Most of the fastest-growing cities in America are small cities with metro populations under a million. You hear the stories. Pick up the anecdotes. See the Facebook posts. Many of your friends are selling are moving out of their expensive lofts and condos in San Francisco, Seattle and New York and moving to quainter, easy-going and affordable cities like Charleston and Omaha.
So what is it about small cities that people find so alluring, other than a lower cost of living? There are great neighborhoods, of course, but also thriving culture and nightlife, independent shopping options and top-notch restaurants, museums and attractions, parks and outdoors. And they’re safe. All of the above make for some pretty good reasons to visit these destinations. And did we mention the good weather and airport connectivity?
For those of us who are simply looking for a new destination to explore this summer—possibly a destination off the beaten path from the hordes of tourists—the cities on this list are a great starting point. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.
1: Neighborhoods, Parks & Outdoors, Connectivity, Restaurants, Culture | 5: Museums, Nightlife | 13: Attractions | 22: Shopping | 36: Safety | 47: Weather
Honolulu ranked first in the nation in our layered Place category, with its verdant, knife-edge topography exploding into the blue sky from rolling hills every few miles, creating microclimates and hypnotic scenery. The city rules our Parks & Outdoor Activities subcategory, led by its powdery beaches, some of the best and safest ocean swimming in the state (often with sea turtles and dolphins) and stellar hiking in the emerald Ko‘olau Range. The parks, trails and beaches—almost all open to the public and accessible year round—rival most cities on the planet. Combine this with the climate, fragrant trade winds and surreal geography (not to mention an ancient history slowly emerging from the stacked lava walls) and you have a city that succumbed to playing by Mother Nature’s rules a long time ago. The restaurant and bar scene continues to heat up thanks to Michelin-starred chefs and new culinary and nightlife concepts like James Beard Award–winning chef Michael Mina’s The Street opening alongside Honolulu-born chef Ed Kenney’s Mahina & Sun’s. There will soon be 10 breweries in town, with Maui Brewing moving in for a piece of the Oahu action, and half of those breweries are within minutes of each other, elevating the Kakaʻako neighborhood to must-visit status.
3: Safety, Parks & Outdoors, Museums | 2: Culture | 3: Shopping | 6: Nightlife | 10: Connectivity | 23: Safety | 24: Restaurants | 26: Attractions | 94: Weather
Charleston is at once an easy yet kinetic seaside American treasure, punctuated by European elegance and macaroon-colored antebellum mansions by day and all kinds of revelry after sunset. A beguiling fusion of built environment and coastal transition landscapes—golden islands, channels and swamps—Charleston is one of North America’s most architecturally significant destinations. Wander the streets and you’ll catch glimpses of another time: flickering copper gas carriage lanterns, ornate hand-wrought ironwork and hitching posts for carriage horses. The city comes in at #2 for Place—just behind Honolulu—including a #3 ranking for Neighborhoods and #3 for Parks & Outdoors. A city rich in cultural, natural and military heritage, Charleston nabs the top spot in our Museums category. A visit to “America’s First Museum” here is a chance to explore hundreds of artifacts that give insight into the city’s colonial, agricultural and wartime past.
1: Nightlife | 2: Neighborhoods, Shopping | 3: Museums | 4: Culture | 10: Connectivity | 14: Parks & Outdoors | 21: Restaurants | 68: Attractions | 70: Safety | 81: Weather
Savannah is not relying solely on its beloved Spanish moss and cobblestone streets to attract visitors. With more than 150 festivals annually, this Southern gem knows how to celebrate. This summer, the lineup includes the Gourmet Seafood & Spirits Festival, the Jazz Fest, a Food Truck Fest and many others. Increasingly, Savannah is garnering more attention for its food than for its historic sights. The ingredients for the rising culinary scene? Fresh local seafood, Southern home cooking and chef-driven restaurants cropping up throughout the Landmark Historic District, Starland and Tybee Island. Savannah takes the top spot in the nation among cities with less than a million people for Nightlife; the cocktail culture includes rooftop patios, basement piano bars, Prohibition-era speakeasies and distilleries. Savannah also is home to craft breweries, including Service Brewing Co., that offer guided tours.
1: Shopping, Nightlife | 2: Museums | 4: Attractions | 7: Culture | 11: Parks & Outdoors | 12: Neighborhoods | 32: Restaurants | 33: Connectivity | 104: Safety | 140: Weather
Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains—and with spectacular views of both—Asheville celebrates its bohemian spirit and artsy roots year-round, with events, festivals and good times that rank second (just behind Honolulu) for Programming in the country. This mountain gem boasts better-performing Nightlife and Shopping than Honolulu. The #1 city for Nightlife is also a launching pad for musicians, offering what artists of all ages crave in a city: affordability, local beer and a lively after-hours scene. If art is what you’re after, the recent reopening of Asheville Art Museum offers education facilities, an art library, a lecture and performance space, a new ArtPLAYce for families and children and the addition of a rooftop sculpture terrace and café.
2: Restaurants | 3: Attractions, Culture | 4: Museums, Shopping | 9: Connectivity | 15: Nightlife | 16: Neighborhoods | 13: Parks & Outdoors | 25: Weather | 165: Safety
It’s been a decade since Breaking Bad premiered and five years since its final vow, but the TV show, bout an Albuquerque high school teacher turned meth chef, still has a hold on the Southwest metropolis of 550,000 people. In fact, ABQ continues to draw visitors from around the globe—either longtime fans or new devotees and Netflix binge-watchers—who are as enthusiastic at the prospect of visiting Walter White’s car wash and dining at Twisters Burrito (a.k.a. “Los Pollos Hermanos”) as they are about exploring the raw beauty in this gleaming gem in the Southwest. ’Burque, in local parlance, is also a cultural hotspot, stacked with more than 100 galleries, a symphony orchestra, theaters and even an opera scene that’s getting national attention. The city’s neighborhoods are getting some TLC. Don’t miss a visit to Sawmill District, for example, an area once dominated by warehouses and industrial buildings and today being re-envisioned into a vibrant, eclectic neighborhood anchored by Hotel Chaco and burgeoning businesses and cafes.
3: Nightlife | 5: Restaurants | 7: Connectivity, Attractions, Culture | 11: Museums | 12: Shopping | 23: Parks & Outdoors | 24: Neighborhoods | 41: Weather | 94: Safety
Wander in and out of the many boutiques and galleries that line the cobblestone streets in Omaha’s Old Market Entertainment District, where street musicians and artists offer entertainment night and day. With its innovative restaurants, original steakhouses, local pubs, quaint cafes and jazz clubs, this vibrant enclave (and others like it), helped Omaha land at #24 in the Neighborhoods subcategory. The fact that most of the city’s bars and famous steakhouses (don’t worry, vegans, there are plenty of options for you, too) are clustered in the Old Market District makes indulging convenient and helps keep things going long after dusk. For something entirely different, there’s Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, which consistently ranks one of the world’s best zoos. Some of the experiences on offer include the chance to walk through the world’s largest indoor desert and the largest indoor rainforest in North America, and to explore exotic locations and underground caves to see thousands of animals from across the globe in their natural habitat. Omaha prides itself on its outdoors, as well, and visionary placemaking initiatives in recent years are testament to its design swagger. Its riverfront now boasts the architecturally striking, S-curving Bob Kerrey Bridge, which at 3,000 feet is one of the longest pedestrian bridge projects ever constructed.
2: Attractions | 4: Restaurants | 6: Museums, Culture | 12: Neighborhoods, Parks & Outdoors | 17: Shopping | 21: Nightlife | 43: Connectivity | 49: Weather | 62: Safety
Although best known for outdoor bounty at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs today is a city with a thriving food scene and cultural options. What used to be a chain-dominated restaurant-scape has pivoted dramatically with new arrivals and old networks. Today, the meat served at independent restaurants is, more often than not, raised locally and the long-standing brewing tradition is being pushed by uppity startups. Even the Springs in Colorado Springs are being revered and marketed for their terroir. It all comes together during mornings at Ivywild School, a local community marketplace for groceries or coffee to go, and during evenings at new ramen spots—or that new Jamaican place—that seem to open monthly.
1: Attractions | 4: Culture | 5: Shopping | 6: Connectivity | 8: Parks & Outdoors, Nightlife | 23: Restaurants | 33: Neighborhoods | 55: Museums | 70: Weather | 167: Safety
Myrtle Beach has been a playground, resting place and resource since the Waccamaw and Winyah Indians walked the area’s 60 miles of shore. Today, 19 million visitors climb aboard 50 direct flights from around the country to frolic in calm waters, see the Ripley’s Odditorium and then go for a medieval dinner. After that, there’s the new, 1.2-mile-long Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade, perfect for walking off the feast. With so much to see and do, it’s no wonder that the city lands at #1 for Attractions. Myrtle Beach is a funhouse—in the water and out.