When you think of traveling the United States of America, you probably think of the big players like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. While these cities are great, we find the best cities are often not the ones you’d expect. That’s why we’re letting you in on our little secret… the best US cities that are completely off the beaten path!
It’s no secret we LOVE to travel. Thanks to 3 years of living full time vanlife in our 1984 Volkswagen Westfalia, we’ve thoroughly explored North America. We drove across Canada and through 22 US states on our road trip. We got quite intimate with all the big cities and hidden gems along the way and were quite surprised about which cities stood out from our travels.
While we love giving you in depth guides on cities, those only work when you know where you’re going. If you’re still in the dreaming stage of your next vacation (our favorite part), we’ve got a list of our favorite US cities that should be up for some serious consideration on where to travel.
As you read through, you’ll notice a trend: you’ve probably never heard of any of these US cities. Or at least, you’re surprised they made it onto our list of the best cities to visit. It’s true, these are certainly off the beaten path destinations, but trust us – they’re worth a visit!
Best off the beaten path US cities
We love us a good city to explore but what we really love is visiting those secret hidden gems. The places that you end up in without any sort of pre conceived idea of what to expect. Without expectation. And after we’re done finding them, we LOVE filling you guys in on all the best kept secret cities out there.
Without further ado. let’s jump into our top places to visit in the USA that are completely off the beaten path. Let us know at the bottom if you’ve ever heard of any of these areas before!
1. Kansas City, Missouri
While driving through Kansas felt like we were going from one wheat field to the next for hours on end, we were then rewarded with the vibrant city of Kansas City. We were surprised to learn that Kansas City actually sits on the border of Kansas and Missouri and that the cool part of the city is in Missouri.
While we love a good small town vibe, middle America (much like middle Canada) is just a bit too sleepy for us. Unfortunately for us American road trip goers, you can’t really avoid traveling through it. Every now and then (well, a few hours in between) you get to some really great cities. Kansas City is one of them!
The city is like a mirage in the desert. Kansas City streets are beautifully tree-lined, the patio scene at local restaurants is a vibe, their brewery and distillery district is excellent, and their transportation system is green and very efficient.
This city is incredibly urban with modern architecture, a great Italian district, and a fun artsy vibe. If you’re lucky enough to be here on game day, you can see the city really light up with the Kansas City Chiefs big game.
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2. Colorado Springs, Colorado
Ok, ok, so this one isn’t a huge surprise. If you know anything about us you know we LOVE Colorado. The laid-back, health-conscious vibes combine with the beautiful Rocky Mountains, rivers, and many different hot springs to create a truly magical place.
Sure, Denver is nice, beautiful even, but just south of the city you will find the magical smaller town of Colorado Springs. One of the best things to do in Colorado Springs is to visit the beautiful Garden of the Gods. These stunning sandstone rock formations put on quite the show with a dramatic appearance set against a mountainous backdrop of Pikes Peak.
I wanted to take a hot air balloon ride in this area so badly but Myles is scared of heights. Next time we go back, I will definitely make this a priority!
Another amazing must do in the area is visiting the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. These 700 year old houses and structures are built into the red sandstone mountain making for quite the site. When we visited you could walk/crawl through the different rooms of the ruins making it a lot of fun to explore.
One of the best parts of Colorado Springs is it’s location. Colorado is one of the best US states to road trip through. Driving south will get you to hot springs and desert oases while driving north or west will get you to mountains and forests.
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3. Boise, Idaho
If you want to experience small town charm with all the big city amenities, Boise is it. We found this to be one of the friendliest areas we traveled to with people chatting with us everywhere we went.
The city has so much to do and has a great downtown vibe with upbeat restaurants full of life. This is a great place to find a patio and enjoy a pint.
We’d never really heard much about Idaho so we didnt’t know what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised. This city is an outdoor playground, something we definitely didn’t expect. We spent days climbing through the trails around Boise and went kayaking on the Boise River.
If you want a great way to explore the city, try renting bikes to tour around. Downtown you will find the Boise River Greenbelt which is a 25 mile (40 km) trail that connects different areas of downtown and will get you to shops, restaurants, and other trails. Renting bikes to tour around this area is definitely the most beautiful way to explore the city.
Where to stay in Boise
4. Salt Lake City, Utah
You can tell we love the Red Rock states with this one.
After our American road trip, we can honestly say Utah is one of our favorite US states to visit! Weird because it was DEFINITELY not on our radar prior to visiting. While we’d heard of Zion National Park and Arches National Park and knew we wanted to go, what we found in this state was so much more than we could have expected.
The drive through Utah to get to Salt Lake City is full of color. We stopped what felt like every couple hundred feet to take in all the beauty of the wildflowers and colorful nature around us. There are a lot of rivers and lakes around which is great considering Salt Lake City gets HOT! It was 100℉ (38℃) the whole time we visited!
There are so many great things to do in Salt Lake City but by far the best is to explore Salt Lake itself and go floating. You can even take a tour to visit Antelope Island and explore the wildlife that lives there like bison, bobcats, coyotes, big horn sheep and more.
One of our favorite things is to visit the hot springs, our favorite is Fifth Water Hot Springs southeast of the city.
If you are looking for a great day trip from Salt Lake, head west about 120 miles (193 km) to the Bonneville Salt Flats! This was a must see for Myles who had heard that this is where supercars come to test their top speeds. While we didn’t see any cars speeding, the flats were a TON of fun to explore!
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5. Monterey, California
It’s no secret that California is one of the most beautiful states in the USA and also one of the most talked about states. You know all about places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, but have you ever heard of Monterey? I bet not!
Monterey is a small town on the coast of California just south of San Francisco. This is one of the best road trip destinations as there are so many pull off right along the water where you can set up for the perfect beach day. We spent days being serenaded by the sound of the crashing waves as we worked from our van just a few feet from the beach.
Downtown Monterey has lots of life, although admittedly is quite touristy. Giving a small town vibe, it is one long strip that offers lots of parking for you to walk around to the different stores and restaurants in the area. It’s mostly jewelry and souvenir stores with both large chain restaurants like Bubba Gump and smaller local restaurants.
The shops downtown are situated along the water and have been built along one strip making it easy to park and walk around. There are loads of jewelry stores and restaurants where you can enjoy a nice meal with a view.
As part of our dedication to being eco tourists (and we hope you are too!), we DO NOT support places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Subjecting animals to a lifetime of captivity in small cages for a few hours of human enjoyment is not fair. Please do not support establishments like this!
If you’re wondering what to do in Monterey instead, we’d recommend heading to The Fisherman’s Pier. At the very end of the pier, you will see lots of fat sea lions happily sunbathing on the support beams. You can even go scuba diving with the sea lions here. This is also a great place to go whale watching and see humpback whales, orcas, gray whales, blue whales, and dolphins.
A short drive south from Monterey (literally one exit on the highway) you will find a little place called Carmel-by-the-Sea. You will feel like you’re in the middle of a Disney fairy tale visiting Carmel. Streets don’t have names, every house is unique with thatched roofs and fences made from sticks. In typical California fashion, the beaches are also out of this world.
Speaking of driving, if you’re visiting Monterey on a road trip, you have to do the scenic 17 Mile Drive (27 km). This is a road trip must taking you up the California coast past some of the most beautiful landmarks including our favorite: Pebble Beach. If you’re feeling adventurous you can even take an e-bike tour.
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Thanks for stopping by!
Well, what did you think? I bet you haven’t heard of half of these places, but trust us the places you’ve never heard of often make for the best travel destinations! Yes, we absolutely loved lazing on the beaches in San Diego and seeing the beauty of Niagra Falls in New York but these off the beaten path US cities were also well worth the visit. If you’re planning your next trip, we highly recommend adding these US cities to the top of your list!
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