After enduring long and uncertain pandemic quarantines and shutdowns, Americans have the traveling bug again — in big numbers. A recent Forbes Advisor Survey found that 49% of people polled planned on traveling more in 2023 than in 2022. Meanwhile, the popular travel planning site The Vacationer reported that 85% of Americans surveyed planned at least one trip before Labor Day. It’s a safe bet that travel won’t suddenly fall off the map when cool weather comes.
With vast numbers of people getting on flights and going places, that means extra crowds and cost pressure on many well-known big-city destinations that routinely attract millions.
We evaluated five data points to locate cities that offer lovely travel experiences without breaking the bank. If you’re in the market for a unique adventure but want to save money for everyday expenses, this list of 13 Underrated Travel Destinations to Get the Most Bang for Your Buck is a great way to start. Enjoy the journey!
If you’re optimistic, you’re likely to agree that nearly every American city and town has something to offer the budget-minded traveler, especially if experience rather than extravagance is the goal.
After all, no matter how much money is at stake, travel can always be about immersing yourself in a new environment and connecting with new people. It can be the ultimate learning experience!
There are plenty of experiences here. To rank our list, we looked at the cost of lodging, roundtrip flights, and food prices in cities known for their low cost of living, walkability, and popularity of restaurants and parks. Dig in and explore!
1. Cleveland, Ohio
Like many American cities, Cleveland has reinvented itself a few times over the years, and now it’s a place where the melting pot produces a heady mix. History intersects with innovation, old-timers learn newcomers’ ways, and the city never stops looking to the future.
Strolling the Westside Market is a blast, even if you plan to go out for dinner. Do so, and you’ll learn about Cleveland’s diversity through its food. Parks, natural spaces, historic sites, museums, galleries, and ethnic neighborhoods abound.
Visit the Cleveland Public Library for its gorgeous architecture and stay for tours and experiences to help the whole family engage with a city that’s never the same twice.
2. Baltimore, Maryland
Do you know why Baltimore calls its NFL football team the Ravens? Because one of the city’s favorite sons wrote a poem. You may have heard of “The Raven” and its spooky author, Edgar Allan Poe, considered the city’s most famous man of letters and one of America’s best.
Walk the cobblestones of Baltimore’s historic Fell’s Point neighborhood to connect with the past as Poe might have experienced it. Or check out the maritime delights of the Inner Harbor, with the National Aquarium nearby.
The Baltimore Museum of Art and the Peabody Library provide cultural elevation, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a prime example of vintage religious architecture.
One more thing: Visiting Poe’s Gravesite and Memorial is a must.
3. Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids is one of those cities that deserves more attention than it gets, especially from folks interested in its rich history as a furniture-making center. That made it a center for labor conflict and unionization as well. And Grand Rapids has more connection with Michigan’s automobile industry than you might think.
The city’s Heritage Hill Historic District hearkens back to the luxury that once was in Grand Rapids. The Calvin Ecosystem Preserve and Native Gardens points even further into the past, when the area was home to indigenous peoples. And the majestic Cathedral of Saint Andrew will surely make your visit to this underrated midwestern city more contemplative.
4. Metairie, Louisiana
Metairie is just part of the New Orleans metro area in some ways, but in others, it’s a destination all to itself. It sits on an ancient natural levee on the Mississippi River that Acolapissa Native Americans used as a road. Now it’s a place where Cajun and Creole cultures influence — and are influenced by — some of Louisiana’s many migrant newcomers.
Hang out in Lafreniere Park to get away from it all and perhaps swelter in the subtropical heat of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi Delta. Or visit the Bucktown district on the shores of the lake and catch the sunset at the nearby Bucktown Marsh Boardwalk. There’s a ton to do if you want to escape NOLa’s crowds.
5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
When you visit Philadelphia, you’ll come away with a sense of it as a working city. Sure, Philly will always have status as a center for the American Revolution and the Constitution, and a visit to the Liberty Bell is a must.
But as you’re enjoying the sites, you may suddenly realize that hustle and bustle is the name of the game in Philadelphia. After centuries of leadership and transformation, Philadelphians persist in continually reinventing themselves.
When you’re done with Independence Hall and the other historic sites, check out the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul for a different view of history or get soundblasted by the unique Wanamaker Organ. Philly has much to offer.
6. St. Petersburg/Clearwater, FL
No, this isn’t a ringer. We’re down in Florida now to bring you an environment challenging to summarize in a hundred words. Clearwater may be one of Florida’s quintessential beach towns, but when you’re ready for a stretch and some shade, take a walk at Ream Wilson Clearwater Trail. Your legs (and possibly your dog) will thank you.
Meanwhile, further south on the Pinellas peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, St. Petersburg stands as a monument to American exuberance. Museums, galleries, preserves, and parks abound. Or visit the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market for a thick slice of St. Pete you’ll want to take home with you.
7. St. Louis, Missouri
The Home of the Gateway Arch presents visitors with wide-open vistas looking west and the historic vigor of a river town looking east. Civil War general and US president Ulysses S. Grant called St. Louis home (visit the Ulysses S. Grant National Historical Site to learn about this seminal American figure). And Grant’s Farm on the outskirts of town offers vivid Victorian architecture and a family-focused outdoor learning experience.
St. Louis is also a cultural center. Visit the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis for a stunning and unprecedentedly extensive mosaic installation. The Saint Louis Art Museum and the Saint Louis Science Center are top-notch. And Laumeier Sculpture Park may challenge your concept of art.
8. Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati is one of those river towns steeped in history yet impressive for its modernity. It’s well worth a visit for its Roebling Suspension Bridge, which straddles the Ohio River and the border between Ohio and Kentucky, which were very different states before the Civil War.
The Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum is a gorgeous natural and wildlife area that also offers a sampling of the past. Smale Riverfront Park has beautiful formal gardens and places to run and be free.
Findlay Market is great for browsing even if you’re not going to purchase. The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption offers solace. And Cincinnati is home to the William Howard Taft Historic Site. Who’s he? Oh, just one of our presidents.
9. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
People think of Pittsburgh as a steel town, and for decades that’s what it was. Today it’s a quirky mix of old and new everywhere you look.
For the new, consider a visit to the Andy Warhol Museum. The great pop artist was born in Pittsburgh and brought the rough-hewn city into much of his work. Or visit Randyland, which houses art some may consider pop art’s successor: folk art by Randy Gilson that incorporates construction materials and bits and bobs from here and there.
Pittsburgh sits at a confluence of rivers, so it also boasts a selection of natural attractions, including Point State Park with its massive fountain, and Schenley Park, where some of the city’s office workers stroll during breaks.
10. Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota
Given their urbanity and sophistication, the Twin Cities are surprisingly affordable and stimulating places to visit. There’s culture, such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Cathedral of Saint Paul, and the Basilica of St. Mary.
Minneapolis is the birthplace of the great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald of Great Gatsby fame, and you can tour his home there (although you may have to spend a little).
Chain of Lakes is a park for experiencing the area’s aquatic nature. Lake of the Isles provides fantastic walking and biking trails. Lake Harriet is worth a visit if you need a break from asphalt and concrete. And Lebanon Hills Regional Park offers a course in Relaxation 101.
11. Norfolk, Virginia
Norfolk is home to Naval Station Norfolk, one of America’s most important military bases. That makes the city a stopping point for military history buffs and anyone interested in America’s defense.
One way to do that is to visit the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk to commune with the spirit of General Douglas MacArthur, who served honorably in both world wars and beyond as one of America’s great military leaders.
Or, take in the Armed Forces Memorial down on the Elizabeth River near Town Point Park. There, you’ll reflect on America’s wars and the soldiers and civilians who have fought them to keep us safe.
Norfolk has more than its share of cultural and natural attractions to keep every family member’s attention, so that’s an option too.
12. Rochester, New York
Did someone say Rochester? That’s correct. You may not think much about this town, but it can be a terrific travel destination. Consider that George Eastman of Eastman-Kodak fame headquartered his company there.
You can visit Eastman’s boyhood home at the Genesee Country Village and Museum near the city. Or, spend a few dollars and see the George Eastman Museum, where you’ll marvel at the facility’s extensive photography collection and film archives.
Rochester is a working town with parks, historic cemeteries, public markets, and the Erie Canal Trail, which is both a workout and a history class.
13. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The Miller Brewery Tour is free. Did we mention the Miller Brewery Tour is free? Up to this point in our survey, we’ve refrained from mentioning that practically every city on this list is a food and beverage paradise and an affordable destination for travel and lodging. We wouldn’t have considered them if they weren’t.
But Milwaukee is remarkable in that it’s where German immigrants first brought the crisp, light beer known as lager to the American masses. The Miller Brewery Tour is all about connecting with a city that gave us Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz. And those brands are worth knowing, even if beer is the last thing on your mind.
Check out Milwaukee’s many natural and cultural sites when done with the 80-minute Miller tour. Free samples are available if you’re over 21.
We used Niche’s 2023 list of the Best Cities to Live in America because it considers many livability factors that are important to travelers. We then filtered the list by low cost of living, walkability, and popularity of restaurants and parks to generate a robust index of traveler-friendly cities.
We used US Bureau of Transportation statistics for average domestic airline itinerary fares by airport for Q1 2023 to rank travel costs. To rank accommodation costs, we used Booking.com to find the average price per night for a weeklong stay at the three cheapest hotels in each city with three- or four-star ratings. Numbeo helped us assess purchasing power, climate, cost of living, and quality of life relative to New York City as a benchmark.
We consulted TripAdvisor to get a handle on the availability of free activities in each of our cities.
As Americans rebound from pandemic quarantines and shutdowns, many say it’s time to get out there again — and put their words into action. We’re confident our list of underrated travel destinations gives you options that will lead to lasting travel memories.