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FEATUREBy Jordan RaneOnly in America There’s no typical American experience. But when you truly experience an American city, you see traditions rooted in its music, food and art. What’s a typical U.S. city? There’s no such thing. Trying to describe that place — beyond the bank buildings, the pedestrian commercial zone, the revived riverfront, and the cool thing they’re doing with public statuary or reclaimed green spaces — is about as futile as defining American culture without running into a dizzying mess of exhaustive, disjointed details. But we’re all familiar with those cities that we visit and think: This place could only exist in America.
So here’s a fun domestic traveler’s approach to defining the indefinable. Below are four favorite atypical towns from all corners of the country to explore. Like one-of-a-kind puzzle pieces, each fits into an angle of this vast and varied nation all its own. How do you solve the puzzle? By latching on to that singular theme that each of these cities is renowned for — from food and music to art and far-out literary heritage — and most importantly showing up with a curious mind and a good appetite. Discover more details here The Literary Lair KEY WEST, FloridaHiding just 77 miles above the tropics, Key West insinuates itself into the Caribbean like a beckoning fingertip with its mile-long swath of tourist shops along Duval Street, its narrow side streets flanked in old wood homes amid gnarled banyan trees, and its selfie-bait Overseas Highway “0” mile marker sign plunked at the corner of Whitehead and Fleming streets.
On a barely 8-square-mile isle of storied, trolley-tour plied space, there’s much to draw escapists of all kinds to the southernmost city in America that isn’t in Hawaii. Its coolest charm of all, in our books, is the town’s potent literary lore.
Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Shel Silverstein, Judy Blume, Thomas McGuane, etc., are just some of the writers who’ve found inspiration here. The king of Key West scribes remains Ernest Hemingway, who hammered out To Have and Have Not at home among numerous feline residents on 907 Whitehead St. (now the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum), while imbibing between chapters at the still-happening local watering hole Sloppy Joe’s, eight easy blocks away.
For an illuminating survey of the island’s literary scene before exploring on your own, join the 90-minute Old Town Literary Walking Tour hosted by faculty of the 40-year-old Key West Literary Seminar. The tour strolls past the former homes and haunts of many of the above names, as well as lesser known local literati worth knowing about, too. The Midwest Music Mecca CLEVELAND, OhioHello, Cleveland! Unlike the totally lost band members of Spinal Tap who can’t locate the stage in everyone’s favorite 1984 rock mockumentary, we know exactly where we are in this urban ode to rebirth, reinvention, revitalization and re-whatever-else-you-wanna-call it. Every big U.S. city with proud industrial roots has batted around those terms over the last few decades, but once-gritty, now-groovy Cleveland knows how to knock it out of the park.
Music fans especially have much to appreciate in the town credited with launching the first-ever rock concert (in 1952) and popularizing the very term rock and roll. A range of rockin’ experiences here (in the broadest sense) includes exploring favorite local indie hubs like the Beachland Ballroom and Music Box Supper Club, attending riverside shows at Jacob’s Pavilion and experiencing a world-famous Cleveland Orchestra performance at Severance, one of the nation’s most stunning and historic concert halls.
The obvious mandatory stop is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Back in the mid-’80s, it took some moving and shaking for Cleveland to beat out every other town — including New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Memphis and Motown’s Detroit — vying to become the home to the nation’s greatest rock shrine. Towering over Lake Erie like a giant turntable- and guitar neck-inspired mirage, the I. M. Pei-designed building, with its iconic glass pyramid and seven floors stuffed with revolving exhibits and hallowed halls of inductees, will satisfy several music zealot visits.
You’re in Cleveland, so obviously we have to squeeze in a quick sports selection beside all those tunes. Baseball fans won’t want to miss nine innings at the perfectly retro-modern Progressive Field, tapped by SportsIllustrated as MLB’s best ball park. Next door’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse rounds out Cleveland’s strapping Gateway Sports and Entertainment Complex with NBA, AHL and occasional Cleveland State University Viking games. A quick 60-mile commute to the nearby town of Canton will complete your Northern Ohio bucket list sports odyssey with a visit to the Football Hall of Fame. The Art Enclave SANTA FE, New MexicoSpread across a lofty plateau at the foot of the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe is a time-tested work of art in its own right. The city’s surprisingly compact, Spanish missionary era-derived core dating back to 1609 (a full decade before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock) looks like no other place. Those low-slung earthen adobe buildings seem almost strangely futuristic at this point, while descended from a hybrid of Native Pueblo and Spanish colonial styles over four centuries ago. Cut to the 21st century, America’s oldest capital city now welcomes 2 million annual visitors to an ever-enchanting Southwestern community of 88,000 residents and — at last tally — more than 250 galleries.
World-class cuisine, gorgeous hikes in Santa Fe National Forest and the nearby alpine resort town of Taos are all major draws, but Santa Fe’s biggest one is its inimitable art scene. Even the most type-A aesthetes will have to pace themselves in a tireless, creativity-centric outpost ranked by Travel & Leisure as the world’s seventh best city for art lovers.
Whether or not you’re a huge fan of giant canvases of bare Southwestern desertscapes and paintings of sunbaked skulls, start your Santa Fe art odyssey at the one-of-a-kind Georgia O’Keefe Museum, which features nearly 150 oil paintings and hundreds of drawings spanning over 80 years by one of the most significant and singular American artists. Steps away is the Museum of Fine Arts (20,000 works, with an emphasis on regional artists) and neighboring Palace of the Governors (the oldest still-used public building in the U.S., now anchoring the New Mexico History Museum) with its arcaded veranda serving as an iconic market for local Native American craft-sellers.
A scenic (and sceney) stroll up Canyon Road leads to 100-plus tony galleries stuffed with a half-mile’s worth of largely exorbitant art that’s worth browsing even if you’re not buying today. A couple miles south is the Museum of International Folk Art, housing the world’s largest collection of its kind, with more than 130,000 objects from more than 100 countries. Next door is the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture with its exceptional array of Native American pottery, stretching from ancient Anasazi pieces to 20th-century revivalists.
Complete your art journey back at the town center for a sunset cocktail at the Bell Tower Bar on the hotel rooftop of the famed La Fonda on the Plaza, where the day’s best art show yet is sprawled across a mountainous backdrop. The Culinary Capital NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana“Unlike a lot of those places you go back to that don’t have the magic anymore,” Bob Dylan noted in The Atlantic less than five years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “New Orleans has still got it. Everything in New Orleans is a good idea.”
The whole “idea” of New Orleans has clearly resisted anything straightforward since being claimed by the French 305 years ago. From its wild cultural origins, its explosive musical heritage, its numerous festivals, and its buoyant resilience that only a town with this sort of couer de lion, raison d’etre, joie de vivre can recover from, New Orleans isn’t just a good idea. There’s no other idea like it.
The most direct route to this city’s hungry heart begins with its culinary offerings, which constitute what generations of big eaters have consistently called the greatest place to graze in America. “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin,” said Mark Twain, another big fan of the place.
Covering this city’s culinary offerings could be a doctoral thesis. The good news is that as long as you just start eating here — gumbo, po’boys, muffulettas, oysters Rockefeller, yak-a-mein, bananas Foster, king cakes and all the other local delicacies that make New Orleans uniquely delicious — you really can’t go wrong.
Our favorite spots to begin are at any of the hallowed French Quarter landmarks dating to before Twain’s visits: including Antoine’s (1840), Tujague’s (1856), and the original Café du Monde (1862) on Decatur Street for beignets and chicory coffee, followed by a jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace (1893) in the lovely Garden District for a bread pudding souffle that’s worth the wait.
Among the “hottest of the hot” spots in New Orleans to try right now, according to Eater New Orleans, are the Lower Garden District’s Lengua Madre (modern Mexican), Seafood Sally’s in Uptown (for shellfish, cooked and raw), and Saint John, for the French Quarter’s latest take on contemporary Creole cuisine. Jordan Rane is an award-winning travel writer. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, CNN Travel and the Los Angeles Times.