complex gives a peek at the heyday of big industrial brewing. On the cocktail front, Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Walker’s Point stands as one of our all-time favorite bars.
The walkable downtown, strong neighborhoods and laid back attitude make Milwaukee worth visit after visit.
Fun fact: When completed in 1895, Milwaukee city hall was the tallest habitable building in the United States (only the Washington Monument was taller).
Columbus turned out to be full of surprises on our brief stop there in spring 2014. The Ohio state capital’s 835,000 residents makes it larger than the other two big Ohio C towns combined (though Cleveland and Cincinnati’s metropolitan area populations are higher) and ranks Columbus the 15th largest city nationally.
Columbus doesn’t have a reputation as an especially historic place, so we definitely weren’t expecting to find one of the largest restored old neighborhoods in the United States in the German Village. This area, located just south of downtown, is full of narrow brick-paved streets, quaint houses and great restaurants and bars. Those looking for a wilder time might like the Short North neighborhood on the opposite side of downtown that gets its energy from the enormous student population at nearby Ohio State University. Both neighborhoods offered great dining, drinking, strolling and people-watching opportunities. A recent project re-purposing the Scioto Riverfront into a major downtown park along with its well-known zoo/aquarium and varied cultural amenities will ensure reasons for future Columbus visits.
Fun Fact: Half the population of the United States is within 500 miles of Columbus.
Pennsylvania’s second city has been on the rebound for quite some time now, but many still associate it with giant steel factories and pollution. In reality, that has been left in the past and the Pittsburgh of today has many redeeming qualities. Chief among them is the city’s beautiful natural setting where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers meet to become the Ohio. Tall bluffs climbed by funicular elevators line the waterways, affording sweeping views from above and green backdrops from below. Bridges of all designs cross the rivers everywhere you look. It has been said that Pittsburgh has more bridges than any other city in the world, beating even Venice. The city’s history as an industrial and business giant has left it with an impressive collection of museums, universities, medical centers, parks and cultural destinations.
Downtown Pittsburgh’s maze of narrow streets, public plazas and tall and varied architecture give it the character of a much larger city than it is, feeling in places like a mini Manhattan. The South Side neighborhood across the Monongahela has the longest intact Victorian-era street in the country and is filled with restaurants and shops. We found a cocktail hot spot in Butcher and the Rye downtown and enjoyed the upscale but low-key Shadyside neighborhood on the east end of town.
Fun Fact: In 2015, Pittsburgh was named one of the 11 most livable cities in the world.
Smack in the middle of the country, at the confluence of the Kansas River and the Missouri River lies Kansas City, the largest city in the state of… Missouri. No wonder the geographically challenged get confused. This border-straddling metro area boomed during the country’s westward expansion years, becoming a major launching point for trails leading to western territories. The opening of the first railroad bridge over the Missouri River solidified KC as the dominant city in the region.
Kansas City was home to a strong “city beautiful” urban design movement from the 1890s to the 1910s, placing fountains and carving winding, grassy boulevards all over town. Today there are more than 135 miles of boulevards and parkways and more than 200 fountains, earning the city the nickname “City of Fountains.” Another great cultural attraction is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which houses an impressive collection of fine art as well as an expansive sculpture garden on the lawn.
There are many great neighborhoods to explore, with the best-known ones being the Spanish-inspired shopping district, Country Club Plaza and the restaurant and nightlife-filled Westport. Closer to downtown, the Crossroads Arts District contains galleries and creative industry offices in converted warehouses. Also nearby is Boulevard Brewing’s plant. We always know where to find the booze. When hunger strikes, Kansas City’s well-known barbecue scene is not to be missed.
Fun Fact: Kansas City is the closest major city to the geographic center of the Lower 48.
According to the news, it would seem the entirety of Detroit is a desolate wasteland. While parts of it are quite bleak, we found way more character and spirit than in many “popular” cities, and had some of the best food and drink of 2015 there. Downtown Detroit is full of beautiful architecture, public art and freshly revamped public spaces like Campus Martius Park. They’re even installing a streetcar line to connect downtown with Midtown, things are looking up.
Founded in 1701, Detroit is old by American standards, giving the cityscape a close-knit feeling, with radiating French-style roads combining with a newer American grid system. The age also means there are lots of well-established cultural organizations and the beautiful Belle Isle Park.
The auto industry sparked the massive economic expansion of the city and has left its mark in “Motown” everywhere. GM’s headquarters in the glassy Renaissance Center towers over downtown and each January the North American International Auto Show brings the industry together to show off their new products. A short drive from downtown we found Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant, the birthplace of the Model T and now home to an informative museum. The nearby suburb of Dearborn holds Ford’s current headquarters, research & development facilities and the huge Henry Ford Museum complex. You might even see a disguised prototype car cruising the area (we saw you, 2017 Fusion). We toured the Ford River Rouge plant, getting a live look at the process of building a modern vehicle.
Detroit’s historic assets, cultural institutions and culinary scene give it great potential for the coming rebound, but check it out in the meantime as well.
Fun Fact: Crossing the border to Canada from Detroit requires traveling south.