There are towns in America that we love to hate: the weather's too cold, the politics are too strong, the football fans are too crazy, unruly and obnoxious.
But cast all those catty complaints to the side, and you might see an awesome city that's just dying for a bit of your forgiveness and affection. Here are 12 cities we think deserve a second look.
1. Durham, North Carolina
Yeah, the town/gown relations aren't at their best, due in part to various Duke scandals. But beer is the ultimate peacemaker, and the Bull City has got three killer craft breweries to its name. The dining scene has really picked up, too-- we'll probably make a visit solely for pies from Scratch, baked with fresh ingredients from Durham's cutesy farmers' markets.
2. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Ugh, those belly-baring football fans. Beyond Steeler Nation, though, Pittsburgh's pretty great: it's like a little Disneyland of separate neighborhoods, and each 12 of the main ones has its own super-distinct personality and charm. Our favorite residents are the Primanti Brothers, who had the brilliant idea to stuff a sandwich with French fries, thus designing Pittsburgh's signature dish.
3. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
It's true many folks here are ingrained in the oil industry, and the politics are about as red as they get. But residents say that as a whole, the people are exceptionally friendly-- their local celebrity, Thunder forward Kevin Durant, has even been known to host pickup football games for his fans. OKC, as they call it, is "basically a small town with 1.5 million people."
4. Portland, Oregon
Yeah, it's dripping with rain and hipsters. But when the forested environment collides head-on with its creative residents, something magical happens. They've expertly maintained the Hoyt Arboretum, with 187 acres of foreign trees, and the Saturday Market is a stunning showcase of local produce and nature-inspired artworks. Artsy folk have also used Portland's cozy warehouses to establish world-famous distilleries (think Clear Creek) and coffee roasters (Stumptown).
5. Oakland, California
Poor Oakland sits in the shadow of San Francisco, so people criticize its crime rate and commute time as if the city is supposed to be just as fabulous as its neighbor. Though no town will ever quite compare to S.F., Oakland deserves some love for the way it repurposes rundown buildings into total gems: Oaklandish lets you shop for T-shirts in an old motor home, and swanky brunch spot Camino is an old furniture store.
6. Phoenix, Arizona
It's the hottest city in the U.S., which makes it an easy target to hate on. Take one look at Phoenix, though, and you'll fall in love with its long, wide streets of single-story, midcentury modern homes and buildings. The throwback continues with an overload of artisan coffee houses and old-school eateries, a dozen of which have been featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
7. St. Louis, Missouri
So it's regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, and that's a fact you can't dispute. But the Cardinals have 11 World Series wins, fans who sing their own anthem, and a very sore spirit from their narrow World Series loss this year... so give St. Louis a hug.
8. Los Angeles, California
It's too glitzy, it's too spread out, there's no public transit, blah, blah, blah. The sheer area of L.A. county is what allows for so many self-contained and diverse communities, be it grungy Venice Beach or polished Santa Monica or hipster Silver Lake or ritzy Beverly Hills. Yes, there are simply too many corners to explore... but that, my friend, is the best part.
9. San Antonio, Texas
The city of Austin gets all the cool points, leading you to believe San Antonio is dull in comparison. And you've heard the heat is scorching, but that's just Texas in general, people. In spite of these two downsides-that-aren't-really-downsides, San Antonio booms with culture. There's the Alamo with its display of Davy Crockett trinkets, San Fernando Cathedral with its mysterious unmarked tomb, and Mission San Jose, where you can attend mariachi mass in a chapel from the 1700s. The River Walk's twinkly lights and dockside dinners will make you wonder if you're in Europe.
10. Omaha, Nebraska
Memorial Stadium, where the Huskers play, becomes the third-largest city in Nebraska when it's at full capacity... which says something scary about population in the state as a whole. But less people means more chicken-fried steak for us (it's some of the best on earth). Warren Buffett has put Omaha on the big business map, but it's the small-town thrills that make the town so lovable. The Old Market is a trip back in time down cobblestone streets, and Henry Doorly Zoo has a jaw-dropping shark tunnel.
11. Cleveland, Ohio
No question about it: the winters here are brutal. Cleveland puts a silver lining on the season, though, with a crazy-extensive system of nature preserves that wilderness junkies call the Emerald Necklace. At the organization's 20 or so parks, you can toboggan, sled, ice fish and cross-country ski. When the weather gets just too cold to beat, Cleveland entertains you indoors with its world-class orchestra.
12. Wichita, Kansas
It's true that Wichita is the most allergy-aggravating city in the U.S., and we jest about its location in the middle of nowhere. A journey to the center of the Earth is worth it, however, when you realize the "Air Capital of the World" is a short drive from one of the largest collections of spacecrafts ever. Old Town Wichita and the Old Cowtown Museum also have a delightfully vintage feel with virtually zero motor traffic.
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<strong><a href="http://www.executivetravelmagazine.com/slideshows/americas-best-small-towns/2" title="America's Best Small Towns">See more of America's Best Small Towns</a></strong> Although the stunning Takshanuk Mountains have drawn adventurers for decades, this former U.S. Army outpost, bordering 20 million acres of unprotected wilderness, has become popular in recent years among heli-skiers. If you prefer your feet on solid ground, plan a visit in November when the sky is crowded with American bald eagles. An <a href="http://www.baldeagles.org/festival" title="Haines, Alaska: Bald Eagle Festival" target="_blank">annual festival</a> draws the world's largest concentration of the majestic birds of prey, which swoop in to feast on the Chilkat River's last run of salmon. Because Haines limits passing cruise ships to one docking per week, it is rarely overrun with (wingless) guests, giving visitors plenty of time and space to get to know the locals. Pop in on <a href="http://www.tresham.com/" title="Haines, Alaska: Tresham Gregg" target="_blank">Tresham Gregg</a>, a legendary local artist who specializes in puppets—and impromptu puppet shows, at one of his three downtown galleries. Or check out Dave Pahl's quirky <a href="http://www.hammermuseum.org/" title="Haines, Alaska: Hammer Museum" target="_blank">Hammer Museum</a>. If local gossip is what you're after, plant yourself on a barstool at the Fogcutter (<em>907-766-2555</em>) on Main Street with a pint of Haines Brewery's Spruce Tip Ale. Cap your day off with an only-in-Alaska sighting on Third Street—impressive hoofprints left by a moose that couldn't be bothered to stay off wet cement as it dried. <em><a href="http://www.haines.ak.us" title="America's Best Small Towns: Haines, Alaska" target="_blank">haines.ak.us</a></em> <em>Photo © Tanya Carlson</em>
Spring Green, Wisconsin
<strong><a href="http://www.executivetravelmagazine.com/slideshows/americas-best-small-towns/3" title="America's Best Small Towns">See more of America's Best Small Towns</a></strong> In 1979, the <a href="http://www.americanplayers.org/" title="Spring Green Wisconsin: American Players Theatre" target="_blank">American Players Theatre</a> set up shop on 110 acres of woods in Spring Green and quickly began drawing crowds to its 1,148-seat outdoor amphitheater with a Shakespeare-heavy repertoire. APT's Skippeth-Out-of-Work-Early Thursday Nights (June through October) are a nice way to start off a long weekend in town; musicians stroll the banks of the beautiful Wisconsin River, and gas grills are fired up before the evening's starlit performance. Another idea for midweek fun: The cheekily named <a href="http://www.shittybarnsessions.com/" title="Spring Green, Wisconsin: Sh*tty Barn" target="_blank">Sh*tty Barn</a> draws on Spring Green's central location between Chicago and Milwaukee to lure musicians into town for intimate shows. <a href="http://www.taliesinpreservation.org/" title="Spring Green, Wisconsin: Taliesin" target="_blank">Taliesin</a>, the summer home and school of Frank Lloyd Wright, is also a requisite visit. And for a different architectural experience, spend a few hours puzzling over the bizarre <a href="http://www.thehouseontherock.com/" title="Spring Green, Wisconsin: House on the Rock" target="_blank">House on the Rock</a>, an amalgam of buildings and kitsch that's also a resort. The grounds include a championship golf course, and it's just across the street from APT, "in a country sort of way," as the locals put it. In other words, it's about a mile down the road. <em><a href="http://www.springgreen.com" title="America's Best Small Towns: Spring Green, Wisconsin" target="_blank">springgreen.com</a></em> <em>Photo © Carissa Dixon</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.executivetravelmagazine.com/slideshows/americas-best-small-towns/4" title="America's Best Small Towns">See more of America's Best Small Towns</a></strong> "The college came first and the community followed," fifth-generation Berean Belle Jackson says of her hometown. Founded in 1855, <a href="http://www.berea.edu/" title="Berea, Kentucky: Berea College" target="_blank">Berea College</a> was the only integrated and coeducational college in the South for nearly 40 years until Kentucky outlawed interracial education. The school then shifted its focus to low-income communities in the neighboring Appalachian Mountains, and still does today. None of the school's 1,500 full-time students pay tuition. Instead, they spend 10 to 15 hours a week plying traditional trades, such as woodworking and weaving, of the region. That commitment to arts and crafts has spilled over into the town, where you'll see purple "Artists at Work" icons on many doors, an unspoken invitation for visitors to come in and observe. The historic <a href="http://www.boonetavernhotel.com/" title="Berea, Kentucky: Boone Tavern Hotel" target="_blank">Boone Tavern Hotel</a>, decorated with furniture handcrafted by college students and alums, is also a great place to see how Berea is weaving the traditions of yesterday with savvy ideas for its future. A recent overhaul made it the only LEED Gold–certified hotel in Kentucky—there's even a charging station for electric cars out back. <em><a href="http://www.berea.com" title="America's Best Small Towns: Berea, Kentucky" target="_blank">berea.com</a></em> <em>Photo courtesy of Berea Tourism</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.executivetravelmagazine.com/slideshows/americas-best-small-towns/5" title="America's Best Small Towns">See more of America's Best Small Towns</a></strong> Driving into Galena, it's easy to feel like you've exited the Midwest completely. Because it escaped glaciations, the area is punctuated with soaring hills, plunging valleys and dramatically rocky cliffs. The displaced feeling continues as you make your way into town, a facsimile of a 19th-century Main Street. Thanks to strict zoning restrictions, 85 percent of Galena is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Autumn is a great time to visit. You can check in to the <a href="http://www.desotohouse.com/" title="Galena, Illinois: DeSoto House Hotel" target="_blank">DeSoto House Hotel</a>, the oldest operating hotel in Illinois, which served as Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign headquarters back in the 1860s. Then, fill up on creamy Pecan Georgies at the <a href="http://www.galenaskandykitchen.com/" title="Galena, Illinois: Kandy Kitchen" target="_blank">Kandy Kitchen</a> downtown before heading to the new <a href="http://www.blaumbros.com/" title="Galena, Illinois: Blaum Bros. Distilling Company" target="_blank">Blaum Bros. Distilling Company</a>. Set to open its doors this fall, the upstart will source the grains for its vodka and gin from neighboring farms. The town also hosts a famous Halloween parade and annual Wiener Dog Race, a spectacle that's as timeless as they come. <em><a href="http://www.galena.org" title="America's Best Small Towns: Galena, Illinois" target="_blank">galena.org</a></em> <em>Photo © Galena/Jo Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau</em>
Little Compton, Rhode Island
<strong><a href="http://www.executivetravelmagazine.com/slideshows/americas-best-small-towns/6" title="America's Best Small Towns">See more of America's Best Small Towns</a></strong> Looking for the quintessential New England town? You can't get much closer than Little Compton, Rhode Island. Just a swim away from neighboring Massachusetts, the tiny village was settled back in the 17th century by folks from Plymouth Colony who wanted to expand their land holdings. History and architecture buffs won't want to miss the Wilbor House, built in 1692 and now home to the <a href="http://www.littlecompton.org/" title="Little Compton Historical Society" target="_blank">Little Compton Historical Society</a>. Be sure to explore the town commons too, one of only three in the state, the whole of which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Lloyd's Beach, where locals (and visitors in the know) go to swim, is just down the road. The entrance can be formidable, but battle valiantly past the rocks and a lovely swath of sand awaits your towel. End the day with a sea-to-table dinner at the <a href="http://www.sakonnetpointmarina.com/" title="Little Compton, Rhode Island: Sakonnet Point Marina" target="_blank">Sakonnet Point Marina</a>. Locally caught lobster and oysters pair perfectly with glasses of award-winning Gewürztraminer from <a href="http://www.sakonnetwine.com/" title="Little Compton, Rhode Island: Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyards" target="_blank">Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyards</a>. Better yet, stop by the winery for a tasting and a tour of the vine-covered grounds. <em><a href="http://www.little-compton.com" title="America's Best Small Towns: Little Compton, Rhode Island" target="_blank">little-compton.com</a></em> <em>Photo: courtesy of Little Compton Historical Society</em>
<strong><a href="http://www.executivetravelmagazine.com/slideshows/americas-best-small-towns/7" title="America's Best Small Towns">See more of America's Best Small Towns</a></strong> The rise of this former Gold Rush town is almost as well documented as the celebrities and jet-setters that now call Telluride home. The opening of its eponymous ski resort in 1972 was the beginning of a new chapter for this tiny Colorado village; nowadays, iconic cultural goings-on also vie for attention. Most famous among its many events is the <a href="http://www.telluridefilmfestival.org/" title="Telluride Film Festival" target="_blank">Telluride Film Festival</a>, which takes place over Labor Day weekend every year. But there's also the <a href="http://bluegrass.com/telluride" title="Telluride Bluegrass Festival" target="_blank">Telluride Bluegrass Festival</a>, which draws big names like Emmylou Harris and Feist. Smaller gatherings dot the calendar, too, like the annual Nothing Day Festival—created by a local who was fed up with all the festivals—celebrated with a slew of movie screenings and a naked bicycle ride through town. Speaking of movies, be sure to catch a flick at the <a href="http://www.nuggettheatre.com/" title="Telluride, Colorado: Nugget Theatre" target="_blank">Nugget Theatre</a>. Recently reopened after a round of renovations, the historic institution is housed in a beautiful old bank building on Colorado Avenue. If you've got time to kill before your show starts, dip into the <a href="http://www.newsheridan.com/" title="New Sheridan Telluride" target="_blank">New Sheridan Telluride</a>, where locals have gone to wet their whistle since 1895. <em><a href="http://www.telluride.com" title="America's Best Small Towns: Telluride, Colorado" target="_blank">telluride.com</a></em> <em>Photo courtesy of Ryan Bonneau / Property of the Telluride Tourism Board</em>