The Best Things to Do in 25 of America’s Most Fun Cities
Whether you’re on vacation, visiting friends and family, or in town for work, getting to a new city is the easy part. Figuring out what to do when you get there? That’s harder. And that goes for locals playing host to out-of-towners, too. You don’t realize how entrenched you are in your daily routine until a cousin you haven’t seen in years shows up at your door expecting you to be their personal, walking travel guide.
Thrillist has been helping locals and wander-lusting travelers alike explore America’s cities for years, and we work hard to bring you the best recommendations of where to eat and what to do from in-the-know locals. We narrowed down the 25 cities you come to us seeking recommendations for most often, based on internal data, and pulled out the best things to do in each spot. We’ve got you covered for every type of trip, from iconic tourist attractions actually worth a visit, to under-the-radar recommendations when you want to strike out on your own, to totally free things for when you need to kill time and rest up for your next meal.
These are the best things to do in the cities you most love to visit:
The Best Iconic Thing – The USS Arizona
While many famous tourist attractions can feel like a trap, the USS Arizona delivers. The importance of the history -- the battleship was bombed and sank during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor -- and the lives lost never fail to move the hearts of multitudes of visitors, young and old, US or international, each year. If you’re lucky, you might get to view a live feed of an ongoing dive to the shipwreck itself. It’s strongly recommended that you book your ticket in advance online or prepare to line up at circa 6:30 AM on the day. Visiting the memorial is free, though a ticket reserved online is subject to a convenience fee of $1.50 per ticket.
The Best Free Thing – Lanikai Beach
Calm and clear waters, a beautiful view, and a tropical breeze: what’s not to love? Lanikai Beach is a small beach enclave on the eastern side of Oahu just outside of Kailua. Lanikai (a portmanteau roughly translating to “heavenly sea” in Hawaiian) earns its name for the powdery white sand and warm crystalline water you’ll get to enjoy if you pay a visit. It’s the perfect spot for awe-inspiring sunrises and romantic moonrises between the small “Na Mokulua” islands. But be warned, parking is limited, trash requires a camper's "take out what you bring in" mentality and you'll need to go about a mile over to Kailua for the nearest public bathroom.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing – Chinatown Red-Light Tour
Before Hawaii was a mass-tourism destination or even a full state, it was a bustling port that served as the US gateway to the western Pacific. Downtown in those days was a salacious and seedy world of randy, thirsty sailors and entrepreneurial sex workers, tattooists, and bartenders. Interested parties can take a tour aimed at showcasing the WWII history of the old red-light district. This 90-minute, $30 tour is bound to be among the more colorful activities of your day - James McCormack
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Honolulu here.
The Best Iconic Thing - The Strip District
Teeming with international and specialty grocery stores, landmark restaurants (Pamela’s always has a line wrapped around it), street food, and an assortment of breweries, distilleries, and wineries, the Strip District has everything you’d want from a visit to the city, complete with the original Primanti Bros. Stroll down Penn Avenue and select some delicious produce, stop at the Heinz History Museum to spy original set pieces from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and pick up some black-and-gold souvenirs to take home from the many specialty stores lining the street. The Strip District represents everything the Steel City is about, from its origins as an industrial neighborhood to the food-and-tech center it has become.
The Best Free Thing - Randyland
There are plenty of fun, free things to do in Pittsburgh, but Randyland is one that feels like it shouldn’t be free. Randyland is Randy Gilson’s colorful vision of curb art, constructed through found objects and original paintings, all of which reside inside and outside of his vibrant house in the Northside. The story behind Randyland is just as beautiful as the landmark itself. In 1995, Gilson saved the then-abandoned house from demolition and decided to make it his own art project that would include recycled materials. Gilson had experienced homelessness himself and always hated to see discarded items go to waste. The building evolves and changes all the time, so you’re bound to always see something new when you visit.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Banjo Night at the Elks Lodge
Every Wednesday night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., the Elks Lodge on the North Side hosts “Banjo Night,” where the Pittsburgh Banjo Club performs. Banjos, you say? Yes, banjos, and it’s a blast -- something the Elks Lodge and the PBC has been doing for more than 30 years. There’s no cover charge to get in, and when you do get a table, you can order $1 fried foods like mozzarella sticks, fried shrimp, and more, along with cheap beer, so this is a great place to go if you’re looking to have fun without spending a ton of money. But if you want to get a table, you have to call ahead for reservations (yes, really!) and get there at 7 to make sure someone doesn’t take it. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a conga line or caught in a group sing-a-long. - Megan McLachlan
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Pittsburgh here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden
How many cities can boast an iconic sculpture garden? How many of them can boast that such a venue is 100% free to visit? If museums seem just a little too boring or expensive but you feel the need for some culture in your life, check out the Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden. Recently re-vamped and open year round (yes, even when it snows), this highly visible gem is worth a longer stop than glancing it over while waiting at a red light on Hennepin Avenue. Come for Claes Oldenburg’s iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry statue; stay for the over 40 additional works, including Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock, a giant electric-blue chicken.
The Best Free Thing - Transmission Dance Nights with DJ Jake Rudh
The Twin Cities are a highly underrated destination for all kinds of arts. In addition to a thriving theater scene (with more theaters per capita than anywhere except New York City), our music and radio scene is equally vibrant. Those familiar with DJ Jake Rudh likely know him from spinning indie classics on Minnesota Public Radio’s hipster station of choice, 89.3 The Current. What they may not realize is that Transmission, Rudh’s scheduled broadcast every Thursday night at 10 p.m., is also a live – and completely free – dance party. With dates scheduled weekly all year round, there’s always an option for club fiends to hear the best mix with their friends and check out some of the Twin Cities best clubbing venues free of charge. Make sure to follow the Transmission Facebook page for more information.
The Best Under The Radar Thing - The Minneapolis Skyway System
Many Minnesotans have heard visitors complain that the Twin Cities feel empty, especially in the winter. Looking out the window it would be easy to assume that there aren’t many people living here at all. But you’d be wrong, they’re all living up in the air. A hefty network of rooftop bars and patios, the Skyway System links Minnesotans through buildings via second floor tunnels and footbridges -- it’s like a giant hamster wheel but for people. Minneapolis alone boasts over 13 miles of skyways filled with restaurants, shops, massage parlors, nail shops and banks, including Brits Pub, a fully grassed lawn bowling court with a wall-sized movie screen and three story outdoor bar complex. - Becki Iverson
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Minneapolis here.
22. San Antonio
The Best Iconic Thing - Mission Trail
San Antonio is a diverse and culturally rich city most well known for the time honored battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” What most visitors are only just finding out is that the Alamo is one of five missions established by Spanish priests in the eighteenth century, and the other four missions are well worth experiencing. The missions are designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and are best explored via bicycle on a winding trail by the river. You might find you won’t just be remembering the Alamo after a day on mission trail.
The Best Free Thing - The Riverwalk
If you’re looking for something that will cost you no money at all, look no further than the Riverwalk, the city’s iconic stretch of restaurant, bar and shop-filled walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River, below street level. For an expert excursion on the less crowded sided, start at the Pearl Brewery, where you can hook up to the Riverwalk, stroll for a few miles, and take in the public art installations along the way as you meander towards the heart of downtown. Open containers are allowed on the Riverwalk if you feel like upping your game.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The King William Historic District
If you’re looking for a low key adventure, don’t miss out on a trip to the King William historic district. Packed with beautiful homes and closely located next to some of San Antonio’s best bars and restaurants, the King William district shows off some truly epic Victorian architecture. As an added bonus, two of the best preserved houses (Villa Finale and Steves Homestead Museum) are open to the public. - Georgina Buckley
Check out our full list of the best things to do in San Antonio here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Camelback Mountain
With an elevation of 2,704 feet and shaped like a camel’s hump, Camelback Mountain is no stranger to Arizona locals. Each year, thousands of Phoenicians and visitors hike up the Echo Canyon and Cholla Trails, which give amazing 360-degree views of the city from both summits. The trails are a little tricky to climb, so bring your best sneakers and be ready to get nice and close to the desert rock (you’ll be climbing over boulders on your way to the top).
The Best Free Thing - Four Peaks Brewery Tour
If you enjoy a good craft beer, then you have to check out Four Peaks brewery. There are two locations, but the original over in Tempe is the better option, with a bar filled with seasonal beers on tap and a restaurant full of flavorful food. But the main attraction is the hour-long free tour of the brewery, which shows you how they make their secret recipe and gives you a taste of the craft goods at the end.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Grasshopper Point
Most people have heard of Slide Rock, a natural water slide located in Sedona. But to avoid the crowds of people and long lines to get into the state park, check out Grasshopper Point, which is just a few minutes away. With three trails and a ton of hidden cliffs to jump off of, you’ll have a blast appreciating Arizona’s red rocks without all the hassle. - Jackie Frere
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Phoenix here.
The Best Iconic Thing - The Detroit Institute of Arts
The Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) white marble facade harkens back to a different time in the city’s history, when it was considered a city of the “future.” Whatever that means. From its privileged Midtown position along the city’s main artery, Woodward Avenue, the museum hosts a variety of salient works from artists as prolific and enduring as Diego Rivera and Vincent Van Gogh and contemporary artists such as Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley. The Arts of the Islamic World and Indigenous American Art collections are beyond captivating. And to think, Detroiters nearly lost it all when the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
The Best Free Thing - Detroit’s Greenways and Public Parks
Detroit’s 139 square miles are sparsely populated, meaning there’s lots of open space. The Dequindre Cut is a nearly 2-mile greenway connecting the historic Eastern Market (with remarkable murals, cafés and restaurants) with the sparkling clean Detroit riverfront. The proposed 26-mile Joe Louis Greenway will connect to the Dequindre Cut and a similar greenway across the river in Windsor, Canada. Add in Belle Isle, (free if you come sans car) and that’s quite a bit of fresh air to breathe.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Hamtramck
Hamtramck is the most internationally diverse city in Michigan, with a foreign-born population of about 47 percent and climbing in a 2015 survey. Here you’ll find Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Polish markets, restaurants and shops, and also some of the best dive bars, live music and karaoke that Detroit has to offer, all wrapped up in this Muslim-majority enclave. It’s really quite a trip. - Megan Frye
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Detroit here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Powell’s City of Books
Arguably the most famous bookstore in America, it’s easy to lose hours in Powell’s endless corridors of novels, tomes, and texts. Though it’s not really losing them when they’re so well spent among the pages, right? And if you get tired of perusing the shelves, World Cup Coffee and Tea offers a place to refuel and read, as well as browse the comic book shelves.
The Best Free Thing - Portland’s Parks
Portland is verdant in spring and summer, vividly fire-toned in the fall, and tolerable in winter (unless it snows, then it’s beautiful). The best way to explore it is with a walk through one of our many parks: Mt. Tabor on the east side offers a stunning view of the entire city, the sprawling Forest Park overlooking downtown is one of the largest parks within city limits in the country, and many more dot the cityscape throughout. You’re rarely more than a mile from any park, and it doesn’t cost a thing to walk through and take in the scenery.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Tea Time
Portland is well-regarded for its coffee, breweries, and bars, but what gets little love is the variety and style of tea shops. From the rare, imported teas of Townshend’s Tea, the chic boba tea shops of Tea Bar, and the locally crafted blends of Smith Tea, coffee drinkers aren’t the only ones who can get their caffeine buzz on in a rewarding way. - Alex Frane
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Portland here.
The Best Iconic Thing - The James Turrell Skyspace
The James Turrell Skyspace on Rice campus is a tourist attraction that even locals deem worthy of a visit. The site is one of a few “Skyspaces” pilot and artist James Turrell has designed around the country -- spaces with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky to create a natural observatory. The acoustically engineered “Twilight Epiphany” at the Rice Campus installation projects a trippy LED light sequence onto and through the structure’s open roof at sunrise and sunset showings.
The Best Free Thing - Buffalo Bayou Park
Looking for some expense-free exploration? Houston’s crown jewel park, over 160 acres of some of the nicest urban green space in the country, is lined with towering trees, picnic spots, skate and dog parks, and hike and bike trails that lead right into Downtown. There’s also a lost lake and a colony of bats you can watch take flight from under Waugh Drive Bridge at dusk -- take that, Austin!
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Cistern at Buffalo Bayou Park
A lesser known attraction is the super dope underground cistern -- also located within Buffalo Bayou Park, but not free. The 87,500-square-foot site dates back to 1927 and was Houston’s first underground drinking water reservoir. It has since been re-imagined to display rotating art installations. A walking tour will only cost you $10. - Brooke Viggiano
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Houston here.
The Best Iconic Thing - The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Check out the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and, yes, the Rocky steps, if you’re so inclined) after 5 p.m. on Fridays and you’ll be treated to live music in the grand hall, plus after-hour access to all the collections. The area around the museum has upped its programming to offer beer gardens and food trucks, plus it’s a quick walk to other worthwhile museums: The Barnes Foundation, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Franklin Institute should all be on your radar.
The Best Free Thing - Cherry Street Pier
Cherry Street Pier is the newest venue on the Delaware River Waterfront, open to the public with a mixed-use artist and market space. Vendors line the main thoroughfare, while a main stage has alternating performances and galleries. There’s also a gorgeous open garden overlooking the river, comfortably close to the pier’s food vendors. Then take a short walk to Winterfest at Penn’s Landing for cozy fires, hot chocolate, and ice skating.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Evil Genius Beer Company
For a long list of original drafts with meta quirky names, head to Evil Genius in Fishtown and try your hand at vintage games while trying a chocolate peanut butter stout entitled “Purple Monkey Dishwasher.” Opt for outdoor fire pits or indoor ‘80’s-centric, nerd chic decor. - Marielle Mondon
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Philadelphia here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Ryman Auditorium
There is no such thing as bad show at the Ryman Auditorium. It’s known as The Mother Church of Country Music, but even that doesn’t really hit at just how close this spot is to the beating heart of what makes Nashville special. Sitting right downtown, just a half block or so from the hustling street musicians and honky tonk howls of Lower Broadway, the Ryman is a throwback to the glory days of country western. It’s where bluegrass was born. It’s where Johnny Cash met June Carter for the first time. Heck, even the daily tours they offer rise to “can’t-miss” status. And you don’t have to be a huge fan of the act you’re seeing to appreciate the place, which boasts one of the most gorgeous interiors in the South.
The Best Free Thing - Sunday Nights at the Station Inn
The Gulch is the site of some of Nashville’s newest and trendiest spots, but hiding in plain sight is one of the upscale neighborhood’s oldest and most reliable bets. Since 1974, the Station Inn has been Nashville’s bluegrass headquarters, and they’ve got a show every night to prove it. But while the cover for most shows is cheap (around $15), Sunday nights are when the Station Inn really shines. That’s when it hosts a free bluegrass jam and trust us, it’s an experience you’ll wish will never end. Head down to enjoy some of the oldest tunes in the Great American Songbook and, if you’ve got an instrument and a working knowledge of how to use it, pull up a chair and join in. There are plenty of snacks for the hungry and pitchers of cheap beer for the thirsty, but if you’re just looking to figure out why they call this place Music City, all you need to bring is a listening ear and a toe to tap
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Basement East
If you want to hang out with bridesmaid parties and square dance aficionados, head downtown or over to the 12th South neighborhood. They’ll treat you well. But if you want to party like a local, your best bet is the Basement East, a tiny bar and music venue down in East Nashville. The Basement gets plenty of the bluegrass and country music acts that people think of when they think of Nashville, but it also hosts an eclectic variety of rock and roll, indie and hip-hop artists, as well as a deep bench of fun events like regular QDPs, karaoke nights, pro-wrestling matches, and all sorts of surprises, along with a healthy dose of drink specials. It’s just far enough off the beaten path that the lines won’t be too long without being so far out of the way that you can’t walk from dinner at Five Points Pizza or Marché Artisan Foods. - Tyler Huckabee
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Nashville here.
15. New Orleans
The Best Iconic Thing - Café du Monde
It’d be downright criminal to take a trip to New Orleans and skip one of the city’s most delicious (and legendary) experiences: a plate of sugary beignets and creamy café au lait at the 150-plus-year-old Café du Monde. The $5 snack is delectable and the people-watching is golden, plus there’s usually a live band playing somewhere within trumpeting distance. Shoot for non-breakfast hours and bring cash.
The Best Free Thing - Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is free. Mardi Gras is free. It still boggles the mind, no matter how many times a person experiences it, that this world-class celebration is free! Gratis! Libre! Okay, yes, you still have to find somewhere to stay, which can be quite a bit more expensive than it would be any other time of the year, but the parades and street parties and epic people-watching are all not only free, but you actually get rewarded with showers of beads and other throws just for showing up and staking out a spot on the route. (Yes, that’s all you need to do, don’t let anyone tell you different.) And if you can’t make it during Mardi Gras but still want a taste, you can always participate for free in a second line -- named for the tradition of open-to-all dancing that follows behind the brass band and official parade group that make up the “main line.” New Orleans radio station WWOZ publishes a list of all the second line parades taking place every Sunday so you can go join in.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - NOLA’s Vietnamese Food Scene
Non-locals seldom realize that New Orleans is home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the United States, and we’ve got the phơ to prove it. On the easy setting, you can hit up Lilly’s or Phơ Tau Bay, both within striking distance from the French Quarter. Crank it up to the hard setting and head out to New Orleans East for banh mi (and, unexpectedly, the city’s best king cake) at Dong Phuong Bakery. Boss level? Get up at 5:30 am on Saturday to catch the Vietnamese farmers’ market at 14401 Alcee Fortier Boulevard -- it opens at 6 and is basically gone by 9. Locally-grown dragon fruit and some steamed banh tet for breakfast? Yes, please. - Megan Romer
Check out our full list of the best things to do in New Orleans here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Reunion Tower
Reunion Tower is one of the defining elements of the Dallas Skyline. It might seem touristy, but the view from 470 feet up on the observation deck is absolutely worth it. Light shows, restaurants and a gift shop all add to the experience. And on a clear day, you can even see the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium 20 miles away in Arlington.
The Best Free Thing - Klyde Warren Park
Spend some time with nature and get artsy all for free. Built just a few years ago on top of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Klyde Warren Park provides the unique experience of hanging out in a beautiful public space while thousands of cars buzz by beneath your feet. The park also has food trucks, games, a reading area, and a beautiful green for relaxing and taking pictures. When you’re done, take a short walk across the street to explore the Dallas Museum of Art.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Trinity Groves
If you want to eat some food and get some great photos for your Instagram, head to Trinity Groves. This foodie parodies features about any type of cuisine you can imagine from comfort food to a Latin American-Chinese fusion. When you’re done, walk off your dinner along the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge overlooking the Trinity River. - Jesus Jimenez
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Dallas here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Red Rocks Amphitheater
Red Rocks, one of the undisputed best music venues in the world, is only about 20 minutes from downtown Denver. Legends like The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix have all played the stage, out under the starry night sky, flanked by giant, now-iconic natural rock formations. If you have the chance to see a concert here, do it. You can also explore the area for free on it’s many hiking trails or head over for a special event like Film on the Rocks or a yoga session with sweeping city views in the warmer months.
The Best Free Thing - Coors Brewery
Small breweries are plentiful in the city but a free tour of the iconic and massive Coors Brewery is still a must-do. Hop on a bus for a quick tour of the town of Golden before being dropped off at the visitors entrance where an ID is all you need to get in. The self-guided tour includes a behind the scenes glimpse of the brewing and canning process, plus it ends in the tasting room where you get three complimentary beers.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA Denver) is more than just a destination for viewing some of the most interesting exhibits in the city (featured artists rotate seasonally). It’s also where to find some of the most unique events in all of Denver, like their Dinner Society series, which combines art and multicourse meals prepared by many of Denver’s best chefs and Black Sheep Fridays, where you’ll find totally random interactive fun like a make-your-own Mr. Rogers sweater session. Oh, and did we mention there’s a rooftop bar too? - Molly Martin
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Denver here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Joe’s Stone Crab
Joe’s is a South Beach institution, and for good reason. It’s been around since 1913, it serves the sweetest stone crabs and Key lime pie in town, and there’s no telling whether you’ll run into your neighbor or Jennifer Lopez. If the market-price claws scare you, skip the stone crabs and let your tuxedoed waiter bring you the $6.95 fried half chicken. Whatever you order, get there early -- Joe’s doesn’t take reservations, and people line up outside before 5pm to get a table.
The Best Free Thing - The beach, obviously
A “beach day” in Miami can mean lots of things -- the trick is figuring out what works for your squad. If your perfect beach day involves $20 Coronaritas and club promoters, go to South Beach. If you want something fun but slightly less chaotic, follow the boardwalk to the 21st-45th Street Beach. Crandon Park and Bill Baggs State Park in Key Biscayne are quiet, tropical and family-friendly, but if you’re looking to let it all out (literally), try Haulover. It’s Miami’s only nude beach.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Jai-alai at Magic City Casino
Jai-alai literally translates to “merry festival,” and it started as a holiday thing in Spain in the 1800s. It might not be as popular as it was in 1980s Miami, when weekly groups of 15,000 gamblers packed stadiums to bet on “the fastest game in the world,” but it’s still good for cheap, unexpected fun. Go every Wednesday through Sunday, and for just $20, you’ll get a VIP table, bottle service and a prime view of players hurling wall balls at speeds of 100mph or more. If you get bored (you won’t), there’s a burger museum in the same building. - Jennifer Agress
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Miami here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Pike Place Market
It's tempting to choose the newly renovated Space Needle here with it's stunning glass-floored observation deck, but Pike Place Market simply can not be missed. It's the best farmers market in the country. Plus our guides to the Best Things to Eat and the Best Secret Shops in the Market, will help you navigate it like a pro. It’s only a start though. The still newish Marketfront and the myriad bars and restaurants lining Post Alley give you practically endless options.
The Best Free Thing - The Beach
The last thing most people expect to find in Seattle is miles of sandy beaches. And they're right Seattle doesn't have those… West Seattle does. Something else people don't expect? How glorious Seattle's summers are. That said, almost any time of year is a good time to head over to Alki, which is just minutes from Downtown but somehow manages to feel like a charming little beach town complete with a row of bars and restaurants highlighted by West Seattle Brewing's Tap Shack, Sunfish, and El Chupacabra.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Ferry
Washington State has the largest ferry system in the county (the fourth largest in the world) and some of the boats sail right from Seattle. The best (and easiest!) trip is to Bainbridge Island -- just 9 miles across Puget Sound -- where you'll find museums, lovely gardens, and a range of drinking & dining opportunities like the Bainbridge Brewing Alehouse & Hitchcock. - Bradley Foster
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Seattle here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Barton Springs Pool
Measuring three acres in size and flanked by lush lawns (and hordes of hotties), Barton Springs Pool is the idyllic pride of Austin. The teal-blue natural pool, which reaches a depth of 18 feet, is fed from underground springs and stays a temperate 68-70 degrees year round. And, admission ranges from free to nominal.
The Best Free Thing - Seasonal Fun
Free fun in Austin varies by season; the best events include the summer concert series Blues on the Green and Sound & Cinema which take place outside The Long Center with the beautiful downtown skyline serving as a perfect backdrop. During the holidays, the annual Austin Trail of Lights illuminates 2 million lights, over 60 displays, and a 155-foot-tall tree in Zilker Park, bringing joy and Insta Story gold to all.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - A Mezcal Crawl
Skip Rainey Street, instead get familiar with the mythical Mexican spirit at one of our many mezcalerias, each with its unique offerings. Check out Las Perlas for a large, curated selection; Mezcalería Tobalá for ambiance and people-watching, Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar for an intimate setting, and La Holly for laid-back neighborhood vibes. - Anastacia Uriegas
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Austin here.
The Best Iconic Thing - The Fox Theatre
Built at the beginning of the Great Depression, The Fabulous Fox Theatre has survived several eras of economic and social uncertainty (it was segregated back when Martin Luther King Jr. was a kid growing up on Auburn Avenue), as well as come-and-go genres of music, stage shows and other live performances. With stories of ghosts occupying the backrooms and underground floors, architecture inspired by Islamic and Egyptian design traditions, and a recently completed a $10 million expansion of its premium Marquee Club and rooftop terrace it’s both modern and historic.
The Best Free Thing - Jackson Street Bridge
If you need something cheaper, or just straight-up free go to the Jackson Street Bridge. The northeast Atlanta bridge connecting the Downtown Connector and the Freedom Parkway is iconic as a setting for jaw-dropping photos. Made even more famous for its use in the premiere of The Walking Dead, it’s one of the best places to be photographed in Atlanta because of its perfect framing of the downtown skyline, intertwined with Freedom Parkway’s sprouting connection to the intersection of Interstates 75, 85 and 20 in all directions.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Dwarf House (AKA the Original Chick-Fil-A)
As for the best under-the-radar spot, it remains The Dwarf House. First of all, it’s in Hapeville, which people in Atlanta don’t even know exists. Next, it’s the place where Chick-Fil-A’s chicken sandwich was invented, and basically functions as a hybrid of the now-dominant, locally born fast-food chain, and another Metro-ATL-founded restaurant franchise, Waffle House. So yeah, as long as it’s not Sunday, you can stop in anytime, 24 hours a day and have the CFA version of chicken and waffles, and feel like you’re invisible to the rest of upscale Atlanta. - Mike Jordan
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Atlanta here.
8. San Diego
The Best Iconic Thing - Balboa Park
Balboa Park is home to some of San Diego’s best scenery, history and culture, all accessible in one tidy, albeit large, destination. Its most famous landmark is the San Diego Zoo, tucked into the northwestern corner of the park. But Balboa Park’s walkable center is peppered with world-class museums, a botanical garden, an outdoor cactus garden, restaurants and bars, a historic theater, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ and a variety of hiking trails.
The Best Free Thing - Chicano Park
Barrio Logan, a neighborhood to the southeast of downtown San Diego, is the cultural and historical heart of Chicano and Mexican culture in the city. One of the best ways to take this in is to visit Chicano Park, a park beneath two freeway overpasses that houses the country’s largest collection of outdoor murals. In this case, they’re dedicated to detailing Chicano and Mexican cultural heritage.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Music Scene
Known more for its beaches, beer and burritos than it is for art and culture, San Diego is home to a rocking and lively music scene. Venues like Soda Bar, The Casbah, Whistle Stop Bar, Winston’s, Blonde, Brick by Brick, Belly Up, Tower Bar and more feature nightly live music acts--many of which are proudly local. - Jackie Bryant
Check out our full list of the best things to do in San Diego here.
7. Washington DC
The Best Iconic Thing - The Kennedy Center
Seeing a show at the Kennedy Center (the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts if you want to be formal) is by no means an original idea, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It’s one of the premier performing arts centers in the country and every season boasts critically-acclaimed shows. Plus, if you want to keep it wallet-friendly, there are free concerts on the Millennium Stage.
The Best Free Thing - The Renwick Gallery
DC is obviously known for the Smithsonian Institution, but some spots are edgier than others. If you only have time for one museum on your list, make it the Renwick Gallery, an American art museum you may have heard of thanks to your trendy friends on Instagram. The current exhibit is “No Spectators: The Art of the Burning Man,” exploring the large-scale works from the annual desert phenomenon.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The DC Cider Scene
DC’s craft beer community has been on the rise for years; the wineries outside of the city are drawing national attention; and craft distilling is taking off. While all those scenes are worth checking out, you can still get in on the ground floor of the newest local booze on the rise: cider. There are now three cideries pressing apples in the city. Stop in to Anxo for cider paired with Spanish pintxos, visit the industrial warehouse where Supreme Core makes their nectar, or grab a seat at the bar at Capitol Cider House. (It rules). - Lani Furbank
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Washington D.C. here.
The Best Iconic Thing - Fenway Park
Ho hum, another World Series win for the Red Sox. Just kidding—this year’s championship was just as sweet. And you can’t oversell the place where the magic happened. MLB’s oldest ballpark is a labyrinthian trip through time, its modern upgrades outshined by throwback charms like the manually operated scoreboard. And you don’t even need to spring for game tickets or visit during baseball season; just sign up for a one-hour Fenway tour, available year-round.
The Best Free Thing - The Public Garden
Boston is awash in gorgeous greenways thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted and his 1100-acre Emerald Necklace park system. The crown jewel is the Boston Public Garden, the country’s first public botanical garden. First established in 1837, the Victorian-inspired park boasts colorful, artistic plantings, a picturesque suspension bridge, and a lagoon that serves as home to myriad ducks as well as the famous pontoon Swan Boats.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Mapparium
Housed inside the Mary Baker Eddy Library, this three-story-tall stained-glass globe lets you make like Otto Lidenbrock and literally journey to the center of the Earth. Except this earth is an anachronism -- designed in 1935, the Mapparium includes many an outdated country name. It’s also called a “whispering gallery” for a reason: Because of the globe’s spherical shape, softly spoken words delivered on one end of the globe’s walkway can be clearly heard across the way. - Meaghan Agnew
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Boston here.
5. Las Vegas
The Best Iconic Thing - The Stratosphere
The Stratosphere has been showing its age for a while now -- though thanks to $140 million in ongoing renovations, that tired old carpet is finally getting replaced -- but the 1,149-foot tower always has the best views of Las Vegas. Grab dinner at the recently revamped Top of the World restaurant and walk around the edges for a full 360-degree experience through massive floor-to-ceiling windows. If you dare, you can also hop on the thrill rides located on top of the observation deck to get an even more adrenaline-fueled view of the Strip below.
The Best Free Thing - The Bellagio Fountains
It's free, but you won't look cheap if you bring a date here. The Bellagio fountains (yes, the ones from the end of Ocean’s 11) shoot water nearly 500 feet in the air, synchronized to music during performances that run every 15 minutes at peak hours. For even more free fun, walk inside the Bellagio lobby and check out the seasonal displays at the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Chinatown
The Las Vegas version of Chinatown is full of hidden surprises. It’s where Strip chefs love to go on their downtime, so make like a local and get off the Strip. Between the robata grill of Raku, sushi of Yui Edomae, and spicy Szechuan of Chengdu Taste, it's a crash course in Asian dining. For further variety, check out the blues jams at Sand Dollar Lounge, cocktails at Golden Tiki, beer at Leatherneck Club, high-end French at Partage, or the mishmash of global cuisine at Mordeo and Sparrow + Wolf. - Rob Kachelriess
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Las Vegas here.
4. San Francisco
The Best Iconic Thing - Alcatraz
Other than the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz is by far the most touristy thing to do in SF, but it’s the one most worth a visit. A short ferry ride (during which there are great views of the aforementioned bridge) takes visitors to the small island that was once a lighthouse, heavily fortified military site, federal penitentiary, and site of an occupancy by Native American activists. The Cellhouse audio tour that includes stories from former inmates and correctional officers is a must and the 45-minute guided tour that that explores the less traveled areas is also worthwhile. On both tours, you’ll see artifacts, including dummy heads used by prisoners trying to escape, handmade files, shackles, and graffiti from the American Indians who seized the island in 1969.
The Best Free Thing - The Japanese Tea Garden
There’s a lot to do in Golden Gate Park, but the one thing that’s not to be skipped is the Japanese Tea Garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S. and one of SF’s most popular attractions. It’s also one of the most tranquil spots in the city if you get there before all of the tourists, which works out well since that’s also when it’s free (before 10am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). The garden is just five acres, but it’s easy to find solitude amongst the winding stepping stone paths, pagodas, and koi ponds. No visit is complete with going over the steep Drum Bridge, which reveals a full circle over still water, and forces those climbing it to slow down.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Self-Guided Art Walk in the Presidio
The Presidio was home to native peoples, a Spanish and then Mexican military fort, and, from 1846 to 1994, a U.S. Army post. Today, it’s a national park that comprises almost five percent of San Francisco and is home to four installations by world-renowned site-specific artist Andy Goldsworthy. There’s a 100-foot “Spire” constructed with 37 aging Monterey cypress trees, a 1,200-foot-long “Wood Line” made of eucalyptus branches (that will one day fade back into the earth), an “Earth Wall” composed of eucalyptus branches and clay, and a “Tree Fall” created by a tree branch suspended from the roof of a Civil War-era building that’s been covered in clay. A three-mile loop along the Presidio’s trails will take you to all of them. And ensure you get in all of your steps. - Daisy Barringer
Check out our full list of the best things to do in San Francisco here.
The Best Iconic Thing - The Bean
There’s a reason you know exactly what “The Bean” is even if you’ve never been to Chicago -- because you’ve seen just about every single one of your friends post mirror selfies reflected off of it on Instagram. It seems like such a simple pleasure, but it really is a blast, and it’s sure to bring the kid out in everyone. Even if you don’t “get” the magic of The Bean, the famous piece of public art (It was created by Anish Kapoor and is actually named Cloud Gate) is housed in Millennium Park, a fantastic green space nicknamed “Chicago’s front yard.”
The Best Free Thing - The Lakefront
Chicago is sometimes called the “third coast” because of its proximity to Lake Michigan. Big ocean lovers bristle at the suggestion that a lake even comes close to offering a real beach experience, but frankly, they’re being curmudgeons. There are beautiful beaches all along the lake, including Montrose Beach, Ohio Street Beach, South Shore Beach, and more. The water will probably be super cold no matter when you’re in town, but it’s always great to sunbathe, hang out at some nearby bars and restaurants, or take advantage of the beautiful Lakefront Trail by biking, walking, or jogging along the shore.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Pilsen
You could spend your whole vacation in downtown Chicago and not run out of things to do, but go off the beaten path and into the neighborhoods to see why this city is such a gem. Pilsen is a great place to start; the beloved Mexican neighborhood is marked by vibrant street art, great local retailers, and the most incredible tacos. Be sure to try the paletas at La Michoacana for a sweet treat. And perhaps most importantly, spend some time in the National Museum of Mexican Art; it’s free for everyone, every day of the year. - Jessica Cabe
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Chicago here.
2. Los Angeles
The Best Iconic Thing - The Getty Center
The Getty Center’s decadent design (the complex is covered in 1.2-million square feet of Travertine), outrageous architecture, grand gardens, and ridiculous views of the city and Pacific are as extraordinary as The Getty Center’s off-the-charts art collection. It’s the world’s wealthiest art institution, and it shows.
The Best Free Thing - Malibu Hiking
Fantastic hikes abound throughout LA, but Sandstone Peak -- the tallest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains at 3,114 feet -- is a slightly more far-flung favorite. The 6-mile loop trail will reward you with both a solid workout and wow-worthy views at the top. And the ocean-hugging ride up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu is a thing of beauty. You’ll be asking yourself why don’t you live here.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - Downtown
LA is not just Hollywood and beaches. Downtown’s red-hot restaurant scene is all the rage, but it’s worth checking out the district’s defining architectural and historic landmarks, too (proving there was, indeed, life here before Bestia). For a reasonable $15, encyclopedic docents on LA Conservancy’s Historic Downtown Walking Tour will take you to more than a dozen spots, including the beloved Bradbury Building, Central Library, and the world’s shortest railway. Impressing your dining companions later with your newfound knowledge is on you. - Lizbeth Scordo
Check out our full list of the best things to do in Los Angeles here.
1. New York City
The Best Iconic Thing - The Subway
Iconography is in the eye of the beholder. Visiting sports fans will want to make a pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field. Art aficionados and diletantes alike will be willing to pay a premium for our exceptional museums. Gourmands will spend a king’s ransom in our best bars and restaurants and never get their fill. But the most universally iconic thing a visitor to New York City can do, is take a ride on the subway: The last vestige of our purported melting pot, where all echelons of society in every stage of life convene. Load a few bucks onto a MetroCard, practice your swipe speed (it’s a flick of the wrist, like skipping a stone), pick a line, and take off your damn backpack. You can also absorb the more than 100-years-old history of the subway at the New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn.
The Best Free Thing - The Brooklyn Bridge
The breathtaking bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn is both part of the city skyline and one of its best vantage points. The narrow walking path’s entrance in Lower Manhattan can be chaotic: Vendors, cyclists, tourists, and even a few locals all compete for space. But once you get past that first stretch and find a comfortable stride, you’ll be rewarded with views of the equally stunning (but less pedestrian-friendly) Manhattan Bridge, the East River’s sparkling expanse, and the darling Jane’s carousel. The low-impact stroll takes most New Yorkers about 30 minutes to complete, and out-of-towners will need closer to an hour to take photos of the city’s amalgam of skyscrapers.. Continue on and you’ll end up a stone’s throw from more free attractions like Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Promenade.
The Best Under-the-Radar Thing - The Outer Boroughs
Very little is under-the-radar in New York City. If something has been referred to as a “hidden gem,” or described as “hard to find” on a popular review site, it is probably neither of those things. You’re going to have to choose your own adventure if you wish to stumble off the beaten path. Jump on any subway line, and don’t get off until you’ve left Manhattan. Take the 7 to Queens to see Long Island City before Amazon takes over, or go a little farther for real deal dumplings in Flushing. Take the 2, 3, or 4 to Eastern Parkway for the Brooklyn Museum and explore the expanse of Prospect Park -- Central Park’s better half. Ride the 6 to the end of the line and hop the Bx29 bus to City Island in the Bronx for fresh seafood, boat rides, and local conversation. Or take the (free) Staten Island ferry across the New York Harbor for incredible views, and your pick of world cuisine once you dock. - Amber Sutherland-Namako
Check out our full list of the best things to do in NYC here.