In a single lifetime, no traveler could ever be done exploring America. Even if you relegated yourself to just roaming the nation’s cities—setting aside the 50 states’ vast open, unincorporated spaces—there would still always be more to see.
Still, there are a few cities every year that are a bit more worth visiting, either because they’re experiencing some sort of renaissance, they’ve been underrated or overlooked for too long, they’re marking a meaningful anniversary, or they’re so big and familiar that would-be travelers lean too heavily on assumptions when deciding to skip them.
Which is why I set about narrowing down the scope of the best U.S. cities to visit in 2020. The resulting list is lean, timely, geographically diverse, and realistic to do in a single year. So get out there.
Oakland’s relationship to San Francisco often inspires comparison to Brooklyn’s relationship to Manhattan: It’s the bigger city’s hipper, more relaxed neighbor, where creativity thrives and anything that buzzes tends to get its start. (I’ll refrain from using words like “hipster” and “gentrification” here.)
But Oakland is much more than San Francisco’s happenin’ sidekick. It’s a multi-cultural destination unto itself, with world-class attractions including Jack London Square, Lake Merritt, the Fox Theater, the Oakland Zoo, Children’s Fairyland, Temescal Alley, funky Telegraph Avenue, and the Coliseum (where the As play), adjacent to the Oakland Arena, where the Golden State Warriors saw their historic rise. No wonder almost 4 million people travel here every year.
And 2020 looks particularly promising for “the Town” to be one of the best cities in America to visit, what with the Oakland Museum of California poised to get a makeover in summer, and Oakland International Airport debuting 17 new eateries—including Brown Sugar Kitchen, Tay Ho, and A16—over the course of the year. It’s also the 130th birthday of the nearby University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.
These days, major companies call Oakland home, including Pandora, Kaiser Permanente, the Sierra Club, and VSCO, whose trendy app is giving Instagram a run for its money—and whose building offers a gear-packed, free-to-use studio space for social media-ready photo shoots. Other of-the-moment places to be in this town of more than 1,000 murals include Super Juiced, Swan’s Market, Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, bars like Drexl, and beer gardens like Temescal Brewing and Lost & Found. Try to be here in early March so you can bring something home from the epic flea market that is the White Elephant Sale.
Where to stay: The Claremont Club & Spa, a Fairmont hotel, was built in 1915 to overlook the San Francisco Bay. It sports a luxurious old-money feel with fine dining, an extensive spa, and elegant rooms. But this country club-style hotel is also surprisingly family-friendly: The cost of your stay (or even just the cost of your spa treatment or restaurant meal) also covers three hours of daily childcare at the fun-filled Kids’ Club.
Most travelers don’t need much convincing that Honolulu is worth their time and money. It’s easily among the very best places to visit in the U.S. But if you’ve been holding off, 2020 is the year to go. With a slew of new flights headed there from all over the U.S., including Hawaiian Airlines’ Boston-to-Honolulu route (America’s longest regularly scheduled domestic segment) and Southwest’s reasonably priced jaunts (book these well ahead—they sell out quickly), the balmy shores of Waikiki are easier to get to than ever.
But Honolulu is much more than a gorgeous beach town—though it’s that, too. It’s also a bastion of culture, both native and not. In 2020, the Bishop Museum will unveil an original exhibit, “Mai Kinohi Mai,” displaying Hawaii’s oldest surfboards, including Duke Kahanamoku’s. The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival will be celebrating its 10th anniversary, Oahu’s Ukulele Festival will be celebrating its 50th, and the USS Missouri its 75th.
Meanwhile, Honolulu’s food scene has been booming: 2020 will see chef Jason Yamaguchi’s Japanese-French restaurant Mugen open in the fancy new Espacio hotel. La Vie, serving modern French food, is the impressive new dining room in Waikiki’s Ritz-Carlton Residences. And a new boutique hotel, Halepuna Waikiki, proffers the casual Halekulani Bakery & Restaurant, whose menu focuses on indigenous ingredients.
But really, all these dining, shopping, and rich cultural experiences serve to enhance the true draw here, which is the natural beauty of a volcanic island in the far middle of the Pacific Ocean. The palm trees sway, the sunsets stun, and the gentle, warm waves keep rolling in. And, as ever, the tourism industry is working hard to help travelers find new ways to experience this unique capital city, from new Atlas Obscura tours to new cruise sailings landing in Honolulu, from Crystal to Carnival.
Where to stay: The Ko Olina Resort is a collection of four celebrated hotels about 15 miles west of Honolulu: Disney’s Aulani (don’t miss the Ka’Waa luau), the lovely Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina (try the spa-and-stargazing and/or the “Navy Seal for a Day” experience), the Beach Villas, and Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club.
Never considered visiting Lexington, Kentucky? Time to reconsider. It’s one of the best U.S. cities to visit—especially if you have equestrian leanings. The “horse capital of the world” (thanks to more than 400 thoroughbred farms) is emerging as a prime Southern destination. The hometown of Ashley and Naomi Judd, as well as George Clooney (his mom was a city councilwoman), is also home to 14 of the state’s biggest bourbon distilleries and more than 120 worthwhile restaurants.
In 2020, Lexington will host the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Championships at Keeneland Race Course for the second time since 2015, a year that saw the event’s largest attendance ever. A few months prior, Equitana, the world’s largest equine fair, will be launching its first U.S. event at the Kentucky Horse Park. And all year long, travelers can enjoy previously unavailable access to champion race horses in the form of newly introduced private tours.
But Lexington isn’t just about horses. Located in the bluegrass region, it has plenty of music and other cultural events as well. After a successful inaugural year in 2019, the Railbird Festival, Lexington’s first large-scale music festival, is returning in August 2020 to the Grounds at Keeneland.
In early 2020, a vacant bus terminal will finish its transformation into a yet-to-be-named mixed-used space featuring a farmer’s market, restaurants, and boutiques. And the lively Distillery District will continue to grow as an entertainment and food hub that overflows with craft beer and live music.
Where to stay: The chic Origin Hotel debuted in August 2019 as the only hotel in the new Summit at Fritz Farm retail and entertainment center. It’s worth a stay for its modern style, central location, and affordable nightly rates.
Los Angeles, California
There’s a reason that Los Angeles got picked to host the 2028 Olympics—lots of reasons, in fact. It’s a complex, multilayered city full of art and grit, energy and culture. It’s packed with truly inspiring places, from the Griffith Observatory to the Getty Center. It’s got iconic beaches, including Malibu, Santa Monica, and Venice. It’s resilient, and often recovering and rebuilding from major wildfires. In short, it’s one of the best cities in America to visit.
And yes, there are two California cities on this list—but the Golden State turns 170 on September 9, 2020, and is celebrating the milestone by debuting a flurry of big attractions.
In Southern California, that includes a massive new sports and music venue—the 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium—that will serve as home turf for the Rams and the Chargers. It’ll also host the Super Bowl in 2022, the College Football Championship game in 2023, and the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. Taylor Swift will inaugurate the arena with concerts on July 25 and 26, 2020.
Other planned 2020 openings in the City of Angels include Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile-long outdoor art and culture experience celebrating African-American culture; La Plaza Cocina, a Mexican food museum downtown; and the Miracle Mile’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, dedicated to film art and history.
Also in 2020, several legendary L.A. area institutions will be marking major milestones. The LA Art Show turns 25, LA Pride turns 50 (go in June to see this rollicking event), and the Huntington Library celebrates 100 years since it was designed. An easy day trip north, Hearst Castle also celebrates its centennial in 2020—while you’re in that region, don’t miss artist Bruce Munro’s otherworldly Field of Light installation, which was recently extended to stay up at Sensorio into 2020.
Thanks in part to the city’s vibrant and ever-evolving food scene, the Michelin Guide just returned to Los Angeles for the first time since 2010. Six L.A. restaurants (n/naka, Providence, Somni, Sushi Ginza Onodera, Urasawa, and Vespertine) nabbed two Michelin stars, while 18 others earned one.
Where to stay: Hotel Indigo is a modern boutique option in the heart of downtown, with a scene-y restaurant (Metropole) and easy access to DTLA highlights including the Staples Center, the Grammy Museum, the Broad, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Orlando is on most kids’ bucket lists, what with Disney World, Universal, and all. And yes, the activity-filled city is one of the world’s best destinations for theme parks. But there’s more to it than that. Whether you’re coming for Mickey and Harry or whether you’re after science and culture, Orlando is one of the best places to visit in the U.S. in 2020.
Let’s start with what’s happening at the theme parks in 2020. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Galaxy’s Edge will have its “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance” ride up and running, and in spring, “Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway” will open. Epcot is undergoing a major expansion; its confirmed openings for 2020 include a Mary Poppins attraction, a “Ratatouille”-themed ride, and a new nighttime spectacular called ”HarmonioUS.” A new Disney-themed Cirque du Soleil show is coming to Disney Springs in spring 2020, with tickets already on sale.
Over at Universal, a show called “Bourne Stuntacular” will debut, while Legoland has deemed 2020 the “Year of the Pirate,” with a new hotel and water show to match. Icon Park will debut two thrill rides, including the world’s tallest free-standing drop tower, plus Ole Red, a restaurant by country star Blake Shelton.
About 50 miles east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center will be celebrating Apollo 13’s 50th anniversary, and NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will launch out of Cape Canaveral in summer. Also in summer, the Orlando Science Center will debut a new exhibit called “Pompeii: The Immortal City.”
In 2020 food news, Orlando is seeing fun eateries open over the course of the year: Camelo Pizzeria on International Drive will serve up Brazilian thin-crust pizza; Sixty Vines will turn out Napa-inspired seasonal cuisine in Winter Park; Norman’s is moving from the Ritz-Carlton to Restaurant Row; and chef Jérôme Bocuse’s La Crêperie de Paris will delight in Epcot’s France pavilion.
Where to stay: Orlando has the second-highest number of hotel rooms of any U.S. city, so there are plenty of options, with new properties popping up all the time. Two of 2020’s biggest openings include the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, set to open in March with 516 rooms, a spa, a pool and splash pad, specialty restaurants, and a rooftop terrace where guests can enjoy the theme parks’ nightly fireworks. Looking for a budget-friendly option? The 2,050-room, coastal-themed Dockside Inn and Suites will open in 2020 as the second wave of Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, with nightly rates starting at $76.
Rochester, New York
Rochester—New York’s third-biggest city—is in the midst of a revival. The midsized metropolis on Lake Ontario’s south shore has always been the entry point to the Finger Lakes wine region. But now it’s seeing new levels of growth and revitalization, with more than $950 million being invested in the city’s downtown core, in a successful bid to make this one of the best U.S. cities to visit. Its food and drink scene is booming with new restaurants, wineries, breweries, distilleries, and coffee roasters. These include the new REDD Rochester, by Michelin-starred chef and native son Richard Reddington.
Rochester was also the hometown of Susan B. Anthony, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated in 2020 at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House (visitors can see the room where she died and the parlor in which she was arrested for voting). The year 2020 is also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and which very well may not have been possible without Susan B. Anthony. Those photos that go viral every election with “I Voted” stickers all over her grave? That’s in Rochester.
Hence 2020’s lineup of women’s suffrage events in Rochester, including Votercade, a yearlong series of performances, exhibits, and other events across the city to celebrate the right to vote. Denizens of “Flower City,” as it’s known, are experts at putting on events: Rochester hosts more than 140 annual festivals, including the Lilac Festival, International Jazz Festival, and the Fringe Festival.
Other key attractions include High Falls, a 96-foot Genesee River waterfall in the middle of downtown; the Lake Ontario shoreline; hiking and biking trails along the Erie Canal; Sibley Square (which is getting a new regional-ingredients restaurant marketplace, called The Mercantile, in 2020); the Strong National Museum of Play; the George Eastman Museum; the Rochester Museum & Science Center; and the richly stocked Memorial Art Gallery.
Where to stay: The Inn on Broadway is a historic boutique property with 25 guest rooms, and no two that are the same. A stay includes a hearty breakfast.
Election years are always interesting in America, and the 2020 election promises to be one of the most dramatic ever. Whether you’re there on election night—November 3, 2020—or in the months leading up to it, Washington, D.C. is the center of it all.
At George Washington’s behest, Frenchman Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed much of the nation’s capital in a way that made it among the best cities in America to visit. He applied European aesthetics to the American notion of all people being equal, strategically placing D.C.’s center of power so that every citizen could access it. He didn’t live to see his vision of “Federal Town” come to life, but D.C. did end up being mostly a faithful replication of his design—National Mall, plentiful parks, and all.
On that Mall are some of the world’s best museums, many in the form of the Smithsonian institutions: The unmissable National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Natural History (housing some 146 million scientific specimens), the inspiring Air and Space Museum, and many more. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum isn’t part of the Smithsonian, but it does provide a powerful and eye-opening education about racism and genocide; with 2020 being the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, it’s a poignant time to pay tribute to the millions who were murdered there.
In 2020, D.C. will also be doing much to commemorate the 100th anniversary of American women finally winning the right to vote. The capital city’s suffrage centennial events will include extensive museum exhibits and major public events, including the League of Women Voters’ Centennial Celebration.
The year 2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Earth Day; climate activists will likely take to the streets on April 22 during EarthRise, to demand a more sustainable future. Other notable 2020 events in D.C. will include the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover (May 7 – 8) and the National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 – April 12).
Where to stay: The Watergate Hotel is famous as the place where Nixon’s 1972 political scandal unfolded—but this curvaceous property on the Potomac River still exudes executive elegance and leader-worthy luxuries, thanks to a recent makeover.
Branson, along with its surrounding Ozark Mountains, promises to be well worth traveling to in 2020 and beyond. It’s been a hidden-gem destination for a while now, but with a slew of new openings and tourist attractions, it’s headed into the mainstream as a first-rate family vacation spot in the American heartland, and one of the best places to visit in the U.S.
Among the region’s coming-soon attractions: Mystic River Falls, in Branson’s Silver Dollar City theme park, is a $23 million water ride that will feature the Western Hemisphere’s tallest drop. The new Aquarium at the Boardwalk will include a jellyfish infinity room, a submarine voyage, and an underwater “mermaid palace.” WonderWorks will debut as a science-themed indoor amusement park with more than 100 interactive exhibits, while Big Air Trampoline Park’s 57 attractions will include a ninja warrior course. The Shepherd of the Hills will add canopy zipline tours, and a range of restaurants will debut in 2020, as well as a new concert hall.
Golfers, in particular, might want to consider a trip here: A Tiger Woods-designed golf course, called Payne’s Valley, is set to open in spring 2020, and the Ozarks National championship course, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, just opened in 2019.
Where to Stay: Big Cedar Lodge is a 4,600-acre wilderness and golf resort on Missouri’s Table Rock Lake, eight miles south of Branson. It offers homey lodgings and restaurants, two marinas, a spa, four golf courses, a 50,000-square-foot activity center, a wide range of outdoor adventures, and a new lakefront “glampsite.”
Salt Lake City, Utah
In September 2020, Salt Lake City is getting a $3.6 billion new airport—America’s first new hub airport to be built this century. A complete rebuild of the existing SLC, it’ll feature floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Wasatch Mountains, new restaurants and retailers, and a new light-rail station to make it easy for SLC’s 25 million annual passengers to get downtown.
Some of the world’s best ski resorts—Alta, Brighton, Snowbird, and Solitude—are within 90 minutes of the airport. The lively downtown is much closer—only six miles away, with all of its dining, nightlife, and performing arts, plus the Utah Jazz, the state capitol building, Temple Square, and the dinosaur-filled Natural History Museum.
Like other places on this list, Utah will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage—especially because it was the first state to give women the right to vote. The state will be commemorating the centennial with events all year long.
Where to stay: The Kimpton Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City stocks 225 of SLC’s more than 19,000 hotel rooms. Everything about it is modern, hip, and fun, from its daily happy hour to its posh room decor. The Kimpton is also dog-friendly, centrally located, and the home of the city’s popular Bambara restaurant.
For more ideas, see The Top Travel Destinations for 2020.
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