State capitals sometimes get a bad rap. As political centers, they tend to be business-centric and they’re often located smack dab in the middle of nowhere—not traits likely to lure hoards of curious visitors. However, there are a few surprisingly cool capital cities that will far exceed your expectations. From sea to shining sea, we’ve found cool capitals boasting breweries a plenty, stunning parks and museums, great food and incredible outdoor activities. The next time you’re planning a trip, visit one of these oft-overlooked capitals and then thank their founding fathers for making them head of state.
Every Saturday from April through October 10, start your morning with a downtown stroll through the Boise Farmers Market. Sample local treats or pick up some flowers to brighten your hotel room, then pop into Idaho Made and pick out some cool Gem State swag before exploring graffiti-strewn Freak Alley. We love strolling along the Boise River Greenbelt (it’s also fun to zip around it on an electric scooter) and if it’s warm, hop a kayak and paddle the Boise River. Do happy hour at Chandler’s; afterward head to Alavita to nosh on the 3 B’s—burrata, bucatini and bomboloni. After a day walking around town, you’ve earned tasty Italian fare from one of the best restaurants in town! If time permits, rent a car for a day trip to Craters of the Moon National Monument, a gorgeous lunar-like landscape a couple hours west of the city.
STAY: Hip, affordable and boasting one of the most sought-after outdoor patio scenes in town, the Modern Hotel and Bar checks all boxes.
Santa Fe, NM
Founded as a Spanish colony in 1610, Pueblo-style architecture is one of the first things you notice in Santa Fe. One of the weirder things you may encounter is Meow Wolf. Picture a fully immersive funky and fun art scene with changing installations that will bring out the kid in you. Outdoor junkies probably know Santa Fe was ranked by USA Today as one of America’s best mountain biking cities so be sure to cycle some of its 400 miles of trails. Post-ride, visit New Mexico’s oldest and largest craft brewery, Santa Fe Brewery Company, and sip on the flagship Happy Camper IPA. In winter, ski New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains just 16 miles from downtown and year round check out the famous art scene by meandering down Canyon Road where you’ll find plenty of galleries. For Mexican cuisine with a twist, visit excellent Sazon and try the xochimila—corn truffle over mini tortillas with exotic spices.
STAY Santa Fe Plaza is the heart of the city and the perfectly priced Inn on the Alameda is only a stone’s throw away. We love the outdoor hot tubs and buffet breakfast.
Begin with a stroll along or paddle boat ride along the Canal Walk, a 3-mile downtown loop. You’ll get your city bearings, which will help when strolling Indy’s charming ‘hoods, including Mass Ave, Fountain Square and historic Lockerbie (where streets are made of cobblestone and brick!). You can’t visit Indianapolis without feeling a need for speed, and to get your fix, head to the Indy Racing Experience. Here, you’ll get to go fast behind the wheel of a legit Indy race car, as long as you’ve got a valid driver’s license. Once your pulse has stopped racing, nosh on some inventive fare at Bluebeard then swing by Hotel Tango for a cocktail. As for the best brunch in town? Try hitting up Milktooth, an old gas station now serving extraordinary treats like tomato & cucumber tabbouleh dutch baby pancakes.
STAY Not sure if Indy is cool enough? Stay at The Alexander, a glassy, art-focused stunner your Instagram followers will adore.
Sure, there’s a certain southern city in New York that gets all the press (Hint: It rhymes with Blew Blork Mitty), but there are lots of reasons to explore New York State and Albany is one of them. For art enthusiasts, the Albany Institute of History and Art is a must-see (Bonus: it’s free!) as well as The Egg, Albany’s performing arts center. Nature lovers should visit the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, a 3,000-acre inland pine barrens habitat and one of less than 20 in the world. With over 1,500 plant and animal species, you’re sure to see a myriad of activity there. A perfect day of Albany eats would look something like this: breakfast at Iron Gate Cafe (sweet potato hash with eggs), lunch at Jack’s Oyster House (oysters, obvi), and a romantic dinner at Cafe Capriccio (fresh house-made pasta).
STAY Formerly the DeWitt Clinton Hotel, the Renaissance Albany Hotel is a historic icon only steps from the Capitol.
Kick off your visit with a meal at Chick & Ruth’s Delly, a favorite of locals and tourists alike since it opened in 1965. To get your government fix, tour the US Naval Academy or the Maryland State House. Built in 1772, it’s the oldest state house still in use. On Wednesday nights between April and August, nearly 100 yachts gather for the Wednesday Night Races. Watch the action from the Spa Creek Drawbridge and find a boat to follow. Hope you like crab because it’s the state dish here in Maryland. Some of the best crab houses are Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn or Mike’s Crab House—a quick drive from downtown.
STAY You can’t miss the Flag House Inn, a B&B charmer that’s literally adorned in flags. Check out the themed rooms, especially the ones where the headboards match the wallpaper. Trippy!
St. Paul, MN
State capital and sister city to Minneapolis, St. Paul and its twin are home to dozens of huge companies with universal reach like Target, 3M and Best Buy. But those names aren’t what make the Twin Cities great. The people, the weather (yes it’s freezing in the winter but the snow is beautiful and the summers are near perfection) and the killer food scene make the region one of the hottest in the U.S. right now with St. Paul leading the charge. Craft beer is all the rage here and St. Paul is home to dozens of breweries, so visiting one (or 5) is a must. We like Summit Brewery, which opened in 1986, and women-owned Urber Growler best, but you really can’t go wrong. With so many pro-sports teams to choose from, you can likely catch a game or match any time of year. In the winter, head to the Xcel Center to see the Minnesota Wild hockey team to get a true glimpse at St. Paul team spirit. For a killer meal, head to Saint Dinette, Meritage, or Mucci’s and see what the food-scene fuss here is all about.
STAY They don’t make ’em like the Saint Paul Hotel anymore. These downtown digs offer old school vibes, but with modern-day creature comforts.
New England is about as charming as it gets, and the Ocean State capital oozes that charm left and right. One of the oldest cities in the country, Providence is filled with historic streets and waterfront walkways ideal for long leisurely strolls. Right in the heart of the city, you’ll find the Providence Place Mall and the Westminster Arcade boasting a lovely Greek revival facade. Meander around the scholarly grounds of Brown University or pop into the Providence Athenaeum to peruse the library shelves much like Edgar Alan Poe used to do. Enjoy a European-esque dinner at Constantino’s Ristorante by grabbing a sidewalk table and soaking in the live music. After dinner, grab a cannoli from Scialo Bros Bakery to snack on as you walk through the Italian-American enclave of Federal Hill.
STAY Trendy, budget charmer The Dean Hotel offers everything we love in a lodging, including cozy rooms, awesome food (at North) and a great bar scene (the Dean Bar is closed for renovations until September 2019).
There’s way more to this Wisco college town than cheese curds and craft beer, although they’re really, really good at both. Located smack dab in-between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, there’s a strong outdoor culture associated with this state capital. Walk the lake shores or bike along one of the many trails to really get a sense of the city. When you feel the twinge of hunger and thirst, reward yourself with a beer at Ale Asylum Brewery or on the gorgeous waterfront patio at the Memorial Union Terrace (free day passes for non-students are available). Then, on to some proper Wisconsin curds at The Old Fashioned, because when in Rome. Come springtime, the city’s food festival scene starts to heat up. Everything from BratFest to Bacon and Brews and, of course, the regionally famous farmers’ market on Capitol Square, liven city streets and these are great opportunities to get a feel for the energy of the city. The Majestic Theater always has a good show on tap and Comedy on State is one of the country’s best alt stand-up comedy rooms.
STAY: Say yes to waterfront views at the lovely Edgewater Hotel, which sits right on Lake Mendota and is only a stone’s throw from Capitol Square.
First settled in 1787, Montpelier has a population of only around 8,000 people. This makes it one of the smallest capital cities in America. Don’t let that stat fool you: There is plenty to do and see—sans golden arches. (That’s right, Montpelier is the nation’s only state capital that doesn’t have a McDonald’s.) Pick up bagels at Bagito and enjoy them al fresco at Hubbard Park. Hike through the park and be sure to stop at the Cliff Street overlook to get the lay of the land, aka the 5 city blocks that make up downtown. For lunch, pick up the signature item at Mad Taco and wash it down with a maple tasting flight from Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks. Three Penny Taproom has over 20 brews on tap so when it comes to suds time you can you pick your poison.
STAY A town of 8,000 isn’t exactly overflowing with accommodation options, but we like that every nook and cranny of the historic Inn at Montpelier oozes New England charm.
Nearly every city and town in Hawaii is gorgeous, so traveling to the state presents lots of options for a final destination, but we happen to think the capital is overlooked. Located on the island of Oahu, Honolulu is ripe with activity, culture and endless things to do and see, starting with a morning trip to Leonard’s Bakery for piping hot malasadas (a type of fried doughnut). You can’t visit Honolulu without spending a somber morning at the Pearl Harbor National Museum. Lift your spirits and your actual elevation afterward by hiking Diamond Head, and then spend the afternoon relaxing on the beach and staring at fish through a snorkel mask at Hanauma Bay. Downtown Waikiki is buzzing with activity no matter the time of day. Have dinner at the iconic Roy’s Waikiki restaurant, and be sure to get the macadamia nut crusted fish.
STAY The Aloha State pays tribute to its surfer roots at the hippie chic Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club.
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