If you’re anything like us, you’ve already started gathering ideas on where to travel next year. And while there are plenty of big-ticket destinations worth a spot on your 2021 travel bucket list, we want to call out a few places that may have been overlooked.
Whether you want to discover something new or spread the love (overtourism is real, folks), check out our list of the most underrated U.S. destinations to visit in 2021.
1. Taos, New Mexico
Skiing enthusiasts may have the small New Mexican town of Taos on their radar, but it’s often overlooked for Santa Fe. Come here, and you’ll still get the quirky art scene, snowy slopes, hatch chiles, and jaw-dropping landscapes found in Santa Fe, but at a lower price point and with fewer crowds. Taos is also loaded with active outdoor adventures, culture, and history, including the must-see Taos Pueblo, an impressive UNESCO World Heritage site composed of multi-story adobe buildings. In 2021, Taos Pueblo will host a celebration for the anniversary of the Return of Blue Lake — in which sacred land was returned to the local indigenous people after over 64 years of federal control. Taos’ downtown area is also undergoing a quiet renaissance, with new galleries, boutique hotels, shops, and a craft distillery.
Our Top Pick for a Taos Hotel: El Monte Sagrado
2. Indianapolis, Indiana
Indianapolis has a lot going for it — and 2021 is set to be a big year for the Midwestern city. You can bet there will be big celebrations for the city’s bicentennial, though we’re not sure if anything can beat the excitement surrounding the world’s largest single-day sporting event — the annual Indy 500 car race, which will celebrate its 105th run. Some noteworthy 2020 openings included the new Bottleworks District, a huge mecca for entertainment, food, drinks, and shops; a restaurant from James Beard Award semi-finalist Abbi Merriss; and the Madame Walker Theatre Center, a multimillion-dollar theater honoring the legacy of the first, self-made African-American woman, Madame Walker. (Tip: Keep your eye on Netflix for Madame Walker’s story; she’s played by Octavia Spencer). Plus, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis — the largest children’s museum in the world — has brought back over 15 tons of dinosaur bones from a recent dig in Wyoming and its paleontologist lab will be piecing them together all year long.
Our Top Pick for an Indianapolis Hotel: JW Marriott Indianapolis
3. San Luis Obispo, California
California’s Central Coast is a favorite getaway destination for folks who live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but it’s often overlooked by other travelers. SLO CAL may seem like a write-off, as it’s easy to assume there’s not much to see and do in the area. However, if you know where to look, you’ll find a laid-back wine country, a health-conscious community, outdoor adventures, and food and drink that’ll take you back to local roots. Paso Robles has over 250 vineyards and 100 tasting rooms, making it an excellent, low-key alternative to Napa Valley. Wine not your thing? Head to Kiler Ridge Olive Farm for an olive oil tasting. Or, book a private foraging tour with Central Coast Distillery, where you’ll search for ingredients, then create craft cocktails that incorporate your bounty. You can also go kayaking in the Morro Bay National Estuary. Here, you’ll learn about the unique ecosystem and get up-close to a floating oyster farm, resident harbor seals, and a variety of birds, including the white pelicans. If you’re in town on a Thursday, be sure to check out the San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market, which takes over the main strip in downtown SLO and features live music, local BBQ, farm cheese, fresh produce, and the chance to leave your mark on the gummed-up walls of Bubblegum Alley.
Our Top Pick for a San Luis Obispo Hotel: San Luis Creek Lodge
4. Fort Worth, Texas
Despite the fact that Fort Worth is in line to jump two spots as the 11th-largest city in the country, it still struggles to separate itself from nearby Dallas. (It sees about one-third of the number of tourists as Dallas.) However, with a style and scene of its own, Fort Worth is well worth exploring. In addition to its twice-daily cattle runs, the city has a growing music scene. Local museums have hosted exhibits from Monet, Renoir, and Takashi Murakami, while creative event spaces like Blackhouse empower and support up-and-coming artists and musicians. Live music is very much a thing here, so grab some Texas BBQ, a cold beer, and soak in the local sounds — you might even get lucky and hear Fort Worth local Leon Bridges. In 2020, the city added several new hotels and completed phase one for a redevelopment in the Stockyards National Historic District.
Our Top Pick for a Fort Worth Hotel: Embassy Suites by Hilton Fort Worth Downtown
5. Houston, Texas
Houston holds up its end of the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas bargain by ranking as the United States’ fourth-largest city. It also goes big when it comes to science, culture, and diversity, which can only be expected for a place with two massive space centers, numerous museums (second only to NYC), and one of the nation’s highest immigrant and refugee populations (one of every four residents comes from another country). Check out Lyric Market, which offers tasty eats and a 4,000-square-foot rooftop deck with skyline views. Also be sure to hit up Asiatown for its temples and Viet-Cajun fare, Freedmen’s Town Historic District for soul food and African-American history, and the National Museum of Funeral History for a trip to the afterlife. Want an out-of-this-world experience? Visit the Space Center Houston and NASA’s Johnson Space Center to touch an actual piece of Mars, walk through life-sized mock-ups of the International Space Station (ISS), learn how astronaut food has evolved, and see the meticulously restored Mission Control room, set up exactly as it was the day we landed on the moon.
Our Top Pick for a Houston Hotel: Magnolia Hotel Houston, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel
6. Tampa, Florida
Tampa has been undergoing a snazzy transformation, giving the city the hip and contemporary edge it had otherwise been lacking. Two of 2019’s biggest game changers were Armature Works, a 1910 warehouse space that was repurposed into a one-stop spot with co-working spaces, restaurants, bars, a neighborhood market, and more, and Sparkman Wharf, where you’ll find over 65,000 square feet of re-imagined space sporting a biergarten full of Florida craft brews, shops, waterside views, and eateries from the city’s best chefs. Tampa is also a huge sports town, so soak in the energy at an ice hockey, basketball, or football game during your visit. Not into sports? Track down the origin of the Cuban sandwich in Ybor City, dive with sharks at The Florida Aquarium, or test your nerves on North America’s tallest, steepest, and fastest wooden and steel hybrid roller coaster at Busch Gardens. Also on offer: water sports, golf, several craft breweries, and the country’s third-largest parade, Gasparilla, a pirate-themed celebration that runs on land and water.
Our Top Pick for a Tampa Hotel: Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay
7. Buffalo, New York
At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo was one of the most populated cities in the country and a beacon for all things new, cool, and noteworthy. However, a mid-century collapse in industry and economy created a mass exodus, and the city has struggled to shake its has-been stigma ever since. Well, folks: The new, emerging Buffalo is full of history and hip features. On the history side, Buffalo is practically an open-air museum for architecture fanatics, thanks to its collection of 20th-century buildings, incluing the immaculately restored Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House, the Beaux-Arts-style Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and the Buffalo Central Terminal train station, an Art Deco stunner. For a gorgeous glimpse of old and new, stop by the Hotel Henry, a new boutique hotel located within a renovated section of the Buffalo State Asylum, originally designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) and now known as the Richardson Olmsted Campus. It’s open to the public and full of fantastic art installations, a free co-working space, and a great restaurant. While you’re in town, check out the immigrant-owned food and shop start-ups at the West Side Bazaar, get active with zip-lining and wall-climbing at Buffalo RiverWorks, and catch some live music at the historic Colored Musicians Club, where all the jazz greats once played.
Our Top Pick for a Buffalo Hotel: Hyatt Regency Buffalo
8. Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte is a must-visit for craft beer lovers who can drink their way through the city’s 30 craft breweries. If wine is more your thing, check out Rosie’s Wine Garden, which has wine and beer on tap as well as a garden setting. Meanwhile, foodies will want to head straight to the new Optimist Hall, a mixed-used space with a lot of great restaurants serving everything from hearty to healthy fare. The city is also brimming with great chef-led eateries, many of which have won or been semi-finalists for the prestigious James Beard Award. The museums here, like the Mint Museum Uptown, showcase emerging artists and explore territory not always seen in larger-scale institutions. In 2019, the Design District added a 20,000-square-foot entertainment venue with fun games like pinball, arcades, bowling, and more. We also love Charlotte for its easy access to outdoor activities, like whitewater rafting, hiking, and rock climbing. Charlotte is a crowd-pleasing destination that’s great for friends, family, and solo trips, though it has remained relatively under-the-radar when it comes to major tourism — at least for now.
Our Top Pick for a Charlotte Hotel: Omni Charlotte Hotel
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