It's the dead of winter. We actually have a snow day here in Virginia as I write this. There's snow and ice everywhere, so of course I'm longing for somewhere warm. Every year around this time, I like to plan vacations for my family. It gives me something to look forward to during the long, dark, cold days. But living on a teacher's salary means I can't always travel to the big, popular cities here in the U.S. like New York, LA, Miami, etc. Luckily, over the years I've discovered some wonderfully cool smaller cities to visit. They're cheaper, less of a hassle to get to and stay in, and offer sights and attractions just as awesome as big cities.
Below is my breakdown of ten lesser known U.S. cities that deserve a second look. I arranged them geographically moving from west to east coast. I've compiled this list based on personal experience, recommendations from family and friends and research from over 20 travel sites. I've included cool attractions to see and where teachers can get discounts - a bonus we should take advantage of! I hope you can find a great destination to visit on your next, well-earned vacation!
One final word about discounts - ALWAYS ASK IF THERE IS A TEACHER DISCOUNT. Many places don't publish educator discounts but offer them. Be sure to bring your teacher I.D. with you. There are also three more specific ways to safe big. First, Hilton offers public school teachers a discount at all of their hotels by using the military/government discount. Second, if you plan to visit National Parks included on this list, you can buy an annual "America the Beautiful Pass" for $80. This pass covers all entrance fees into any National Park, which are usually at least $25, so if you plan to visit 3 or more parks, the pass saves you money. Also, if you're an animal lover, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) offers a reciprocity program, so if you get a membership pass to a local zoo or aquarium, you may be able to get significant discounts at other zoos and aquariums across the country.
1. Fort Bragg, CA
If San Francisco or LA are not within your budget, Fort Bragg, in Mendocino county in northern California, is a great option. You can reach the city by flying into cheaper Sacramento airport. Fort Bragg gets its name from the military garrison created there prior to the Civil War, but today it is better know for Mackerricher State Park, which contains beautiful Sea Glass Beach. You can also visit the gorgeous Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to view native plant and animal species growing right along the Pacific or ride the famous Skunk Train that travels through a redwood forest into the Noyo Valley.
2. Albuquerque, NM
This city is on my bucket list! My mother-in-law goes every year in October for the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival. The airport is easy to fly into and lodging is cheaper than in the more trendy Sante Fe. Besides hot-air balloons, there are so many cool things to see here. If you are into hiking and Native American cultural, check out Petroglyph National Park, which has spiritual significance and features symbols carved into volcanic rock by Native Americans. You can also visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for interactive exhibits. If you are an animal lover, check out the ABQ - Biopark, which has a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium and beach all in one place!
3. Colorado Springs, CO
Most people think of Denver or Boulder when they think of Colorado, but Colorado Springs has a lot to offer. Of course there is AMAZING hiking and sightseeing in the Garden of the Gods or at Pike's Peak. This city is also known for being home to the Air Force Academy and Olympic Training Grounds. But you can also visit the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the only zoo set in a mountain side! Or you can check out the amazing Manitou Cliff Dwellings, the home of the ancient Anasazi people or visit the Peterson Air and Space Museum, where admission is free!
4. San Antonio, TX
My grandmother used to road trip to Texas every summer to visit my aunt and her family. As a result, she got to know Texas well. Hill Country was her favorite area, and one of my most cherished pictures is of her sitting in a field of bluebells. She always said that San Antonio was THE city to visit. Besides the Alamo, San Antonio is also famous for the downtown Riverwalk, with restaurants, shops and bands playing non-stop music.You can also take in culture at the San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay Art Museum or visit amazing caves at the Natural Bridge Caverns. Be sure to also visit the Natural Bridge Mining Company where you can pan for gems and minerals.
5. Kansas City, MO
Our close friends lived in Kansas City for almost a decade, and I was blown away by this city when we took a road trip to visit them. Not only is the downtown area so fun to walk around, with shops, restaurants, and huge water fountains, but there are some seriously cool museums and delicious eats in this place! Check out the National WWI Museum or Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. You can also enjoy some jazz at the Blue Room and, I have it on very good authority that Joe's Kansas City BBQ is the best eats in town. I've been told to go to the Gas Station location and order the Z-Man Sandwich.
6. Traverse City, MI
Few people outside of Michigan understand that the west coast of the state boasts beautiful, sandy beaches all along the lakefront. In Traverse City, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore are the beaches to visit. The city also sits at the same latitude as Bordeaux, France, and local vineyards produce some seriously good wine. The nearby village of Old Mission, founded 1839, is an inspirational community that showed for how Native Americans and settlers could live together in peace, and the Old Mission Lighthouse is a sight not to be missed.
7. Gatlinburg, TN
Nestled along the Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg has beautiful sights and fun things to do to embrace mountain life. You can visit Great Smoky Arts & Craft Community to see local artwork, sample moonshine at one of the many distillery tours, or visit Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, which offers a free teacher preview pass! You can also ride the SkyLift or take in an amazing views of the mountains from atop the 407 foot Space Needle!
8. Pittsburgh, PA
My husband's reaction when reading this blog was "Pittsburgh? Really?" Yes, really! Okay, it is known for coal mining and being a mecca for sports fans, but I promise that Pittsburgh has a little something for everyone. Modern art buffs must check out the Andy Warhol Museum (he's from Pittsburgh) as well as the trendy Mattress Factory. Gardening lovers should visit the Phipps Observatory and science/engineering aficionados will love the Carnegie Science Center. Finally, animal lovers can choose from the Pittsburgh Zoo, PPG Aquarium or National Aviary. See? Something for everyone!
9. Lewes, DE
There are so many coastal cities on the Atlantic to choose from, yet my family fell in love with Lewes (pronounced like "Lewis") while on vacation there about five years ago. Lewes is smaller and less crowded than the better known Ocean City, MD or Rohobeth Beach, DE. Lewes Beach is open to the public and quiet with relatively calm waters, making it the perfect family beach. Dogfish Head brewery is located minutes from Lewes, which thrilled my husband, and the quaint downtown has cute shops and restaurants to eat in. If you are up for a day trip, drive down the coast to the Chinoteague National Wildlife Refuge, on Assateague Island, to view the famous, wild Chincoteague ponies.