From the museums of Washington D.C. and the bright lights of Hollywood to New York’s colourful commerce and les bon temps of News Orleans, America’s great cities are rightly lauded for varied cultural magnificence that would make the Mona Lisa blush. Similarly, small towns by the hundreds embody an Americana that one might think exists only in history books or the black and white frames of Mayberry or Pleasantville. But what about the "tweeners" – the places that aren’t too big or too small, but, perhaps, just right? We’ve selected three – one each for the east, central and western parts of the nation – to inspire visitors that are looking for something different, or a place a little off the beaten tourist track. Whether it’s shuffling off to Buffalo, sashaying down to St. Louis or rambling over to Reno, visitors will surely find plenty to inspire, educate and entertain in each of these terrific ‘tweeners.
Buffalo, New York
Closest of the three to Canada by a country kilometer, this border city has long lured Ontarians with its famed chicken wings, late night bars, and available NHL hockey tickets (often all during the same excursion), as well as Buffalo Bills NFL games and cheap flights from Buffalo International Airport to other U.S. destinations.
At the same time, a day trip or a night or two at a local area hotel is commonplace as a way of indulging visitors’ favourite pursuit in the city – shopping! With countless traditional and outlet malls to roam, cross-border shopping has become a veritable right of passage for southern Ontarians hailing from as far afield as Toronto.
And with prices typically cheaper in the U.S. than Canada and enhanced duty-free limits for Canadians in recent years, a trip over the border can prove well worth it, even when the currency exchange rate is less than favourable. And if Buffalo is synonymous with shopping, shopping is synonymous with the Walden Galleria – an enduring favourite of Canadian bargain hunters. Located east of downtown just off Interstate 90, the shopping, dining and entertainment centre features two levels of premium retail shops and restaurants, year-round indoor amusement and go-cart parks, and entertainment for all ages.
However, with more than $1 billion in investment in recent years, Buffalo is suddenly appealing to more and more visitors with time, not just money, to spend. Along with a restored waterfront – Canalside, which features one of the northeast’s largest outdoor skating rinks in winter, restored architecture, and an influx of new hotels, restaurants, breweries and distilleries – New York State’s second largest city also boasts seven Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, plus masterworks from visionary architects such as like Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson and Eliel, and Eero Saarinen.
The city’s collection of turn-of-the-century American architecture is considered among the finest outside of New York and Chicago, and is currently being restored and refurbished. A wide variety of guided tours are available for enthusiasts, as are biking excursions, boat rides and walks through what is essentially an open-air architectural museum.
Art lovers, meanwhile, can discover a world-renowned collection of modern and contemporary art from masters like Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the anchor of the city’s thriving arts scene, which includes a host of smaller galleries and seasonal festivals.
And if that isn’t enough, world famous Niagara Falls is only a barrel ride away.
Nevada's second city Reno often falls under the long shadow of the glittering lights of its southern counterpart, Las Vegas; but while what happens in Vegas often stays there, what happens in Reno is likely to linger a lifetime.
Known as Nevada’s “other” casino town – and to be sure, there are 22 of them – there is much more for visitors to experience than slot machines and blackjack tables. Surrounded by tall mountains and flat deserts, Reno is a gateway to northern Nevada and bordering California, including the Lake Tahoe region, 40 kilometers away.
Such a unique setting produces snow in winter, which is ideal for skiing and boarding at any of the nine ski resorts in the region, and sunshine in summer, illuminating a host of activity options including golfing, hiking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, tubing and fishing.
Sheri Masini for VisitRenoTahoe.com
Indeed, the Reno-Tahoe region is a four-season resort boasting more than 300 yearly events, not the least of which is the Reno Rodeo, one of the largest in the western U.S., with 750 professional athletes competing over 10 days in events such as bull riding, team roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and bronc riding. Visitors can get a taste of the Old West at the event parade and as well as shopping, food, carnival and “mutton bustin’” at the Double R Marketplace.
Dubbed “the biggest little city in the world,” Reno doesn’t come up short on urban amenities. Besides its hotel casinos, the city boasts a top flight list of spas, restaurants, coffee shops, brewpubs and music venues. Wine walks and brew bikes add a twist to the nightly entertainment options, while Booze Bus tours permit a drive-free afternoon on the town on Saturdays.
And if you happen to be in town at the start of summer, the Great Eldorado BBQ, Brews and Blues Festival is an event not to be missed. The massive block party features streets lined with food booths and over 50 craft brew vendors, all of them contributing to a lively kick off of the season, complete with a searing non-stop rock and blues music soundtrack.
St. Louis, Missouri
Photo by Cody Board
When you think of St. Louis, you might think of concrete. Not the stuff of construction, but the famous Ted Drewes’ frozen custard that is so thick it is held upside down before being served, and which is colloquially called a “concrete.” It is only fitting that Ted Drewes has been serving ice cream treats for more than 80 years at a location on another iconic American landmark, Route 66, though the concrete only dates to 1959.
Admittedly Drewes’ delightful concoction ranks behind St. Louis’s more famous contribution to popular culture – Budweiser beer, which has been brewed in the city since 1852 courtesy of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co., which can be toured along with Grants Farm, home of the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale horses.
Equally synonymous with St. Louis is the Gateway Arch, humorously called the most recognizable arch in America not associated with a fast food chain. Symbolizing the city’s historic status as “gateway to the West” – in fact, Lewis and Clark started their famous expedition here in 1804 – the Arch is currently undergoing renovation as part of a $380-million development plan that is now expected to be completed in spring. Those who ascend the Arch on a clear day can see 50 kilometers in any direction, including to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Of course, St. Louis is also known as one America’s top baseball towns, while also being recognized for its zoo and its legacy as a centre of blues music (hence the name of the local hockey team). It is lesser known for having the second largest Mardi Gras in the U.S., great Italian food (including St. Louis-style pizza) in the Hill area, and the cosmopolitan Loop district. Alas, if you’re interested in seeing the International Bowling Hall of Fame, note that it moved to Arlington, Texas, in 2008.
This article originally published in Canadian Traveller's America Yours to Discover 2017 special issue.