20 ways you can enjoy America’s biggest cities like a local
There’s nothing sexier than traveling adventurously. Traveling local. Traveling cheaply. Traveling green. And you certainly don’t get this by hopping on a flight to some ritzy international destination or spending a week on a beach-y resort.
You do it by hopping on the Greyhound and booking it to the nearest big city. America’s largest urban centers have laundry lists of local secrets to uncover, and most of them come without the lines, the price tags, and the expectations. We’ve sought out 20 for you — all you have to do is get packing.
The Last Bookstore
Los Angeles, CA
The Last Bookstore is the name, but maybe it’s also a prophecy. Brick and mortar book storefronts are dinosaurs before the meteor, but this one — not far from LA’s Little Tokyo — is nostalgia for a generation, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
As you explore its 22,000 square feet, you’ll meander between hallways of used books, vinyl, and art, to hang-out spaces, a yarn shop, and an artists’ workshop and gallery. You might also stumble on an event — like the “We’re all gonna die!” dystopian book club or True Crime Tuesday — or a talk on dysentery on the Oregon Trail, feminism, or vegan Christmas. They’re open till 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays, so scope out their reviews and get to book learnin’. (Or vinyl-hunting. Or Oregon Trail-ing. Whichever.)
New York, NY
It almost doesn’t come as a surprise that sound and light might behave strangely in New York City. At least, this is the case at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, where every move you make shows you a different sensory world.
Wander up to the third floor (it’s above a restaurant), and you’ll be ushered right in. It’s definitely a house, but likely not one that fits your standard definition. Once inside, make sure to be silent. Make sure to make noise. Move slowly. Move quickly. Unfocus your gaze. Refocus it. Stand in the middle; stand in the corners. Notice how you’re experiencing sound and light as one. Or are you? And is this theatre, art, or something else entirely?
Chicago Cultural Center
Brilliant, rainbow-colored, and ornate are rarely three words used together to describe Chicago architecture, but that’s only when you’re not talking about the Chicago Cultural Center. Built in 1897 across from Millennium Park, its interior is stuffed to the brim with green-veined Vermont marble, doric columns, mosaic floors, mahogany doors, and — the pièce de résistance — the largest Tiffany glass dome in existence.
So look up. You’ll probably piece together that it depicts the zodiac, but what’s less obvious is the thing was built for a cool $2 mil. Nowadawys? The dome is valued at $35 million. And in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, there’s another one. It’s smaller, but come on, two giant Tiffany glass domes in one place? Talk about a gilded age!
You could wander every inch of Houston and still miss six of its miles, linking 95 city blocks. It’s not the twilight zone or some kind of vortex (sadly) — we’re talking about the city’s underground tunnels.
Enter at the Wells Fargo Plaza or in the McKinney Garage on Main Street, and start scoping out your options. The tunnels originally only connected two movie theaters (today, you can wander around below many points in the Arts District), but now there are hundreds of shops and restaurants to pop in and out of. If you get lost, know that every leg of the tunnel system is decorated slightly differently to help you navigate — the zealous signage also won’t let you down.
It may technically be in Philadelphia, but some consider it NYC’s next borough. Half sketchy and reeking of cheesesteak, half million-dollar price tag, Fishtown is making pun-intended waves. Beyonce’s birthday cake? Right here. The best pizza in the country? Right here. Wine bars and music galleries, graffiti and grit? Here too. Not so long ago it was a working-class neighborhood (you don’t get a moniker like Fishtown without earning your blue-collar stripes); now it’s hotter than fidget spinners in 2017.
It does a million things well (as any artsy, new-wave neighborhood usually does), but one of the things it does best? Coffee. Check out ReAnimator, Milkcrate, Rocket Cat, or La Colombe. It won’t be this way much longer, but if you get there soon, those will be locals you’re chilling next to.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
San Diego, CA
In California, the green spaces don’t have to ring large with names like “Yosemite” — even the local parks and preserves will knock you off your rocker. Just north of San Diego and right off the 5 is one such spot: Torrey Pines State Reserve. Let’s just say oceanside trails, dolphins, and bobcats are quite the merry trio.
One of the local secrets here is the La Jolla Trail and the hike down to Black’s Beach (known for its reputation as a nude surfer spot). It’s on the super southern tip of the reserve, closest to the city. There are awesome views if you decide to go up, awesome views if you decide to go down, and the trail is always only wide enough for one person — which, luckily, is usually plenty.
San Francisco, CA
Carnival-inspired comfort food. We shouldn’t technically have to say more, but the formatting on this webpage requires it. Straw is the kind of restaurant you don’t want super close to your house — otherwise you’ll struggle to arrive at work not in a mimosa or chicken-and-waffle stupor.
That is, if you can get in. It only seats a couple dozen people, and the place is almost always packed through lunch (because it’s not open for dinner). Donut burgers — Google them — tend to be quite the draw for anyone and everyone, including locals who can’t get enough of their weirdly sophisticated county fair flavors.
Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library
Kurt Vonnegut — you probably know his Slaughterhouse-Five, if nothing else — was Indianapolis born and raised. He passed away in 2007, and in 2011, the city opened the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library in his memory.
Here, you can eye Vonnegut’s typewriter, check out his rejection letters, critique his doodles, and — simply by visiting the museum — fight the good fight against censorship. Vonnegut was an incredibly principled man, and the museum actively supports the causes he cared so deeply about.
Note: If you find yourself in Indianapolis in early November, check out VonnegutFest. It’s the only Vonnegut celebration in the world, and it takes over the city as a challenge to “better us as individuals and as a society.”
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
When a conservatory has a food truck, you know you’re in uncharted terrain. Grab whatever garden fare you’re craving, and then surround yourself with a thousand butterflies, grow virtual flowers on your body at the immersive and technological Field exhibit, and catch the light show at the John F. Wolfe Palm House at dusk. The Franklin Park Conservatory is a strange melange of wonderful, and we haven’t even mentioned the flowers yet.
There are dozens of attractions here (the new children’s park is uh-mazing), but the one you have the most potential to get lost in is their 88-acre botanical garden. Between light shows and techno displays, head here for some serious zen, just a few minutes east of the city’s downtown heartbeat.
Brook’s Sandwich House
You’ll find very few food entries gracing this list, and that’s because we wanted to save the spotlight for — drum roll, please — livermush.
You’d think someone would’ve renamed it by now — it’s similar to Philly’s more innocuously named scrapple — but for those who are fans, the evocative (and true-to-form) name doesn’t matter. Pork liver, scrap meat, spices, and cornmeal makes up this ultra-Southern dish, and there’s no better place to try it than Charlotte.
Mash it up with your morning grits and eggs (cheese grits is always the way to go) or, hell, use it as the ultimate pizza topping. At Brook’s Sandwich House, you’ll get it between two slices of bread with chili, mustard, and onions — tossed at you in a bag, the way it’s always been and the way it always should be.
Jones Point Lighthouse
Most tourists, when they visit DC, hit up the famous monuments. You know the drill: Jefferson, Lincoln, whatever’s on the backs of our coins. But the oldest federal monuments in the city aren’t any of these buildings — they’re the boundary stones placed at the edges of the district over 200 years ago.
Way back in the 1790s, surveyors laid stones to delineate the DC “diamond,” and most of these stones (36!) can still be found today. The first one ever laid can be spotted in one of the sea walls at the Jones Point Lighthouse, with an inscription that reads “The beginning of the territory of Columbia” on one of its sides. Once you’ve found the stone (there’s a handy marker), stick around for some area history and to scope out the lighthouse. It’s the last remaining one of its kind in the state.
If you’ve ever wondered what the planet actually looks like from space, you’ll never truly know until you hitch it to Boston (unless you rub elbows with Elon, of course). The Mapparium, at the Mary Baker Eddy Library, is the only place you can see our planet without any distortion. It’s essentially a three-story-tall globe with a walkway through its middle — and it’s from this perspective that your eyes are equidistant to all spots on the globe, showing you reality. And get this: You won’t much recognize it. (No, it’s not flat.)
Apart from its geographical awesomeness, it’s also a whispering gallery. Keep it low, and with your voice bouncing off 360-degree glass walls, everyone at any position in the room will still be able to hear you loud and clear.
The Heidelberg Project
Thirty years ago, Heidelberg was a nondescript, run-down street on Detroit’s east side. It was quite literally in shambles, on the edges of becoming entirely abandoned. Then artist Tyree Guyton came around and saw something different. Over time, he turned these vacant lots and dilapidated houses into street art. This is the Heidelberg Project.
The entire McDougall-Hunt neighborhood has been transformed thanks to his (and his family’s) efforts. Though it took awhile for city officials to sign on, the nonprofit now has city headquarters and an app. Though to catch the project in its current glory, move quickly — it’s slowly being dismantled and re-envisioned into Heidelberg 3.0.
Radnor Lake State Natural Area
Radnor Lake State Natural Area has one pretty great claim to fame: It’s the largest swath of wilderness on the skirts of a major US city. These 1,200+ acres just south of downtown Nashville have quite the resume, but locals tend to come for three specific things: the excellent canoeing, the wildlife, and the stellar scenic trails.
For an easy morning outing out of the city (but just barely!), hit the Radnor Lake South Lake Trail. For something more difficult and just as entrenched in nature, check out the Radnor Lake Ganier Ridge Trail. Both will take you through dense terrain with an owl or two — or maybe a “rafter” of turkeys — watching over you from time to time. Country music in your headphones optional.
Sweet Auburn Historic District
Veer just off your downtown path and you’ll quickly find yourself walking along the streets of the Sweet Auburn Historic District. MLK Jr. took his first steps in this neighborhood, back when it was segregated. Now? Now it’s a National Historic Landmark District.
The stops you could make here could take you an entire trip: The Royal Peacock Club has hosted the likes of B.B. King and Gladys Night. The Sweet Auburn Curb Market is home to 10 of the entire city’s most popular restaurants. Edgewood Avenue has some of the best street art you’ll ever see. The proliferation of music venues and eateries is out-of-this-world. But the mandatory stop is MLK Jr.’s birth home, and three miles away — connected by streetcar — is The Center for Human and Civil Rights.
When life gets you down, there’s only one medicine that’s a tried-and-true cure-all: the milkshake. But not just any milkshake — at Vicky’s House in Miami, your dessert takes you straight back to the ’80s. This milkshake bar and tasting room is laboriously themed like the owner’s mom’s kitchen from the Reagan Era, down to the spices lining the wall rack.
All the milkshakes are ’80s-themed as well — you can order an “E.T. Goes To The Movies to watch The Goonies,” which is a salted caramel milkshake with a chocolate frosting rim, caramel popcorn, Cola Gummies, whipped cream, Hershey’s chocolate syrup, Reese’s pieces, and a fun-size Baby Ruth. They have killer Cuban coffee and wine and beer as well.
New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum
New Orleans, LA
Voodoo doesn’t mean fancy beads and creepy dolls. It’s a whole culture, and New Orleans Voodoo is its own variety. Besides, you can’t spend your entire visit sugar-dusting your face with beignets (though we would if we could). Pay homage to the city’s history with a visit to the small, packs-a-punch New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum — and chat up the onsite voodoo priest if you can.
While here, definitely peruse the walls and check out the artifacts, but also be sure to come home with a souvenir. Their “love potion” is always worth a shot, though the snake skins and chicken feet serve important purposes, too.
Note: The museum also offers walking tours in the nearby St. Louis Cemetery, where famed Voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau rests.
St. Louis, MO
Calling it a museum is a disservice, really. St. Louis’ City “Museum” is an interactive playground for adults (and kids) made up of repurposed architectural and industrial objects found within the city limits. In some places, that would mean old street signs and barbed wire — here, that means bridges, chimneys, and abandoned airplanes.
It’s 600,000 square feet of surrealist funhouse meets playground meets architectural wonder. The rooftop has an incredible view and plenty of greenspace (including fountains!), while other floors contain aquariums, a marble bar, a skate park, and even a circus ring. You’ll have to have a keen eye to find the building, however — it’s cleverly disguised with a school bus coming out of its roof.
Romanesque. Neo-Gothic. Beaux-Arts. Italianate. Victorian Gothic. Classic Revival. Old Louisville is the third-largest historic district in the United States, coming in at around 48 city blocks. It’s also got the most pedestrian-only streets in the entire country. In other words, this city is built for a slow wander on foot, cell phone silent and tucked away.
Oddly enough, Old Louisville falls about a century short of downtown Louisville, but it’s largely escaped demolition through the decades. Check out the area around St. James Court, South 3rd Street, and the Victorian-age courts around 4th. Otherwise, guided tours take place from Historic Old Louisville Visitors Center twice a day, Tuesday through Saturday.
Baltimore’s old enough to have a dozen different threads of history, and one that’s still clinging to brick façades and crouching in dark saloons is Prohibition. The “Vote Against Prohibition” sign on the corner of Shakespeare and South Broadway is one of the clearest marks of the passage of time — and just how different our present day is.
Find it, and then go for a legal drink at The Horse to toast the 21st amendment. This spot’s full, non-local name is The Horse You Came In On Saloon, and it’s been operating in some form for well over 200 years. It’s the oldest bar in Baltimore, the only one that existed during Prohibition, and it also claims to have served good ol’ Edgar Allan Poe his last drink.