The Best US Cities to Spend a Big Weekend, Without Going Broke

Elvis Week
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee | Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee | Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Last year, Americans left a whopping 650 million vacation days on the table -- four per working person. When asked why, people say cost. Which is just bonkers, because this country -- maybe more than almost any other on the planet -- abounds with badass cities worth exploring, and at prices often less than what you'd pay in your hometown.

Simply put, taking a vacation you'll remember for the rest of your life doesn't need to break the bank. If you're reading this, you've almost certainly been to a handful of these 15 cities -- but others, you're still waiting to explore. We're here to tell you these are all places worth diving into, and if you save up even a little bit of scratch, you can probably afford to do 'em up bigger than you'd expect. Enjoy: chances are you've more than earned it by now.

Sun Records Elvis Memphis
Sue Stokes/Shutterstock

Memphis, Tennessee

Cheap must-eat: The $4 cheeseburger at the local chain Tops Bar-B-Q has everything you could want out of a fast-food burger: it's thin, salty, and topped with the required slice of American cheese. Best if consumed with baked beans and slaw in one of the 15 locations' '70s ambiance.

Best cheap thing to do: Go roller skating at the Crystal Palace, a disco roller rink in South Memphis where the old pros will show you how it is done.

Why it's worth a visit: Divey and proud, Memphis has kept some of the best parts of its history as a Southern music and food hub. We're not as flashy as Nashville (we wouldn't want to be) or as wild as New Orleans, but we've got charm and character galore. It's easy to get comfortable in Midtown's garage-rock haunts or North Memphis' famous blues bars.

A good trip to Memphis takes knowing which tourist digs to take on, and which to dodge. Elvis' famous shag-carpeted residence, Graceland, deserves the hype, but it will cost you. (The candlelight vigil during Elvis Week is a consummately weird local ritual, totally worth attending.) But if you spend too long lingering on the beloved blues drag that is Beale St, you'll end up spending too much cash on watery drinks and miss Memphis' best traits. Instead, splurge on music history during the day and then hit up the constellation of local dives. The P & H Cafe is the best for beer and pool; the Hi-Tone is your stop for garage rock.

For the culture buffs, one of Memphis' most affordable and most unique museums is also its most scenic: located in an out-of-the-way enclave on a Mississippi River bluff, the Metal Museum exhibits contemporary and historic ornamental metalwork. It also includes a working forge and smithy, where master metalsmiths and apprentices are employed year-round. Crosstown Arts, a multipurpose converted strip mall, has a host of free art-related shows and events. Or you could take a free walking tour of Elmwood Cemetery, home to some of the most sculptural headstones on either side of the Mississippi.

Lodging is affordable but public transportation is not so good. Best to go by car, if possible, or use some of the city's newly installed bike paths. There's a lot of river to take in, actually -- riding two wheels alongside the river, you'll feel like Huck Finn in no time. -- Eileen Townsend, Thrillist contributor

Washington, DC

Washington, DC

Cheap must-eat:Copycat Co. is a craft cocktail spot where all the food's less than five bucks, featuring actually filling stuff like $1.25 bao buns and $4 steak skewers. Drinks may run slightly more.

Best cheap thing to do: Everything single thing on the National Mall

Why it's worth a visit: Theoretically, DC is not a "cheap" place for things like hotels or dining out. Drinks are on par with cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, and meals in decent restaurants can run you over $100 for two people easily. But that's not always the case. There are plenty of delicious meals to be had here for under five bucks. And decent hotels like the State Plaza and the Holiday Inn by the White House go for as little as $150 a night. Not cheap, but not bank-breaking either.

Once you've got lodging/dining sorted, your daily costs in DC should be minimal. Every national museum is free, so your quest to see Archie Bunker's chair or the Apollo capsules won't cost you a dime. Same with the monuments. Same with the National Zoo, the reflecting pool, tours of the Capitol, and the like. So those selfies of you sitting on the Washington Monument only cost you your self-respect.

Getting around DC is also alarmingly cheap, as the Metro can get you pretty much anywhere worth going in the city for far less than a cab. And even if you choose to save money and stay in a hotel outside the city, getting in is fairly straightforward. As far as big, famous, tourist-filled American cities go, DC is the one you can do for the least. And you might even learn some stuff along the way. -- Matt Meltzer, Thrillist staff writer

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio

Cheap must-eat: Grab breakfast at the Fox in the Snow: a custard-filled donut and a souffled egg sandwich for less than $10. For drinks, Hadley's Bar + Kitchen serves pitchers of various mules for $25.

Best cheap thing to do: The pick-up basketball games on various courts around the Ohio State campus are the definition of free fun.

Why it's worth a visit: Calling Columbus the Austin of Ohio may sound like thin praise, but as the state capital and home to a gigantic flagship public university, the parallels are easy. Columbus bristles with the energy of 50,000-plus undergrads packed into a city of 820,000 -- if you're up for beer, sports, and live music, you're more than covered. 

First, hit a pair of free Downtown attractions: the 1861 vintage Greek Revival statehouse, which offers four free tours every weekend; and a historical marker on the spot where the first Wendy's opened in 1969 (and closed in 2007). Pour out a Frosty (try to, anyway) for Dave Thomas, then pick a neighborhood. Maybe the 4th St corridor, a haven for music and under-$10 cocktails (both, if you poke your head into the Walrus). Or ply High St, a few blocks away, the straight shot from the Brewery District (not as many breweries as you'd hope, but home to quality holes-in-the-wall like Double Happiness) up to the Ohio State campus. That area's best old-breed, sticky-beneath-your-Chucks rock joint, Bernie's Bagels & Deli, shuttered last year. For sports, though, it's still stacked. Find the Village Idiot, quite often home of $2 PBR tallboys or $7 pitchers.

Columbus is more than an NFL factory barnacled by purveyors of near-free lager. File all of these under cheap and better than you'd expect: the Columbus Museum of Art (free on Sundays), fresh off a $38 million renovation; the regular Moonlight Market of pop-up shops and street eats; COSI, the hands-on science museum, mostly for kids but you can always shove past them; and the Scioto Mile, an always-expanding 175-acre park in the bend of the Scioto River, where you can go kayaking or hit the public rock-climbing wall as surely as you can find a food truck, group yoga session, or free outdoor concert. -- Sam Eifling, Thrillist Travel editor

Greenville, SC
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Greenville, South Carolina

Cheap must-eat: The burger, fries, and sweet tea combo at Grill Marks for $9.99. It's a half-pound, restaurant-style burger, and for another $1.25 you can add the trademark truffle Parmesan fries.

Best cheap thing to do: Run or bike the Swamp Rabbit Trail. This 21-mile rail-to-trail project is a shaded, scenic tour through Greenville and Travelers Rest. Jogging it is free; renting a bike for the full day is about $30.

Why it's worth a visit: Some smaller cities in America pack as much punch into a weekend as the behemoths, as this town 90 minutes southwest of Charlotte proves. This city of about 60,000 feels four times that size, the kind of place where you'll go to a rooftop bar like Ink N Ivy, take in a panoramic view of the city, order a round of craft cocktails, and get a bill for $15. Another rooftop wine bar, Sip, has premium wines for $5 at happy hour. Pour, a bar with 70 beers, wines, and ciders on tap, lets you pour your own drinks and pay by the ounce -- $20 here goes a long way. You get the idea.

Eating is cheap here too. Barbecue is the culinary staple -- this is one of the best cities in the country for it -- and the legendary spots like Bucky's sell two-meat platters with two heart-stopping sides for $9. Even the innovative, modern restaurants will have you out the door for under $100, with wine.

If you're into more than eating or drinking, the state parks at Caesars Head and Jones Gap have the best lookouts in the state and a 420ft waterfall. Admission there is $2. And the Boston Red Sox-affiliated Greenville Drive play in a replica Fenway Park, and tickets start at $5. Plus $1 beers on Thursdays. -- M.M.

Ninfa's Houston Texas

Houston, Texas

Cheap must-eat: Tacos A Go Go. This Midtown taco joint serves up what many would call the best in Houston for under $3.

Best cheap thing to do: Pocket a $56 Houston CityPASS to get your pick of admission to the town's top attractions.

Why it's worth a visit: Houston wants to have you over. The city has built more hotel rooms in the past year than anywhere in America not called New York, and at an average rate of $108 per night, you've got your pick of a reasonable lot. Food here is cheap too. The staple cuisines are barbecue and Tex-Mex, both inexpensive styles known for enormous portions. You can get fajitas at Ninfa's on Navigation -- the place that invented them -- where a $25 order feeds at least two people. And a half-pound of brisket at the award-wining Pappa Charlies is only $9. Oh, and more tacos. You can seek out the best in town, or the best in town that people overlook. Often, the best is whatever is nearest when your stomach starts sending taco daydreams to your gullible, taco-buying brain.

It's also a city with surprisingly good public transportation, which means if you're trying to go places within the city, you probably won't need a rental car until you head out to the Space Center. Speaking of which, it's included in that CityPASS, which also rates you admission to the aquarium, Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts, the zoo, and the children's museum. Flights here are reasonable as well, with the United hub at George Bush and Southwest running out of Hobby. And if these suggestions above weren't enough, here are 45 more things to do in H-town for under a Hamilton. -- M.M.

Providence Rhode Island
Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Providence, Rhode Island

Cheap must-eat: The burgers at Harry's Bar & Burger, all under $7

Best cheap thing to do:WaterFire. Unlike some cities that shall remain nameless, Providence sets its river on fire deliberately during selected weekends, and a city-wide party breaks out to watch it.

Why it's worth a visit: The biggest reason Providence is the second-best city in America for college students? It’s cheap. Not only is rent in this historic New England city a third of what it is in Boston, drink prices, food prices, and pretty-much-everything prices are a fraction of what you'll find in other big northeastern cities.

But it's not just the ability to ball out on a college budget that makes Providence a killer place to visit. It's a city full of art and history, none of which will cost you all that much. A stroll down the cobblestone mile on Benefit St will take you past one of the densest concentrations of colonial buildings in America. Walking tours of the historic west side of the city are free, as are Sunday visits to the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Providence is often used as the "off-airport" for Boston Logan, meaning flights in here on JetBlue and Southwest are impressively cheap. Hotel rooms under $80 aren't uncommon. And the city is so full of culture and history that it's the perfect place to visit if you're new to the old-school charms of the Northeast. -- M.M.

Yaki Point Grand Canyon

Flagstaff, Arizona

Cheap must-eat: You can't go wrong ordering an $11 marinara pizza from Pizzicletta while nursing a $5 pint of something cold in the taproom at Mother Road Brewing Co

Best cheap thing to do: For $12 the volunteers and educators at the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was first observed) will guide you around the universe with solar and nighttime viewings. 

Why it's worth a visit: Nature is the best/worst part about setting foot in Arizona. You know Phoenix (elevation: 1,000ft above sea level) as that angry clot of red on every national weather map. But drive two hours north of town, to Flagstaff (elevation: 6,900ft above sea level), and you won't even be lying to yourself about "dry heat" anymore -- you'll be in dry cool. The old Route 66 stopover still rocks plenty of $60-ish no-frills motels -- if, that is, you don't just opt to camp somewhere instead. 

Your morning should be spent somewhere crisp and low-cost; consider the mile-wide Meteor Crater 37 miles east of town, probably Earth's coolest visible scar. There's some nifty interactive exhibits there, but let's face it: giant holes in the ground predicate Arizona tourism. To wit, from Flagstaff you're only two hours from the Grand Canyon's south rim -- Yaki Point (photo above) is like where Insta- met -gram. A mere 10 miles from town is Walnut Canyon National Monument, and likewise 30 minutes away is Sunset Crater Volcano, where you can hike ancient lava flows. Seriously, every kind of spectacular geological hole is right here

Once you get back to town, wallet still fat, go ahead and lunch for under $10 at Delhi Palace's huge Indian buffet, and later splurge at the Museum Club, a piano bar and country venue in a 1931 vintage building, definitely winning social media in the 21st century with such notable recent midweek tweets as: "DIME BEER NIGHT!!" -- S.E.

St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri

Cheap must-eat: St. Louis-style pizza at Imo’s. The lunch special is an 8in personal pizza with a half salad and drink for $7.49.

Best cheap thing to do: The Saint Louis Zoo. It's one of only a handful of great zoos in America that is completely free. It’s got a polar bear, a live sea lion show, and even the extra-rare red panda.

Why it's worth a visit: You know what the best city park in America is? Well, obviously, it's Forest Park in St. Louis because why would we mention Central Park in a section on St. Louis? But you know WHY it's so great? Well, not only is it a sprawling urban green space that was once a prescribed "natural therapy" for smoke-choked early-20th-century St. Louisians. It's also home to the zoo, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Saint Louis Science Center, the Missouri History Museum, and other attractions that are all FREE.

St. Louis' two most famous exports -- the Cardinals and Budweiser -- can both be experienced relatively cheaply. AB brewery tours are free. And while tickets to Cards games are decidedly not-free, taking in the game at Ballpark Village -- the entertainment complex that sits just outside the left-field bleachers --- can be. Or can be done for the cost of a few outside-the-stadium beers.

The culinary scene in St. Louis is taking off, but you can still get great barbecue for very little. For example: Bogart's Smokehouse in Soulard serves an $11 turkey sandwich that's enough for two meals. Or the city's trademark St. Louis-style pizza can be had at Imo's (the square beyond compare!) for under $10. And though AB is still king in St. Louis, the craft beer bars around the city offer great stuff from other local breweries, like Urban Chestnut, for $4 a pint. Throw in an average hotel room rate that hovers around $100 a night, and this might be the most action-packed city of free adventures outside of DC. -- M.M.


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Cheap must-eat: Eight bucks may not be dirt-cheap, but when it buys you one of the best bratwursts in America, it's a steal. The Milwaukee Brat House drops a juicy, beer-simmered Usinger's sausage into a pretzel roll. For just a dollar more you can top it with sauerkraut and onion, a true taste of Wisconsin.

Best cheap thing to do: Brewery tours at Lakefront and Sprecher. Your attention to the perfectly pleasant tours is rewarded with free beer, and sometimes, free pizza.

Why it's worth a visit: Milwaukee was built on blue-collar sensibility, a foundation still evident in its residents' appreciation for the value of a dollar. A city resurgence, highlighted by a boom in restaurants and breweries, has added upscale spots to hip areas like the Third Ward. But it's still a town that wants plenty of bang for its buck.

If you avoid swank boutiques and pricier hotels like The Pfister, you can find plenty of reasonably priced lodging options Downtown. Neighborhood corner bars abound in Milwaukee, and if you can't find a drink special, you aren't looking. Bay View, just south of Downtown, is dotted with friendly, inexpensive taverns that serve equal amounts of low-priced, quality craft beer and Pabst tallboys.

A robust burger scene includes places like Oscar's Pub & Grill, which serves massive gourmet burgers for less than eight bucks. Single-serving tacos at BelAir Cantina can be had on the cheap, and with locations on Milwaukee's East Side, Wauwatosa, and Oak Creek, they're never far away.

Communing with nature on the bustling lakefront or at one of Milwaukee's many county parks doesn't cost a dime. Pro sporting events like the Brewers, Bucks, and Milwaukee Admirals (American Hockey League ) are always easy to come by and won't empty your wallet. You can get a little spendy for the Milwaukee Art Museum, at $10-$17 for adults. And it's all easy to get to, as Milwaukee doesn't cover much square mileage. Staying Downtown means plenty of places are a stroll away. -- Patrick Folet, Thrillist contributor

Salt Lake City statehouse
Nagel Photograpy/Shutterstock

Salt Lake City, Utah

Cheap must-eat: Head to Finca for some serious locavore Spanish tapas for as little as $2 to $4 a plate. Try the lamb meatballs, the smoked pork stuffed piquillo peppers, and literally anything that involves the sherry cream sauce. 

Best cheap thing to do: Hike. You are never more than a half-hour from a mountain. For a short jaunt, there is a canyon that you can explore right Downtown, next to the City Creek Mall.

Why it's worth a trip: Perpetually, Salt Lake City is going to be overlooked by tourists -- it's in a landlocked state, it's notoriously religious -- but that just means less competition for the best finds. Take, for instance, vintage shopping. It's amazing here, and never better than at Decades, one of the best shops in the country for vintage and antique clothing. I picked up a Edwardian wedding dress for a mere $80, a price that ensures whale-bone corsets will make a comeback soon.

If you are planning to stay a few nights, forego the hotels and crash in one of the Downtown Victorian B&Bs -- you can find rooms at the Ellerbeck Mansion, for one, at less than $130 a night. Romantic and quaint, with four poster beds and lots of floral, even a hard-hearted city dweller will be charmed. 

Since SLC hosted the Olympics in 2002, getting around has been made incredibly easy. The Trax trolley system runs all over town, with stops at the airport and the University of Utah campus. There are also buses, but Uber here is cheap and plentiful. This can prove useful should your legs feel too wobbly after one of those mountain hikes or if drinking at the high altitude proves challenging, which, spoiler alert, it definitely will.

Park City and Sundance are both within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City. Also, one cannot visit Utah and miss the chance to observe perpetually smiling Mormons at their mysterious Temple. We plebes cannot go inside, alas, but a museum there welcomes visitors. You can also check out your family history in their database to see if you have any "elders" lurking in your family tree. Now you just have to know, right? -- Ruthie Darling, Thrillist contributor

Jazz in New Orleans
Michael Rosebrock/Shutterstock

New Orleans, Louisiana

Cheap must-eat: Hidden in the back of Lost Love Lounge in the Bywater is a decent Vietnamese kitchen offering a decked-out banh mi for about $7.50. Toss in cheap beer, a solid jukebox, and a pool table, and why would you ever need to leave?

Best cheap thing to do: City Park is huge, gorgeous, and underappreciated.

Why it's worth a visit: New Orleans prices have been on the rise over the past few years, but there's still plenty of lodging if you're on a tight budget -- just ask all the gutter punks camping out at the edges of the French Quarter. (Actually, don't do that.) Airbnbs are certainly an option, although the ethical and financial aspects tend to operate on a sliding scale. Hostels can get stupid cheap -- in the $30 to $75 a night range. Actual hotels start at about $180 a night, or cheaper in a suburb like Metairie or Gretna.

Places like the Audubon Aquarium and National WWII Museum are majorly impressive, but also somewhat pricey if you really intend to do them right. Good alternatives would be the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which showcases a nice array of regional work. The Confederate Memorial Hall Museum is a bit surreal -- think of it as a sympathetic revisionist account of the Civil War -- but if you can stomach the sugar-coating, it works as an unintended installation art piece.

Uber and Lyft are definitely the quickest, most cost-effective means of transportation in town, but the streetcar lines are pleasant as long as you're not in any real rush and they aren't packing people in like sardines. Everything in the French Quarter is within a short walk, but wheels are definitely necessary if you're trying to get anywhere else. The city's loose open container laws encourage BYO walks just to take in the unparalleled people-watching. -- Andrew Paul, Thrillist contributor

Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Steven Frame/Shutterstock

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Cheap must-eat: A half-order of Mama’s Ladas enchiladas for $6.25. It might be the most popular restaurant in Sioux Falls, and a half order of these famous enchiladas fills up even big dudes.

Best cheap thing to do: Take a drive out to Palisades State Park and hike through 50ft quartzite cliffs along Split Rock Creek. Admission is $4.

Why it's worth a trip: We didn’t name Sioux Falls one of best US cities to spend the weekend because we have a soft spot for chislic (though, seriously, try it while you’re there). We did it because it’s a small, affordable city tucked amid some of the country’s most spectacular nature, crawling with fun things to do. Sioux Falls is a sort of regional hub, where folks from the remote regions of the plains come for things like doctor’s appointments and Costco runs. Which means the infrastructure and hotel capacity of the city is far beyond what its population of 164,000 needs. What does that mean? Cheap hotels, that’s what that means.

And if you’re hellbent on spending as little money as possible, a day relaxing in Falls Park is completely free. As is running by the Big Sioux River with sweeping views of the park and the hills around it. For a small fee, Palisades State Park has some of the most intimidating cliffs outside the Southwest, and hiking through here is one of the more underrated experiences in America’s most underrated state.

In the city, Monk’s House of Ale Repute is one of America’s best beer bars, and regularly has craft pints for under $5. If sheer quantity is more your bag, the bars along Phillips Ave have $2 beers and $4 drinks-a-plenty. The major sports venues -- the Denny Stanford Premier Center and the Sanford Pentagon -- are a high-tech arena and old-style fieldhouse that pack in fans as cheaply as $10 a head to Stampede and Sky Force games. So, yes, South Dakota might be a little out there. But isn’t getting “out there” the point of vacationing? -- M.M.

Flickr/Kyle Wagaman

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Cheap must-eat: The ballyhooed Primanti Brothers sandwich is revered for a reason. Primanti's classic “Pitts-burgher cheesesteak” starts at $7.29 and is a full meal (cole slaw, thick cut of beef, thick-cut French fries, thick-cut Italian bread... it's all thick, actually) in the palm of your hand.

Best cheap thing to do: For a mere $5, you can take the historic Duquesne incline (it’s like a ski-lift on rails) up Mount Washington to bask in decidedly cinematic views of the Three-River City with a bird’s eye perspective.

Why it's worth a trip: Pittsburgh fell to shit in the early '80s but has bounced back big to become one of the most exciting and intriguing Midwestern cities. Yet it still holds onto its rusty belt and blue collar. For lodging, eschew the bougie charm of the William Penn Hotel (I mean, that’s where Obama stays when he visits), and instead get an Airbnb in one of Pittsburgh’s auxiliary neighborhoods, to really live like a Yinzer. Stay in the cozy, cobblestoned Squirrel Hill or Shadyside if you want to pose as a broke-ass Pitt student, hitting up trend-tastic cafes (at PA prices) like Commonplace Coffee. Late night, enjoy mountains of fries and two hot dogs for under five bones at the Original Hot Dog Shop with a post-bar crowd that flocks there, to the ‘O, for its prodigious selection of rare and craft beers.

Now: sports. Steelers and Penguins tickets will set you back, but a few outfield seats in the gorgeous PNC Park can be had for $20, especially if you wait it out till game time. And if the weather is nice enough for a ballgame, it’s probably nice enough to rent a kayak or paddleboard ($15 and $20 for an hour, respectively) to cruise on the Monongahela, Allegheny, or Ohio rivers.

But what you really come to the ‘Burgh for is food. Sure, Lawrenceville and East Liberty have a snarl of hip, fantastic restaurants, but if you are munching on a budget, you cannot go wrong with hitting up the Strip District on Saturday morning. From the claustrophobic (yet extremely prolific) sushi booth at Wholey’s Fish Market, to freshly made biscotti that won’t break your molars at Enrico Biscotti, to a pile of thin-as-crepes pancakes and bacon at Pamela’s Diner, to pierogis literally sold on the street  -- there’s a glut of food to eat that will run under $10.

Don’t come to Pittsburgh looking for pretension, or complication. Come instead to get a flyover city where you can live (and eat!) like Mario Lemieux, on your unemployed cousin Mario’s budget. -- Wil Fulton, Thrillist staff writer

Craig Hinton/Shutterstock

The Twin Cities, Minnesota

Cheap must-eat: Grilled pork banh mi sandwich from Pho Tau Bay: a Vietnamese classic served up on airy French bread for only $3.75. Spicier than you'd expect from the Midwest.

Best cheap thing to do: Look over Mill Ruins Park and St. Anthony Falls from inside the Guthrie Theater's Yellow Room. It's totally free, and the view of Downtown Minneapolis from the Dowling Studio Lobby's shooting-glasses-tinted windows offers a gorgeous and surreal experience.

Why it's worth a trip: The Twin Cities have developed into a post-graduate mecca for the affordability of their nightlife and very much world-class restaurants. Center your visit around Minneapolis/St. Paul's two greatest commodities -- burgers and beer. Matt's Bar in Corcoran invented a delicious, liquid-cheese-stuffed burger called a Jucy Lucy that they serve late into the night alongside budget pitchers of Michelob Golden Light. Over in the Silver City, JT’s Hamburgers has been an icon since the 1950s, and it's just two miles down the road from the freshly opened Wabasha Brewing.

If you want to concentrate your weekend in one neighborhood, Uptown/LynLake has plenty of thrifty options. The VFW on Lyndale has a secret back bar that pours stiff mixed drinks for around $3, and the happy hour at Fuji Ya has specialty cocktails that taste twice as good as their price tag. The deals come in pairs on Monday nights at Bryant-Lake Bowl, where lovers and/or buddies can get a bottle of wine, two meals, and a round of vintage bowling for $28. 

But much of the glory of the Twin Cities can be enjoyed free of charge. Minnehaha Falls in South Minneapolis, and the Mississippi River basin in St. Paul are all great ways to commune with nature within city limits. The Walker Art Center's free sculpture garden -- featuring the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry monument -- is under construction until June, but it's a must-visit photo op for anyone touring for the first time. -- Jerard Fagerberg, Thrillist contributor

Reno, Nevada
Flickr/Reno Tahoe Territory

Reno, Nevada

Cheap must-eat: The Awful Awful, Reno’s most famous (and, depending on who you talk to) awful burger that for $6 gets you a half pound of ground steak, fully loaded, and a pound of fries.

Best cheap thing to do: Aside from people-watching in the casinos? Take a day trip 40 miles to Lake Tahoe and hike around the most beautiful place in Nevada.

Why it's worth a trip: Go ahead and blame Dirk Dangle, or the generations of chain-smoking degenerate gamblers who made Reno a vacation destination, but the biggest little city in the world has gotten a bad rap. But these days, its proximity to the mountains and location on the Truckee River have attracted a new type of visitor to Reno: one who wants to combine outdoors and entertainment, and not take out a second mortgage, like they would in Vegas.

Where Vegas is the home of the $12.95 all-you-can-eat prime rib buffet, Reno has them for $8.95. Hotel rooms here can be had for as little as $29 if you come on the right weekends, and not the hotels you saw on Reno 911 either. Legitimate places with maids and room service. Even if you don’t stay in the casinos, all of them offer Vegas-style buffets, the best of which is Flavors! at the Silver Legacy. It’s not exactly a gourmet spread, but you can have an entire day’s worth of roast beef, pasta, desserts, and sides for $16.49. And that is just the tip of the ice sculpture when it comes to massive amounts of food at cheap prices.

Drinking? Also a bargain. There are, of course, the free drinks in the casinos, but even paying for those cocktails rarely sets you back more than about $4. The aforementioned Little Nugget has $13 pitchers of craft beer. And even the more-upscale spots in Midtown offer food and drinks at about half what you’d pay in Vegas.

Add in proximity to some of the best wilderness in America at Lake Tahoe, and Reno is a fantastic place for both active travelers, and those whose definition of “active” involves repeatedly pressing buttons on a slot machine. -- M.M.

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