The other US cities you must visit

DAVID WHITLEY
Last updated 05:00 23/07/2014
Philadelphia

IN PHILLY: Philadelphia's usual absence from the east coast radar is mystifying, given that it has arguably the greatest cultural collection in the States.

Pittsburgh 1
Josh Noel/MCT Zoom
Built in 1877, the Duquesne Incline offers some of the best views of Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia
ARTISTIC MASTERPIECES: Philadelphia Museum of Art Statue of John Marshall.

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Many countries are lucky to have one great city. Others feel enormously proud to have three or four.

But the US is in a league of its own, blessed with dozens of magical metropolises, all of which have an endearingly distinct character and an attraction-packed pull that leaves visitors wanting to come back for more.

But this embarrassment of riches does have a downside. Cities that would be the centre of attention elsewhere get a raw deal. When the behemoths - such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Vegas - are on offer, why look elsewhere?

The answer is that the United States' second-tier cities can give something a little bit different. They may not contain the stock stuff of Americana highlights reels, but the less-heralded cities give a more rounded picture of the country. Even more than that, they tend to have something special about them that makes them unquestionably worth a detour from the big boys.

It may be a unique overall vibe, it might be a couple of world-class trump cards - but the 10 criminally undersung US cities we've picked out all have something on show that both complements and stands them apart from their more starry neighbours.

It might be heavily stacked history, hip food and drink scenes or world-class museums, but these underhyped hotspots are the perfect introduction to an America that goes beyond the obvious.

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA

Just 25 kilometres from the Mexican border, resorty-feeling San Diego's beaches all have their own personalities. Moneyed-up La Jolla has the swanky cafes and boutiques, while Mission Beach is the one for people-watching.

The latter also hosts Belmont Park, where modern wave pools mix with a rickety old big dipper.

See Belmontpark.com.

The family-friendly atmosphere continues at the justifiably famous San Diego Zoo. It's inside Balboa Park, where cultural attractions cluster. The Reuben H Fleet Science Centre and Natural History Museum are most engaging for the kids, and the Museum of Man offers more adult-oriented anthropology.

See Balboapark.org.

For a little bit of edge, the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation runs US$15 (NZ$17) walking tours that delve into the vice and gunslinging cowboys that used to dominate an area now full of bars and restaurants.

See gaslampquarter.org.

Insider tip: The best breaks for surfers are at Blacks Beach.

Getting there: See united.com. KTS Shuttle offers direct transfers from LAX airport to San Diego for US$99. See kts-shuttle.com.

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Staying there: The Indigo in the Gaslamp Quarter amply ticks the style and affordability boxes, with rooms from US$187. See hotelinsd.com.

More information: sandiego.org.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA

Philadelphia's usual absence from the east coast radar is mystifying, given that it has arguably the greatest cultural collection in the States. The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses an extraordinary range of American and European masterpieces, while the Barnes Foundation casually hides Van Goghs in jarringly displayed pyramids of other paintings.

See philamuseum.org; barnesfoundation.org.

This was where the US was born, with the Independence Hall being where the Declaration of Independence was hammered out and the National Constitution Centre delving into the delicately balanced intricacies of the nation's founding document. Both are riveting beyond political geekery.

See nps.gov/inde.

The city's most atmospheric building, however, is the Eastern State Penitentiary. This pioneering prison's design was copied by hundreds of others over the world. It closed in 1971, but tours around the utterly forbidding cells and creepy, ghostly wings stick long in the memory.

See easternstate.org.

Insider tip: Only limited numbers can get into the Barnes Foundation - book a slot a few days in advance.

Getting there: Fly Qantas to LA, then codeshare to Philadelphia with US Airways. See qantas.com.

Staying there: Inside a handsome old mansion, Rittenhouse 1715 carries off the heritage vibe beautifully. Doubles cost from US$253. See rittenhouse1715.com.

More information: visitphilly.com.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS

While sister city Dallas goes in for gleaming skylines and major arts investment, Fort Worth makes no bones about being a proud cowboy town. And it's all the more fun for it. The Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District is all big hats and boots, while ill-tempered longhorns are driven down the cobbled streets every afternoon.

See fortworthstockyards.org.

In case that's not quite country enough, the gigantic Billy Bob's honky tonk should do the trick. It's superscaled absurdity with bull-riding, rhinestone mirrorballs and twanging guitars on stage.

See billybobstexas.com.

On the West Side, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame shows that gutsy gals played as big a role in Wild West history as the men. See cowgirl.net.

Insider tip: See cow, then eat cow - Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse does the best steaks in town. See delfriscos.com.

Getting there: Dallas Fort-Worth airport is between the two cities. Fly with Qantas.

Staying there: Etta's Place hits that sweet spot between Cowtown heritage and perky, bright decor, with rooms starting at US$187. See ettas-place.com.

More information: Fortworth.com.

SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS

Famed for the 17th-century trials that saw 20 supposed "witches" executed, Salem has turned itself into a hokey spookfest for all things supernatural and ghostly. It's done so wholeheartedly, and in such a handsome old New England setting, that it's hard not to get swept along. Salem Historical Tours runs story-packed ghostly walking tours for US$14.

See salemhistoricaltours.com.

The Witch Dungeon is arguably the best spot to delve into the witch trial backstory - it's a combo of museum and live theatre performance - but there are dozens of attractions in town operating on roughly similar themes. See witchdungeon.com.

For a non-witchy breather, the Peabody Essex is the oldest continually operating museum in the States. The highlight is a 16-room Qing dynasty house that was bought in China then shipped and reassembled inside the museum.

Insider tip: Beware - accommodation prices rocket up during the month-long October Halloween celebrations.

Getting there: Go via LA with United from Sydney or Melbourne. From Boston Logan airport, a bus- train combo will get you to Salem in just over an hour, costing US$5.35. See mbta.com.

Staying there: The Hawthorne Hotel conjures up a heritage vibe with 18th-century period furniture. Doubles from US$132. See hawthornehotel.com.

More information: salem.org.

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA

Often lumped in with the Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh is unexpectedly beautiful. The view from the Duquesne Incline, over the river confluence and bridge-flecked triangular heart of the city, is one of America's most magical urban landscapes.

A boisterous, sports-loving personality floods the city, with the Strip district best capturing the character. Formerly industrial, it's now full of passionate foodie outlets. Burgh Bits And Bites runs US$37 tasting tours among the bakers, butchers and multi-ethnic delis.

See burghfoodtour.com.

Local boy Andy Warhol ensures Pittsburgh packs a major artistic punch, and the six-floor Warhol Museum is superb. That it's full of his works can be taken as granted, but the warts-and-all look at his life and idiosyncrasies takes it to another level.

See warhol.org.

Insider tip: The most prominent building is the University of Pittsburgh's 163-metre-high, chunkily gothic (and delightfully odd) Cathedral of Learning. But don't just admire from the outside - the lecture rooms inside are kitschily but wholeheartedly themed on different countries.

See tour.pitt.edu.

Getting there: Fly to LA with Qantas, then codeshare on American Airlines to Pittsburgh.

Staying there: The handily central Fairmont Pittsburgh offers the most sumptuous digs in town, with rooms from US$455. See fairmont.com/pittsburgh.

More information: visitpittsburgh.com.

SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA

Santa Barbara neatly captures the Southern California surf-bum feel, and the best way of exploring the coast is by kayak. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company runs tours, which often encounter dolphins and sea lions, for US$89.

See sbadventureco.com.

If you prefer to stay on land, then the hills around Santa Barbara have some excellent wineries. Wine Edventures runs day tours with an admirable educational slant, from US$110.

See welovewines.com.

The city itself has a lively student population, but the big-hitting attraction is the twin-towered Mission Santa Barbara, one of the photogenically grand throwbacks to the days when California was the preserve of Spanish missionaries.

Dating from 1820, the garden and sea views are more impressive than the small museum of the region's early history inside.

See santabarbaramission.org.

Insider tip: People-watchers, get up early for the eccentric collection of hula-hoopers, dog walkers and martial artists strutting their stuff along the beach.

Getting there: Fly to LA. The Santa Barbara Airbus runs shuttles from the airport, taking two hours and 25 minutes, and costing from US$32. See sbairbus.com.

Staying there: For a B&B laden with Victorian kitsch, Alice in Wonderland-themed rooms at the Cheshire Cat Inn cost from US$215.

More information: santabarbaraca.com.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

A hard-bitten, working-class port city, Baltimore's initial appeal is in its many historic sites - but the warm character oozes under the skin. This is best encountered at Camden Yards, the retro-style home of the beloved Orioles baseball team. There are few better places in the country to munch a hotdog at the ball game.

See theorioles.com.

Inner Harbor is where most of the highlights can be found. The Baltimore Maritime Museum is all about seafaring history, but it's most enjoyable when clambering through the lighthouse, inside the ex-naval submarine and over the tri-masted 1854 warship USS Constellation.

See historicships.org.

Nearby is the humungous National Aquarium, which straddles two piers, and features more than 750 species in showstoppingly decadent tanks. If ever somewhere's going to win over aquarium sceptics, this is it.

See aqua.org.

Insider tip: Keep an eye open for big-name TV stars - Baltimore doubles as Washington in Veep and House of Cards.

Getting there: United offers one-stop trips to Baltimore from Sydney and Melbourne, changing planes in Los Angeles.

Staying there: Inside an old tobacco factory on the waterfront, with a notably good reputation for service, the Inn at Henderson's Wharf has queen rooms from US$225. See hendersonswharf.com.

More information: baltimore.org.

KEY WEST, FLORIDA

It's the end of the line, and it has an attitude to match. Key West is a place where it's perfectly acceptable to down rum and Cokes for breakfast, and the Hawaiian-shirted bum mainlining frozen margaritas next to you in that Duval Street bar could well be a billionaire CEO.

For a break from the impending alcoholism, dip into Hemingway House, where the much-travelled author lived. The descendents of his six-toed cats pretty much have the run of the place.

See hemingwayhome.com.

For the actively, naturally inclined, there are some excellent wreck dives within easy reach of Key West.

The Vandenberg, a 160-metre World War II troop carrier, is the star - and the Key West Dive Centre runs morning trips out there for from US$85.

See keywestdivecenter.com.

Insider tip: Rum-lovers have more than 200 bottles to choose from at the Speakeasy Inn's Rum Bar. See speakeasyinn.com.

Getting there: Fly Qantas/ American Airlines from Sydney or Melbourne to Miami, via LA. The drive to Key West, over giant island-hopping bridges, takes an awe-packed four hours.

Staying there: The Mermaid and the Alligator has hammocks, and rooms decorated with bizarre souvenirs from the owners' travels, in an atmospheric Victorian house. Rooms cost from US$168. See kwmermaid.com

More information: fla-keys.com.

AUSTIN, TEXAS

Young, liberal and a phenomenal place for a night out, live music pours out of just about every bar in downtown Austin. To shake off the hangover, try a bucket list-esque urban swim at the Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park. It covers 1.2 hectares and swimmers share with salamanders and turtles.

Austin is famed for its barbecues, but it does brain food, too. The Bob Bullock State History Museum tells the rambunctious history of the state, from heroic battles against the Mexicans to ranching and oil wealth.

The LBJ Presidential Library covers local boy-turned-commander in chief Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the turbulent era of civil rights and Vietnam he presided over.

See thestoryoftexas.com; lbjlibrary.org.

Insider tip: For a truly distinctive pub crawl, head to Rainey Street, where a rezoning decision has ensured that the dainty old houses have been cunningly converted into a series of roaringly individual bars. See raineystbars.com.

Getting there: From Dallas, hire a car - Austin is a three hour and 15-minute drive south.

Staying there: Expect Southern charm with a modern twist at Hotel Ella, a converted 19th-century mansion.

Rooms cost from US$310. See hotelella.com.

More information: austintexas.org.

PORTLAND, OREGON

There's no point fighting the beards and skinny jeans stereotypes in Portland - embracing them is the way to love the hipster capital of the Pacific Northwest.

Start off with face-filling at the city's terrifically high-quality food trucks. Pedal Bike Tours links them on a bike-based tasting tour for US$69. See pedalbiketours.com.

There's also a craft beer scene to rival any in the world. Pubs of Portland Tours runs small-group sampling trips around a selection of microbreweries, brewpubs and specialist craft beer bars from US$30. See pubsofportlandtours.com.

The city's hippie streak has a lot to do with the surrounding nature, however, and Forest Park is the largest urban park in the US. Stretching from near Downtown along the Willamette River, and with more than 110 kilometres of walking trails, it's an easy-access taste of the north-west's entrancing wild landscapes.

See forestparkconservancy.org.

Insider tip: Basement joint Biwa does superb Japanese food and doubles down on the sake menu. See biwarestaurant.com.

Getting there: Virgin Australia and Delta team up for flights to Portland via Los Angeles.

Staying there: It doesn't get much more Portland than sleeping in the classroom of the converted Kennedy School, with an on-site restaurant and brewery. Rooms start at US$166. See mcmenamins.com/KennedySchool.

More information: travelportland.com.

The writer has been a guest of the Austin and Pittsburgh tourist boards.

DIFFERENT STROKES: NEW TAKES ON THE USUAL SUSPECTS

NEW YORK CITY Dodge the ferries on the Hudson River to hear Manhattan's continual hum from the water on a night kayaking tour. See manhattankayak.com.

CHICAGO Attempt to follow in the footsteps of Tina Fey and Mike Myers at the Second City Comedy Club's Sunday evening drop-in improvisation class. See secondcity.com.

WASHINGTON, DC Uncover Cold War skulduggery and key sites from the United States capital's action-packed espionage history on the Spy Museum's bus tour. See spymuseum.org.

MIAMI Boggle at risque statues, explicit African carvings and raunchy paintings at South Beach's lovingly curated World Erotic Art Museum. See weam.com.

SEATTLE Hop between microbreweries for tastings and a chance to watch the hop-to-glass process in action on Road Dogs' beer tour. See seattlebrewerytour.com.

LAS VEGAS At the National Atomic Testing Museum, discover how the Vegas tourism boom kicked off with people coming to watch mushroom clouds rising from supposedly secret desert bomb explosions. See nationalatomictestingmuseum.org.

BOSTON Test your sweet tooth to its limits, gorging on ganaches, truffles and chocolate-packed desserts on one of Boston Chocolate Tours' outings. See bostonchocolatetours.com.

DALLAS Take a trolley tour along the motorcade route from that fateful day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. See bigdfuntours.com.

LOS ANGELES Visit the dinosaur fossils at the Page Museum, but stop to wonder at the bubbling black La Brea Tar Pits outside. See tarpits.org.

SAN FRANCISCO Take a walking gay rights history lesson through the spiritual home of the rainbow flag on a tour with Cruisin' the Castro. See cruisinthecastro.com.

ABOUT THE WRITER

David Whitley spent years happily ignoring the US, but has found himself utterly entranced with increasingly regular visits over the past five years. And he's found that no other country in the world offers such an astonishing variety of urban experiences.

Have you visited an underrated US city that you recommend as a destination? Post your comments below.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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