Vacations are what make work worth doing. Save up money and time off, then blow it all in one glorious holiday in a whole other part of the country, eating and drinking things you can’t get in your hometown after hiking somewhere you can’t see in your own state parks. Hopefully you’re at least kicking around the idea with some friends or family and if you are, by all means, keep refining that itinerary. If not, let us try and convince you otherwise. These are a few of our favorite places from around the country we rarely hear anyone talking about. Consider your summer vacation taken care of.
New York City (without the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Times Square, etc.)
Starting off a list of places you’ve never been with New York City might not be the smartest move, and we may be about to write one of the more pretentious entries of our career, but hear us out and we’ll see where we end up. We’re not going to break this down as a locals vs. tourists thing, because if you actually know any NYC locals, you also know getting them to agree to go to Manhattan can be a bit of a chore. If you do these things, you’re still a tourist, but your trip to New York will be a little more substantial than someone who spent an hour and a half trying to make their way through Times Square.
If you insist on seeing the city from high up (which you should, at least once), we’d recommend Rockefeller Tower. In our experience, the lines aren’t nearly as long, you get a better view of Central Park, and the top isn’t nearly as done up as the Empire State Building, so there’s more of a sense of history about the place. After that, ride the Roosevelt Island tram and take a walk down to the Rankin Smallpox Hospital, a ruin left over from one of the most devastating diseases to ever exist (and it’s haunted!). It’s a little more faithfully representative of the history of the city than some of the other more well-known landmarks.
For a show, see something that’s not on Broadway. It’s overpriced and all the actually starving artists would love to have your money. Traditional theater, experimental shows, cultural theaters, and improv and sketch comedy all have active presences in New York. Besides, you’re not going to get into Hamilton.
Food wise, we sincerely recommend literally following your gut. Get yourself to a residential area and wander around until you see something you’ve never had and always wanted to try or a new twist on one of your old favorite dishes. You’re guaranteed to find yourself some kind of hole-in-the-wall place that serves some of the most delicious stuff you’ve ever eaten, because that’s pretty much the only kind of restaurant worth going to. Or just ask a cop where he or she likes to eat. They know the city better than you anyway.
North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii
We’ll knock this one out right now since, tonally, it’s pretty similar to the New York idea. Everyone who goes to Hawaii ends up spending their time in what’s basically tropical Disney World, and we don’t mean that as a compliment. The touristy areas of the state are so heavily manufactured that it’s hard to mentally separate the more populated areas of Waikiki from Epcot and if we wanted that atmosphere, we’d just shell out for Orlando.
Instead, try hitting the North Shore of the island, where you can experience small towns, great food, amazing beaches, challenging hikes, all kinds of marine activities, sky diving, basically anything you’d want from a Hawaiian vacation, all without the crushing crowds you’d find farther south. The reason the area’s so distinct and lightly populated is the fight in the locals. Pretty much every time someone’s tried to resort the place up, they’ve fought tooth and nail to keep them away. Turtle Bay is the only resort in the area, and it seems like there’s some lingering resentment over however that was enabled.
Knowing that, try and be respectful. If you’re just having a good time with friends or family, your trip will be one of the most relaxing and rewarding you’ll ever have. But if your good time starts intruding on everyone else’s, that’s when you’re going to start having problems.
Quick tip. Hawaiian shaved ice is a must have, but some have started to cut corners to keep up with demand. If you want something authentic, check out the Aloha General Store. The guy talked our ears off about the history of shaved ice and how some places are pretty much serving snow cones and if he’s that passionate about his ice, that deserves a reward. Link
The Fallout tour of Washington, D.C. or Boston
D.C. and Boston jump to mind for us on this idea, mostly because the first person perspective of Fallout 3 and 4 make it easier to recognize specific landmarks, but the idea works for earlier West Coast games too. There’s something cool about comparing and contrasting the game and real life. It somehow becomes more significant. Our first time back in the D.C. subway after playing through Fallout 3 made both feel a little more real. In a way, we’d seen the capital before and after a nuclear apocalypse and entering the tunnels in real life felt a bit like traveling back in time.
It’s also surprisingly easy to orient yourself and navigate the city if you’ve played the games first, and vice versa. Obviously certain things have been scaled down to fit a game world, but the general principle and directions stay the same. Adjusting a bit for the digital translation, a D.C. native could easily find their way from the Capitol to the metro to their apartment, if they really wanted to. And if you’re a Bostonian, you’ll be able to get lost in the game just as easily as you’d be able to get lost in the real city.
Overall, we’d say most of our attraction to taking the Fallout tour of a major city comes from the simple pleasure of recognition. In the same way you cheer when a band shouts out the name of your city, standing next to Diamond City after eating lunch next to Fenway Park is a lot of fun. D.C. | Boston | Whole Country
Catskill Mountains, New York
Driving through the Catskills can be like driving through a neglected time capsule. Decades ago, the mountains were high profile vacation destinations, with new resorts catering to the upper class’s every need. Today, plenty of those resorts are abandoned, creating a melancholy sort of allure.
The accommodations that remain are, for the most part, well maintained, clean, hospitable, comfortable resorts, perfect for large groups who enjoy outdoor activities. Being the mountains, there’s usually some exploration to be had not far from where you’re staying and whether that’s hiking, boating, swimming, or something else is up to you. If you do opt for some exploration, you’re likely to stumble on the reclaimed buildings of a Prohibition era retreat or the leavings of the Industrial Revolution. If you’re a history buff, the Catskills can be an excellent choice for you, mostly because the history up there is up to you to discover. There aren’t too many museums or restorations going on up there, so it really does become a self-motivated trek through American history.
And if we’re making the mountains sound a little bleak, we apologize. They are a quaint, relaxing destination where things move at whatever pace you want to set for yourself. You can laze away the day reading a good book on the porch, or you can hike to the heights of upstate New York. The itinerary is completely customizable and isn’t that why you go on vacation in the first place? Link
Jekyll Island, Georgia
One of the cool things about rich people abandoning stuff is, if it’s done right, whatever they just abandoned gets taken over by the middle class. It’s how you can have a bunch of Smiths, Joneses, and Browns afford to vacation where the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts used to prop their feet up. Once those uppity jerks leave, we get to turn the place into a state park and go there whenever we want.
Most interesting to us is just how many programs the Tidelands Nature Center offers. Granted a lot of places like this have more kid-centric programs, it seems like the center has done a good job of keeping that stuff to their school programs, which you won’t be doing. They offer kayak tours, canoe rentals, and guided nature walks where dolphins and manatees have been seen, though they don’t guarantee anything. Also, no matter how old you are, the opportunity to touch sea creatures and look at weird looking animals in aquariums is not something you should ever pass up.
If it’s not clear already, Jekyll Island is geared toward the more outdoor minded vacationer. Besides the nature center, their more popular attractions are beaches, biking, and bird watching, so for the sun averse or the nature despising, maybe look for something with a few more walls. Otherwise, take advantage of the climate. Most activities are offered year-round, so it doesn’t really matter when you go, just that you make the most of it when you do. Link
Annapolis is a great town for a bar crawl, something we did not expect when we first pulled into town. At first glance, it looks like a town that never really had a reason to grow beyond its initial success, like the couple that owns a Mom and Pop hardware store and never bothered to open another location. Everything is old, there’s something of a sleepy quality to it, and there isn’t a suburban sprawl sucking the life out of the city itself.
Once we actually got to walking around, we were struck by how eclectic the city’s bar scene is. Brand new wine bars sit next to decades old pubs, while sports bars draw in the newly 21. You can find yourself in an excellent Irish pub one minute, the basement hideaway of an old hotel the next, and be closing your night listening to live music in a modern American gastropub. It’s why a bar crawl in the town is so successful. You’re not going from bar clone to bar clone. You’re getting a great sense of the character of the town, all while drinking to your heart’s content. Plus, the ice cream place is open later than you’d think, so stop off in the middle for something sweet.
We’ll recommend the ghost tour of the city. A guide takes you around the city to different haunted sites, telling you stories about past inhabitants or supernatural encounters. Surprisingly, it’s low on the cheese, as it’s presented much more like a traditional tour than a “creepy spooktacular.” Whether or not you believe in ghosts, the stories will entertain you for the 90 minutes you’re out on the street and the city in the dark feels a lot different than the daytime. Link
Salem is similar to Annapolis in its atmosphere. It feels like a town that never needed to expand, so it didn’t. Where the suburbs all have that post-war spread to them, towns like Salem have the pre-war satisfaction. Everyone had what they needed and no one got too greedy. It’s a beautiful town to take a few days and simply walk around, maybe poke your head into a few shops that catch your eye. Definitely take the trolley tour to get your bearings and figure out what you want to do beyond wander aimlessly.
The weirdly dissonant opinion of the Witch Trials is fun to experience too. Half the town seems to be trying to forget the whole thing ever happened, while the other half is totally owning it and evidently the half mostly comprises Wiccan transplants. We highly recommend the witch tour, if only because you’re absolutely not going to get a boring tour guide. There’s nothing worse than a boring, disinterested tour guide, and we’re pretty sure being boring and disinterested is explicitly forbidden by the Wiccan faith.
For those of you who are weirdly not into witches, make sure you take some time to get to Salem Willows Park. The waterfront is picturesque, shady, and comfortable and there’s a small shopping strip with an excellent retro arcade. Actually, the arcade feels like the newest part of the place, and everything else is stuck in the better part of the 1950s or ’60s. The park’s good for an afternoon, and some fairly reasonably priced food joints will make sure you’re not lugging a cooler to and from the waterfront. Link
Great Basin National Park, Nevada
This list could easily be a bunch of National Parks. In fact, most of the work we did for this article was actively ignoring that option and finding places with actual civilization. That being said, we couldn’t completely omit the federal park system, so we decided to go with Great Basin National Park as our pick.
The main thing that drew us to the park was the option to explore an expansive cave system in the Lehman Caves. Spelunking is not an opportunity that comes up often, so a guided excursion into the depths of the Earth isn’t something we’ll be missing. The caves are so isolated, there are species inside that can only be found in Great Basin National Park, which is a far cry from the things that live around us now. Squirrels aren’t exactly uncommon, so we’d love to see something that isn’t a scurrying, gray furball.
The park offers traditional camping too, both group and individual, and that’s probably the best way to experience the park. You get to take your time exploring, so you won’t have to rush through one of the more impressive parks this country has to offer. Plus, sleeping outside can be fun, if the weather’s right. But we don’t have to tell you that. Link
Mackinac Island, Michigan
People talk all the time about the need to digitally cut themselves off, but for how widespread that sentiment is, there is still a suspicious number of highly active people on social media. If the problem is you don’t want to go cold turkey in your normal life, maybe the solution is to kick off your cleansing with a vacation.
Mackinac Island is a great place to try, as it’s one of the most voluntarily isolated places in the United States. For starters, there aren’t any hotel or resort chains on the island. Anywhere you stay, you’re staying in a family owned and operated business. No Marriots or Hiltons, so wherever you stay is unique to the island and the owners have put their own personal stamp on the place. But don’t think that means your choices are limited. Mackinac is home to resorts, hotels, B&Bs, condos, cottages, and houses, all for rent and with no prices that look to break the bank.
Another step in cutting yourself off from the fast-paced stress of modern life is slowing your transportation down. Mackinac Island takes care of that by banning cars. Any traveling you do on the island is going to have to be human or animal powered, because local ordinance bans automobiles. Now whether that means the island has absolutely no cars, we can’t say. We’d imagine some of the functions of the hotels would be better served with modern transport. But we wouldn’t put it past the people of the island to just do without. A lot of their success came without and it doesn’t seem like they really miss any of it. Link
Tulsa’s one of those places that never occur to you to go to, then you do and have a perfectly pleasant time and wonder why it is no one ever talks about how downright enjoyable Tulsa is. Consider yourself an envoy, tasked with soaking in the culture of the city, then spreading the word about how Tulsa is a worthwhile destination. The city has everything you’d want in a city—sports, museums, architecture, outdoorsy stuff, music, the performing arts—and all of it can be found without the crush you’d find in larger cities.
The brewing scene is absolutely worth visiting, since Tulsa is a city that quietly partook in the craft beer renaissance. The breweries put a ton of effort into making high quality beers rather than doing what other breweries did and try to disrupt an industry already being disrupted. There are five breweries in or around the city, each of them doing their own unique thing and all of them pouring delicious pints. Link
Including somewhere from California is difficult. Everyone knows about LA, San Diego, San Francisco, and most of the natural attractions of the state. We’d venture a guess that California might be the most widely covered tourist state. LA might not compare with New York or Boston when it comes to tourist volume in the city, but all of California probably handily outstrips New York or Massachusetts in visitors. But Coronado stood out to us because we didn’t hear too many people talking about it, despite it being so close to San Diego. And who knows, this could be one of those things where people say they went to San Diego and spent all their time in Coronado. We’re just saying it didn’t seem to be that way.
As you’d expect, the Hotel Del Coronado is the main attraction of the town. It’s historic, it’s beautiful, its location is almost too ideal. There’s no way the place doesn’t get crowded, but we’d suffer through it for these beaches. It’s like what old Hollywood would portray California as. A peaceful, laid back vacation destination where the beach is always just outside your door. You could spend a few days here and never leave the hotel (or the beach right in front of the hotel).
If you do end up feeling a little cooped up, take the ferry across to San Diego proper. People don’t travel by boat enough, so try to get those numbers up. Link
We can’t publish a list like this without including at least one city known for its craft beer culture. And yeah, sure, most other cities have at least a fledgling craft scene worth checking out, but if you’re at all into local breweries, Portland is a city with plenty for you to do. Allagash has to be the biggest name in the area, but the small guys aren’t neglected either. Two separate companies offer beer bus tours, allowing you to patronize as many breweries as you want without having to worry about driving restrictions.
Beyond beer, Portland offers everything you could possibly want from a vacation. If you’re into historically leaning tours, there are plenty of old homes and sites for you to explore. If you like outdoor activities, there are parks with plenty of trails not far away as well as a boat tours and kayaking trips to jump in on. Hell, go see a bunch of lighthouses if you want. They have six within driving distance, and who doesn’t like looking at lighthouses?
Portland is a big enough city that it has some of that urban charm and bustle, but still isn’t far from what you’d traditionally associate with Maine as a destination. You can get out of the city during the day, then hustle back for dinner and anything else a city can offer. Link