There are big cities all across America from coast to coast—even a few gigantic ones—but sprinkled in between those sprawling metropolises are cities that feel more like playgrounds than concrete jungles. They’re the ones that bring you the best of both worlds, with big city attractions and small town values.
We at CarRentals.com have looked far and wide for these special cities that simply need to be on your to-do list. We knew we had to create some parameters, so we crafted our recommendations based on population—no smaller than 24,000 and no bigger than 150,000. Without further ado, here are the 20 little American cities with the biggest personalities.
Located on a small barrier island off the coast of Southern Texas is a place where days are spent frolicking in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and evenings include sipping cold Lone Star® beers at the local watering hole. And in between all that, there’s more than a few things to you should see and do.
- Why Galveston: Driving down the San Luis Pass Road along the shore of The Gulf when the setting sun is painting the sky brilliant colors is unforgettable.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Pay a visit to the extraordinary Texas Seaport Museum and hop aboard the 1892 Bishop’s Palace and 1877 Tall Ship Elissa.
- You Have to Eat Here: The charcoal grilled oysters, baked oysters on the half shell, and oysters Maria at Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant are to die for.
- Best Time to Visit: Anytime between March and May when the temperatures haven’t gotten into the triple digits and the humidity levels are still bearable.
Imagine a Southern California town in the middle of the desert where The Rat Pack used to go to play, where golf is the preferred pastime of everybody, and where temperatures anytime outside of summer are about as perfect as you could ask for.
- Why Palm Springs: The easy-going atmosphere of the entire town allows you to relax in style.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Go for an incredibly scenic ride up Santa Rosa Mountain via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
- You Have to Eat Here: Order one of the best steaks of your life at Melvyn’s at the Ingleside Inn.
- Best Time to Visit: Unless you’re a fan of triple digit temperatures, avoid the summer months.
If you’re looking for a perfect place in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy some well-deserved rest and relaxation, look no further than Eugene, Oregon. Spend your weekend mornings shopping your way through the Saturday Market and then catch a live show at the Hult Center for Performing Arts.
- Why Eugene: It is the quintessential college town not just because of the University of Oregon, but the iconic film “Animal House.”
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Explore the incredible exhibits at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
- You Have to Eat Here: Hand crafted pizza pies at the Pizza Research Institute will change your life.
- Best Time to Visit: If you fancy yourself a ski bum, roll into town during the winter months and you’ll be able to hit the slopes of nearby Willamette Pass Resort.
Nestled in the Northern Arizona forest just a hop, skip, and jump from the Grand Canyon is the town of Flagstaff, Arizona. Peer through the eye pieces of giant telescopes at Lowell Observatory or get relaxed with a class at the Northern Arizona Yoga Center. Either way, you won’t have a problem finding something amazing to occupy your time.
- Why Flagstaff: It’s a scenic town that has embraced its pioneer past.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Explore the scenery at the Arboretum at Flagstaff. Sign up for a Bird Walk tour and then venture into the Butterfly House.
- One Other Thing You Must to Do Here: Make the hour and a half drive through some of the most spectacular countryside ever until you get to the Grand Canyon.
- You Have to Eat Here: Beaver Street Brewery. The combination of soft pretzels and Railhead Red is unreal.
- Best Time to Visit: Spring, summer, and fall are great times for hiking and exploring the nearby countryside. If you want to hit the slopes at Snowbowl, make your way to town during the winter months.
From the stunning scenery that exists on the outskirts of the city to the attractive downtown streets, Billings, Montana, has everything you’re looking for in a perfect vacation and more.
- Why Billings: This place offers the perfect blend of big-city life and outdoor adventure.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Get a glimpse of the artistic abilities of cavemen at Pictograph State Park.
- You Have to Eat Here: Expand your palette at Walkers American Grill & Tapas Bar. The tamarind glazed duck drumettes with spiced cashews are so good they should be illegal.
- Best Time to Visit: The early fall months are an opportune time to visit, especially if you want to hike the trails surrounding Billings.
Located along the shoreline of the mighty Colorado River, Grand Junction, Colorado, is a throwback to the time when you hitched your horse outside the local saloon instead of feeding a parking meter.
- Why Grand Junction: Because it has endless outdoor adventures, it’s a fantastic city that has clung to its historic roots, and driving along Riverside Parkway is awesome.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Pay a visit to the Museum of Western Colorado, where galleries showcasing Native American artifacts and “Wild West” technology will dazzle you.
- You Have to Eat Here: Order up a crafty cocktail and enjoy a plate of Colorado elk carpaccio at Bin 707.
- Best Time to Visit: January to December. Yes, we realize that covers the entire year, but that’s because the entire year is a great time to visit. Skiing, hiking, mountain biking, fishing. You name it!
Dodge City, Kansas, was once a wild frontier town where arguments were settled over discussions between two pistols. But those days are long gone and now we’re left with a splendid city that should be on your list of must-visits.
- Why Dodge City: The historic downtown section is one of the coolest in the country and its cowboy aura is impossible to ignore.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Pay a visit to the Boot Hill Museum and relive the legends of the Old West.
- You Have to Eat Here: Want to see a live show while chowing down on a steak? Get tickets for the Depot Theater Company and enjoy the experience.
- Best Time to Visit: The end of July and into early August is great time to go because that’s when Dodge City Days takes place.
The shores of the Great Lakes are dotted with picturesque towns and cities, but Duluth, Minnesota, is the only one to make our list. The friendly locals greet you like you’re one of their own, the drives along the Lake Superior shoreline are breathtaking, and northern Minnesota in general is a delight.
- Why Duluth: In one day, you can swim in Lake Superior, visit a museum, and eat fried cheese curds.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Have you ever wondered what lives under the surface of America’s greatest lake? Check out the Great Lakes Aquarium and explore one of the few aquariums on earth dedicated to fresh water exhibits.
- You Have to Eat Here: Stuff yourself silly with a drunken cow burger and wash it down with a cold beer at Fitger’s Brewhouse.
- Best Time to Visit: The middle of fall because the leaves are every shade of red, orange, and yellow, and the 35th annual Duluth Fall Festival takes place the first weekend of October.
From the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field, to the seemingly endless amount of fantastic cheese shops, to countless of other awesome things to do and see, Green Bay, Wisconsin, should be the next stop on your journey across this grand country of ours.
- Why Green Bay: Why not? It’s the home of the most famous football franchise in the universe.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Do as the true cheese heads do and take a behind-the-scenes tour of Lambeau Field.
- One Other Thing You Must Do Here: Spend your hard-earned cash by shopping up and down On Broadway.
- You Have to Eat Here: Are you craving stacks on stacks on stacks? That’s what you’ll find at the Pancake Place.
- Best Time to Visit: Head to “Titletown” during August and attend the Packers training camp.
Located at the far end of the Florida Panhandle and flanked by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the south, Pensacola, Florida, is a vacationer’s dream destination. Put the windows down on your rental car and let the warm Florida breeze flow through your hair as you cruise down the coast along Florida State Road 399. And just wait until you see what this town has to offer.
- Why Pensacola: You can pretend to be retired and no one will judge. And the nearby air base is the home of the Blue Angels.
- One Thing You Must Do: Get your airplane fix at the National Naval Aviation Museum. Everything from World War I propeller planes to modern day fighter jets are on display.
- One Other Thing You Must Do Here: Travel back in time when you explore the streets of Historic Pensacola Village.
- You Have to Eat Here/ Best Time to Visit: The end of April is a perfect time to visit. Especially if you like mild temperatures and stuffing yourself silly with crawfish at the Pensacola Crawfish Festival.
If we told you that you could enjoy a tropical island getaway in America’s Deep South you’d probably think we’re nuts. But we are far from losing our minds because a getaway on a tropical isle in The South is possible. All you have to do is point your four-wheeled steed towards Hilton Island, South Carolina, and voila!
- Why Hilton Head Island: The white sand beaches and thriving activity scene is hard to turn a blind eye to.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Enjoy the local scenery and wildlife when you explore the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge.
- You Must Eat Here: Cap off your splendid day with a massive seafood platter and an unbeatable view at the Skull Creek Boathouse.
- Best Time to Visit: The most wonderful time of year to grace Hilton Head Island with your presence is spring. Things are blooming, temperatures are perfect, and the golf conditions are out of this world. Plus, the Hilton Head Island Wine & Food Festival takes place during this time.
The Caves and Lakes region of Kentucky is centered around one city: Bowling Green, Kentucky. Why should you consider this place? Because it has a corvette museum and plenty of outdoor activities and a fantastic food scene.
- Why Bowling Green, KY: Because the list of fun activities to do here range from a corvette museum to wandering the Civil War Discovery Trail.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Walk through the gallery at the National Corvette Museum and get a look at almost every model Corvette ever made.
- You Must Eat Here: Shop for and sample the freshest in local produce at SoKY Marketplace. They even have an open kitchen available for personal use in case you feel whipping up a dish on your own.
- Best Time to Visit: Head to town during the last weekend of September and you’ll be able to experience Bowling Green International Festival.
With its incredible scenery of rolling meadows and fields of forests combined with a chic downtown district, Charlottesville, Virginia, is as cozy as it seems. It’s no wonder why Thomas Jefferson chose to make his home here.
- Why Charlottesville: It’s a beautiful colonial town in Central Virginia. Enough said!
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Explore the grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s homestead Monticello. There’s all sorts of cool things to check out here, like personal items of Jefferson and his final resting place.
- One Other Thing You Must Do Here: Treat your palate to an epic wine, cheese, and fruit pairing at Monticello Wine Company.
- You Must Eat Here: Gorge on as many slices of pizza as you want at Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria.
- Best Time to Visit: Plan your visit for the fall and you’ll be able to attend a Cavalier football game at the nearby University of Virginia. Go Cavs!
Upstate New York is great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. The mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, and the city of Schenectady all make this area magical. Go for a leisurely bike ride along the Mohawk River and then take a drive through New York state’s first historic district.
- Why Schenectady: We want you to go to Schenectady because it’s relaxing and fun and has a mini Central Park rose garden.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Head to the box office of Proctors Theater and grab a ticket for whatever show is playing that night. There’s everything from magic shows and stage plays to music concerts.
- You Must Eat Here: Refresh yourself with craft beers and fish & chips at the Bier Abbey.
- Best Time to Visit: Plan your trip during fall so you can make the short drive south to Albany and enjoy a day picking apples at one of the local orchards.
Located in western New England on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River sits the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. The friendly hospitality exhibited by the locals combined with all the fun things to do here makes “The City of Progress” a great place to spend a getaway.
- Why Springfield: If you’re a basketball fan, don’t miss the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Make your way to the Quadrangle where four museums are yours to explore.
- One Other Thing You Must Do Here: Everyone loves zoos, so spend the day mingling with animals at the Zoo at Forest Park.
- You Must Eat Here: Give into your sweet tooth cravings by treating yourself to pastries at La Fiorentina Pastry Shop.
- Best Time to Visit: The Big E, otherwise known as The Eastern States Exposition, takes place in the middle of September, so make your way down here then.
The state of Rhode Island declared itself so in 1776 and when you take a cruise through downtown Newport, you’ll feel as if you’re back in the days when wearing powder wigs was cool. The colonial architecture adorning many of the buildings give it an old-time feel, but Newport’s fun activities are up to date.
- Why Newport: Because there’s cliffside mansions dotting the coastline, incredible restaurants, and it’s a perfect New England town.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Spend a few hours in the morning going for a stroll along the shores of the Atlantic with Newport’s famed Cliff Walk.
- One Other Thing You Must Do: Put that rental to use and take it on Newport’s Ten Mile Drive. You’ll zig zag between forest roads and ocean front avenues.
- You Must Eat Here: No trip to the “City by the Sea” is complete without sitting down for a meal at the Spiced Pear inside The Chanler Hotel.
- Best Time to Visit: Go during summer when the list of fun activities is endless—including surfing, sailing, harbor tours, fishing, and an assortment of festivals.
If you’re looking for a historic college on the shores of one of North America’s most picturesque lakes, look no further than Burlington, Vermont. Do you want incredible scenery? This town has it. What about sampling the best maple syrup ever? Burlington has you covered.
- Why Burlington: It’s the most populous city in Vermont, it’s insanely beautiful, and it’s on the shores of Lake Champlain.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Wander through the shops and market place of downtown’s Church Street.
- You Must Eat Here: The entire state is known for its high-quality maple syrup, so slather as much as you want atop a stack of pancakes at the Skinny Pancake.
- Best Time to Visit: Do you like jazz? If so, plan your trip for the first two weeks of June and get groovy at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.
The Piscataqua River empties into the Atlantic Ocean like a waterfall into a pool, and at the mouth of this confluence is the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This is a place where days are spent cruising along the river front and nights are spent sharing cold ones with friendly locals at the local tavern.
- Why Portsmouth: If you only come to take pictures of or in front of the multi-colored buildings, that’d be enough.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Check out the house John Paul Jones used to live in. Who was John Paul Jones? He was a sailor, pirate, and the “Father of the American Navy.”
- You Must Eat Here: You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of Basque Country when you enjoy wine and tapas at Cava.
- Best Time to Visit: The Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival is held every year over the last weekend of September so consider taking your vacation then.
When you paint a picture in your mind of a perfect New England, you’ll probably come up with something that looks like Portland, Maine. Cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and epic seafood restaurants all exist in “Portland of the East.”
- Why Portland: Its location on Casco Bay makes it one of the most scenic places on the continent.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: See the city from a different vantage point when you go for a day-cruise through Casco Bay.
- One More Thing You Must Do: Pretend to be an art snob while walking through the galleries at the Portland Museum of Art.
- You Must Eat Here: You can’t come here without indulging in a plate of world-famous Maine lobster so head to Cook’s Lobster & Ale House and enjoy.
- Best Time to Visit: The summers in Portland are hard to beat because of their mild temperatures and abundance of outdoor activities to take part in.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the real “Biggest Little City in the World.” We’re talking about Reno, Nevada (and yes, we know it beats our 150,000 population size rule, but it was too good to leave out). This fantastic town at the base of the Sierra Mountains is more than just a gambling paradise. The beautiful natural scenery surrounding the city makes it an outdoor adventurer’s paradise.
- Why Reno: Well, their nickname says it all. Plus, there are more things to do on one city block than most entire towns.
- One Thing You Must Do Here: Go mountain biking along the trails that snake around nearby Peavine Mountain.
- You Must Eat Here: Get yourself some crimini stuffed mushrooms and ahi tartar at Sierra St. Kitchen.
- Best Time to Visit: Take a drive to Reno during the middle of September and check out the Reno National Championship Air Races.
Now that we’ve listed the best of the best, all that’s left to do is to pack up the beautiful looking rental car of yours and hit the road. Who knows what kind of adventures might come your way.