“Secure your own mask before assisting others.”
– Common Pre-Flight Instruction
Remember that scene from “Up in the Air” when George Clooney's character is schooling Anna Kendrick's character on the art of moving quickly and efficiently through airport security? He warns her to steer clear of families with small children (never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes) and old people (their bodies are littered with hidden metal). He rolls his eyes at her lack of expertise as she's being wanded, and he's already moved past the TSA screening area.
This has been my life for the past five years.
Well, minus the flying around the country ruthlessly firing people and existing solely to earn one million frequent flyer miles part. My job is a hell of a lot better than that, but it does involve a ton of traveling.
How often do I travel?
Let's just say that last year I was able to earn the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass without any bonus points or travel hacking. That's the equivalent of 100 one-way qualifying flights or 110,000 qualifying points. The last time I purchased a flight was three years ago to my best friend's wedding in Italy.
Luckily, I've had an insatiable case of wanderlust for about as long as I can remember. I've visited most of the United States (all of the continental states except for New Mexico and Wyoming) and most of the big cities in Canada. While I haven't loved every place I've visited, traveling for work has provided me with the unique opportunity to see many places FOR FREE that I would never have otherwise bothered with.
Like most folks, I adore visiting Chicago, San Francisco, New York City, Austin, Portland, and all of the other large, amazing, and popular cities that have earned their reputations for a reason. These are the places that your high school and college friends have moved to, places with the most hip and unique neighborhoods, places that are able to sustain the most innovative restaurants and bars, and the places that are the easiest to get to.
But what about the smaller, less expensive, but still very cool cities that don't get the same amount of time in the spotlight? Below I've compiled my top five must-visit reasonably priced cities for your U.S. travel bucket list.
1. Madison, WI
Madison is one of my favorite midwestern cities (second only to Chicago). It's walkable, bike-friendly, impeccably clean, and it's located on an isthmus! It's a liberal college town with a fantastic arts scene, unlimited outdoor activities, and has one of the largest producer only farmers' markets in the country. It also boasts more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the United States.
Selected highlights: Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Wisconsin State Capitol, University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Lake Mendota, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Barrymore Theatre, Dane County Farmers’ Market.
2. Louisville, KY
Best known for hosting the Kentucky Derby and the gateway to bourbon country, Louisville is a quirky and historic foodie town with a thriving arts scene. The French influenced city has a creative spirit and an amazing collection of restaurants.
Selected highlights: 21c Museum Hotel, Speed Art Museum, Locust Grove, Old Louisville, Muhammad Ali Center , Urban Bourbon Trail, NuLu East Market District, Louisville Slugger Museum, Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft .
3. Asheville, NC
Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville is a laid-back city with a crunchy community vibe. The city has an impressive restaurant scene with an emphasis on local ingredients, kickass rock clubs, endless outdoor activities, and the largest private home in the United States. To me, Asheville is the ultimate hideaway.
Selected highlights: Biltmore Estate, Chimney Rock Park, The Orange Peel, Blue Ridge Parkway, Basilica of Saint Lawrence, North Carolina Arboretum, Craggy Gardens, River Arts District , Botanical Gardens at Asheville
4. Tucson, AZ
A city of enormous natural beauty, Tucson has continually attracted all kinds of creative types who are inspired by a quieter life in this sprawling desert town. It's a sleepy college town known for it's vast natural beauty.
Selected highlights: Hotel Congress, Saguaro National Park, The Barrio Neighborhood, Pima Air & Space Museum, 4th Avenue, Rialto Theatre, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Sabino Canyon, Mission San Xavier del Bac
5. Des Moines, IA
Des Moines is another midwestern city that I've always enjoyed visiting. The capitol city and cultural center of Iowa, Des Moines is a friendly place that values agriculture and the arts.
Selected highlights: Capitol Building, Iowa State Fair, Salisbury House & Gardens, Hoyt Sherman Place, Living History Farms, Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines Farmers' Market, American Gothic House (located about an hour and forty minutes southeast of Des Moines)
Readers: What unique and super cool smaller cities do you think deserve more recognition? Why?