The Great Reno Balloon Race is not a bad way to spend an afternoon. | SOPA Images/ LightRocket/ Getty Images
The Great Reno Balloon Race is not a bad way to spend an afternoon. | SOPA Images/ LightRocket/ Getty Images

Float Into Fall with These September Travel Ideas

From hot air balloon rides to uncrowded beaches.

It seems that summer is already coming to a close (really, where does the time go?). But never fear: There’s still a few weeks of fun in the sun left. But if you’re ready to bundle up in sweaters and order all manner of PSL, that’s (literally) cool, too. Anything goes in September, we say, even getting a jump on Halloween. Go ahead: Put out that gigantic skeleton and start preparing your charbooterie.

This is the shoulder season of hot air balloon festivals, uncrowded beaches, and mysterious lights on the horizon in Texas (okay, that one’s all year round). There’s wacky festival fare, including one all about chickens and inspired by the Colonel himself. There’s under-the-radar destinations in Europe, plus buffalo. So. Many. Buffalo.

Strap in, saddle up, and don’t forget to wear layers. It may get chilly come nightfall.

Go all the way up in a balloon

September weather is pretty much perfect. Skies are clear, evenings are crisp, and the leaves are just starting to turn colors. All the better to spot from up in the air—and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so this month.

Did you know that if you’re really good at piloting a hot air balloon, they let you play games in them? That’s the premise of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, anyway, happening in St. Louis (September 16–17). Pilots try to hit a target on the ground with beanbags (or something along those lines), and spectators get to watch while presumably trying not to get hit.

In fact, there are so many balloon festivals in September, you may just accidentally stumble upon one—like the Great Reno Balloon Race in Nevada (September 9–11), the Stratobowl Historic Hot Air Balloon Launch in Rapid City, South Dakota (September 9–11), the Paris Balloon & Music Festival in Texas (September 9–10), or the Lancaster Hot Air Balloon Festival in Pennsylvania (September 16–18). Some of them offer rides, others you just post up with a blanket and watch. Meanwhile the Balloon Glow Tour—where the balloons stay tethered but look really cool when lit up—is traveling through St. Louis, MO (September 2–5), Pittsburgh, PA (September 9–11), Rockingham, NC (September 16–18), and Raleigh, NC (September 23–25). So if you’re still trying to decide where to travel this month, consider shooting for the stars.

Get your weed tourism fix (before it’s too late)

Don’t be alarmed, but if you were hoping to experience a “coffeeshop” in Amsterdam—you know, the plant-based kind—you’re going to have to do it sooner than later. The mayor has recently said that she plans to ban access for tourists to the shops by 2023, for various reasons including keeping the market manageable.

Of course, there are many other reasons to visit the beautiful Dutch city: canals, markets, flower fields, getting the backstory on Van Gogh, cheese. But if you’re hoping to cruise for cannabis, we’ve got a guide for the best shops to do it in, from high-end boutiques to neighborhood hangouts to crystal-laced new-agey emporiums to hideaways smack-dab in the Red Light District.

Keep in mind that plenty of countries have decriminalized weed, making them primed for a chill vacation. And soon there may be one more, as the mayor of Brussels is keen to create coffeeshops in his city, saying in an interview, “I see a joint like I see a glass of whisky.” To that, we say, salud.

Check out an unconventional festival

Perhaps it's an attempt to lessen the blow of saying goodbye to summer, but come September, we get wacky with our social gatherings. The myriad garlic festivals in Bennington, VT, Ocean Park, WA, Cuba, NY, and more are tame enough, we guess. But some get… extreme. Like the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw & Festival (September 2–3), where visitors chuck cow chips—AKA dried poop—for sport. It hearkens back to a time when pioneers used them as fuel to warm their houses. Now they just amuse us.

The Arcola Broomcorn Festival in Illinois (September 9–11) celebrates the prized plant with a sweeping contest and a parade, and in London, Kentucky, you’ll find the World Chicken Festival (September 22–25). The region is the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken—Colonel Sanders’ very first restaurant is now a historic site you can tour—and the festival celebrates all things finger lickin’ good with a “Rooster tail” mullet contest, carnival rides, a musical lineup, and the world’s largest stainless steel skillet (it comes in at about 10 feet in diameter). Plus, Colonel Sanders costume contests to rival your dreams… or nightmares.

Descend upon a usually crowded attraction

One good thing about summer winding down? Places that were unbearably crowded during the past few months have now thinned out substantially. If you’re a Disney fan, September’s when you can usually score a hotel deal. And if you’re into national parks, now is the time to hit up the incredibly popular Grand Canyon, one of the most visited parks in the country taking in 4.53 million visitors in 2021. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s a short drive from several cities like Flagstaff, Sedona, and Phoenix, it’s ancient, and it’s jaw-droppingly spectacular.

September at the Grand Canyon means cooler weather and the run of the land—the whole park is open and the less-trafficked North Rim doesn’t close for the season until mid-October. That means restaurants, campgrounds, and paths like the Rim Trail are yours for the taking. Just remember to grab your National Park Pass, and pack all the essentials—that means more water than you think you’ll need and your favorite jerky.

Get desert festive in Marfa, Texas

Imagine Marfa and you probably picture a lone Prada store amid a vast empty desert (though, truthfully, the famous art installation is actually 37 miles outside of town). You might also think of the mysterious and ghostly Marfa Lights, unexplained-but-possibly-UFO-related lights that dance on the horizon in the Chihuahuan Desert. They’ve inspired the long-running Marfa Lights Festival (September 2–4), which is free to attend. Come for the bizarre phenomena; stay for the live music, food, and parade.

The predominantly horizontal town got its start as a railroad water stop, but is now best known as a creative refuge inspired by the freedom and expansiveness of the desert. Artist Donald Judd was one of its biggest champions (and, fun fact, he’s also the inspiration for Kevin Bacon’s character in I Love Dick). Judd bought property here in 1979 in an effort to display his massive, austere art installations, and now you can guide yourself through those same concrete slabs arranged indoors and set into grasslands at the Chinati Foundation.

Then stick around, because the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love (September 29 through October 2) returns to the El Cosmico nomadic hotel and campground. There will be workshops—in the past, they’ve covered everything from welding to wine tasting—alongside a sandlot baseball game and rentable tent accommodations. Plus, a packed performance lineup including Andrew Bird, Heartless Bastards, Ben Kweller, and Cat Power.

Cover your tracks

Gas prices may no longer be a reason to sell your first-born, but it’s still wise to ease off the pump. How about exploring some new terrain via a scenic train? There’s no traffic to navigate, and you can eat (and drink) to your heart’s content while taking in the majesty of the world around you. Trains are so popular these days, even the famed Orient Express has announced a comeback in 2023.

Sometimes a train can also be a significant money-saving travel hack. Case in point? Kenya’s Madaraka Express. Just a few years old, it shuttles you from Nairobi to the coastal city of Mombasa for less than $9 (or $25 for first class). And the best part? You travel through Tsavo National Park, where tourists pay a pretty penny to go on safari. Right from your window seat, you can spot giraffes, zebras, elephants, and more. Your own safari, for a cool $9.

But should you want to splurge on a locomotive sojourn, we’ve rounded up the most magnificent train rides in the world, like the Rovos Rail in Southern Africa, which feels like you’re journeying into a bygone era, or the Ghan, a stylish juxtaposition to Australia’s rugged outback. The Hiram Bingham, a Belmond train, takes you through Peru’s Sacred Valley to the base of Machu Picchu in 1920s-era carriages, while the ultra-luxurious Maharajas Express in India operates via four routes stopping everywhere from the Taj Mahal to tiger safaris.

Try your luck in Vegas

Speaking of trains, did you know that when Reno, Nevada held the title of the Divorce Capital of the World thanks to its quick and easy divorce laws, the Overland Express train that brought would-be-divorcees to the station was nicknamed the divorcee special? Read all about it and more in our piece on the rise and fall of divorce ranches in Nevada, some remnants of which you can still visit in the Las Vegas area.

While you’re there, stop by the incredible Neon Museum, an archive of luminescence in a city that quite literally likes to blow up its past. Marvel at buzzing signs from the Moulin Rouge, the city’s first desegregated casino, and so much more.

Vegas is obviously all about the shiny and new—speakeasies, the psychedelic Superfrico immersive dining extravaganza, celebrity restaurants (we see you Martha Stewart)! But to get to know the future of the city, you may just want to look to its past. The Neon Museum is fittingly stationed downtown, near the Fremont Street Experience, the original Las Vegas Strip and a big player in the area’s revitalization. You won’t regret stopping by between soaking up the glitz and glamor of the more touristy modern-day Strip.

Get an overview—and some delicious food— on a Lip Smacking Foodie tour, which takes you past mural projects and food truck grounds. Then swing through the new Circa Hotel. The freshly opened venture goes all in on sports, featuring the world’s largest sportsbook and a Stadium Swim. What’s a Stadium Swim, you ask? Six outdoor pools spanning three levels, all facing a gigantic screen where all manner of sports are broadcast.

Explore a Europe you’ve probably not seen

Have you hopped over to Europe lately? After two and a half years of pandemic, it may look a tad different than you remember. Should you want to reacquaint yourself, we've put together a set of guides that go beyond the beaten path, delving into street art in Belfast (apparently where the Titanic was built—history!), Zermatt in Switzerland, which looks like it came right out of a Dr. Seuss book, and Toledo in Spain, a walled medieval city that was once the capital of Spain and looks like the Emerald City come to life (wizard not included).

Dublin is also thriving these days. Not only did the spectacular Museum of Literature Ireland (AKA MoLI), which celebrates the country’s rich literary history, open in 2019, , but the whiskey-fueled town is once again booming thanks to visitor-friendly distilleries like Teeling, Pearse Lyons, and Roe & Co (located right near the Guinness Storehouse, should you want to make it a two-fer).

Over in Scotland, the national parks look like something out of a fairy tale, with epic, lush landscapes encapsulating soaring mountains, and shimmering lochs that may or may not have monsters lurking in their depths. And all pretty accessible, as the country’s basically the size of South Carolina.

Or discover a taste of Europe stateside

There’s plenty of European heritage to explore right here at home. For example, the town of Frankenmuth bills itself as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” which means an old-timey covered wooden bridge, wooden Bauernhaus-style restaurants serving up pretzels and steins of cold beer, and the largest Christmas store in the world (open year-round, of course). And they go all out for Oktoberfest (September 15–18). Not only do they have beer and music aplenty, but also wiener dog races—the most adorable races of them all—including a dachshund parade and trophies for best dressed, smallest, and fattest, plus the crowning of a King and Queen, who must be dressed in traditional German attire. Dogs in Lederhosen! Try to keep us away.

Down south, St. Augustine, Florida still boasts the narrow streets and balconied houses from its days as an early Spanish settlement. But perhaps the most famous stateside European town is Solvang, in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. “The Danish Capital in America” is a sweet two-square-miles of cobblestone streets, windmills, buildings with shingled roofs, and bakeries selling traditional pastries like aebleskivers and stroopwafels. Wine tastings are also available in town—so you may as well combine it with an exploration of Santa Barbara’s wine country.

Sit back and watch the buffalo roam

If you haven’t checked in with the Dakotas in a while, September would be an excellent time. Start up north at the oft-overlooked Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota a vast landscape of petrified forests, steaming coal trails, and multi-colored views of the park’s signature Painted Canyon. Then head next door for some entertainment. Through September 10th, you can catch the Medora Musical: a 90-minute revue recounting the history of small town Medora and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. It’s in an outdoor amphitheater, backed by a Hollywood-style “Medora” sign. And there’s dinner too, in the form of fried meats lowered into a boiling vat on a giant pitchfork. You know, North Dakota-style.

Then head south. The end of September is a special time in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, when the 1,300 or so fuzzy buffalo that roam the premises need to be sorted, branded, and tested for the sake of a thriving herd. Enter the annual buffalo roundup (September 29), where cowboys and girls—some skilled members of the general public that applied for the gig—jump on their horses and direct the thundering beasts into corrals while navigating some rather rocky and treacherous terrain. It’s a spectacle to behold, and visitors can do just that. They just need to show up with chairs, binoculars, and whatever keeps them warm and satiated in the viewing area (leave your pets at home). Afterwards, there’s an arts festival with crafts.

Settle into (but don’t smash!) gorgeous sand sculptures

Summer may be winding down for most, but not in Virginia Beach, where every season holds seaside pleasure and fall happens to be prime seafood season. Partake in their legendary large Lynnhaven oysters, plucked from the river of the same name and apparently once prized by the English aristocracy. And if you want to see exactly where they come from and learn some local history, Pleasure House Oysters offers three public tours a day.

Stay in the luxurious (and possibly haunted) Cavalier Hotel, stately on the hill with its own in-house distillery. Get an early jump on Spooky Season with some of the area’s witchy history at the Witch of Pungo statue on Witchduck Road, or meander through the year-round haunted house, Nightmare Mansion.

At the end of the month, the oceanfront gets lined with food vendors, artisans, and musicians both local and internationally known (like Modern English, for example), for the sea-tastic Neptune Festival Boardwalk Weekend (September 30–October 2). Visit the intimidating statue of King Neptune, then hit the International Sand Sculpting Championship, where 22 prestigious competitors converge to vie for a $50,000 prize, the largest purse in the country, with incredibly intricate and thematic sculptures (never, ever, call them sandcastles). Visitors can view the creations for ten days and try their own hands with workshops like “The Art of Sculpting a Dolphin in Sand.” How poetic.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She has been to the buffalo roundup, and met a cowboy in his 80s named Bob. She hopes he is doing well.