December 17th, 2013, by Steven in Uncategorized, United States.

The United States of America, the second-most visited country in the world, is rather sparsely populated. In contrast to rapidly-urbanizing developing countries, the US been reverting back to a more solitary, anti-urban lifestyle since the Second World War, leaving many of our cities with lack of investment and population.

However, America still has it’s fair share of great cities- even if some feel like relics in 2013. Generally, a first-time tourist to the US may include in their itinerary Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami – a stop in Chicago – and onto San Diego, LA, San Francisco, maybe Portland and Seattle. Those with less time will generally stick to the east or west coast only.

Those aforementioned places are our global cities and, of course, some of the best to visit. But just as no month in China is complete without a stop in Chongqing, Changsha or some other lesser-known provincial city, visitors to America (and Americans themselves) should try to hit up some of the more mysterious, ‘in-between’ cities. You can experience a more singular American lifestyle. Locals will be surprised and happy to have you. You’ll get to feel like a pioneer traveler in some ways. Don’t stick to the worn-out route; try somewhere new.

Cities in the middle of the USA are heavily represented on my list. This is not because I am biased Midwesterner (I am), but rather because these worthwhile cities helped build America and are now often flown-over. They were once the most prosperous, but now are the most forgotten. They are filled with hidden gems and they will be happy to have you.


MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin

milwaukee 2

Milwaukee was, for a long time, the #1 beer-producing city in the world. It’s breweries- Miller, Schlitz, Blatz and Pabst, were far from glamorous brews, leading to a very proletarian, working-class image of the city. Today, hip microbreweries are popping up, as downtown is being reinhabited and revitalized.

With miles of lakefront and riverfront, Milwaukee is a great city to visit in the summer, and is just two hours north of Chicago by bus, train or car.




Milwaukee Art Museum (designed by Santiago Calatrava)
Oriental Theatre – ornate East Side theater showing indie/arty type movies
Pabst Brewery – skip the Miller brewery and do your tour / drinking here
Microbrewery tour – Milwaukee is still America’s best beertown and there is no better way to spend a day than to tour the city’s brewpubs



baltimore 2

Baltimore, like other older US cities, is a city of distinct neighborhoods. Unlike D.C. to the south, or Philadelphia to the north, Baltimore is not a city of big historical events, but rather a fabric of little surprises and idiosyncrasies.

As local filmmaker John Waters put it, “I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore. You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”




Fell’s Point historic district
Fort McHenry
Creative Alliance art center
Crab cakes
Orioles baseball game at the influential Camden Yards ballpark



1024px-Over-the-Rhine-12th-and-Vine 2

I am biased because I went to university in Cincinnati and loved my time in the city. Out-of-town visitors that I showed around tended to agree with me: Cincinnati is an ornate little gem.

For many years, Cincinnati was the largest city in the “west” of America and was the 6th largest city overall in 1840 (it is now #65 and falling still). During that time, “The Queen City” was once the most densely-populated place in the US. Much of this handsome urban fabric remains, with Cincinnati containing some of the largest and best-preserved historic districts in the US.

Today, Cincinnati is, after decades of decline, another midwestern city undergoing a “renaissance”. Inner-city blocks once dominated by crackheads are now co-inhabited by young professionals and crackheads.

Winston Churchill famously declared Cincinnati “the most beautiful inland city in America”. This past grandeur is on its way back, thankfully.




Over-the-Rhine historic district
Carew Tower observation deck
enter Kentucky by walking across the Roebling Suspension Bridge- a precursor to the Brooklyn Bridge
Contemporary Arts Center



(photo by Mark Fisher)

I like Fort Worth because it still feels true to its Texas roots. Nearby Dallas, and Houston to the south, are corporate powerhouses, while Fort Worth still feels like a bit of a cow town. In addition to the wild west feel, Fort Worth has some of America’s best architectural gems.




Kimball Art Museum (designed by Tadao Ando)
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (designed by Louis Kahn)
Stockyards Entertainment District
Tarrant County Courthouse


PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island


What I like about Providence is the geometry of the city. The tight, unpredictable streets create angles and vistas that never quite look the same each time I visit.

In the same way that Milwaukee is overshadowed by Chicago to the south, Providence is overshadowed by Boston to the north. Since its most drab times in the 1970s, Providence has set an example for revitalization through design, by daylighting lost rivers and creating great public spaces. The Rhode Island School of Design pumps some weirdness in and the diverse neighborhoods balance each other out pretty well.




Italian restaurants of Federal Hill
Point Street Dueling Pianos bar
Waterplace Park and Riverwalk
College Hill (great neighborhood for historic residential architecture)


MEMPHIS, Tennessee

(photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D)

(photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D)

Besides having the most beautiful place-name in the USA, Memphis holds vital importance in American, and global, pop culture. Though the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame may be in Cleveland, rock music was first laid to tape here in Memphis. It also eventually got fat, bloated and died on the toilet. That’s history.

Despite its cultural importance, Memphis is still an eerie, somewhat uncomfortable place. MLK was killed here. Elvis died here. Additionally, the city is the gateway to that kind of “scary” south that includes the Ku Klux Klan and blackberry wine. Many of the city’s landmarks are abandoned or disused. The Jarmusch film “Mystery Train” really captured the feeling of Memphis- lost in time, forever cool, filled with ghosts. I’ve always liked it.




Beale Street entertainment district
National Civil Rights Museum – interesting, as it’s built into the old Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was shot and killed
Sun Studio – the genesis of recorded rock n’ roll
Midtown Memphis – the college-y, somewhat hippie part of town



1024px-Werne's_Row_4th_and_Hill,_Old_Louisville 2

Everywhere I go in the world, people know Kentucky. It is one of the most famous of US states, due to a greasy little bird and a simple image of a jolly grandfather.

While Kentucky is internationally famous, little is known about stately Louisville except Cassius Clay and horse races. This lower-middle-sized city is as southern as it is midwestern, as urbane as it is provincial.

Main Street in downtown Louisville is home to America’s second-largest cast iron district (after NYC’s chic SOHO). South of downtown, Old Louisville is one of America’s most elegant residential areas,  and the largest Victorian historic district in the US.  4th Street Live is a thriving entertainment district which allows open containers.




Main Street cast iron district
get a bike and ride through Louisville’s “emerald necklace” or urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead
stroll through Old Louisville
go to the Maker’s Mark Bourbon House for a mint-julep



1024px-Minneapolis_on_Mississippi_River 2

(photo by Charles N. Abbott http://99cnaclasses.com)

With an impressive modern skyline and a population which hasn’t plummeted (it’s too cold to pack up and go…), Minneapolis is a Midwestern overachiever. The city has a great tradition of music (from Prince to The Replacements to The Hold Steady) and numerous distinct, vital neighborhoods.




Minneapolis Institute of Arts features a great collection of Asian art
Nicollet Avenue’s “Eat Street”
live music downtown and along the West Bank
a great collection of independent coffeeshops. Each residential neighborhood has their own.


PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania

(photo by Dr. Cash)

(photo by Dr. Cash)

My friend Andy once noted that visiting Pittsburgh is like going into someone’s great-grandmother’s house. Everything seems inviting, but old and out-of-date. Pittsburgh is lived-in. The refrigerator is lime-green, the curtains dusty, the tree in the backyard like something out of a horror movie. Pittsburgh is vintage urban America, and in a cool way.

For one thing, Pittsburgh is hilly. This topography allows for endless vistas, showcasing Pittsburgh’s tight-knit urban fabric and architecture. Just driving past the city on a freeway allows a visitor to peak into the various elevated neighborhoods and districts.

For another thing, Pittsburgh is weird. It’s not midwestern, eastern, or Great Lakes. It’s probably rust-belt and a bit Appalachian. However, it’s not a backwater as you may think. Sophisticated neighborhoods, grand civic amenities and a vibrant nightlife can be found in each pocket.




Mount Washington offers spectacular views of Pittsburgh’s broad skyline. Take one of the rickety old inclines up.
The Warhol and Mattress Factory art museums are ever-changing and located in great buildings
The Carnegie museums in Oakland are worth a day
Get a seat at PNC Park that faces the skyline (sit up behind home plate)
grab a beer at the historic Penn Brewery in Northside. The pilsner is worth the trip



DETROIT, Michigan

(photo by Albert duce)

(photo by Albert duce)

For me, travel is about learning. And, there are few better places in the world where one can learn about the sensitive rhythms of human civilization than in Detroit.

Detroit was once the most important city in the world. It was also once the most modern. Today it could fill in for a post-apocolyptic sci-fi film set. How it got to such a low point is a lesson in economics and race relations.

Few international and American tourists choose to visit Detroit. True, it’s not inviting. Violent, automobile-oriented, and with few budget accomodations- Detroit takes planning and strategy to make a visit worthwhile. For those who come- Detroit, like Paris, is unforgettable. Crumbling ornate office buildings, homes and civic structures sit in arrested decay, and are being lost to bulldozers, arson and disrepair.

Don’t let fear keep you away. Use couchsurfing to reach out eager Detroiters who will be happy to show you around, give you a place to stay and discuss the history of the city. There are some great hidden gems here. Visiting Detroit is a lesson in the life and death of a city. It’s turmoil can, and will, happen elsewhere.




ride the People Mover downtown for a good view of the mess below
have a drink at the top of the Renaissance Center, the tallest building in Michigan
have a Greek meal at Pegasus in Greektown
Detroit Institute of Arts has one of the best collections in the US
have a vanilla porter at Stone Brewing Company




Steven (84 Posts)

Steven is a roaming traveler, writer and urban planner based out of Asia. Connect with Steven on Steven Muzik on Google+!

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