Spring is summer’s temperamental little brother, unreliable and impossible to pin down. In an unpredictable season, May is a welcome dose of reliability. In many places around the country, May means peak springtime weather, flower blooms, comfortably drinking on patios, and sunny vacations without the summer crowds. Since the pandemic has forced us to view travel through a domestic lens this past year, Americans are realizing you don’t have to go to Cancún for an enjoyable spring break or the French Riviera for a romantic getaway. From the beaches of Hyannis on Cape Cod to the Bavarian aesthetic of Leavenworth, Washington, these are the best places to visit this May around the US.
1. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
It sounds like a ritzy resort town on the Côte d’Azur, but it’s actually a far more accessible mountain town in Idaho. Between the hyped mountain scene of Utah and Colorado, and the stunning natural beauty of Washington and Oregon, Idaho often gets lost in the mix. For in-the-know travelers looking to avoid crowds, however, that’s perfectly fine. On the edge of massive Lake Coeur d’Alene, the city is actually the best of all worlds, with a scenic waterfront resort, sprawling national forest, and a lively downtown.
Mineral Ridge, home to a three-mile recreation trail east of the city center, might be the best place to overlook the lake and Beauty Bay. You can also get a view of the lake from Tubbs Hill, a natural space with miles of hiking trails looping around the hill, or experience the lake yourself by heading out for the day on a rented kayak or paddleboard. Back in town, Coeur d’Alene is full of art galleries, antique shops, farmers markets, and live music venues like Studio 107 and the NYC Piano Bar. One of the city’s most unique eateries is Cedars Floating Restaurant, which, true to its name, literally floats on the lake.
2. Leavenworth, Washington
A trip to Munich might not be on the agenda this year, but if you squint your eyes really hard at Leavenworth, it’s almost the same thing. This Bavarian-style town in the Cascade Mountains combines a European aesthetic with the great American outdoors, including bike trails, hiking, and vineyards. Between its Alpine-style buildings and restaurants serving classic Bavarian fare, like the Stein Beer Hall, this town will give you a dose of Euro culture without even leaving the country.
Like many European cities, Leavenworth is best explored by bike. The “Fruit Loop” begins in Leavenworth and connects with the cities of Dryden, Peshastin, and Cashmere, bringing you through blossoming orchards and, if you’re lucky, offering encounters with elk. To immerse yourself in the area’s natural beauty, hike up Icicle Ridge — a four-mile trek with incredible views — or take a more leisurely stroll through the Waterfront Park on a three-mile trail along the Wenatchee River.
It wouldn’t truly be a German-inspired town without a brewery. Yes, this town of just over 2,000 people has its own brewery, called Blewett Brewing Co. Winos, however, might prefer a wine hike through the surrounding vineyards, like Icicle Ridge Winery. If you throw back enough glasses of red, you might even forget you’re not actually in Germany’s Rheingau region.
3. Hyannis, Massachusetts
Spending summer on Cape Cod is a New England cliche, but spending spring on Cape Cod is just good common sense. Sitting in traffic on the Sagamore Bridge for three hours is a blast and all, but visiting the Cape in May gives you the beach vacation you’ve been craving since January without the June crowds. While the entirety of Cape Cod is brimming with walkable beachside towns, seafood restaurants, and nightlife, Hyannis is the best place to go for all three.
Hyannis might be famous for the Kennedy Compound, but you don’t need Kennedy money to have a memorable weekend here. This place is all about food, drinks, and sun. Since you’ve probably been dreaming of the beach the whole ride in, make Craigville Beach one of your first stops. Not only is the water warmer than the beaches farther north, but there are also several clam shacks and fried seafood eateries, like the Barnacle Snack Bar, right across the street.
For a slightly more comfortable dining experience, head to Trader Ed’s at the Hyannis Marina. This casual restaurant is just steps away from the marina, with tables set up around a swimming pool. Yeah, you’re technically supposed to wait 30 minutes after you eat to go swimming, but no one abides by that rule here. Chances are you came to the Cape for the beach, but nighttime is when Hyannis really gets going. Walk down Main Street and you’ll find plenty of bars with expansive patios, and it’s easy to hop between them. Torino is one of the most popular, with a huge outdoor bar and seating area.
4. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, and spring is the perfect time to visit. In early May the wildflowers are in full bloom. Walk the Little River Trail or the Kanata Fork Trail for prime viewing of over 1,500 different kinds of flowering plants, more than any other US national park. Spring is also the best time for wildlife viewing, particularly black bears coming out of hibernation (just like us). Perhaps most unique to the Smokies, however, are the synchronous fireflies, which put on a dazzling mating display in late spring full of entrancing light patterns. There’s even a special event each year to watch the firefly mating ritual, which requires tickets purchased in advance.
Gatlinburg itself is the ideal small-town base for your mountainous excursions. Whether it’s rafting the Cliff Branch river, ziplining, or checking out the Rowdy Bear Mountain Adventure Park, the adrenaline doesn’t stop when you’ve left the park itself. Gatlinburg is also home to several spring festivals, like the Hands-On Gatlinburg craft festival and the Smoky Mountain Wine Weekend. Since COVID-19 may impact these events, be sure to check the most updated information before attending.
Perhaps the area’s most widely known attraction, however, is Dollywood — the Disney World of Tennessee — located just 20 minutes south of Gatlinburg. Erected in honor of the hero of the coronavirus vaccine herself, Dolly Parton, Dollywood offers classic theme park rides as well as traditional crafts and music that represent the Smoky Mountain area. It closes for the winter season and reopens in spring, making May the perfect time to go before the summer crowds start pouring in.
5. Missoula, Montana
Like a bell going off in your head, warm weather heralds the start of “drinking outside” season. It might take Montana a while to warm up, but by May spring is in full swing, and there’s no better place than Missoula to kick back with a patio beer and stunning mountain views.
On the cusp of Glacier National Park, Missoula is in the middle of five mountain ranges: the Sapphire Range, Garnet Range, Rattlesnake Mountains, Reservation Divide, and Bitterroot Mountains. All of these ranges are great for biking, hiking, horseback riding, or just a casual drive. But if you’d rather passively admire nature than bust your ass on an all-day hike, Missoula is teeming with local breweries where you can grab a pint and simply enjoy the views.
Big Sky Brewing has its own outdoor amphitheater, which hosts nationally known acts, while KettleHouse Brewery sits on the banks of the Blackfoot River. Missoula isn’t just a beer town, either. The Lolo Creek Distillery serves locally made whiskey, vodka, and gin drinks by a firepit. The Montana Whiskey Company, Montgomery Distillery, and Rattlesnake Creek Distillery should also be essential stops on your distillery tour, and you might as well throw the Western Cider cidery in there too, while you’re at it.
To combine two of the best spring pastimes — rafting and drinking — you can even take a beer-themed rafting tour with Brews River Floats. Drinks and snacks will be provided by the tour company.
6. Holland, Michigan
If Leavenworth is masquerading as Munich, Holland is doing its best, well, Holland impression. This town of just over 30,000 is known for its Dutch-inspired architecture, brick sidewalks, outdoor sculptures, flower gardens, and authentic Dutch windmill.
If you only have one day to spend in Holland, make Windmill Island Gardens your priority. The DeZwaan windmill, the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the US, dominates the gardens, grinding locally grown wheat into flour. You can take a guided tour of the windmill courtesy of costumed guides, and from the windmill’s fourth-floor deck you’ll have a view of 36 acres of meticulously tended gardens, canals, and dikes. Spring is truly the best time to visit, with over 100,000 tulips in bloom throughout the gardens.
The Netherlands might have the North Sea, but Holland has Lake Michigan. The lake is great for sunbathing, fishing, taking a boat out on the water, and viewing the iconic Big Red Lighthouse that sits across the channel.
In case you had any lingering doubts that Holland is really, really into tulips, the town hosts the Tulip Time Festival every May. In addition to blooming in local parks, tulips will line the streets and fill public venues. The usual parades, performances, and carnival have been canceled due to COVID-19, but you can still enjoy the floral aesthetic on May 1-9. Make sure to stay up-to-date on the changing regulations, which may impact the festival and its events.
7. Carlsbad, California
From European-inspired flower fields, it’s time to head west for a California super bloom. The flower fields of Southern California are some of the most striking in the country, and Carlsbad Ranch is one of the best places to see them. Set on a hillside overlooking the California coastline, the ranch is 50 acres of beautiful ranunculus flowers. In addition to strolling the flower fields and taking totally original and unfiltered photos for Instagram, you can check out the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse, themed gardens, or even take a tractor-driven wagon ride.
To really get a feel for the area, enjoy a beer and adventure tour with Scavengers. They’ll pick up you and your group, supply you with craft beer to drink on the road, and stop at several breweries.
After several hours of day drinking, you might as well take advantage of being by the ocean and rent a watercraft. California Watersports rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and jet skis for exploring the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.
8. Santa Fe, New Mexico
The nation’s oldest capital city is an eclectic mix of Native American, Spanish, and Anglo culture, and nowhere is this cultural amalgamation more evident than at Santa Fe’s farmers markets. Every Tuesday and Saturday the various markets offer artisan, multicultural crafts like fine art, jewelry, and traditional Native American handicrafts. There’s also fresh, locally grown produce for sale if you’re looking to add new flavors to your cooking.
New Mexico has some of the most unique geography in the country, and Santa Fe is your gateway. The Santa Fe National Forest is home to a dormant volcano and the McCauley Hot Springs, which you’ll reach after a three-and-a-half mile uphill hike. So, yeah, you’ll deserve that dip in the hot springs. The hike up to the springs is nearly as rewarding as the springs themselves, with views of Battleship Rock, and small waterfalls and pools. Just over a half-hour from the city, the hoodoos of nearby Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument — tent-shaped cones of rock — are also worth a visit. Hike the short Canyon Trail into a stunning canyon, and from the mesa you can look out over three mountain ranges and the Rio Grande Valley.
Even if social distancing measures prevent you from having a raucous night out in Santa Fe, there’s still plenty to do once the sun sets. With the lowest population density in the US, New Mexico is an ideal dark-sky destination, and there are plenty of stargazing opportunities around Santa Fe. Astronomy Adventures runs star tours on Cerrillos Hills State Park’s Turquoise Trail, and you can also get pristine night sky views in the Jemez Mountains to the northwest.
9. Portland, Maine
The best time for a trip to Portland is right before everyone flocks to their lake houses in the summer, and the towns are overwhelmed with tourists. Maine might be synonymous with fall leaf-peeping, but spring in Portland means enjoying the warm weather while strolling the Old Port, sipping local craft beer, and hitting up a minor league ballgame.
There’s a reason the Old Port is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is Portland’s beating historic heart, with cobblestone streets, fishing piers over the Fore River, and buildings that will make you feel like you’re in the 1800s. Just across the river you’ll find Portland Head Light, the quintessential Maine lighthouse you’ve probably seen on a thousand postcards. The lighthouse is right next to the 90-acre Fort Williams Park, with hiking and walking paths for visitors to enjoy.
If Portland, Maine, has one thing in common with its namesake in Oregon, it’s a thriving craft beer culture. When you tell someone from New England you went to Portland, the first thing they say is, “Sooo which breweries did you hit up?” Whether it’s Shipyard and Allagash — two of Maine’s most prominent craft brewing companies — or upstarts like Bunker, Foulmouthed, and Rising Tide, there’s really no bad answer.
May is also the best time to catch a minor league baseball game, and lucky for you, Hadlock field is just a short walk from the Old Port. For around $20 a ticket, you can watch the Portland Sea Dogs clobber or get clobbered by another team you’ve never heard of, all while consuming cheap beers and snacks. It’s not major league play, but neither are the prices or the hassle, and nothing makes the downtime fly by like cheesy gimmicks, mascot races, and t-shirt cannons.