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Top 'Second Cities' to Visit in the USA

October 19, 2022

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As huge numbers of tourists return to the best places to visit in America, ‘second city’ travel is gaining traction. Let’s look at why this travel trend is so popular.

What is "second city" travel?

Pretty much what it sounds like. Take the first choices most folks make when selecting a city to visit: New York, Maui, Las Vegas, Chicago, and the like. Then consider less-visited towns that are nearby or offer similar experiences. With these top tourism cities seeing surges, second-city travel is all the more appealing.    

Detroit Instead of New York City

Sure, there's no place on the planet that's quite like the Big Apple. The list of reasons why tourists flock there is long. Very long. But is your idea of a dream getaway packing into Times Square with the masses? Or paying one of the country's highest hotel rates?

Enjoying a renaissance and leaving its bad reputation in the past, Detroit offers a big-city experience that many Americans never know. Take in one of the country's biggest collections of art, spread across over 100 galleries, at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Explore the eclectic neighborhoods of Greektown and Mexicantown. Stroll or cycle along the Detroit River and shop at one of the country's oldest urban farmer's markets. 

Milwaukee Instead of Chicago

Chicago may be bigger and better known, but much of the stuff that brings folks to the Windy City is also found in Milwaukee. Both cities sit on Lake Michigan with green spaces running along their shorelines. Like Chicago, Milwaukee is made up of distinct walk-friendly neighborhoods with historic buildings throughout. Milwaukee's also got a culinary scene that rivals its neighbor to the south. And they don't call Milwaukee “Brew City” for nothing; with nearly two centuries of beer-making heritage, Milwaukee welcomes with over 30 breweries, from big established names to upstart craft brewers.  

View of Quartyard in Downtown MilwaukeePhoto Credit: Coasted Media / Unsplash

Charlotte Instead of Atlanta

As one of America's most-visited cities, Atlanta has some impressive offerings. Charlotte, North Carolina has a similar makeup: Old South meets the new with skyscrapers rising from historic streets. Charlotte rivals Atlanta's renowned museums with its twin Mint museums and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. And Charlotte's NASCAR Hall of Fame is well worth a look for race fans and the uninitiated alike. Charlotte also comes close to Atlanta's nightlife and its proliferation of craft breweries. 

Aerial View of Downtown Charlotte, North CarolinaPhoto Credit: 1778011 /

Reno Instead of Las Vegas

Reno is best for people who want a Vegas-like getaway without the sensory overload of Sin City. You've still got the glittering lights of the 24-hour casinos, the shows, and the free-wheelin' understanding that visitors are here for fun. But, true to its nickname of "The Biggest Little City in the World," Reno has a small-town feel; it's a regular place where regular people live. With several amusement and splash parks, Reno is also a good option for a family getaway.

Baltimore Instead of Boston

While parts of Baltimore do have high crime rates, exaggerated by movies and TV, Charm City lives up to its nickname with visitor-friendly Old School East Coast experiences without pretension. The Inner Harbor is a must-visit, with restaurants, shops, and world-class museums at a scenic spot by the Chesapeake Bay. Follow the shoreline to Fell's Point, a waterfront locale dating to the 1700s with Belgian block streets that are perfect for strolls to take in all of the history around you.     

Tampa Instead of Orlando

So the gang wants to go to Disneyland. Ride the awesome rides and soak up some Florida sun. Well, you can do all of that and more in Tampa, home to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. The 335-acre theme park has impressive roller coasters, water rides, and animal encounters like the Serengeti Express, a railroad ride through the habitats of African animals including giraffes and zebras. The city on the Gulf Coast also has urban parks, a Cuban-inspired culinary scene, and a trove of attractions along the Tampa Riverwalk. 

Downtown Tampa SkylinePhoto Credit: Jesse Adair / Unsplash

Knoxville Instead of Nashville

Fans of music, and especially country music, make pilgrimages to Nashville in massive numbers, rightly giving the town its nickname of "The Music City." But you can find much of the same music by going straight east across the state to Knoxville, where joints all over town regularly host live bands. Plus, Knoxville's got its own unique cultural scene, thanks in part to the arts flowing out of the University of Tennessee campus. Southern comfort cuisine rules the foodie scene, and vintage shopping is something of an obsession. Plus, Knoxville lies close to the majestic Great Smoky Mountains, serving as a gateway for amazing outdoor escapes.    

Perhaps the best places in America to visit right now aren’t the most-visited ones. And a ‘second city’ might just be your way to travel in America.

Written by William McCleary for Knockaround.

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