Top 10 underrated U.S. cities

06.05.2010 In: Travel destinations

Everyone knows cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago are among the best in the U.S., but there are many other fabulous — albeit smaller — American cities that just don't get their fair share of the limelight. Whether their proximity to a bigger city steals their thunder or a recent city makeover remains undiscovered by the masses, the cities on our list are oft-overlooked by even the savviest of travelers. If you're looking to broaden the scope of your trips to include some less-talked-about places with great art scenes, friendly locals, delectable cuisine, and rich history, add one of our ten most underrated cities to your "must-see" list.

1. Baltimore
Native blue crabs seasoned with Old Bay are reason enough to visit Baltimore, but there's much more to experience in this waterfront town. Take, for example, the city's revitalized Inner Harbor area; the upscale neighborhood of Mount Vernon, home to the nation's first large-scale Washington Monument; and Harbor East, where a number of hotels and restaurants are opening their doors. Its new, contemporary look aside, you can still discover some 300 years of American history along Baltimore's cobblestone streets — not only was the "Star Spangled Banner" written here, but abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived and worked in the historic waterfront community of Fells Point in the 1830s — and track down the settings for John Waters' films (“Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble,” among many others, were all shot here). Sports fans will also find no shortage of outlets, since Baltimore is also home to both the Orioles baseball team and Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown.

2. Fort Lauderdale
Say goodbye to its days as a raucous spring-break spot — today's Fort Lauderdale is all about upscale beach chic, as confirmed by the string of swanky new hotels on the block, like the St. Regis Resort (opened May 2007) and W Hotel (set to open October 2008). Stroll the stunning seaside promenade and comb a strand of sand that rivals Miami Beach, then set out for some irresistible shopping, and finally cap off your day with a culinary feast at one of the city's stellar international restaurants. Combined with a surprisingly sophisticated arts and museum scene, an extensive yachting and golfing network, and one of America's top gay and lesbian scenes, Fort Lauderdale's status as Florida's fashionable destination du jour is long overdue.

3. Houston
Houston is proof that everything is indeed bigger in Texas. While better known for its big business and energy interests, this sprawling city also hosts top-notch orchestra, opera, and ballet companies, a dynamic theater scene, great museums, and the world-renowned NASA Space Center. Shopping reigns supreme here — you'll find a huge concentration of shops and above-par outlet malls — and its cosmopolitan restaurant scene expands upon the state's traditional Tex-Mex offerings. Bold and impressive architecture helps define the cityscape, too — including the mammoth Astrodome — making this fourth-largest U.S. city a true star in the Lone Star State.

4. Kansas City
With downtown's multi-billion-dollar face-lift, pedestrian-friendly boulevards, and claim to having the most fountains of any city outside of Rome, Kansas City is definitely deserving of buzz. Plus, history buffs can learn about the city's pioneer roots at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, while sports fans can visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, a tribute to the excellent athletes forced to play in segregated leagues. Blues and jazz clubs also abound in this city where musicians like Count Basie and Charlie Parker got their start, particularly in the historic 18th and Vine District, where the American Jazz Museum is located. Once you've worked up an appetite, you're also in for a treat, as this Midwestern city also boasts some of the county's best barbecue.

5. Louisville
The Kentucky Derby may be its claim to fame, but the famous horse race isn't all Louisville has to offer. Nestled on the banks of the Ohio River, this Southern city has loads of small-town charm, a cosmopolitan riverfront district, a diverse art scene (thanks to the Kentucky Center for the Arts), and a growing foodie market with its own Restaurant Row. Sports lovers should make a stop at the Louisville Slugger Museum; thrill-seekers, take a ride on one of the world's longest stand up coasters at Kentucky Kingdom; and history lovers, sip mint juleps on a river cruise aboard the Belle of Louisville, a National Historic Landmark.

6. Minneapolis
When you think "Midwest architectural mecca" the first city that springs to mind is probably Chicago. But a burst of new buildings from the world's top architects — Herzog & de Meuron's Walker Art Center expansion, Jean Nouvel's new Guthrie Theater, Michael Graves' addition to the Institute of Arts — reinforces the fact that Minneapolis's cultural cachet doesn't entirely depend upon Prince (the city's most notorious native son). The city's revitalization has spread to banks of the Mississippi, where the booming Mill District has shops, restaurants, and boutique hotels catering to style-savvy travelers, many of whom come for the tax-free shopping.

7. Pittsburgh
Forget Pittsburgh's reputation for smokestacks and steel, because today the city is sparkling with pristine parks, architectural assets, and three rivers flowing into downtown's "Golden Triangle." Several museums — the Carnegie Museum of Art among them — are worth hitting, but don't miss the Andy Warhol Museum featuring over 12,000 of his works. A treasure trove of used books is found on the city's South Side, while nightlife is suddenly sizzling in neighborhoods like Oakland and the Strip District, thanks to thousands of college students from Carnegie Mellon (among others) and young professionals dancing and mingling in the bars and clubs.

8. Portland
It's a fantastic jumping-off point for a Pacific Northwest vacation — with proximity to the Oregon coast, Mount Hood, and Willamette Valley wine country — but there's much to see in the city limits too, as the "City of Roses" boasts beauty and culture aplenty. A stop at the Portland Art Museum is a must for art enthusiasts, as is the monthly "First Thursdays" tour when galleries stay open late. Portland boasts more breweries per capita than any other city in the U.S. — 30 in all — so beer lovers will also find plenty of places to sip suds. The promise of tax-free shopping, plus the bustling Saturday outdoor food and arts market (from late March to December), means plenty of retail therapy here too.

9. Providence
The "Renaissance City," of Providence, Rhode Island's capital, has indeed been reborn in the last decade, as residents have reclaimed derelict buildings and two of the city's three rivers, created waterside walkways, and welcomed brand-name shopping. Today, visitors can take a gondola ride through downtown or, on select days between May and September, enjoy the light of 100 bonfires along Providence's three rivers as part the WaterFires events — an evening fire sculpture set to music. When you add in a burgeoning dining scene, rich New England history, a monthly gallery night, and a renowned performing-arts scene, Providence seems tailor-made for a quick and fulfilling getaway.

10. Sacramento
Governor Schwarzenegger's much-ballyhooed magnetism aside, California's capital has never had the same allure as say, San Fran or L.A. But with an increasingly sophisticated food scene — think farm-fresh Bolognese cuisine at Biba or maple-glazed pork chops at the clubby Esquire Grill (one of Ahnold's favorite restaurants) — this agricultural hub appeals to even the snobbiest city-slicker. Between bites, take in the Gold Rush-era charms of Old Sacramento, bike along the banks of the Sacramento and American Rivers, and stroll amid downtown's stately Victorian homes and tall evergreens. You may even catch a glimpse of the "Governator" himself at the impressive capitol building. Wash it all down with a visit to the Sierra Foothill wineries in the Shenandoah Valley — a mere 45-minute drive to the east.