Travel inspiration: 4 amazing US city breaks that are NOT New York

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Elle Griffiths
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Who doesn’t love New York City? Whether you’ve been 20 times or it’s still on your bucket list, ‘the city that never sleeps’ has a powerful hold over our imagination.

You might fancy yourself as a 1970s Diane Keaton, wandering around Manhattan in androgynous dress a la Annie Hall. You might want to see where a young, fame hungry Madonna first landed with just the mythical 35 dollars in her pocket. Or you might long to strut down Broadway putting the world to rights with your best friends like Carrie and co.

But with the Brexit beleaguered pound currently faring terribly against the dollar, many of the iconic film sets now changed beyond recognition and gentrification turning much of Manhattan into a rich person’s playground, is New York really the best American city break to give you bang for your tourist buck?

There’s a lot of other big cities in North America, and several of them are considerably cheaper than New York City while still holding their own in terms of food, culture and shopping.

So if you’re looking for an authentic urban US break, it might be time to consider some of these underrated alternatives.


The vibe

The US’s third largest city has all the impressive buzz of a big metropolis, with the neck-craning skyscrapers, honking cabs and intimidatingly large public transport system to prove it. But this first impression belies its true friendly, mid-western charm.

Unlike notoriously tough and aloof New York, stop a Chicagoan in the street and ask for directions and you’ll probably end up hearing their life story over a beer in one of the many affable watering holes dotted around the city. This is a friendly town with plenty of bars that open till 4am (much later than most US cities) – proving that the Big Apple isn’t the only city that doesn’t sleep.

And, with wide, spacious sidewalks, you’re less likely to become rush-hour road kill than in downtown Manhattan.

Moreover, they’re also remarkably clean. Even in the height of a sticky summer, the windy city smells and looks far fresher than notoriously pungent New York.

The must-visit spots

Speaking of weather, we know what you’re thinking: Chi-town does suffer some of the most brutal winters going, but it more than makes up for them when summer rolls around.

Forget Miami or LA, Chicago has 29 miles of beach in the city itself (with more within driving distance), and the waters of Lake Michigan are as blue as the Bahamas.

Office workers, tourists and students from the city’s many universities all hit the sands and beach front bars for the summer months, with Oak Street Beach a prime spot for people watching, sun-bathing and taking in a great view of the city skyline.

Things really heat up on 4 July when the city hosts one of the biggest Independence Day firework shows in the country at Navy Pier. 

Most of the downtown beaches fill up quickly, but savvy Chicagoans in the know head to Fullerton beach, further north for a quieter spot with great views of the pyrotechnics. 

If you do decide to brave the icy tundra during the winter months, you’ll see that Chicagoans are a hardy bunch, with nightlife spots full to bursting as urbanites enjoy underground jazz and cocktails to keep warm.

While faux speakeasies may now be all the rage in the UK and elsewhere in the US, Chicago was way ahead of the curve, with the original boot-legging capital making a virtue out of its vice-ridden past for years.

Prohibition era tours operate around the city, taking you through the roaring Twenties and Thirties, pointing out notorious old mob hangouts and speakeasies. Similarly, architecture tours flourish with Chicago’s Art Deco details second to none.

Take the walking tour to get a real feel for the city’s beautiful skyscrapers, or generate some serious Instagram envy and take a deco boat trip down the river. 

The food

And if all that jazz gives you an appetite, you’ll be spoiled for choice for eateries in Chicago. A jigsaw of ethnic neighbourhoods, the Mid-Western metropolis boasts mouth watering cuisine from all over the globe. 

But if you want the full Man vs Food experience you’ll be well catered for. Deep-dish pizza, ‘cheeseboigers’ and steaks are all synonymous with this quintessentially American city. 

When in Rome, eh?

Austin, Texas

The vibe

Texas, unlike few other US states, has a distinct identity and culture in its own right. Mention the Lone Star state and most Brits immediately think cowboys, lax gun control and right wing politics. Which is what makes the city of Austin such a stereotype-busting, liberal oasis.

Located deep in the heart of the red state (Texas last voted for a Democrat in a presidential election in 1976), Austin is a kooky, artistic metropolis that maintains the perfect blend of big city progressiveness and southern hospitality.

The city’s mantra is ‘Keep Austin weird’ and it’s an ethos that clearly resonates, with graffiti murals, food trucks and eccentric locals the defining features of the Texan state capital.

With the South by Southwest and Austin city limits music festivals growing in popularity year on year, Austin is definitely having a moment.

But the city has heaps to offer visitors year round and, with 30 degree days not unheard of in February, it’s a great spot to escape a UK winter.

The food

Foodies should pack loose fitting pants as the city has a well-deserved reputation as a dining hot spot. But go expecting staid, Texan steakhouses and you’ll be in for a shock. Even if you live in a big UK city and fancy yourself the seasoned food truck patron, prepare to be humbled by the choice and quality on offer in the city that pioneered that particular revolution.

Tacos are a big fixture and there’s a good chance you’ll develop an obsession with them post-trip, as some of the best rated joints in the whole country are located within the city- many of them specialising in breakfast tacos, a great way to start any day.  

Barbecue is also huge, with several trucks and venues competing for the crown of best BBQ in the city in increasingly imaginative ways.

The must-visit spots

Despite a plethora of cheap al-fresco eateries, there is more to do in Austin besides eat. The town is also known nationally and internationally for its live music scene.

Head to the city’s East Side to sip margaritas and bar hop before catching a performance at legendary honky tonk venue The White Horse which features some of the best emerging country music talent every night.

And if you hit the margs a bit too hard, you can always recover the next day by having a dip in Barton Springs pool in Ziker park. The totally natural pool is three acres in size, and is fed from underground springs. And, with an average temperature of 20 degrees, it’s ideal for year-round swimming.



The vibe

We’re reluctant to include this city on the list, as Denver is currently one of the US’s best kept secrets. Set amid some of the county’s most breath-taking scenery, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and dominated by ‘Old West’ architecture, the city has everything going for it, looks-wise. But don’t dismiss the Colorado state capital as a sleepy backwater.

The Mile High city has a burgeoning culinary scene, alongside well-established arts and cultural institutions that a city twice its size would be proud of.

Pushed out by rising rents and the cost of living on either coast, growing numbers of young urbanites are making Denver their home.  And, as a result, an exciting live/work/play culture in the area known as ‘LODO’ (lower downtown) has emerged.

Loft-living, an abundance of restaurants and bars, thriving culture and historical landmarks all exist among each other in a small few block radius in a way strictly reserved for the uber wealthy in most cities in the 21st century. It serves as a reminder of how you once naively imagined city life could be.

The food

This influx of young people has been swiftly followed by a plethora of food trucks, brew pubs and all the other associated markers of a hipster metropolis. 

But despite this, Denver maintains a refreshingly non-pretentious air. Any lumberjack shirts you see will most likely be of the non-ironic variety, as the city attracts and caters to the outdoorsy type like no other. 

Skiing, hiking, rafting and a host of other pursuits are all available in virtually no time at all from downtown Denver, meaning you can combine a great city break with an active trip. 


The vibe

Sandwiched in an awkward geographical spot near bigger fellow East Coasters, New York and Washington DC, scrappy Philly is often over-looked by international tourists in favour of its more famous neighbours. But avoid that mistake and you’ll be richly rewarded by this hidden gem.

Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern America and, as a result, is steeped in history. Most of the major sites – such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall – sit within easy walking distance of each other in the pretty historic district. Yet the staunchly blue collar city is anything but twee, as gritty Philly has edge by the bucket load.

While hipster transplants and gentrification have transformed New York beyond recognition, Philadelphia has the feel of long-lost, eighties Manhattan but with all the amenities of the 21st century.

The food

Head to the South Philly Italian market with an empty stomach and enjoy a slice of incredible pizza and authentic Italian-American culture, simultaneously.  

And if that’s not quite unhealthy enough for you, make sure you sample a ‘cheese steak’ at either Pat’s or Genos – two rival restaurants across the street from each other. 

All native Philadelphians have a fave and a strange, tribal allegiance to one or the other. 

For higher end grub, ‘Center City’- as it’s known to locals- is your best bet. The food scene has taken off in a huge way in recent years with chef’s typically training in New York before moving back to open their own restaurant in Philly and share the fruits of their labour with its residents.

Similarly, many of the big plays and musicals use Philadelphia as a trial run for Broadway, meaning savvy theatre lovers can get tickets to see a great show at a fraction of the price. 

Images: Getty


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Elle Griffiths

Elle Griffiths is a freelance writer living in Brighton. She divides her time pretty evenly between despairing about American Politics, watching Mad Men re-runs and complaining about Southern Rail delays.