Everyone has heard of the popular tourist destinations in the United States, but they may not realize that there is more to be unearthed than New York, Washington D.C., and the Grand Canyon. In this article I will explore and explain three very different locations that have one thing in common: they all have much more to offer as tourist spots than many people would expect.
Our first stop is Portland, Oregon because it is the closest to home. Portland is only 635 miles away and is a city where most visitors will find appealing similarities to the Bay Area. Portland is roughly 145 square miles in size, about three times larger than San Francisco, but its density is only one fourth of ours with 4,375 people per square mile. This lower density means more open green space. A solid 26% of the city is covered with parks or greenery, while another 8% is occupied by water from the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.
The entire city lends itself to a quirky, relaxed culture. The average age of the residents there is just under 36 years and they are known for their love of both coffee and beer. In the city limits alone there are 11 coffee roasters and 60 breweries and microbreweries, which is more than any other city in the world.
Portland has nature trails, hills, water walks and cherry blossoms. Just west of downtown lies Washington Park, home to the Portland Zoo, a Japanese tea garden and the International Rose Test Garden. Portland is nicknamed “The City of Roses” for its wealth of rose gardens, which has resulted in Portland’s hosting of the annual Rose Pageant. In addition to Washington Park, Portland has Forest Park, which is much more the first part of its name than the latter. With meandering bike trails, hiking paths, creeks and a canopy of trees that are more clustered than the city’s highrises, you will quickly forget that you are in the thirteenth largest metropolitan area in the country.
For those pining for urbanism and city life, do not worry. Portland is the twenty-fourth largest metro area in the country in terms of population with one of the best public transportation systems in the country. Although its downtown is not as crowded or culturally rich as San Francisco’s, it has plenty to offer. What it lacks in skyscrapers, Portland makes up for in street life. With spray painted vans, second-hand sculptures used as doorstops and the unofficial motto “Keep Portland Weird,” Portland’s downtown is the center of its famed kookiness. Beyond downtown, Portland neighborhoods such as Hawthorne, and the newly developed Pearl District buzz with barber shops, florists, tattoo parlors and new restaurants.
The Washington Post has called Portland’s rapidly rising restaurant scene “one of
the best places in the country to dine,” and Travel+Leisure in 2012 ranked its bar scene as the fifth best in the country. It is also one of the most vegetarian friendly cities in the country. Aside from restaurants, Portland was named the world’s best city for street food with more than 600 licensed food trucks, many of which go downtown everyday to gather a crowd of tourists and locals.
Portland is also home to two TV shows, Grimm and Portlandia. Grimm is a fantasy tale about cops while Portlandia is a series of skits that parody life in Portland. With random sketches about subjects ranging from painting birds on ceramics to pickling all sorts of food to where the mayor should eat brunch, Portlandia is arguably the oddest, least conventional show on television right now, and offers a glimpse at the atmosphere in Portland.
Portland strikes a fine middle ground between a hippy commune and a bustling progressive metropolis. It can best be described as both the younger brother of Seattle and the nephew of San Francisco as it is an epicenter of innovation, food and art. Its hipster-friendly density mixed with its homage to the wilderness around it makes it a fine travel choice for anyone who would like to find themselves trying something new while still having the comfort of home.
Kansas City, Missouri
If you ever find yourself travelling through Western Missouri, Kansas City is a place to stop. It is a city not known for being a popular travel destination, but it has a culture of its own and a nickname derived from one of Europe’s most storied locations.
In 1724, Kansas City was originally discovered by a Frenchman named Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont, an explorer criticized for his treatment of the Native Americans. In 1804, Lewis and Clark stumbled upon what was then a river bank along the lower Missouri River and described it as a good place to set up a fort. Nearly 30 years later a group of Mormons moved West and built a school there, but after two years of mob violence they were forced to leave. After that, several towns were set up named Kansas, Westport and Independence, and all three were major parts of Western expansion. In 1853, Kansas City was officially created and had a newly elected mayor.
Kansas City earned the nickname “Paris of the Plains” for its striking resemblance to the fabled French capital. It has more boulevards than any city except Paris and more fountains than any city except Rome. The city has 132 miles of boulevards and parkways, 214 urban parks and 49 fountains and was laid out starting in 1893 by George E. Kessler, a German city planner and landscape architect.
Kansas City is also nicknamed “Paris of the Plains” for its clear love of art and culture. An outdoor theater named the Starlight Theater seats more than 8,100. In 2011, construction was completed downtown on the $415 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a Moshe Safdie designed theater that resembles rippled side-by-side bandshells. Downtown is also host to the Civic Opera Theater and the Folly Theater. Kansas City has the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, an art museum renown for one of the most prominent Asian art collections in the country and for its neo-classical design. In 2007, Time Magazine named the Nelson-Atkins Museum as number one on a worldwide list of “The 10 Best (New and Upcoming) Architectural Marvels.”
Kansas City is also a hub for both blues and jazz music. In the 1930s, a Kansas City jazz musician named Charlie Parker started the transition from big bands to the bebop of the 1940s. Located in downtown Penn Valley Park is the National World War One Museum at Liberty Memorial, the only World War One museum in the country. The city is surprisingly culture-rich in an area known mostly for cornfields and dust storms.
Food is another one of Kansas City’s specialties. It was once home to flourishing stockyards until they were shut down in 1991, but that was enough time for the city to garner recognition for its superb steaks and distinct barbecue style. Kansas City barbecue evolved from the kitchen of a man named Henry Perry, who decided to cook the meat slowly over different types of woods before adding a tomato and molasses based sauce. More than a hundred barbecue restaurants compete in the city, the most popular being Arthur Bryant’s, Gate’s, and Fiorella Jack’s.
Right now, the hottest area in the city is the Power & Light District which takes its name from the city’s tallest building, a 476-foot tall art-deco tower. The district is built as an extension of downtown and was designed by the same firm that designed New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium and Kansas City’s own Sprint Center. The Power & Light District is an $850 million “mixed-use” project that is one of the largest development projects in the Midwest that features housing, a 19,000 capacity multi-use arena, a neon nightlife and live music events underneath an arched, glass roof.
Although Kansas City may be out of the way, it makes for a fine travel spot. It is sometimes referred to as the “Heart of America” because it is near the population center and geographical center of the country. Kansas City also has a fine balance of cultures, mixing the rural and Southern comforts of barbecue and Civil War sites, midwestern agriculture and the history of cattle drivers with a sharp sense of the arts and today’s shifting population demographics. Those seeking a city full of leisured entertainment, respectful nods to history and a certain sense of modern flair will be impressed by what Kansas City has to offer.
Another city under the radar but equally worthy of attention is Cincinnati. With 2.1 million people in the metro area, Cincinnati is slightly larger than Kansas City and also has a connection to the immense Ohio River. The John A. Roebling Bridge boasts a stunning view of the cityscape and actually served as the inspiration for the Brooklyn Bridge. It should also be noted that the Brooklyn Bridge was designed by the same man, John Augustus Roebling.
Cincinnati has a unique blend of cultures. It received a large influx of English and German immigrants in the mid- to late-1800s. A neighborhood was named Over-the-Rhine for its resemblance to the Rhine River in Germany. Today, it is regarded as the largest intact historic district in the United States. Cincinnati residents voted it the best neighborhood in the city the last two years in a row.
Being in the region of the country known as the mid-South, Cincinnati is not quite a Southern city, but it does have some Southern attributes. Just across the river lies Covington, Kentucky, a city that had slavery whereas Cincinnati was free. In the mid-1800s, the city was the country’s biggest hog-packing location and garnered the nickname “Porkopolis.” It served as a major headquarter for the Union Army during the Civil War. Although it was occupied by Union soldiers, many of the residents were “Southern sympathizers” because of Cincinnati’s economic profitability of the slaves-supported city across the river. Because of Cincinnati’s border location, it was an important stop in the Underground Railroad.
Cincinnati weathered the Great Depression better than other cities its size due to its ability to trade from the river. During the 1920s, Union Station was built and it rejuvinated downtown. After the second World War, Cincinnati revealed a master-plan to modernize the inner-city. But following the de-industrialization period of the late 20th century, Cincinnati suffered from job loss and economic restructuring, similar to many large, industrial cities.
The city is currently developing an area called the Banks, an urban area along the Ohio river between the baseball and football stadiums. In this multi-billion dollar effort, the city is building mid-level residential and office buildings with restaurants, clubs and a view of the skyline.
Currently, construction is underway at the Smale Riverfront Park. It is a stretch of greenery that spans the same area with stepped, curving elevations that gradually lead down to the water and serve as a small dock for ships. On June 28, 2013, Smale Riverfront Park won the National Facility/Park Design award, given by the National Recreation and Parks Association.
Downtown Cincinnati is not dead either. In 2003, the Contemporary Art Center was designed by Zaha Hadid and is noted for its integration into surrounding neighborhood. A few blocks away is the main plaza, Fountain Square, most recently renovated in 2005. It features restaurants, hotels and, of course, fountains.
A staple dish of Cincinnati is Cincinnati Chili, the unique yet simple idea of topping spaghetti with chili. Old Cincinnati restaurant chains include Skyline Chili, Gold Star Chili and Dixie Chili. Another Cincinnati original is the famous Graeter’s Ice Cream. Graeter’s was founded by German immigrants in 1870. Their ice cream is noted for its rich, creamy flavor and its density which is attained by a method known as French Pot, a method that makes only two gallons at a time. Their most famous flavor is Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip. Among the many large city markets that once served Cincinnati, Findlay Market is the only one that is still in operation, and it is one of the city’s most famous and beloved institutions.
Cincinnati is much more diverse in its culture and identity than one might assume. Founded by German immigrants, the city still has German influence and phrases on restaurant menus, but because of its sort-of-southern location it was an important site in the Civil War. Although it was an industrial city, Cincinnati’s economy also thrived on agriculture, food and trade. With the riverfront area undergoing a bold renovation and downtown bouncing back from a period of desertion, it is one of four major cities that has seen an increase in jobs within three miles of its urban core. Cincinnati is becoming more and more pleasant each day. Its varying blend of culture, history, economy and food is sure to be a pleasant surprise for many visitors, and it would make a perfect travel location for anyone