Small-town charm with big-city amenities; it’s a difficult balance to strike. The cities that made our list walk this line well. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re located in beautiful areas of the country. From coast to coast, and all the rolling hills in between, here are our readers’ 16 favorite midsize U.S. cities you don’t want to miss.
1. Manhattan, Kansas (Winner)
Known as “The Little Apple,” Manhattan has a vibrant college-town feel thanks to Kansas State University. Take a stroll through Aggieville, an area filled with shops, restaurants, bars, and live entertainment venues whose history dates to the late 1800s. Downtown Manhattan is equally enticing, just without as many students around. There are more restaurants, shops, and it’s home to the Saturday morning farmers market.
Located in the Flint Hills, the rolling prairie grass creates a beautiful surrounding landscape. Learn more about the area at The Flint Hills Discovery Center. Plus, be sure to get outdoors and enjoy the area’s hiking and biking trails in and around Manhattan.
2. New Braunfels, Texas
Located in the Texas Hill Country, just 40 minutes northeast of San Antonio, New Braunfels is known for its German heritage and festivals. Don’t miss the biggest and best German celebration of the year, Wurstfest! It takes place every November. Grab your lederhosen, a pint of cold beer, some sausage or schnitzel, and prepare to polka the days away.
When the Texas heat gets to be too much, join the locals and grab a tube or kayak and cool off while floating down the Comal or Guadalupe Rivers. Natural Bridge Caverns is always 80 degrees (technically it’s 70 degrees with 99 percent humidity).
Don’t miss the artists, boutique shops, and restaurants in the Gruene Historic District. The Gruene Dance Hall is one of the oldest in Texas.
3. Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids offers a diverse mix of experiences for visitors. It’s of course home to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum where you can soak in the history of his time as the 38th U.S. President.
It also has an amazing craft beer scene. With dozens of craft breweries, Grand Rapids has been dubbed “Beer City USA.” You’ll want to wander the Beer City Ale Trail sampling the brews as well as grabbing a bite or two.
Finally, visit Grand Rapids’s Downtown Market for an innovative, and delicious, food experience.
4. Santa Barbara, California
Perched on the beautiful California coast, Santa Barbara’s location makes it an ideal weekend getaway. While it’s perfectly fine to relax and soak in the views, history lovers will want to explore the Santa Barbara Mission (known as the “Queen of Missions”) and Stearns Wharf (the oldest working wharf in the state).
You’ll be blown away by Ganna Walska Lotusland. Its 37 acres of lush gardens are a unique collection of rare and endangered plants.
With its coastal location and the Santa Ynez Mountains just to the east, hiking, biking, kayaking, sailing, and more await those seeking outdoor adventure. If you prefer to be outdoors with a glass in hand, Santa Barbara has two dozen wineries and tasting rooms waiting to host you.
5. Savannah, Georgia
Savannah redefines charm. Tree-lined cobblestone streets draped in Spanish moss, 22 beautifully appointed squares, and a waterfront filled with boutique shops and restaurants; visitors are enticed to explore this historic city.
Located on beautiful Monterey Square, you’ll find the Mercer-Williams House which you may recognize from the novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Don’t miss Forsyth Park’s fountain, one of the most photographed in the city.
If you believe in ghosts, Savannah is one of the most haunted cities in the U.S. and ghost tours are offered throughout the year.
6. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe is simply a gem; a city filled with art and beautiful architecture throughout. Walk along the city’s historic plaza with adobe buildings where local artisans sell their handmade goods. Enjoy the boutique art shops and whimsical sculptures that line Canyon Road. And, browse the beautiful works of art at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
If you’ve been to Santa Fe, it’s difficult to think about returning without your mouth watering. The Southwestern cuisine served at restaurants throughout the city is amazing. Endless options of margaritas and the area’s delicious chili sauces (red, green, and Christmas) highlight the menus.
Take a peek inside the Loretto Chapel and learn the history of its unique spiral staircase. It’s near the historic plaza.
7. Asheville, North Carolina
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has a relaxed and funky vibe. It’s known for its fantastic art galleries, delicious restaurants, excellent craft breweries, and live music. The city is also a beautiful spot for anyone wanting to enjoy the outdoors, with hiking and biking trails and even whitewater rafting.
Downtown Asheville is lovely to walk around and browse the unique shops and wonderful art galleries. The farm-to-table dining scene is strong here, and you see it not only in restaurants but its many farmers markets throughout the area.
Explore the Biltmore Estate, the country home of the Vanderbilt family. There’s the grandiose mansion which is a sight to see, but the gardens are also beautiful and there’s a winery on the property to enjoy.
8. Scottsdale, Arizona
Even though it’s part of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, Scottsdale retains a midsize city feel. Loved by retirees for decades, Scottsdale attracts anyone trying to escape the cold for a weekend, a week, or a few months, but there’s more to it than just appealing winter temperatures.
Old Town Scottsdale is especially charming with its western feel, restaurants perfect for patio sitting, art galleries, and boutique shops. Art fills the city. The Scottsdale Art District hosts ArtWalk every Thursday evening with dozens of galleries to explore. Works of art are also sprinkled throughout the city.
The area also offers amazing, and plentiful, golf courses and beautiful resorts. Frank Lloyd Wright also wintered in Scottsdale and you can tour Taliesin West.
9. Charleston, South Carolina
If you love food, Charleston needs to be on your list. It’s home to award-winning restaurants serving low-country cuisine and delicious seafood dishes. Magnolias, FIG, S.N.O.B, and Husk are consistently good. You can’t beat the burgers and fish tacos at Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan’s Island; it’s named after Edgar Allen Poe who was stationed nearby during his time in the army.
Charleston is also one of the most colorful cities in the country. Its homes are beautiful shades of pink, blue, yellow, green, and yes, there are some white homes as well.
Stroll through City Market and admire the traditional sweetgrass baskets made by Gullah artisans. They are a wonderful keepsake. Take a ferry to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
10. Green Bay, Wisconsin
Built in the 1930s, the city’s Meyer Theatre was originally The FOX Theatre, a place to see movies and vaudeville acts. It was saved and beautifully restored in the early 2000s and is now home to Let Me Be Frank Productions, which produces original musicals for theater audiences.
Don’t miss a chance to spend a day on the water kayaking, boating, fishing, or sailing. Or you can explore the Green Bay Botanical Garden. Kids will love its colorful Children’s Garden.
11. Bend, Oregon
Beautiful Bend invites visitors to explore the outdoors all year long. Located on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, spend the winter skiing or snowboarding at nearby Mount Bachelor.
When the snow melts, hike or bike beneath the Ponderosa Pines; go mountain climbing, or watch others, at Smith Rock State Park. Locals love to stand-up paddleboard, tube, or just relax along the Deschutes River that runs through town.
Located along the river is the Old Mill District. It’s a mixed-use area with shops, restaurants, a movie theater, hotels, and office space.
Just south of town, you can spend an entire day or more at Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a volcano the size of Rhode Island that last erupted in 690 AD. Explore Lava River Cave, Paulina Falls, and hike to the hot springs.
12. Providence, Rhode Island
Founded in 1636, historic Providence maintains a youthful, vibrant feel thanks to its eight colleges and universities, including Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — whose museum boasts more than 100,000 pieces of art alone.
Johnson & Wales University, known for its culinary arts degree, reveres Chefs Emeril Lagasse and Tyler Florence among its famous graduates. The graduates who stay in the city have created an innovative and exciting food scene.
Thousands flock to Providence’s unique WaterFire event. From spring through fall, boats light more than 80 bonfires along the city’s three rivers. The beautiful reflections of flames on the water and bridges, the smell of the fire, and the music that plays create a multi-sensory experience.
Be sure to take a walk through history on Benefit Street, explore the unique shops on Wickenden Street, and enjoy an authentic Italian meal on Federal Hill.
13. Salem, Massachusetts
Famous for its late-1600s witch trials, there’s more to charming Salem than its dark history. Located on Salem Bay Harbor, enjoy a sunset sail on a historic schooner or take a boat tour to Bakers Island Light Station, where you can spend the night in the keeper’s house.
The House of Seven Gables, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, is also on the harbor. Stroll through the grounds and tour the home; it’s one of the largest timber-framed mansions that remains in the U.S.
Just a few minutes away is Salem’s Maritime National Historic Site with a replica tall ship. Get up early, grab an Adirondack chair, and watch the sunrise.
Both of the above are on the Salem Heritage Trail. Follow the yellow line through more than 400 years of the town’s history, including the notable witch trial locations.
When planning your visit, know that the town fills with visitors from late September through the end of October, with the crowds growing the closer you get to Halloween.
14. Bozeman, Montana
Located in Montana’s beautiful Rocky Mountains, Bozeman is a year-round destination for outdoor lovers. Scenes from the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It were filmed here, beginning America’s love affair with Montana fly fishing. Grab your fly rod and channel your inner Brad Pitt on one of several gorgeous rivers within an hour’s drive. Big Sky Resort offers amazing skiing and snowboarding in the winter and mountain biking in the summer.
All of that activity works up quite the appetite and one of Bozeman’s amazing restaurants is sure to satisfy.
The Museum of the Rockies, showcasing a fully mounted T-Rex skeleton and other dinosaur fossils, is a leading paleontology research institution. You can find it on Montana State University’s campus.
Looking for a great day trip, the drive from Gallatin Canyon to Madison Valley is simply gorgeous.
15. Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga sits on the Tennessee-Georgia state line in southeastern Tennessee. It’s likely you’ve heard Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and the city stays close to its rail roots. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum offers several scenic train rides throughout the year. The historic Terminal Station is now a hotel complex with dining, live music, shopping, beautiful rose gardens, and more.
Enjoy a hike at Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District, where they can trace 12,000 years of continuous habitation.
Other popular options with travelers and locals alike: Visit the Tennessee Aquarium, take in a Chattanooga Lookouts game, or walk the Riverwalk along the Tennessee River.
16. Rapid City, South Dakota
With the Badlands to the east and the Black Hills to the west, Rapid City is a beautiful spot to base a vacation in western South Dakota. Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are all worth a visit and easy day trips.
Rapid City is the only place in the country with life-sized statues of 43 U.S. presidents lining its downtown streets, giving it the nickname “City of Presidents.”
Read more from our 2023 Best Of Travel Awards, including: