Everyone knows cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago are among the best in the United States, 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 most underrated cities to your "must-see" list.
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 original 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 U.S. 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. 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 horse racing’s 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.
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, home of the American Jazz Museum . Once you've worked up an appetite, you're also in for a treat, as this Midwestern city also boasts some of the country's best barbecue.
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. History lovers can sip mint juleps on a river cruise aboard the Belle of Louisville, a National Historic Landmark.
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