New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are often touted as the three must-see U.S. big cities. Their record-breaking skyscrapers, world-class museums, award-winning restaurants and general notoriety make them obvious placeholders on many bucket lists. Yet the U.S. is home to nearly 20 cities with populations above 800,000. This week’s Bucket List brings you seven smaller big cities just as worthy of a visit. They offer up iconic attractions, unique cultures, impressive relics of American history and so much more.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.
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You're not likely to go hungry while visiting Memphis, that's almost certain as BBQ food abounds. As satisfied as your appetite will be, so too will be your ears. Memphis is widely considered the birthplace of Blues music. Head to Beale Street, which becomes pedestrian-only after dark and is where you'll find plenty of live music venues and bars like B.B. King's Blues Club. Memphis is also teaming with history and culture. Music fans shouldn't miss visits to Sun Studio and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The former is where Johnny Cash and Elvis made some of their first recordings and the latter memorializes the former Stax Records where an impressive list of famous acts recorded like Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, as well as Sam and Dave. The Smithsonian-sponsored Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum is also a great stop and conveniently located along Beale Street. Then of course there's Graceland, former home of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis. The National Civil Rights Museum is a must-visit. It's a sobering experience located in the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.
Photo by Matt Northam, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Houston might be the biggest city in Texas, but Austin takes top prize for best culture. The state's capital takes their pledge to "keep Austin cool" seriously and it's evident around just about every corner. Great food, thriving nightlife and plenty of attractions can easily fill itineraries of any length. Don't miss a trip to the State Capitol. The gorgeous and massive building is open to the public and free guided or self-guided tours are available. The University of Texas campus is also worth a stroll. When the weather is pleasant, and it almost always is, head to Barton Springs. The 3-acre, spring-fed pool is a popular hangout located on the grounds of Zilker Park. Dubbed the "live music capital of the world," Austin has no shortage of hip bars and venues for catching a show. Head downtown to Sixth Street to be in the heart of the city's nightlife. What's more, Austin plays host to loads of festivals throughout the year. Most notably, South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music festivals in March, Out of Bounds Comedy Festival over Labor Day weekend, as well as Austin City Limits music festival in October. For even more, check out Paste's detailed 2-day Austin guide from 2015.
Photo by Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0
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Dubbed the birthplace of modern America, Philadelphia is great travel for those interested in U.S. history. Serving as the nation's capital from 1790 until 1800, Philly is where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were penned. No trip to the city would be complete without a visit to Independence National Historic Park, where you'll find Independence Hall, Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell. The City of Brotherly Love also has a vibrant street art scene, the largest collection in the country. The city is also dotted with sculptures and statues, like the one depicting Rocky Balboa and made famous in Rocky III, which is located at the base of the "Rocky Stairs" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Running the stairs and grabbing a photo with the statue are two popular, albeit touristy, musts when visiting the city.
Photo by Richard Ricciardi, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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We could fill an entire gallery with bucket list-worthy reasons to visit San Francisco. It's home to the iconic Golden Gate Bridge to name just one. The city needs little defense as to its merits as one of the country's best. While expensive, this Bay Area gem is well worth every penny. Among its 11 official districts, the former hippie haven of Haight continues to be cool, Castro is vibrant and the heart of the city's LGBTQ scene, Mission District and Chinatown are great for a taste of San Francisco's Hispanic and Chinese cultures, and Russian Hill is home to the most popular stretch of the famous Lombard Street. The more touristy neighborhood of Fisherman's Warf is where you'll find Pier 39, one of the city's most popular attractions.
Photo by Tony Hoffarth, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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In addition to being a darling city with numerous noteworthy attractions, San Antonio is culturally, historically and geographically significant. The city, which is the third largest in the state, represents Texas' Spanish and Mexican roots and is home to the Alamo. The former mission was the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo where Davy Crockett saw his demise during the 13-day siege against Mexican troops in the fight for Texas' independence. At the UNESCO World Heritage San Antonio Missions National Historic Park you can visit four additional missions spread across nearly 820 acres, including Concepción, San Jose, San Juan and Espada dating back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The San Antonio River Walk is also not to be missed. The meandering urban waterway is lined with cypress trees adorned with twinkling lights, colorful patio umbrellas and whose banks are united via stone bridges. The riverwalk, also known as Paseo del Rio, is located in the city center just below street level and there is no shortage of shops, restaurants and bars along its banks. Whether you explore on foot or opt for the water taxi, it will not disappoint.
Photo by Nan Palmero, CC BY 2.0
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Like Philadelphia, Boston is heaven for American history buffs. From downtown and Dorchester to Beacon Hill and Back Bay, Boston's districts offer a variety of options. Historically speaking, Beacon Hill is a must-see. With brick roads dating back to the city's birth and lined with gas lights, it's here that you'll find the Massachusetts State House. It's also a stop on the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile walking route that includes 16 sites relevant to the American Revolution. Other stops include Boston Common, the Benjamin Franklin statue, Old State House, Paul Revere House, the site of the Boston Massacre and the USS Constitution. The 3-story glass globe room within the Mary Baker Eddy Library is a must-visit for cartophiles. The Mapperium invites you to step inside a massive stained glass map of the world. Sports lovers can catch a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, or take a tour of the stadium, which stands as the oldest Major League Baseball stadium in the country. Beer fans might want to hop over to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood to peek inside the Samuel Adams Brewery, which serves as the "research and development hub" of the popular beer company. Trillium Brewing Company, Castle Island Brewing and Harpoon are three additional local craft breweries who offer tours or have retail shops worth visiting. Nearby in Cambridge, you can walk the iconic campuses of Harvard and MIT, both are home to several noteworthy museums like the Harvard Art Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History, as well as the MIT Museum.
Photo by Navaneeth KN, CC BY-ND 2.0
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Phoenix and its surrounding metropolitan area is an oasis in the Sonoran Desert with an abundance of noteworthy attractions, among them the largest municipal park in the United States. South Mountain Park covers more than 16,000 acres of mountains and desert. Hike, bike or horseback ride its trails and you'll be treated to sightings of native desert vegetation, valley views and scenic outlooks. For more of the desert's plant and animal life, consider a stop at the Desert Botanical Garden. The Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park offers a glimpse of the area's pre-Columbian Hohokam civilization and is the country's only archaeological site operated by a city. On a similar note, the Heard Museum and its world-renowned collections and exhibits celebrating Native American arts and cultural is a must visit.
Photo by CEBImagery, CC BY-NC 2.0