Underrated USA

The Americas can be a bit like a music festival where only headline acts get a mention.

Look beyond the blockbusters that are NYC and LA to discover cities that are dancing (often literally) to a different tune. From Detroit to Seattle, here’s our pick of the most underrated urban-radar dodgers in the US.

1. Detroit, Michigan

An unfortunate byword for urban blight, Detroit is changing rapidly as young creatives move into the centre to take advantage of low rents. A drive around the largely abandoned outer neighbourhoods is ghoulish but fascinating, although the brilliant Heidelberg Project, where a whole block has been turned into a giant open-air art project, shows resilience and fighting spirit. Downtown, though, has undergone a massive revamp.

Urban Adventures offers eye-opening walking tours that show off some of the world’s greatest Art Deco buildings as well as new stadiums, bars and restaurants. Tick off the novelty of staring south into Canada from the Riverfront Park; dose up on musical heritage at the Motown Museum; and keep a day spare for one of the best museums in the US, The Henry Ford. With the neighbouring Greenfield Village, it hosts an extraordinary collection, including the car JFK was shot in, Rosa Parks’ bus and the bike shop where the Wright brothers built the first plane.

STAY: The Westin Book Cadillac took over a legendary building from Detroit’s heyday and made it the swankiest joint in town.

2. Nashville, Tennessee

Forget the country clichés, Nashville has morphed into a booming pan-genre musical hub. It’s one of the largest recording centres in the country, with the likes of Jack White, Taylor Swift and the Kings of Leon calling Nashville home. That translates to a fierce live music scene. For trad country, try Tootsies Orchid Lounge or the Grand Ole Opry; or for broader variety, check out the Basement and the Mercy Lounge. The recently established Convention Centre has been the stimulus for massive developments; the SoBro neighbourhood is awash with restaurants; the Johnny Cash Museum opened this year; and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will soon be doubling in size. It’s brash, it’s hip and it’s left the stereotypes behind.

STAY: The Hermitage Hotel has been a muso’s favourite since 1910. Prepare for a glorious stained-glass overdose.

3. Memphis, Tennessee

Nashville may be the current musical hotspot but Memphis has the heritage. Its strategic location at the head of the Mississippi Delta made it the place from which blues and soul spread throughout the country. The Stax recording studio — once home to Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and many others — is now the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It’s also possible to do tours of Sun Studio, where the likes of Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis recorded. For fans of the King, however, the real pilgrimage is Elvis’s Graceland mansion.

The Reverend Al Green, meanwhile, still leads the choir at the Full Gospel Tabernacle church. Non-musically, the National Civil Rights Museum stands on the site where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968 and chronicles the many struggles African-Americans underwent for freedom as well as equality. The museum is undergoing renovations until early 2014, but it’s still open.

STAY: Kitsch it up with all things Elvis at the Heartbreak Hotel, which is just across from Graceland.

4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In terms of sheer weight of things to see and do, Philadelphia has to be the most mystifyingly off-the-radar city in the US. History is its traditional calling card — the former US capital is where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Independence National Historical Park is packed with sights related to the country’s revolutionary and constitutional beginnings. The National Constitution Centre isn’t nearly as dry as it sounds. In fact, it does a particularly excellent job.

Philly also has an enviably strong hand in art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the best in the country — once you have finished pretending you’re Rocky by running up the steps — and the Barnes Foundation is regularly touted as the world’s most extraordinary private art collection. Philly’s soul, however, shines through in the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The streets are plastered in ambitious-scale murals and the program’s tours take visitors around the best of them.

STAY: The arty, harlequinesque Hotel Monaco is in the landmark Lafayette building in the city’s Historic District.

5. Providence, Rhode Island

The perky capital of the smallest state in the US — about an hour’s drive south of Boston — was given a major makeover in the 1990s. A huge student population drives the youthful vibe, with the Brown University campus capturing historic New England, Ivy League stateliness. The city’s air of refinement is best taken in on a stroll down Benefit Street, past scores of grand old colonial homes.

The Rhode Island School of Design is for the cooler kids and its sixth-floor galleries have a comprehensive collection that includes Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse, Indian jewellery and lots of Roman treasures.

The restaurant scene is also booming. Flan y Ajo is getting rave reviews for its authentic Spanish tapas and at North three chefs have come together to present its globe-trotting and ever-changing menu. Summer Saturdays are spectacular, thanks to Waterfire, while just after sunset, about 100 bonfires are lit in braziers on the Providence River, music blares and restaurants are busy.

STAY: The Old Court is a rectory turned rococo-heavy B&B, full of 19th-century memorabilia

6. Denver, Colorado

The Mile High City is often used as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains — the ski slopes at Vail are less than two hours drive away. But the past two or three years have seen a boom in new attractions that, when combined, make cosmopolitan Denver far more than a transit hub for skiers.

The History Colorado Centre explores a cowboy past, while the Clyfford Still Museum and American Museum of Western Art have boosted its cultural credentials. A stand-out, with its huge Native American art collection, is the Denver Art Museum.

But this is a hang-out city. Something that’s helped by an extraordinary wealth of microbreweries; there are about 160 in Colorado. The Denver Microbrew Tour lets you taste an awful lot of craft beer in Downtown’s best bars, and the Great American Beer Festival in October brings 580 breweries together in one place.

STAY: The Brown Palace opened its doors in 1892, retains its Art Deco grandeur, and continues to host pop stars and presidents.

7. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Attitude-free prairie charm meets big-city culture in Minneapolis. It’s second only to New York City in theatre seats per capita (the Guthrie has the biggest productions; in the past three decades, it has become one of the most respected theatres in the nation), while other arts highlights include the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the Walker Art Centre, with its world-class photography and pop-art collections.

Once the curtain falls, there’s a hopping nightlife to jump into. The First Avenue club is where Prince cut his teeth and the formerly industrial North Loop district is home to some of the city’s best dining destinations. Try Bar La Grassa, ruled over by one of the Midwest’s hottest chefs Isaac Becker, or make your way to Bachelor Farmer, an 1881 brick-and-timber warehouse converted into a restaurant with its own rooftop farm.

When the sun shines, however, outdoorsy leanings emerge. The city and its five lakes are surrounded by an extensive cycle-path network. Calhoun Bike Rental rents bikes and runs cycling tours, while the kiosk on the Lake Calhoun waterfront is the perfect spot for kayak and paddleboat hire.

STAY: Sexed-up boutique classic, the Grand Hotel — part of the Kimpton group of hotels — offers its guests an hour of free wine every evening as a deal-clincher.

8. Cleveland, Ohio

If you want a taste of the Bruce Springsteeny heartland of the US, you can’t beat Cleveland. The city unites as one for its football team, the Cleveland Browns. The players get cheered on at the 73,200-seater stadium on the Lake Erie waterfront, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is pretty much next door. It’s a gargantuan collection of memorabilia, music history and “I didn’t know that” stories.

Like your music more refined? The Cleveland Orchestra is widely touted as the country’s best. It plays at Severance Hall in the museum-rich University Circle district. The city’s spirit is best on show at night, especially in the bars and hip restaurants around East Fourth Street. Lola, owned by Michael Symon of TV’s Iron Chef fame, stands out. Zocalo is fun, with great Mexican food and a hangover-threatening selection of tequila.

STAY: Glidden House is a teched-up 1910 mansion with charm missing from chain hotels.

9. Seattle, Washington

Seattle is full of the dressed-down, self-deprecating charm that characterises the Pacific Northwest, but it sure crams a lot in. The Pike Place Market is a foodie’s dream — fishmongers theatrically throw salmon to each other, while specialists in just about everything else have their own stalls. The pickiness over quality extends to wine and beer, too. Try the Tasting Room to plough through hundreds of Washington state wines, or the Road Dogs tour to visit some of the seemingly gazillions of craft breweries dotted in and around the city.

The 184-metre-tall Space Needle is Seattle’s icon, but the high-tech Experience Music Project next to it is much more worthy of your time. It’s full of oral histories from music greats and tells the story of major Seattle bands, including Nirvana. When the weather is good (admittedly not Seattle’s strong point), the beauty of the city’s natural setting becomes apparent. Argosy Cruises offers boat trips that take in Puget Sound and Lake Union with views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

STAY: The classy, cosy Inn at the Market offers rooms with water views and is the closest to Pike Place Market.

Words by David Whitley - Published in Voyeur October 2013
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 555,000
Time Zone GMT - 7
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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