Traveling the northern United States from east to west will bring you to some of the most electrifying, charismatic cities in North America. From the colonial history of New England to the industrial Midwest and along to old pioneer cities sheltered by Pacific mountains, the states near Canada's border have so much to offer, attracting millions of visitors each year despite being overshadowed by the temperate warmth of the southern states.
Still, you’ll recognise the names, landmarks, and traits of certain northern cities more than others due to their international fame, drawing consistent visitors while other cities suffer from a lack of publicity. Foreign tourists are constantly bombarded with flight specials and discounts to places like New York City, but might never hear about the quaint charm of Rochester in upstate New York. There are dozens of cities across the country—both staggering metropolises and urban pockets—whose understated glory is deserving of equal fame as the most popular of US cities.
Although there are very legitimate reasons why New York and its equivalents are some of the most popular destinations for living and working in the USA, travelers passing through the north of the country should not overlook the quiet grandeur of some of the most underrated cities.
20 (Overdone) Boston, Massachusetts
Boston is a great city—it's got Old World charm and multicultural flair, and is one of the most walkable cities in the U.S. As a dreamer’s ideal playground, Boston is a hip college city, perfect for artists and future scholars.
However, if you spend too much time here, you’ll start to feel the city’s lethargy kicking in as the novelty of evening walks through the sprawling parks wears off. Boston is a rather sleepy city with not much to do outside of its universities and sporting events, so if you’re looking for a different type of excitement, keep searching.
19 (Underrated) Chicago, Illinois
As America’s third largest city, Chicago attracts only a fraction of attention as New York City and Los Angeles, despite being a lively city with a rich history rooted in the jazz music scene and mafia of the 1920s and 30s. Chicago’s still got remnants of its golden age, including jazz bars and Prohibition-era speakeasies still in operation.
As a whole, the city is often shrouded in news reports about its crime rate, but so long as its rough areas are avoided, its vibrant shopping and museum districts are world class. Downtown Chicago has some of the best sights and entertainment and is not to be missed.
18 (Overdone) New York City, New York
New York City is the ultimate symbol of America—home to the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and the Empire State Building. For a long time, New York was the gateway to America via Ellis Island for immigrants in search of new lives. And while New York can be a great place to visit, you’ve probably seen all its highlights in films and magazines.
Known for astronomical prices, New York isn’t exactly hospitable for those looking to relocate or travelers on a budget. For such a great city, it’s really a tycoon’s overcrowded wonderland.
17 (Underrated) Duluth, Minnesota
One of the smaller Minnesotan cities, Duluth has a little bit of everything. It's less restless than Minneapolis while maintaining a sense of liveliness, it’s industrial yet perched on the western coast of mighty Lake Superior. It’s a major port for ships transporting ore from the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, but provides a gorgeous summer holiday destination.
Set yourself up in a campground or a hotel overlooking the lake for scenery that rivals even the Caribbean tropics, and check out Duluth’s refreshing restaurant scene and nightlife, or take a walk through the rose gardens along historic Highway 61.
16 (Overdone) Washington, D.C.
Yes, Washington D.C. is the country’s capital and is home to countless iconic landmarks including the White House, Lincoln Memorial, and Capitol Building. It’s a city steeped in patriotic history, but unless you’re a politician, you might lose interest by the time you walk the length of the National Mall.
D.C is a great city for school trips and those looking for the heart of US government, and you can easily fill a few days with sightseeing in the city. But if you want an authentic USA experience, you'll find any middle-state town much more exciting.
15 (Underrated) Fargo, North Dakota
What could you possibly find in North Dakota among “barren wasteland”? ND is the state that bridges the Midwest and West, where the expansive forests of Minnesota turn to rolling prairies. North Dakota’s biggest city is Fargo, on its eastern edge.
This “Gateway to the West” is like a trip to the past, reminiscent of a mining town in the Old West, full of opportunity in the US frontier. It’s far more modern than it first appears, with cosmopolitan microbreweries and fascinating museums. The Plains Art Museum houses one of the country’s best collections of Native art and artefacts, and visitors will realise this state is anything but flat.
14 (Overdone) Seattle, Washington
Seattle is a thrilling city in the continental Pacific Northwest, just a stone’s throw away from Vancouver, Canada. While you’ll be comfortably sandwiched by city and nature, the Seattle-heads who rave about the city have probably had an excess of its world-famous coffee.
At first, you’ll be wowed by Seattle’s futuristic tech headquarters and progressive mindset, but this lifestyle can exhaust your average resident. If you go to Seattle for a visit, you’ll want to go for its easy access to the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Unless you’re interested in its business industry, you can find a city like this almost anywhere.
13 (Underrated) Portland, Maine
One of the smallest cities included on this list, Portland, ME should not be underestimated. It’s a quiet seaside city, perfect for contemplative poets or families with children.
There’s no better place to find fresh Maine lobster than Portland’s Old Port, complete with boutique style shopping. Or you could check out Portland Head Lighthouse, a picturesque 18th-century landmark symbolic of the northeastern coast. A visit to Portland will introduce you to Maine’s understated charm, where you’ll experience a unique magnetism that locals and tourists alike agree on, and it might just tempt you to relocate.
12 (Overdone) Portland, Oregon
On the opposite end of the country, the more famous Portland, OR rests on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, less than an hour’s drive from the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge. Portland’s got an individuality to it unlike most other metro areas, and you’ll certainly hear of its youthful cafes, environmental outlook, and the infamous hipster scene.
Portland’s growing popularity is attributed to the idea of the holier-than-thou hipster, parading around the microbrewery with his liberal arts degree in the pocket of his waistcoat. Despite rumours like these about Portland’s residents, you won’t find the egocentric hipster lurking on every street corner, for better or worse, and it’s actually more like any city than you might think.
11 (Underrated) Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Wisconsin is home to a few major cities (and more than a few dairy farms), its biggest being Milwaukee. A city struggling with segregation, many outsiders picture Milwaukee as ridden with crime, but those who have been there know differently.
Milwaukee is youthful and intelligent, and as more students filter into its universities, its future glows brighter. Tourists are attracted to the Harley Davidson museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum, an impressive architectural feat shaped like a sailboat, complete with opening and closing sails. It’s inspired by the popular local pastime of sailing on Lake Michigan, where you can drift along the dreamy skyline of the city.
10 (Overdone) Atlantic City, New Jersey
There's no doubt Atlantic City is one of America’s glitziest, ritziest resort cities, second only to Las Vegas. The city comes to life at night, when its casinos and hotels glitter against the night sky and singers and gamers alike come out to play.
The Atlantic City boardwalk is perhaps the world’s most famous, but a walk down it will prove it’s also the gloomiest. Shopping stalls line the pier, advertising souvenirs ranging from live animals and trinkets to fortune tellers, though the stalls are a splash of colour against the steel grey of the North Atlantic.
9 (Underrated) Providence, Rhode Island
Rhode Islanders were very efficient when it came to utilising their 1200 square miles of land and not wasting an inch. Its capital city, Providence, is nicely sized in its tiny home state, full of historic landmarks and homes dating back to the 18th century.
Here you’ll find Brown University and the Greek-inspired Providence Athenaeum library. The downtown area is dotted with interesting buildings, but the highlight is the WaterFire art exhibit, a series of bonfires along the canal, which has grown so popular it’s the site of many festivals and other art exhibits year round.
8 (Overdone) Cleveland, Ohio
You wouldn’t think that the Ohio cities are the most popular in the north, and it’s true none of them are, but for some odd reason you’d only hear about Cleveland, whether it’s something great or how dull Ohio is.
Cleveland does have a lot going for it—the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and it’s set on the cool banks of Lake Erie. But, in the end, once you’ve had your fill of Cleveland’s music scene, there’s not much uniqueness left and the city’s character blends into the rest of the Ohio landscape.
7 (Underrated) Cincinnati, Ohio
One Ohio city you don’t hear enough about is Cincinnati. Older than its neighbour Cleveland, Cincinnati has been taken over by the 19th century and decorated by the art deco era. Among the modern towers you’ll find old brick buildings from the 1800s, remainders of the city’s part in the Industrial Revolution.
The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden are the city’s main draw for tourists, having been in operation for over 150 years, one of the oldest in operation in the U.S., and train station Union Terminal has been revamped to house a museum.
6 (Overdone) Madison, Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin Madison is like the Harvard of the Midwest, and there’s no doubt it’s a great university, but students here tend to hype up their college town more than necessary.
Madison has everything a college student needs—an enriching environment, active nightlife, and diverse campus, but the rest of the population will find a pretty, yet washed-out Midwestern capital city.
From all the raving testimonies to Madison’s greatness you’ll hear, a large majority are from students so know you’re hearing about the city through sparkling, naive eyes.
5 (Underrated) Rochester, New York
Like many other charismatic New York cities, Rochester is notoriously obscured by the fame of New York City. Locals, however, know better. Rochester has all the allure of NYC without the hustle of such a massive city.
It’s got water features—Lake Ontario and the Genessee River, and is the birthplace of some of America’s biggest companies, including Kodak and Western Union. Forbes rated Rochester as America’s best city to raise a family in 2010, and the city is attractive to both settled families and single adults looking to advance their career or start their own family.
4 (Overdone) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia is nowhere near as exaggerated as Boston, but it overshadows some of Pennsylvania’s other beautiful, refreshing cities. Aside from its colonial significance, it’s just a big city. It’s got character, but if you take the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall out of the equation, you’re left with the same foundation you’ll find in the most boring of day-trip destinations.
Like all major New England cities, Philadelphia’s pride comes from its colonial background and sports teams. It’s one major draw outside this is if you want to recreate Rocky’s run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.
3 (Underrated) Bozeman, Montana
So Montana doesn’t usually with the award for “state that draws the most tourists,” but if you remember that it houses a large part of Yellowstone National Park, you’ll give it credit where its due.
It’s true Bozeman isn’t the biggest city in the northwestern U.S., but has seen a huge influx of visitors and new residents in the past decade, bringing with them a progressive way of thinking and new energy. It’s not uncommon to see young adventurers or musicians in its coffee shops, and paleontological scholars flocking to the Museum of the Rockies. If you’re looking for an up and coming city, Bozeman is a fiery centre in the icy mountains.
2 (Overdone) New Haven, Connecticut
Home of Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut is often referred to as being a centre of learning and intelligence. Outside the university, the city hasn’t got much going for it and of course, most Yale graduates leave New Haven for cities with better opportunity.
In fact, for an incredibly well-known college town, New Haven has even less than you’d expect. You’ll have a hard time finding restaurants featuring diverse cuisine, and those that do aren’t of great quality. Besides the elegant grounds of the university, New Haven’s most exciting spot is probably Grove Street Cemetery.
1 (Underrated) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania's other major city, Pittsburgh packs a lot more into a smaller city than Philadelphia. It’s got tech business, industrial heritage, and an active arts and culture scene, with one of the best job growth rates in the country.
Its diversity and economy make it one of the most livable cities, and its attractions and football team make it popular for tourists. Spend a day in the Carnegie Museum or the Andy Warhol Museum, which houses a massive collection of the artist’s works. Hang out in the Strip District to relax, where you’ll find the city’s relaxed shopping and restaurant area.