September might be the best-kept secret in travel. It’s technically still summer, but since school is back in session, crowds pretty much everywhere thin out considerably after Labor Day. That means you can enjoy all the great lakes, oceans, historic sites, and restaurants that were jam-packed with tourists a month earlier — often at cheaper, shoulder-season prices. September also brings some fantastic festivals, from harvest fests in wine country to a gorilla-naming ceremony in Rwanda, as well as film festivals in the mountains and on the shores of Lake Ontario. Whether you’re looking to get out of the country this September or make the most of what America has to offer, here are the best places to travel in September.
Sonoma County, California
It’s harvest season in California’s wine country, so the whole state will be chock full of music festivals, wine tastings, and general grape-picking celebrations. Sonoma is the most well-rounded locale of them all, home to some of the most scenic wineries in Dry Creek Valley, famous breweries like Russian River Brewing, and lively towns like Santa Rosa and Petaluma. In addition to the requisite Sonoma Valley Crush festival, during which you’ll tour over a dozen boutique wineries in the region and meet the people behind the labels, the area has other festivals throughout the month worth traveling for.
For art lovers, Plein Air festival brings artists to Sonoma for its fifteenth year. They’ll have quick draw competitions, art auctions, and endless displays of art inspired by the region. The month ends with the Sonoma Valley Vintage Festival, which extends far beyond a celebration of wine. The community festival has been held in Sonoma Plaza since 1897; local food and wine is served in abundance, and visitors get to meet the people that make this such a vibrant community.
Black Hills, South Dakota
There’s an old country song about having a home where the Buffalo roam, and while that’s probably not true for most of us, in September you can at least visit a place where they not only roam but downright stampede in one of the most dramatic annual events in America. On September 28, cowboys converge on Custer State Park in the Black Hills for the annual Buffalo Roundup, herding all 1,300 bison in the park. You’ll sit atop a hill and watch the prairie below where the bison move in perfect synchronization — like a real-life Dances With Wolves where you’ll literally feel the ground shake from their power.
That Sunday, the Crazy Horse Memorial hosts its biannual Volksmarch. The most popular organized hike in the US, this 6.2-mile uphill trek takes you to the top of this ongoing mountain carving built in tribute to the great Lakota chief. You’ll stand below the massive carved face and look out over blue sky into the majestic Black Hills. And after one visit, you’ll realize why South Dakota is America’s most underrated state for scenery.
If you’re into art, or sumo wrestling, or artistic sumo wrestling, September is the time to visit Japan. The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, one of the world’s largest art festivals, finishes its run in Niigata on September 16. Here, you’ll be able to see over 50 large-scale art installations that “examine the role of architecture and the power of art in the world.” Each of the pieces is designed to fit seamlessly into this pristine, natural region, integrating themselves into rice terraces, old schools, and forests.
For something a little more in-your-face, the Grand Tournament of sumo wrestling runs from September 9 to September 23 in Tokyo. The biggest and best wrestlers in the country compete in matches beginning at 8:30 AM each day, running all day until the main event at 4:00 PM. InsideJapan runs tours that include the tournament, and you can also make arrangements for tickets for those traveling to Tokyo independent of the full tour.
This picturesque mountain town in southwest Colorado is a world-class destination any time of year, but September’s shoulder season makes it particularly alluring. It’s not quite ski season yet, but you can still hike many of the 14,000-foot peaks around the city, take the gondola up over the mountain if you’re feeling lazy, or just enjoy beers at the state’s best rooftop bar at the New Sheridan. The summer crowds have subsided and the snow crowds haven’t arrived, so the town will feel a little more empty.
The only time the town really fills up is during the celebrity-studded Telluride Film Festival, which runs from September 1 to September 4 and has premiered flicks like Slumdog Millionaire and Juno in the past. September 14 through September 16 also brings the 25th annual Blues and Brews festival, headlined this year by Robert Plant and lots of Colorado beers. Then, close out the month between September 27 and September 30 at the Telluride Festival of Cars and Colors, where vintage and exotic cars line the streets and set up demos on the Mountain Village golf course.
Convenient? No. But few great adventures ever start with a quick, convenient car ride. Those willing to take a last-minute (by African standards) trip to Rwanda will be there for the highlight of the year: the baby gorilla naming ceremony at Volcanoes National Park. And nothing, nothing, is cuter than a baby gorilla. Each September, over 20,000 people head to Kinigi on the outer slopes of the park where all the new baby gorillas in the park get their names. This year, there will be 18 lil’ guys participating in a Rwandan tradition that dates back centuries, though the official party has only been going for 14 years. This year’s rendition is on September 7.
Of course, you’ve gone all that way, so there’s no point in turning around and going home right after you attend your first primate name reveal. Spend a week at Volcanoes Safaris’ Virunga Lodge and you’ll have plenty of chances to head out into the park and spot the babies, and adults, in their natural habitat.
What do we really know about the biggest city in our neighbor to the north other than the fact that it pioneered retractable roof stadiums and gifted the world Drake? Not much. But North America’s third-largest city is one of the most international metros in the world, full of diverse people, food, and nightlife. September is still warm here, meaning Torontonians will be out in force, making the most of the city’s rooftop bars and sandy beaches. (Yes, Toronto has beaches.) It’s the perfect time to join the locals for one last hurrah of summer.
September also brings the renowned Toronto International Film Festival (September 6-16) where Hollywood heads north of the border and King Street becomes a giant red carpet. The Just for Laughs Comedy Festival runs from September 20 to September 29, headlined this year by Joe Rogan, Seth Meyers, Wanda Sykes, and Hannibal Buress. And after a long delay, Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Arts opens September 22.
Lucca, Tuscany, Italy
Touring Tuscany in the summer is a beautiful experience… that you’ll end up sharing with every college student and Euro-tripping twentysomething in America. But September still has all that glorious Mediterranean sunshine and stunning scenery with a fraction of the people. And, in the little town of Lucca, there are tons of cool events going on.
The town of Lucca, west of Florence and northeast of Pisa, sits on the Serchio River surrounded by a landscape of colorful rolling hills. This month it hosts September Lucchese, during which an epic amusement park opens up right in the center of town and draws thousands of people all month long. Earlier in the month, the city throws the Nozzano Medieval Festival, a slightly-more-realistic take on your local renaissance fair where you’ll eat Italian food from the 13th century and trade in your euros for period-specific coins to buy stuff.
We’re all over the misconception that Colombia is “dangerous” by now, right? It sure seems like it considering flights from the US have gotten cheaper and easier over the past couple of years. It also seems like Colombia is only a couple years away from people the world over coming here in droves. For now, September sees travel slow down a bit, but the culture, history, scenery, and nightlife are no less exciting.
Dip your toes into Latin America in the colonial city of Cartagena where the fortress in the old city houses lively bars and delicious restaurants that stay open well past when you’re comfortable. Cartagena also has the best beaches of any large city in the country, and though they can get packed on weekends, if you plan a long enough trip, those crowds are avoidable. Then, head to Tayrona National Park where you’ll hike through the jungle up seaside mountains with magical views of the Caribbean. There’s plenty more in the country, and if you’re keen to explore the whole thing, Intrepid Travel runs a ten-day Explore Colombia adventure that hits all the sites for $1,750.
Cedar Point might be the best amusement park in the world for hardcore, balls-to-the-wall roller-coaster riding. The problem is that the rest of the world is in on the secret, and going during the summer means hours spent shuffling through lines in the brutal Ohio heat or buying a FastPass that costs more than your car payment. This is why September is THE time to head to Sandusky — school is in and the temps are down. Hit the park during the week and the only line you may encounter is on the phone-eating Steel Vengeance.
Even if coasters aren’t your thing, the islands in Lake Erie are not the Spring Break shitshows they are during the summer, and you can enjoy the wineries, hiking trails, and waterfront serenity of places like Put-In-Bay and Kelleys Island — or any of the other fantastic islands in the Great Lakes. September is also a great time to check out better-than-you’d-think Cleveland where the Indians are usually in the thick of the pennant race and the outdoor dining along East 4th Street is still warm and friendly.
Ask anyone who’s been to Turkey in the past couple years, and they won’t only tell you that it’s safe — they’ll tell you that it’s better than it was before. September is still the height of resort season here, where the seaside towns of Bodrum and Alacati teem with European visitors getting in their last slice of summer parties. And for music lovers, Bodrum hosts its annual jazz festival from September 1 to September 8.
Beyond that, September sees the opening of the long-awaited Troy Museum, situated on the archeological site of Canakkale with 150 exhibits and 2,000 artifacts from the famous Trojan War. The museum opens as the site celebrates its 20th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and welcomes a cycling race from the 20th to the 22nd.
Finally, the city of Cappadocia out in Turkish wine country hosts its harvest festival, which begins September 9 and lasts for a month into mid-October. It runs parallel to the Forgotten Flavors of Goreme food festival where you’ll sample Turkish food and wine from the 24th to the 30th. And what better way is there to send off summer than with a magical hot air balloon ride?