7 Great American Vacation Spots (That Won't Bust Your Budget)
Our mission: to find a geographically diverse group of top U.S. destinations where your summer travel dollars can — with a little bit of planning — go a very long way. Then: recommend particular attractions, eateries, and places to stay that will make the most of your visit without breaking the budget.
If Bristol, Tennessee, is the birthplace of American county music, Nashville is where it moved after growing some sideburns (or curves). Soak up live performances any night of the week and spend your days investigating Nashville's many other artistic, gustatory, and historical delights.
Do: During the daytime, get heady on harmonies at the Johnny Cash Museum — where you can see the singer's handwritten lyrics and Martin guitar ($15 entry) — and the Country Music Hall of Fame, which just underwent a $100 million expansion ($25; $2 off with a visitmusiccity.com coupon). Then hit a Grand Ole Opry live radio show (from $29.50, three days a week) for big names like Blake Shelton, as well as old-school and up-and-coming performers. For a taste of Nashville's noncountry scene, check out the Stone Fox for the nightly live performances, many with no cover charge, and $1-off happy-hour specials. If visual art is more your speed, you can enjoy works by Goya, Hopper, and Wyeth at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, located in a renovated Art Deco post office ($10), and take tours of 135-year-old letterpress shop Hatch Show Print — during which you make your own print to take home ($15).
Eat: Go for a handmade pasta, like garganelli verdi with heritage pork ragout ($17), at Rolf and Daughters, which opened last year in a 100-year-old factory building in Germantown. Then there's Pinewood Social, a restaurant/karaoke bar/bowling alley, great for treats like hot sweetbreads ($13) and pork-belly salad ($12). But no matter what else you eat, don't leave town without trying Prince’s Hot Chicken, which is nothing short of a buttery, crunchy, fiery revelation ($7.65 for a half chicken). It's a few miles northeast of downtown, on the way back from Andrew Jackson's Hermitage estate. Newcomer 400 Degrees, near the Hall of Fame, is a close second ($5.86 and up).
Sleep: If your timing is flexible, you can snag discounts at hotels that reward you for longer stays. The Hutton, where rooms typically range from $200 to $300 per night, offers 15% off three-night stays and 20% off four-night stays this summer. Save even more by staying farther from downtown: A new branch of Homewood Suites in the Vanderbilt area, just west of center city, costs 30% less than the downtown Homewood Suites in August — $180 a night compared with $260.
Splurge: Good cowboy boots ain't cheap, but you can allay the sticker shock by checking out the bargain section of French's Shoes and Boots. Before bed, grab a nightcap at The Patterson House, a gorgeous speakeasy (and celebrity hangout) serving up class, sass, and incredible cocktails.
Portland has a well-earned hipster rep, but it's also become a buzzy culinary hotspot. Isn't it time you went to taste the hype for yourself?
Do: Get your bearing with a free walking tour from Secrets of Portlandia, billed as a “stand-up comedy about Portland’s history and culture (twice a day through September 3). You'll get a rundown of various neighborhoods, see the city's best known street art, get bar and restaurant recommendations, and more. Still feeling a little of that World Cup fever? Get tickets for the Portland Timbers, the popular local Major League Soccer team. Of, if you're after a more intellectual pursuit, head to Powell's City of Books, the flagship of the world's largest independent chain of bookstores. The store is always hosting interesting readings and book clubs, so check the calendar to see what's on while you're in town.
Eat: Portland is a foodie favorite known for two things: creativity and affordability. Start your noshing with the city's famous food carts. Go to Foodcartsportland.com (or download their 99 cent app) to get the scoop on where to find the most mouthwatering options. One to try: Gastro Mania, home of the $8 foie gras burger. Check Under the Table with Jen, a local food blog run by Jen Stevenson, for sit-down eats. For an evening of wine, cheese, and charcuterie, Stevenson recommends Cyril's: "It has a 'secret' patio, and they just added a bocce court." Finally, don't leave town without a stop at the legendary Voodoo Doughnuts, one of the originators of the creative doughnut craze.
Sleep: Portland has some great hotels, but if you’re traveling mid-summer, you’re unlikely to find a well-located place for less than $250 a night. For a more affordable option, try the Everett Street Guesthouse, which is an easy walk to many restaurants and cafes and a six-minute drive from downtown. Rooms start $100, including breakfast.
Splurge: If you've ever watched IFC's Portlandia, the Portland-based comedy starting former SNL cast member Fred Armisen and musician Carrie Brownstein, you remember the "Put a Bird On it" sketch. That scene was filmed at Land, a store/gallery that carries a range of affordable gifts and artworks made by local craftspeople. No matter your taste, you'll likely find a goodie worthy of a spot in your suitcase.
Santa Fe/Albuquerque, NM
New Mexico perfectly captures the spirit of the Southwest — and is full of fun, affordable activities. Start in Albuquerque, then drive an hour northeast to Santa Fe, home to one of the most vibrant art scenes in the country.
Do: With among the highest concentrations of Native Americans in the country, New Mexico is a great place to learn about Navajo and Zuni Pueblo culture. In Albuquerque, catch a dance performance and read about the history of the state's 22 tribal communities at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center ($6 admission). If you’re visiting in August, try to catch the Santa Fe Indian market, where more than 170,000 people gather each year to learn about and buy contemporary Native American arts and crafts. For a dose of 20th century Americana, check out Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum ($12 for adults, free for youth under 18) — and don’t leave the state without catching a dramatic sunset on North America’s longest aerial tram, the Sandia Peak Tramway in Albuquerque ($20).
Eat: Enjoy the kitchy décor and savory diner-food-with-a-twist at Owl Cafe in Albuquerque; try the sumptuous green chili cheeseburger ($5.25) and the onion loaf ($4.95) — a plateful of thin, golden rings piled high. Up in Santa Fe, there’s something for everyone at Harry’s Roadhouse, where the saucy and delicious tacos, burritos, and enchiladas can all be made vegetarian. Generally, top-rated Mexican food abounds, so you just have to remember one rule: Dip those sopapillas in honey.
Sleep: Even nicer hotels in Albuquerque are much less expensive than their counterparts in other cities: The Hotel Parq Central, top-rated on TripAdvisor, charges less than $150 a night for stays in August. Santa Fe is considerably pricier, so go for a bed and breakfast instead, like the whimsically decorated El Paradero Inn, where rooms are available from $155.
Splurge: Take advantage of the hot-but-dry desert weather at the outdoor Santa Fe Opera, which shows original works alongside classics like Carmen. Ticket prices range based on dates and seats from $30 to $300.
Long Beach Island, NJ
Don't be misled by the Jersey Shore GTL stereotype. While there is certainly plenty of fist pumping in some New Jersey beach towns, Long Beach Island is more of an old-school family getaway, complete with salt water taffy, mini-golf, and 18 miles of beach.
Do: Climb the 217 steps of the Barnegat Lighthouse for panoramic views of the island and Barnegat Bay ($3 entry fee). You may even be lucky enough to be in town when the lighthouse is open for a “night climb,” which happens just a few times per summer (check the schedule). When you're ready to hit the water, try a lesson at LBI Surfing. Non-surfers may want to try an SUP—stand-up paddling—class instead. Group lessons are $55 per person. Finally, don't forget to grab a beach pass; they start at $5 a day.
Eat: You're on vacation, so eat some fried food. Locals like The Clam Bar in Beach Haven. Try the fried flounder and fry platter for $12.95 or go old school with Clams Casino ($9.95). The line can get long, but you can always call ahead for take-out (and no matter what you do, mind the no cellphone policy!). For another fun indulgence, head to the infamous Chicken or the Egg, once featured on the Man vs. Food show on the Travel Channel. You'll have plenty of egg dishes to choose from, of course, but the casual eatery is also known for its chicken wings, which come with a choice of 16 sauces.
Sleep: Rather than overpay for a funky beach hotel, look into renting your own place. A recent search of AirBnB turned up 1-bedroom condos starting at $160 per night, and a 4-bedroom cottage for a manageable $190 a night. Bonus: Many rentals come with bikes, grills, and beach chairs.
Splurge: Go to the original Ron Jon Surf Shop, opened in 1961. You know you want a new pair of board shorts or sunglasses, so pick them up at this massive, wonderfully cheesy beach emporium.
Yellowstone National Park, WY
America's national parks are a shared treasure — and Yellowstone is the granddaddy of them all. Check an important item on your domestic bucket list and pitch a tent here.
Do: Swim, hike, and horseback ride through the two-million-plus acres of our country's first national park, containing the world's largest collection of geysers and hot springs — which come in every color of the rainbow. Bring binoculars to get the best view of Yellowstone's wild fauna, including bison, elk, bobcats, coyotes, moose, mountain lions, wolves, and bears. And of course, catch a glimpse of Old Faithful erupting. The park's $25 entrance fee is good for a week's stay, and seniors older than 62 (and their families) and military families can get in for free.
Eat: Nothing beats the smell of barbeque mingling with the fresh outdoor air, so cook outside in one of the park's designated picnic areas for pleasure — and savings. If you need a break, grab a seat in the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, located right next to the famous geyser, and order the smoked bison and pheasant and chicken sausage ($15.95) or make your way to Roosevelt Lodge for some farm-raised trout ($18.75).
Sleep: Hotels and cabins are available within the park, but you should decrease the hit to your wallet and up the excitement by pitching a tent in one of Yellowstone's tent and RV campgrounds. Whereas a room at the Old Faithful Lodge can go for $124 a night in August, camping sites are only $21. There are five grounds where you can reserve spots online, and seven that are first-come, first-served.
Splurge: Bring along some high-quality thermal underwear — the park is surprisingly cold at night, with average lows in late August dipping below 40 degrees. And if you make any gift shop purchases, avoid this book, unless you want to spend your evenings dreaming about bear attacks.
New Orleans, LA
Despite its reputation as a party city, New Orleans is much more than beads and bachelor bacchanals. The city is rich with culture, food, lore, and one of the most American of musical genres — jazz.
Do: Get to know New Orleans and its history intimately with one of Free Tours By Foot's two-hour walking tours, after which you tip the guide whatever you'd like. Start with the French Quarter tour, where you'll learn about the city's founding (details are delightfully macabre and salacious) and see historic spots like the Tennessee Williams house. Then branch out with the cemetery or Garden District tours, where you might glimpse a celebrity pet. In the evening, unless you are a dead serious jazz enthusiast, forgo the long line and $30 ticket prices at Preservation Hall and enjoy a live performance at effervescent (and free-of-cover) Fritzel's.
Eat: Trying the sweet, fluffy beignets at Cafe du Monde ($2.65 for three) is a crucial rite of passage for NOLA visitors, as is ordering a po'boy from one of the city's many worthy shops. Wash down the grease with the quintessential New Orleans cocktail, the Sazerac, at the quintessential New Orleans bar: the Napolean House ($7).
Sleep: Skip chain hotels like the Marriott or Hyatt, where prices typically top $200 a night, and soak up local charm by staying at a family-owned bed and breakfast. At the 1830s Creole-style Bourgoyne Guest House on Bourbon Street (just north of the hubbub) you'll pay only $95 a night for studios overlooking a quiet inner courtyard. The plates in the attached kitchenette come in handy to collect crumbs from a late-night muffaletta.
Splurge: Reward yourself for hours of walking — or dancing at The Spotted Cat — with dinner at romantic, atmospheric SoBou. An appetizer of sweet potato beignets is fancied up with foie gras fondue, duck debris, and chicory coffee ganache ($12).
Always one of America's most exciting cities, Chicago really comes alive in summer, when residents can finally shed all those layers and get out and enjoy their town.
Do: No matter what part of the city you’re itching to explore, you’ll find an intriguing itinerary at ChooseChicago.com. The site runs down a weekly calendar of what’s going on, and suggests routes through 51 different areas. You'll also find a bevy of free activities throughout the city this summer, including 30 concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. For more culture, seek out one of the dozens of shows put on by small theater companies every weekend. Tickets usually range from $15 to $35 and Chicagoreader.com offers current listings. Finally, no one with even a passing interest in America’s Game should skip Wrigley Field. Check the schedule and get tickets—some at as little as $20—at the Cubs' website.
Eat: Start with the classic: a Chicago-style hot dog topped by sport peppers, tomato slices, and bright green relish from Hot Doug's on the North Side. Or, for the type of neighborhood joint locals love, Stephanie Callahan, of food blog Stephanie Eats Chicago, suggests Home Bistro in Lakeview. "It's a cozy, BYOB place that always has the best ingredients and freshest flavors," she says. Want a $20 a person dinner (including tax and tip)? Get away from the downtown Loop for a range of ethnic food, including Mexican, Indian and Vietnamese.
Sleep: Hotels in the city center are pricey in summer, but you can save by choosing a B&B. Check out options in Chicago's North Side neighborhoods, such as Andersonville, Old Town, or Wicker Park. The Wicker Park Inn, for instance, has rooms in July for $159 a night and occasionally offers special rates as low as $99.
Splurge: Reward yourself for a day of serious sightseeing with an al fresco cocktail at Shanghai Terrace, in the Peninsula Hotel. A Green Tea Mojito or Sour Cherry Old Fashion goes down even easier with a cool breeze and sweeping skyline view.
Need more ideas for summer sojourns? Take our quiz: Which Movie Matches Your Travel Style — and Dream Destination?