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10 Fun Off-Resort Things to Do in Oahu

It’s easy to soak up the sun on Waikiki Beach for a week, sampling the area’s many restaurants and taking side trips to nearby Pearl Harbor or Diamond Head. But if you limit your Hawaiian vacation to just one area, you’re missing out. There are plenty of other things to do in Oahu, an island that spans 597 square miles of golden beaches, crashing waves, deep green forests, and laid-back surf towns.

To learn about Honolulu’s most popular attractions, see SmarterTravel’s Honolulu Travel Guide. But for the best things to do in Oahu outside the capital city, read on.

Have an Adventure

atvs at kualoa ranch

Sprawling across 4,000 verdant acres on Oahu’s Windward Coast, Kualoa Ranch offers just about every adventure you can imagine, from horseback riding and zip-lining to kayaking and ATV tours. This private nature reserve is also a popular Hollywood filming spot; movie tours lead visitors past familiar landmarks from films and TV shows such as Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, and Lost.

You can also relax at Kualoa’s exclusive Secret Island Beach, where you can swim, kayak, play beach volleyball, or simply enjoy the views of Mokolii, a small island off the coast also known as “Chinaman’s Hat.”

Other adventurous things to do in Oahu include a hike or off-road expedition with North Shore EcoTours. The company operates on private conservation land, so there are no other tourists around.

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Hit the Beach

oahu beach

Waikiki is the island’s most famous (and most crowded) beach, but there are plenty of other golden stretches of sand on Oahu where you can lay your towel. On the island’s Windward (eastern) Coast is Kailua Beach Park, which spans more than two miles and includes bathroom facilities, picnic tables, and multiple parking lots. Its calm waters are popular for swimming and kite surfing. Nearby is Lanikai Beach, which some travelers find even more beautiful, despite its lack of facilities and limited parking.

On the North Shore are beaches with towering wintertime waves for surfing, including Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. Or head to the Leeward Coast on the west side of the island to catch the sunset from Keawaula Beach, also known as Yokohama; keep an eye out for dolphins or whales.

Help alleviate the environmental effects of your visit by participating in a beach cleanup. The company Travel2change offers a variety of activities like a yoga class or biking trip combined with a beach cleanup after your desired activity.

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Soak Up Local History and Culture

performer at polynesian cultural center

Oahu may be best known for beaches and natural beauty, but it’s also home to a wealth of fascinating cultural attractions. Start with the Polynesian Cultural Center, where you can watch performances and visit villages representing the cultures of Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Aotearoa. The popular attraction now offers immersive cultural experiences with locals like the Umu Making Experience. Each ticket entry (when purchased online) allows you to come back for free for three days, so you can experience other parts of the center.

Learn about the island’s history at Hawaii Plantation Village, which features restored buildings from the sugar plantation era of 1850 through 1950. Follow it up with a visit to Queen Emma Summer Palace, the former royal mountain retreat that’s now a museum housing furniture and regalia belonging to the 19th-century queen. Oahu is also home to spectacular museums like the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Hawaii State Art Museum, Iolani Palace, and the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design.

And don’t discount Oahu’s modern art scene; street art is increasingly prominent in Honolulu and its surrounding neighborhoods. Check out Pow! Wow!’s interactive mural map of Oahu.

Taste the Island Flavors

hawaiian poke

From fresh seafood (poke, anyone?) to shave ice, Oahu offers plenty of delicious flavors to sample throughout your trip. A great place to start is at the many farmers’ markets that take place around the island, offering locally grown produce and artisan food items. You can visit the North Shore Country Market on Saturday mornings, the Windward Mall on Wednesdays and Sundays, or a number of others supported by the Hawaii Farm Bureau. If you’re in Oahu on a Saturday or Tuesday evening, check out the KCC Farmer’s Market for fresh and local food like fried mochi balls, seafood, coffee, and more.

Also be sure to explore the island’s more modern neighborhoods like Kaka’ako for juice bars, farm-to-table dining, and its own farmers’ market. And don’t leave the North Shore without trying shave ice: Visitors line up for the famed Matsumoto Shave Ice, and it’s worth it!

And, of course, you can’t visit Hawaii without going to a luau. This traditional Polynesian-style feast typically features pork roasted in an umu, or underground oven, as well as other Hawaiian dishes such as poi (mashed taro) and poke. Some of the most popular luau events on Oahu include the Alii Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center and the Ka Moana Luau at Sea Life Park.

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Take a Hike

hiker on mountaintop in oahu

Stretch your legs and enjoy some of Oahu’s best views by incorporating a hike or two into your vacation. One popular, not too strenuous option is the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail, located along the Kalanianaole Highway east of Honolulu. The two-mile paved trail overlooks the ocean; keep an eye out for whales in season.

Not far away is a significantly more challenging hike, the Koko Crater Railway Trail, where railroad ties now serve as steps for a steep uphill climb. The reward for all that effort? Sweeping views of Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, and other landmarks in the eastern part of Oahu.

Other trails to consider include the Kuliouou Ridge Hike and the coastal trail at Kaena Point State Park.

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Stroll Through Gorgeous Gardens

pink flowers in oahu

Nature lovers will enjoy the lush foliage and vibrant flowers in botanical gardens across the island. A particular highlight is Waimea Valley, where a walking trail winds through a mix of tropical plants and cultural sites on the way to a waterfall visitors can swim in.

Hoomaluhia Botanical Garden is another serene place for a stroll, spanning some 400 acres of plants from various parts of Asia, Africa, Polynesia, and the Americas. Or you can wander among the native Hawaiian plants at Wahiawa Botanical Garden, located just down the road from Dole Plantation.

You can also stop by Byodo-In Temple, a scale replica of a Japanese temple surrounded by Japanese-style gardens.

Hit the Water

surfer north shore oahu

If you wanted to, you could spend the majority of your vacation enjoying the crashing waves and turquoise waters surrounding Oahu. Learn to hang 10 with a surfing lesson at Uncle Bryan’s Sunset Suratt Surf Academy or North Shore Surf Girls. Or, for something a little different, go “canoe surfing” with We Go! Island Canoe in Kailua. On the North Shore, Sea and Board Sports Hawaii offers a little of everything, from stand-up paddleboarding to glass-bottom kayaking.

And don’t neglect Oahu’s underwater world. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, just a short drive from Honolulu, is one of the island’s most popular snorkeling spots, but you can also snorkel right off the beach at Shark’s Cove or Kuilima Cove on the North Shore.

The brave can book an open snorkeling session with famed marine biologist Ocean Ramsey and her company One Ocean Diving. The pelagic shark research snorkel teaches you about shark safety, biology, and conservation. And yes, you really get to swim in the open ocean with these fantastic animals.

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Play a Round

golf course oahu

The spectacular views at Oahu’s courses might ruin you for golf at home, but it’s a risk worth taking. Many of the most popular courses are on the grounds of resorts, including Ko Olina Golf Club, which features a Ted Robinson-designed course with plenty of water features, and Turtle Bay, which has two 18-hole courses on the scenic North Shore.

Non-resort courses to consider include the Ewa Beach Golf Club, a challenging course on the western side of the island, and the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club, offering lush foliage and mountain views on Oahu’s eastern side.

Learn About Agritourism

giant machine cog on display at the decommissioned Kahuku sugar mill plantation on the island of Oahu Hawaii

Many of Hawaii’s former sugar plantations are getting a second life. One example is Ko Hana Distillers, which is a rum distillery set on a former sugar plantation. You can even combine a distillery tour with a hike through the company Hawaii Forest & Trail. Or experience even more agritourism with the Farm to Forest Experience, which includes a tour of a working organic farm and a hike with amazing views.

A visit to Gunstock Ranch is another agritourism experience on Oahu. The ranch is home to a Hawaiian Legacy forest and offers tours to help plant trees as well as go horseback riding or tour the ranch. 

Kahumana offers tours of its organic farm, which offers vocational training for locals struggling with homelessness or disability. You can also enjoy a delicious meal on site at the Kahumana Cafe.

Kahuku Farms offers tours as well as a cafe featuring ingredients grown on site. At the Dole Plantation, you can take a train tour, find your way through a garden maze, and sample ice cream made with the company’s famous pineapples.

Discover WWII History

uss bowfin submarine admiral clarey bridge oahu.

Of course, no visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial, but there are three other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites that are also worth visiting: the Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. Experiences range from guided tours to climbing aboard a real WWII-era submarine. The USS Missouri Memorial and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum are located on Ford Island and accessible via shuttle buses. Here you can tour the historic battleship, see the battle-damaged airfield, and even walk inside hangars with a fleet of vintage airplanes. Tours and passes are available for all four sites.

What to Pack

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines and Barclays. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. 

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this story.

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Portugal vs. Spain: Which Country Is Right for You?

While both Portugal and Spain occupy the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, you may be wondering: Which one should you visit? The best answer is both, of course, but which one to choose depends on what kind of vacation you want to have. Here’s the ultimate rundown on Portugal vs. Spain so you can make the best decision.

Portugal vs. Spain: Language

Portuguese is the official language of Portugal. It’s fairly similar to Spanish, but a word that goes far is obrigado/a for “thank you” (not to be confused with the Spanish gracias).

Spain gets a bit more complicated. While the predominant language is Spanish, and you can hear and see that everywhere, Spain has several semi-autonomous regions that are proud of their heritage and language. I once hopped into a cab in Barcelona and received a grouchy “Catalan or English—no Spanish!” when I tried to give my address. Catalan is spoken widely in places like Barcelona and Valencia, but there’s also Galician in Galicia, and Basque in places like Bilbao.

The good news? English is also widely spoken in both countries, especially in the bigger cities.

Winner: If you speak Spanish, Spain is much easier to navigate. But for simplicity’s sake, Portugal wins this round.

Portugal vs. Spain: Food

pasteis de nata portugal.

Portugal offers some of the best seafood in the Mediterranean, with delicious cod, octopus, prawns, and sardines. It’s less known than other “fine dining” destinations like France, so as a result, incredible multi-course dinners are fairly affordable. This is changing quickly though, with Michelin awarding its first stars to Portuguese restaurants in 2019.

Most restaurants open late—if you can get in at 7:00 p.m., you’re likely in a tourist spot—with dinners stretching into the wee hours of the morning.

One famous dessert you can find in Lisbon is pasteis de nata, an egg custard tart sprinkled with the tiniest bit of powdered sugar. It’s heaven in a bite, and worth the long wait at Pastéis de Belem, around the corner from Jeronimos Monastery.

Spain is globally known for its delicious food, especially its avante-garde fine dining scene made famous by Ferran Adria. But Spanish food is equally delicious in its simplest form: cured meats, cheeses, and olives. You’ll find regional specialties from jamon iberico in Andalusia to paella in Valencia and sea urchin in Costa Brava.

Like Portugal, restaurants are open late. But Spain also enjoys a thriving tapas and pintxos scene—small plates at tiny standing-room-only bars—where you can start your dinner as early as 4:00 p.m.

Winner: This one is close—you won’t go wrong! Portugal is easier for vegetarians and pescetarians, but Spain continues to produce globally renowned restaurants and high-quality food across every region, making it the winner.

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Portugal vs. Spain: Wine

In Portugal, head north to Porto, the birthplace of port. You can take a river cruise through the Duoro Valley and sample not just tawny but also ruby, rose, and white port. While you’re there, try vinho verde or “green wine,” which is crisp, acidic, and perfect to pair with seafood, not unlike a sauvignon blanc. Or you can explore the island of Madeira for a wine you’d rather drink than cook with (trust me!).

Spain is known mostly for bold, fruity tempranillos from the Rioja region (similar to a pinot noir or a cabernet sauvignon, depending on how they’re aged), but you’ll also find sparkling cava in Penedes and bright sherries from Jerez. You’ll generally find delicious, surprising options anywhere in the country.

Winner: This one depends on your wine preferences! If you’re a red wine drinker, Spain. If you’re a white wine drinker or into fortified wines, it’s Portugal all the way.

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Portugal vs. Spain: Key Destinations

beach near lagos algarve portugal.

Start your Portugal trip in the capital city of Lisbon. Covered in tiles and palm trees, it doesn’t feel like the major metropolis it really is. Climb up to the historic Alfama neighborhood, listen to fado fading through the alleyways, ride an iconic yellow tram, or head to Belem to explore monasteries and palaces of old.

Portugal’s charm comes from its laid-back cafe culture. Nearby Sintra offers colorful castles and palaces that inspired Hans Christian Andersen. You’ll find delightful small towns across the country, especially Cascais, Sortelha, and Amarante. Explore medieval Obidos or the Roman ruins in Coimbra.

Portugal’s coastline boasts deep cliffs and gorgeous views. Whether you explore the caverns of Lagos, surf or sea kayak in Albufeira, or hop over to the Azores Islands, you’ll find less crowded beaches than elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

In Spain, you’ll have your pick of big cities between Madrid and Barcelona. Madrid offers cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, world-class museums, and imperial palaces; Barcelona has funky Gaudi architecture, wide-open avenues, and plenty of delicious food.

Head south to Andalusia to slow down and experience Moorish architecture or Granada’s famous Alhambra. Another alternative: Head north to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls or make the pilgrimage by foot on the Camino del Santiago to the Santiago de Compostela. Try your hand at world-class rock climbing in the Pyrenees, cheer for your favorite team at a soccer match in Barcelona, or watch flamenco dancers twirl and stomp in Seville.

Then, when you’re ready to relax, head to the beach: Spain has nearly 5,000 miles of coastline for you to choose from. Whether you want to hang out in the sleepy fishing town of Cadiz or island hop to nightlife centers like Ibiza or Mallorca, you’ll find perfect cliffside beaches across the country.

Unlike Portugal, Spain struggles with overtourism, which has made it more difficult to visit due to long lines and crowds from cruise ships dropping thousands of visitors overnight. All that really means is you’ll have to adjust your expectations, be willing to pay for a tour to skip the lines, or travel during the shoulder or off-season.

Winner: This one also depends on what you like. For big cities with medieval charm and pristine, relatively empty beaches, Portugal’s the winner. For outdoor enthusiasts and art and architecture lovers, Spain wins this round.

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Portugal vs. Spain: Cost of Travel

I’ll use two of the most popular destinations in both countries as a proxy for cost—it does vary between high season and low season, and depending on whether you’re in a more popular tourist area. Porto, Portugal, for example, is much cheaper than Lisbon; the little white village of Ronda in Spain is much cheaper than bustling Madrid.

Is Portugal cheaper than Spain? Overall, yes. In Lisbon, you can find a great hotel for around $100 a night depending on the neighborhood, averaging out around $175/night. The average hotel in Barcelona is closer to $200 or $250 depending on the neighborhood.

For restaurants, you’ll pay between 10 and 15 euros for a main course in Lisbon, while Barcelona tends to be between 20 and 30 euros, especially if you’re trying to bag bucket-list dining experiences like a table at Tickets.

Attractions in Portugal also tend to be cheaper—for example, a ticket for the Tile Museum in Lisbon costs 5 euros, while the Prado in Madrid costs 15.

Winner: If you’re on a budget, you won’t beat Portugal’s value. While Spain is definitely still on the cheaper side for most of Europe, Portugal’s the winner.

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The Bottom Line

mijas spain street with plants.

Both Portugal and Spain offer a wide variety of exciting attractions and delicious food.

Head to Portugal if you’re a seafood fanatic wary of crowds, or if you’re on a budget. Portugal is an up-and-coming destination that will surprise you.

If you’re really into fine dining, world-class museums, or rock climbing and hiking, Spain is a great choice. It’s the type of destination you can visit again and again and experience something new.

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Always in search of adventure, Kayla Voigt hails from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can usually find her at the summit of a mountain or digging into a big bowl of pasta. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.

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14 Things a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You (And 6 Things They Can’t)

Few travelers think to contact the hotel concierge for much more than directions or restaurant recommendations—but if you don’t, you’re missing out on a wealth of local expertise. A good hotel concierge has impressive powers and can assist with almost any travel problem you might face, so you shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage.[st_content_ad]

That said, a concierge is not a magician. Below are 14 things your hotel concierge can do for you, six more they can’t, and four tips for maximizing your moments at the hotel lobby.

What a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You

Save You Money

The concierge can tell you how to get to the airport for less, where to find nearby happy hours, what the best free sights and activities are, and how much is a fair price for a taxi.

Recommend Fitness Facilities

If your hotel doesn’t have a gym or lacks the equipment you want, the concierge can usually point you to an affiliated hotel with better facilities, recommend a good running trail, or give you a list of nearby fitness centers that offer daily or weekly passes.

Get You a Ride When There Seems to Be None Available

If it is rush hour, raining, or really late, finding a taxi or Uber ride can be tough. The concierge can make this happen with a phone call in many cases. This can even work if you’re not staying at the hotel in question. I once saw a friend walk into the lobby of a New York hotel and offer the concierge a tip; within seconds, we had a ride.

Get Tickets for You

Many concierges are careful to say they can’t get tickets for sold-out shows, but the truth is they sometimes can. They may have relationships with brokers, or know season ticket holders who may not be using their seats, or even have tickets themselves; Michael Fazio, author of Concierge Confidential, started to purchase tickets to certain shows that he would then sell to guests, usually at a markup that matched the secondary market.

Keep You Safe

A concierge can offer advice on whether a neighborhood, park, or activity is safe to visit, and what you can do instead if your idea is iffy.

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Help You Celebrate

Are you proposing to your partner or celebrating a landmark birthday? Your hotel concierge can help with anything from filling your hotel room with flowers and balloons to organizing a rooftop proposal, complete with a photographer to document the occasion.

Help You Do Your Job

A concierge can assist with all kinds of work-related tasks, such as getting materials to a printer, setting up a courier service, mailing packages, and setting up a meeting space.

Help You Look Good

A concierge can get you an appointment with a barber or hairdresser, get clothes pressed, and more.

Fix Sticky Travel Problems

A concierge can help you find an expeditor or make an embassy appointment if your passport is stolen, or facilitate repairs if your smartphone goes on the fritz. They can also accept overnight mail or late-arriving luggage.

Get You a Table

Restaurants will often find a way to fit in customers who are recommended by their preferred concierge contacts. If the restaurant is truly full, the concierge can often get you to the front of a waiting list.

Recommend Local Service Folks

Need a babysitter, an auto repair shop, or a dog walker? Your concierge can help.

Create a Custom Itinerary

If you have a bunch of stuff you definitely want to do but are uncertain how to make it all fit together, the concierge can take your list of attractions and put together a coherent and achievable plan. He or she can also help you avoid pitfalls such as road construction or closed subway stations.

Help with Special Needs

If you are disabled, aren’t feeling well, or have other special needs, a hotel concierge can offer considerable assistance—like calling wheelchair-accessible taxis, finding English-speaking doctors, and recommending restaurants that can accommodate certain food allergies.

Provide Assistance Before You Arrive

The concierge can be a resource not just once you’re at the hotel but beforehand as well. For instance, he or she could help you plan out your first day, including a restaurant reservation for dinner.

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What Your Hotel Concierge Can’t Do for You


Discretion is an integral part of a concierge’s job, so they tend not to talk about other guests, including which celebrities might be staying in the hotel.

Illegal or Immoral Activities

You shouldn’t expose a concierge to risk by asking him or her to help with illegal—or dubiously legal—activities such as obtaining drugs, forging signatures, finding “companions,” or the like.


A concierge can help you find someone else to look after your child, but he or she can’t actually do the babysitting while on duty.

Float You a Loan

They’ll help you with money concerns, but concierges are not banks; don’t ask them to dig into their pockets for you.

Sell Stuff for You

Concierges are also not your personal eBay or Craigslist; they can’t sell tickets you no longer need or items you don’t want to take home. However, he or she may be able to recommend a place where you can do the sale yourself.

Book Tickets to Sold-Out Shows

Truly sold-out shows tend to be just that; however, you can ask if the concierge has any ideas or contacts to help get you tickets, and he or she might have a strategy for you. If there is truly no way to get certain tickets, the concierge will tell you so.

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Tips for Using a Hotel Concierge

Don’t Be Shy

You might feel as though the concierge is only there for the folks in the penthouse suite, but this isn’t the case; he or she is there to help all guests, so feel free to ask.

Give Them Some Time

Concierges can often pull off difficult tasks, but to do so on very short notice is tricky, and it distracts them from helping other guests. Give the concierge some notice if you need something beyond simple advice.

Present the Concierge’s Card

When a concierge sends you to a restaurant or other establishment, it is often his or her name, not yours, that is the attraction for the proprietor. So if a concierge asks you to show his or her card, do it; these relationships are what makes concierges able to help you now and in the future.

Not All Concierges Are the Same

Concierges at the very best (and most expensive) hotels are notorious for pulling off near-miracles; those at less prestigious establishments typically don’t have the same pull.

Traveling? Get a Carry-On That Does More

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Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the latest information.

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The 19 Best Things to Do in Houston

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Houston has such a diverse range of attractions that you’d need a week to make a dent in the supply. From NASA’s astronaut training center to funky visionary art installations and sprawling urban green spaces, you’ll have your choice of fun things to do in Houston.

Want a whirlwind tour of the major Houston attractions? It’s a snap with the Houston CityPASS, which covers five key sights at a savings of nearly 50 percent compared to the total cost of individual admission. Attractions include Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as well as either the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts, and either the Kemah Boardwalk or the Children’s Museum. Here’s what to expect from each one.

Space Center Houston

kids at space center houston.

At Space Center Houston, take a behind-the-scenes tram tour through NASA’s Johnson Space Center, checking out the historic Apollo Mission Control Center and the heaviest rocket ever flown. You can also see spacesuits from past missions, explore a replica of the shuttle Independence, and touch a rock taken from the planet Mars.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

purple tunnel museum of fine arts houston.

Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts is one of the country’s largest, with numerous visiting exhibitions complementing a strong permanent collection of works by Picasso, Gainsborough, O’Keeffe, Rembrandt, Chagall, Pollock, and many more. Don’t miss a quick stroll through the small sculpture garden across the street, which is free to explore.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science

dinosaur skeletons at houston museum of natural science.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science has something for just about everyone, from dinosaur fossils and colorful gems to Egyptian artifacts and seashells from around the world. Between the exhibits, the planetarium, and the butterfly center, there’s enough to keep you busy for a whole day.

Houston Zoo

cheetah at houston zoo.

If you’ve got kids in tow, the Houston Zoo is a must-see stop. Bears, elephants, monkeys, giraffes, and sea lions are among the creatures that roam the habitats here. Animal encounters and behind-the-scenes tours are available for visitors who want a closer look.

Downtown Aquarium

downtown aquarium houston.

Houston’s Downtown Aquarium is smaller than you’d expect—you can see the fish and other animals in less than an hour—but the on-site rides include a carousel and a Ferris wheel as added bonus fun for kids. And the whole family will love the beautiful white tigers.

Children’s Museum Houston

kids at children's museum houston.

Yet another family-friendly Houston attraction is the Children’s Museum, designed for kids up to age 12. Little ones can learn about everything from math to modern-day Korean culture in the museum’s hands-on exhibits.

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Kemah Boardwalk

kemah boardwalk at night.

About 20 minutes outside Houston are the rides, games, and restaurants of Kemah Boardwalk, all perched right on the waterfront. You can also explore a zip-line, rainforest exhibit, and stingray reef.

Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens

bayou bend collection and gardens houston.

Part of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens displays furniture, ceramics, and other decorative arts in the former home of Houston art collector and “First lady of Texas” Irma Hogg. The stately house is surrounded by some 14 acres of manicured gardens.

The Health Museum

houston health museum exterior.

Walk through a huge model of the human body, including a 22-foot backbone, at the Health Museum. In addition to the permanent exhibits, the museum hosts a number of temporary installations and screens films in its McGovern Theater.

The Menil Collection

menil collection sculptures houston.

Looking for free things to do in Houston? Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Menil Collection, housed in the first American building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The museum is home to the eclectic collections of John and Dominique de Menil, who amassed a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and decorative objects from ancient times to the contemporary period, with an emphasis on more modern works. Artists on display include Matisse, Picasso, Ernst, and Johns.

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Discovery Green

discovery green houston.

Visitors can enjoy the great outdoors right in downtown Houston thanks to a 12-acre park, Discovery Green, located across the street from the George R. Brown Convention Center. A perimeter of century-old oak trees provides a natural framework within which designers built the Great Lawn, grand-scale pieces of art, a boating pond, a giant fountain (fun for kids to splash in on hot days), dog fountains and runs, picnic grounds, a playground, an amphitheater, and jogging trails. Check out the events calendar to find out what’s going on during your visit, from yoga classes to concerts.

Sam Houston Park

historic home in sam houston park.

Another lovely green space surrounded by the high-rise towers of downtown is Sam Houston Park, where you can tour a number of historic homes maintained by the city’s Heritage Society.

National Museum of Funeral History

day of the dead display at national museum funeral history.

It may seem like a grim place to visit on vacation, but the National Museum of Funeral History is surprisingly interesting. The 15 permanent exhibits include the history of cremation and embalming, artifacts from presidential and papal funerals, and hearses dating back to the 19th century. The museum also examines how other cultures deal with funerals and death.

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Buffalo Bayou Park

biking in buffalo bayou park houston.

Need some exercise? Hit the walking, jogging, and biking trails that run along the bayou through central Houston in Buffalo Bayou Park. You can enjoy great views of the downtown skyline and even tour an eerie underground cistern that once housed the city’s water supply and now makes for a fascinating tour.

The Orange Show and Smither Park

smither park houston.

Lovers of visionary art should check out two Houston attractions located right next to each other: The Orange Show and Smither Park. The former is a funky, folksy ode to the orange, created over several decades by a retired postal worker using reclaimed materials such as iron, bricks, and tiles. Smither Park is a community project, showcasing the work of hundreds of local artists, including colorful mosaics, found objects, and even a large grotto plastered with pieces of road signs.

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Holocaust Museum Houston

dutch rescue boat at holocaust museum houston.

Fresh off a major renovation and expansion, the Holocaust Museum features a permanent exhibition on Anne Frank and other young diarists, a human rights gallery, a collection of paintings by Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak, and a Dutch rescue boat from World War II, among other moving exhibits.

Sports Venues

minute maid park houston.

Sports lovers can catch a game at numerous venues in Houston, from baseball’s Minute Maid Park (home of the Astros) to the nearby Toyota Center, where the NBA’s Rockets play. Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are held at NRG Stadium.

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

buffalo soldiers museum houston.

One of the lesser-known things to do in Houston is a visit to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which celebrates the military contributions of the African Americans who served in the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

Houston Center for Contemporary Craft

artist at houston center for contemporary craft.

Another unique Houston attraction is the Center for Contemporary Craft, where you can see rotating displays of ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, fiber art, and more. You can also meet the center’s artists in residence and get a look inside their studios.

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Sarah Schlichter was hosted by Marriott and Visit Houston. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. June Naylor contributed to this story.

Arts & Culture Cities Food & Drink Weekend Getaways

How to Do a Weekend in Houston

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America’s fourth-largest city is brimming with fun ways to fill a weekend, from world-class cuisine to a vibrant art scene. Check out this Houston weekend guide for a sampler of some of the best sights and eats around town.

The Hotel: Marriott Marquis Houston

marriott marquis houston pool deck.

It’s hard to find a more centrally located hotel than the Marriott Marquis Houston, located within easy walking distance of the convention center, Discovery Green, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center, and the city’s downtown core. And it’s got just about every amenity you can think of for a weekend in Houston, from one of the city’s largest spas to multiple on-site restaurants and a 24-hour fitness center.

But its most distinctive feature is the sprawling pool deck, where you can float along a lazy river shaped like the state of Texas. (Pool-view rooms on the higher floors are understandably popular.) The area also has a hot tub and infinity pool.

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The Itinerary: How to Do a Weekend in Houston

houston weekend guide.


Arrive in the afternoon and check into the Marriott Marquis. Enjoy a late-afternoon stroll through Discovery Green, a large park located right across the street, or spend a few hours at the hotel, enjoying a spa treatment or a ride along the lazy river.

You’ve got a couple of options for the evening. If you’re a sports lover and the Astros are in town, grab dinner at Biggio’s Sports Bar, located in the Marriott and named after the Astros’ former all-star second baseman (who occasionally stops by for a visit). Popular menu options include burgers, tacos, and flatbreads. Then make your way to Minute Maid Park for the game, just a short walk away.

Your other alternative is to take a quick Uber or cab ride to Rosie Cannonball, a brand-new Italian restaurant in the Montrose, Houston’s funky “gayborhood.” There are excellent options for vegetarians here, from the wood-fired three-cheese pizza to the delicious charred brassica, featuring broccolini, cauliflower, and endives in a lira rossa cheese sauce. Non-vegetarian dishes include Basque-style chicken with braised tomatoes and sweet peppers, and wood-grilled bone-in steak.

Right next door to Rosie Cannonball is Goodnight Charlie’s, a modern-day honky-tonk where you can listen to live music, have a drink, and play a game of shuffleboard on the outdoor patio.

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Today you’ll get to see some of Houston’s most unique sites. Start with breakfast in the gorgeous dining room of The Kitchen at the Dunlavy, where chandeliers glitter overhead and the floor-to-ceiling windows are surrounded by the green trees of Buffalo Bayou. Menu options here range from omelets to avocado toast.

If it’s a pleasant morning, join the locals walking or jogging along the bayou to get to your next stop (it’s about a 40-minute walk), or take a quick ride over to the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, a former 1920s-era subterranean drinking water reservoir that is now open for tours. The shadowy lighting and hundreds of concrete columns make for otherworldly, almost eerie photos. Advance reservations are recommended.

Walk about 10 minutes north to Platypus Brewing for lunch and a pint of craft beer. Then spend the afternoon exploring Houston’s growing local art scene. One option is to visit a trio of visionary art sites: the Orange Show, Smither Park, and the Beer Can House.

The Orange Show is a fantastical space built by a retired postal worker between 1956 and 1979 to promote his favorite fruit, the orange; its eclectic design includes colorful metalwork, circus-style striped tents, wagon wheels meant to represent the cross-section of an orange, and inspirational messages written in mosaic tiles.

Right next door is Smither Park, a community park full of colorful mosaics created by some 300 local artists. On the other side of town (about a 15-minute drive away), the Beer Can House is also worth a stop; as its name suggests, it’s a home that’s been covered in some 50,000 flattened aluminum cans, including garlands that make a tinkling sound in the wind.

If you’re in town on the second Saturday of the month, consider spending your afternoon at Sawyer Yards instead. Here a cluster of former industrial warehouses has been transformed into studio space for hundreds of Houston artists, and on the second Saturday of the month, they open their doors to visitors. Choose a building and wander in, enjoying the exhibition space in the main halls and keeping an eye out for “open” signs outside the doors to one colorful studio after another. It’s a great chance to chat with the artists and even pick up a new art piece for your home.

Have dinner at nearby Poitin, featuring a Southern menu with global influences. Popular menu items include the shrimp and grits, the buttermilk-fried chicken tikka masala, and the vegan jambalaya with seasonal vegetables. Don’t miss the crispy Brussels sprouts, whose cane syrup vinaigrette and queso fresco offer the perfect combination of sweet and savory.

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Start your day with brunch at Breakfast Klub, a Houston institution beloved for its two signature dishes: “katfish” and grits, and wings and waffles. Omelets, breakfast sandwiches, and platters are also available.

Today you’ve got your choice of museums and major attractions to explore. Consider driving about 30 minutes outside of town to Space Center Houston, where you can tour astronaut training facilities, peek inside a model of the International Space Station, and discover what it takes to travel to Mars.

You’ll find plenty of other alternatives in Houston’s Museum District, where you can marvel over dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural Science, stroll the wide-ranging galleries at the Museum of Fine Arts, or learn about 20th-century Jewish history at the Holocaust Museum.

End your Houston weekend with high tea at the St. Regis Hotel. This elegant mid-afternoon affair is accompanied by live harp music and includes sandwiches, pastries, and a fresh, warm scone alongside your choice of teas.

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Restaurants and Bars

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Sarah Schlichter was hosted by Marriott and Visit Houston during her weekend in Houston. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Active Travel Arts & Culture Beach Budget Travel Cities Island Outdoors Weekend Getaways

10 Cheap Labor Day Weekend Getaways for 2019

Shorter days, cooler weather, and back-to-school sales are right around the corner—but don’t let summer come to an end without enjoying one last vacation. Book one of these cheap Labor Day weekend getaways to take advantage of low airfares, affordable hotel rates, and special events in a variety of U.S. and international locations.

Cheap Labor Day Weekend Getaways for 2019

[st_content_ad]Below are the 10 best places to go for Labor Day weekend this year. One tip to keep in mind: For travelers whose dates are flexible, the experts at booking site recommend flying out on Saturday, August 31, and returning Tuesday, September 3, for the best prices. Thursday, August 29, is the most expensive day to depart before the long weekend.

Editor’s note: All featured hotels had availability for Labor Day weekend at the time of publication. Thanks to Airfarewatchdog,,, and CheapOair for data and insight.

Chicago, Illinois

downtown chicago river and skyscrapers.

With a median fare of $204 round-trip (per Cheapflights data) and a central location that’s easily reached from most parts of the U.S., Chicago is one of the best Labor Day getaways for travelers looking for an urban escape. There’s a diverse slate of events in the city that weekend, from the Jazz Festival and the African Festival of the Arts to the Great American Lobster Fest at Navy Pier.

Want to catch a game? The Cubs are in town that weekend, playing at historic Wrigley Field. You can also tour the recently restored Robie House, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. For more ideas, see SmarterTravel’s Chicago travel guide.

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Puerto Rico

flamenco beach puerto rico.

There are two affordable gateways for flights into Puerto Rico—Aguadilla (the median round-trip fare, according to Cheapflights, is $280) and San Juan ($314). Either one gives you access to the island’s beautiful beaches and unique culture. Ricky Radka, Senior Content and Deal Strategist at Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, notes that you’ll find particularly reasonable fares from JetBlue strongholds such as Boston, New York, and Fort Lauderdale.

As the island continues to recover from Hurricane Maria, it’s welcoming visitors back to key sites such as El Yunque National Forest, Old San Juan, and the stunning Flamenco Beach. Eating at locally owned restaurants is one way you can support the island’s ongoing recovery—as well as enjoy a fantastic meal. Popular spots include Santaella (for upscale Caribbean cuisine), Caldera Cafe (coffee and light fare), and Cafe El Punto (Latin American dishes).

Americans don’t need to change money or bring a passport because Puerto Rico is part of the U.S.; however, you might want to buy hurricane travel insurance just in case.

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Las Vegas, Nevada

aerial view of las vegas fountains.

There’s never a bad time to visit Las Vegas, and Labor Day weekend is no exception. “Fierce competition amongst low-cost carriers like Sun Country, Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier in this top leisure market means there are often deals to be had,” notes Radka. “In some instances, you might be able to hit the jackpot with a traditional legacy carrier price matching with one of the no-frills airlines on head-to-head routes. As an example on Sun Country, flights from PDX to LAS on Friday to Monday are tallying in at $222, and from the carrier’s hub in MSP, trips to Vegas are $150 for a Friday to Tuesday itinerary.”

CheapOair lists the city as one of its most affordable Labor Day getaways, with average round-trip fares around $298. A quick search of hotels on TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) turns up numerous options under $150 a night for the holiday weekend, especially if you’re willing to stay off the Strip. also has Labor Day hotel deals, starting at $22 a night.

Yes, the weather will likely be hot this time of year, but there are lots of hotel pools where you can cool off—not to mention all the city’s indoor attractions such as shows, shopping, and celebrity chef restaurants. You’ll barely have to leave the air-conditioning.

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Ottawa, Canada

ottawa parliament buildings overlooking the river.

Cheapflights lists Ottawa as its most affordable international Labor Day vacation destination, with a median round-trip flight costing just $220. The strength of the U.S. dollar against the Canadian dollar means that Americans will get more for their money when it comes to hotel rates, restaurants, and shopping in the Canadian capital.

You can browse Ottawa’s numerous farmers’ markets, visit museums such as the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum, and tour the landmark Parliament buildings. Festivals happening near Ottawa over Labor Day weekend include Joy Fest and Festival de Montgolfieres de Gatineau, which features live music and hot air balloon rides.

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Orlando, Florida

universal studios ride orlando.

You don’t need to pay a fortune to enjoy one last family trip before the kids head back to school. The median Labor Day airfare to Orlando is just $177 round-trip, according to Cheapflights, and has gathered special hotel deals for the long weekend.

In addition to the city’s usual Disney attractions, Epcot’s 2019 International Food & Wine Festival starts August 29 and features global cuisine, chef demonstrations, family activities, and concerts. Access to the festival is included with theme park admission.

Want to spend part of your weekend outside of the Disney empire? There’s plenty to see in Orlando beyond the theme parks, including the Orlando Museum of Art and the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens.

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Mexico City, Mexico

chapultepec castle mexico city.

Labor Day weekend may be part of the wet season in Mexico City, but in an urban area with more than 150 museums, you’ll have no problem filling a rainy afternoon. Cheapflights pegs the median round-trip airfare to Mexico City at $308, and the city is bustling with affordable hotel and restaurant options. Radka recommends checking fares on low-cost carrier Interjet, which is offering nonstop Labor Day weekend flights from Dallas, Houston, Miami, Orlando, and Las Vegas from $250 – $320 round-trip. Don’t-miss sites include the 18th-century Chapultepec Castle, the Frida Kahlo Museum, and the Zocalo, one of the world’s largest public squares.

Nervous about traveling to Mexico? Although the U.S. State Department recommends against travel to certain parts of the country, Mexico City is currently rated as a Level 2 for safety—the same rating as France and Italy.

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Los Angeles, California

los angeles palm trees and skyline at sunset.

If you want to combine arts, culture, and beach time during your Labor Day getaway, Los Angeles is the place to be—and with a median airfare of $211 round-trip, according to Cheapflights, it won’t break the bank. has gathered special Labor Day deals on Los Angeles hotels.

Must-see Los Angeles attractions include everything from the world-class art collection at the Getty Center to the glitzy shops of Rodeo Drive. You can also check out Labor Day weekend events such as the LA County Fair and the Pasadena Daydream Festival, headlined by the Pixies and the Deftones.

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St. Lucia

st lucia colorful houses and harbor with boats.

According to Cheapflights data, airfares to St. Lucia have dropped 28 percent since last year, to a current median price of $558 round-trip. Although St. Lucia has numerous high-end resorts, you’ll also find plenty of budget-friendly properties scattered around the island.

St. Lucia is a nature lover’s paradise, with hiking trails, botanical gardens, and even sulfur springs to explore. Or, if you like, you can spend your long weekend simply relaxing on stretches of sand like Anse Chastanet or Anse Cochon. As with Puerto Rico, you might want to buy travel insurance to protect yourself during hurricane season.

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Denver, Colorado

people crossing the street in downtown denver.

Enjoy a Labor Day vacation full of outdoor adventures and mountain views in Denver. The median round-trip flight costs just $206, according to Cheapflights, and there are plenty of cheap or even free things to do in the area, from hiking scenic trails to browsing art galleries and studios in the Golden Triangle Creative District.

There’s a lot going on in Denver over Labor Day, including a beer festival, a music festival, and a fireworks display. The Rockies are also in town if you want to catch a baseball game at Coors Field.

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Vancouver, Canada

roller blader and bikers in stanley park vancouver.

The cost of living may be a little higher in Vancouver than in the other Canadian city on this list, but it’s still an affordable Labor Day weekend getaway, especially for Americans on the West Coast. (The median round-trip airfare is $317, according to Cheapflights.) Some of the city’s most popular places to visit are inexpensive or free, including Stanley Park and Granville Island Public Market.

Consider making a day trip to nearby Richmond to experience the Richmond World Festival, featuring live music, food trucks, a culinary stage, and cultural workshops.

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What to Wear on Your Labor Day Getaway

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from 9 Major U.S. Cities

[st_content_ad]Need a vacation, but don’t have much time or money? Cheap weekend getaways are the answer. Spending two or three nights away from home can provide much-needed rejuvenation and help you scratch the itch to explore a new place at times when you can’t take a longer vacation.

Below are suggested weekend getaways from nine major metro areas around the U.S. Each getaway destination is within easy driving distance of the originating city, so you don’t need to shell out for airfare or baggage fees. Each also has well-rated, affordable hotel options.

Scroll down to see all the ideas, or click on your city below to jump straight to cheap weekend getaways from that metro area.

Featured Weekend Getaways

Cheap Weekend Getaways from Atlanta

Chattanooga, Tennessee

chattanooga tennessee aerial view

The former industrial town of Chattanooga is now an ideal spot for a weekend getaway that’s just a two-hour drive from Atlanta across the Tennessee border. Great spots for strolling include the Bluff View Art District and the scenic Riverwalk. The most popular attractions include the Tennessee Aquarium (beloved by kids and adults alike) and the Hunter Museum of American Art, housed in an early-20th-century mansion. The area is also rich in Civil War history; Chickamauga Battlefield is just a 20-minute drive outside the city.

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Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville north carolina at sunset.

About three and a half hours from Atlanta is the mountain community of Asheville, known for its artsy, outdoorsy vibe. Its most famous tourist attraction is the grand Biltmore mansion, though admission is pricey; fortunately, there are plenty of other fun things to do. Chat with artists in the River Arts District, stop to smell the flowers in the North Carolina Arboretum, or join the locals for an energetic Friday evening drum circle. The nearby Blue Ridge Mountains offer countless opportunities for hiking and scenic drives.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from Boston

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Provincetown, massachusetts beachfront

Located at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is best known as a summer destination, but it makes for an appealing weekend getaway year-round. Look beyond the beaches and you’ll find the vibrant shops and eateries of Commercial Street as well as the Province Lands Bike Trail, which loops for more than five miles through bogs, pine forests, and sand dunes. And don’t overlook Provincetown’s art scene, which includes galleries and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. You can reach Provincetown via car or ferry from Boston.

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Providence, Rhode Island

Providence, rhode island riverfront.

Rhode Island’s capital city, just a quick drive or train ride from Boston, is the perfect size for exploring in a few days. One major draw is the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, which features everything from French Impressionists to a 12th-century Japanese Buddha. Not far away is the campus of Brown University, which hosts a variety of events and is a pleasant place for a stroll. Save time to wander neighborhoods like the historic downtown district and Federal Hill, also known as Little Italy.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from Chicago

Galena, Illinois

Galena illinois street

This quaint historic town in the northwest corner of Illinois is about a three-hour drive from Chicago. Its well-preserved 19th-century buildings include the former home of President Ulysses S. Grant and a fascinating historical society and museum. It’s easy to spend a day wandering in and out of the boutiques and galleries on Main Street, where you can pick up everything from secondhand clothes to locally made jams. Enjoy breakfast or lunch at Otto’s Place, a local favorite.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from Houston

San Antonio, Texas

san antonio, texas riverfront

Just a three-hour drive west of Houston is San Antonio, known for its vibrant history and culture. It all starts downtown, where you’ll find the city’s most famous landmark, the Alamo, and the 15-mile urban waterway known as the River Walk, lined with restaurants and shops. There are four other historical missions here, too, comprising San Antonio Missions National Historical Park—a UNESCO World Heritage site. Families will love the DoSeum, designed for kids 10 and under, and the small but fun San Antonio Zoo.

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Lake Charles, Louisiana

Lake charles, louisiana city hall
Two hours in the opposite direction is a weekend getaway destination with an entirely different flavor: Lake Charles, Louisiana. During the day you can play a round of golf, tour a Cold War-era battleship, visit the colorful Mardi Gras Museum, or drive the Creole Nature Trail in search of alligators and birds. Then top off each day with a Cajun seafood dinner and an evening at one of the area’s four casinos.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from Los Angeles

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua tree national park, california sunset.

The starkly beautiful desert landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park offer a peaceful (and cheap) weekend getaway from the traffic and smog of Los Angeles. Looking to hike? The park has challenging trails, easy nature walks, and everything in between. You can also bike on backcountry roads, drive along the Geology Tour Road (a 4 x 4 vehicle is recommended), or stay late for a night of stargazing. Campgrounds and affordable motels offer cheap lodging inside and near the park.

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San Diego, California

San diego, california boats in the harbor.

If you’re looking for a less remote weekend getaway, drive a few hours down the coast to San Diego. This laid-back city is a favorite with families, who flock to the San Diego Zoo, kid-friendly museums like the Fleet Science Center, and nearby LEGOLAND California. (For more ideas, see San Diego with Kids.) But San Diego is also popular for adults-only getaways, with plenty of craft breweries, cultural institutions, and neighborhoods to explore; try the Gaslamp Quarter for dining and nightlife.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from New York City

Dutchess County, New York

Hudson valley, new york bridge

Part of the Hudson Valley region that stretches some 150 miles north of New York City, Dutchess County offers both scenic landscapes and appealing attractions year-round. History buffs can tour the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Home as well as his Presidential Library and Museum, while fans of the arts should make a beeline to spots like Dia:Beacon, a modern art center housed in a former Nabisco box-printing factory. Hikers can hop onto a section of the Appalachian Trail or enjoy the views from the top of the fire tower at Ferncliff Forest.

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Princeton, New Jersey

Princeton, new jersey dusk.

Stroll among the ivy-shrouded stone halls of Princeton University, located just 50 miles from New York City. Attractions on campus include an art museum and chapel, while the town of Princeton offers plenty of shops and restaurants along Nassau Street, the main drag. Top off your cheap weekend getaway with affordable eats at restaurants like Jammin’ Crepes and Olives Deli and Bakery.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from San Francisco

Sacramento, California

Sacramento, california bridge at night.

California’s capital, located 90 minutes from San Francisco, makes a particularly fun weekend getaway for families thanks to attractions like the Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Town, which features play areas for little ones based on the stories of Humpty Dumpty, Cinderella, and many more. The riverfront historic district, Old Sacramento, is a must-visit for travelers of any age, with its Gold Rush-era buildings and old-timey shops. There’s also plenty of fresh farm-to-table cuisine to savor around town at a variety of price points.

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Mendocino County, California

Mendocino county coast.

A little farther afield are the fertile vineyards, picturesque seaside villages, and jaw-dropping redwood forests of Mendocino County, about three hours north of San Francisco. Don’t miss the rugged coastal views at Mendocino Headlands State Park or the vibrantly colored blooms at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Visit Montgomery Woods State Reserve for a hike through the redwoods, or craft your own wine-tasting tour along Highway 128.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from Seattle

Bellingham, Washington

Bellingham, washington water

In Bellingham, a small city located about 90 minutes north of Seattle, weekend visitors can enjoy a mix of urban and natural attractions. Start with a stroll through the Fairhaven historic district, where restored Victorian-era brick buildings house art galleries, restaurants, and the beloved Village Books. Art lovers can marvel at the sculpture collections at Western Washington University and Big Rock Garden, while hikers have plenty of options, including Whatcom Falls Park and Stimpson Family Nature Preserve.

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Whidbey Island, Washington

Whidbey island coast

Accessible by car and ferry, Whidbey Island is just a short distance from Seattle, but it feels like a true escape. Outdoor attractions reign supreme, from the stunning hiking trails of Deception Pass State Park to the fragrant fields at Lavender Wind Farm (come in summertime to see them in full bloom). You can paddle through Puget Sound with Whidbey Island Kayaking, go on the hunt for sculptures along the Oak Harbor Art Trail, or taste your way through the island’s many distilleries and wineries.

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Cheap Weekend Getaways from Washington, D.C.

Frederick, Maryland

Frederick maryland street scene

This small city 45 miles northwest of D.C. makes for a laid-back weekend getaway. Stroll the historic downtown area, keeping an eye out for murals, sculptures, and other public art installations scattered around town. The National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Monocacy National Battlefield are must-sees for travelers with interest in the Civil War, while Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park offer dozens of wooded hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Don’t miss the city’s many breweries and distilleries, including Flying Dog, the largest craft brewery in Maryland.

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Annapolis, Maryland

Annapolis maryland sunset.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Annapolis, with its walkable cobblestone streets and sailboats bobbing gently in the harbor. The main draw here is the historic district, with buildings dating back as far as the colonial era. The city is also home to the U.S. Naval Academy, which offers guided tours of its major landmarks as well as stories about what it’s like to be a midshipman. On a sunny day, visit the beach at Sandy Point State Park, complete with a view of the Bay Bridge.

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The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents: This Tiny Museum Is a Sensory Wonderland

The first thing you notice upon entering the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is, curiously, the absence of scent. There’s no perfume counter one-two punch as you open the wooden arts-and-crafts-style front door of the tiny museum in Berkeley, California. Instead, a visual feast awaits: gently lit manuscripts, ancient maps, and the sparkle of tiny glass bottles—capped and waiting for you to come discover them—arranged throughout the single room.

[st_content_ad]Mandy Aftel—a renowned boutique perfumer who created the space and runs it with her family—says that, as she was designing the museum and exhibits, the thing she kept coming back to was the urge to create a dreamy space where the rest of the senses could take a break. “I wanted to let the nose lead the way,” she explains. Based on the collection she had built over many years, the resulting Aftel Archive of Curious Scents is a jewel box of a museum that feels like a carefully curated cabinet of curiosities, each beckoning to be discovered, to tell its story.

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“It’s not a museum about perfume,” Aftel says. “It’s about scent, and about going back and teaching people to smell again.”

The education starts simply. Whether you’ve made a reservation for the one-hour experience in advance or simply stopped in on a Saturday (the one day of the week the Archive is open), you’ll be welcomed with a quick introduction: “We want to give people just enough information to get oriented, but not so much that they get too into their heads about it,” says Aftel. You’re then handed your tools of exploration, which include a small piece of felt (a neutral scent to help your nose reset in between inhales) and three delicate paper sticks for dipping into your favorite oils to take home.

“Everything in here has magic,” notes Aftel. The trick is to get your brain out of the way and let your sense of smell lead the way. Open drawers to smell and touch your way through dozens of the ingredients—barks, roots, resins, and leaves among them—from which essential oils are derived. Compare 100-year-old and newer scents for a lesson in the ways age can deepen and change a smell like vanilla or jasmine.

It’s a place that unpacks the complexity of scent into its components, an experience not unlike hearing the individual notes and instruments of a symphony for the first time. Natural rose has more than 200 molecules that combine to create the scent we think of as, simply, rose. Individual exhibits delve into the interplay of top note, middle note, and base note scents that go into single scents such as rose. And the room’s crowning glory unites scent in the massive scent organ. Build to resemble the organ Aftel uses in her own custom perfume lab, it’s a veritable amphitheater of smells, divided into these top, middle, and base notes. It’s here that you can uncap tiny bottles individually—almond, cedarwood, butter, bergamot, and dozens more—and discover the scents that transport you, shake loose memory, and inspire joy.

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Woven in with these sensory experiences are more intellectual pursuits. Mounted on the walls, original maps trace the history of scent around the world. And next to a welcoming window seat is a small bookcase packed with 150 antique texts—some with notes and personal recipes jotted in the margins—detailing the medicinal, ornamental, and traditional uses of aromatics.

To visit for an hour is to emerge changed, more attuned to scent and the way it wraps itself around everything else—travel, food, even the change in the air when day turns to dusk. It’s an entire world that’s never more than a deep inhale away, whether you’re close to home or thousands of miles away.

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Christine Sarkis loves Berkeley. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

Arts & Culture Cities Family Travel Historical Travel

11 Fun Things to Do in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is justifiably famous for its colonial history. The city, founded in 1682, can be credited as the site of America’s birth—the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were created here. So was the first American flag. The most popular things to do in Philadelphia include exploring Independence Mall, gawking at the Liberty Bell, and wandering along streets lined with old colonial homes.

But to think Philadelphia’s only attraction is its historic sites is to miss out on a huge part of the city’s appeal. Don’t overlook its vibrant art scene, from major museums to contemporary galleries and colorful murals, or the thriving—but not over-commercialized—waterfront, Penn’s Landing, which hosts festivals and attractions. There are also a number of fun day trips within easy driving distance. Start planning your itinerary with this list of fun things to do in Philadelphia.

Discover the Constitution

national constitution center philadelphia.

The National Constitution Center chronicles all things related to the U.S. Constitution, and its interactive exhibits make that era of U.S. history come alive. These days, the center is the diamond in the center of Philadelphia’s most important “birth of America” sites.

Visit Independence National Historical Park

independence hall in the spring.

Nearby, Independence National Historical Park is home to Independence Hall, considered the birthplace of America. Tours are free, but for most of the year you’ll need a timed ticket to enter. You can reserve in advance online or by phone (for a small fee), or show up the morning you want to visit. Arrive early during the busy summer months.

The historical park is also home to the Liberty Bell Center, which houses another symbolic Philadelphia classic, full of legends relating to America’s early days (in fact, the bell was hidden away in nearby Allentown to keep it from falling into British hands during the Revolutionary War). Entry is free, though you may find yourself waiting in a lengthy line.

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Wander Through Old City

elfreths alley philadelphia.

Beyond the usual Independence Mall attractions, the Old City neighborhood features a number of other sights to see, including the Betsy Ross House, where the first American flag was sewn; Christ Church, where George Washington and Benjamin Franklin once worshipped; and Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow cobblestone lane lined with brick homes that date back to 1702.

The neighborhood is also home to one of the newest Philadelphia attractions, the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in 2017 and offers fascinating interactive exhibits about America’s war for independence.

Take in an Art Museum

pennsylvania academy of fine arts.

Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which houses the city’s most impressive collections, plus visiting exhibits. Be sure to stop in the lovely medieval cloister and the tranquil Japanese teahouse. It’s also got the famous set of steps featured in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.

Just down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Rodin Museum, which showcases the largest collection of the French sculptor’s work outside of Paris. Also nearby is the Barnes Foundation, an incredible collection featuring Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings from artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse. Finally, don’t miss the oft-overlooked Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the artwork is rivaled only by the stunning architecture.

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Learn About Science

giant heart at the franklin institute in philadelphia.

Alongside the popular art museums on Benjamin Franklin Parkway are two family-friendly scientific institutions. One of the most fun things to do in Philadelphia with kids is to walk through the bigger-than-life human heart at The Franklin Institute, which also offers a wealth of other creative and informative science exhibits. The nearby Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is beloved by families for its collections of dinosaur bones and other wonders of natural science.

Meanwhile, the Mutter Museum may be Philadelphia’s most unique scientific attraction, exhibiting medical oddities such as a human skull collection, the livers of conjoined twins, and pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain.

Spend Some Time in Prison

eastern state penitentiary.

A trip to a prison may not top your must-do list on vacation, but Eastern State Penitentiary is a surprisingly fascinating stop. You can wander the haunting, crumbling corridors that once housed Al Capone and numerous other criminals, and learn how revolutionary the “penitentiary” concept was at the time of the prison’s founding in 1829.

Hit the Zoo

giraffes at philadelphia zoo.

A fun option for kids is the Philadelphia Zoo, America’s first, which recently added an innovative system of see-through mesh trails that run around and above the zoo, allowing animals to roam freely between exhibits. Creatures who live here include gorillas, tigers, lions, hippos, giraffes, lemurs, and many more.

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Hit the Waterfront

penn's landing philadelphia.

Adjacent to the picturesque streets and houses of historic Society Hill (home to Philadelphia’s wealthy in the 18th century) is Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia’s waterfront on the Delaware River. Aside from panoramic views and summer events, the highlight here is the Independence Seaport Museum, displaying numerous maritime artifacts.

Marvel Over Murals and Mosaics

mosaics at philadelphia's magic gardens.

Aside from its excellent museums, Philadelphia is home to plenty of outdoor art as well. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens are a beloved indoor and outdoor art installation stretching along a once run-down section of South Street. Created by local resident Isaiah Zagar, the colorful installation is made of mosaic tiles, bicycle wheels, glass bottles, and other found objects.

Philadelphia also has thousands of murals—many of which you can discover on a Mural Arts tour. Travel on foot or by bike, trolley, or train to see these unexpected splashes of colorful art on walls across the city.

Cross the River to Camden

battleship new jersey.

Just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia is the city of Camden, New Jersey. Major attractions include the Adventure Aquarium—the most popular exhibit there is a 40-foot shark tunnel, where viewers are surrounded on all sides by a variety of circling sharks—and the Battleship New Jersey, which served in three wars. Families can also wander through the Camden Children’s Garden. The most fun way to get to Camden from Philadelphia is to board the RiverLink Ferry at Penn’s Landing.

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Take a Day Trip

longwood gardens in spring.

Though there are plenty of Philadelphia attractions to keep you busy within the city limits, it’s worth considering a day trip outside of town if you’ve got a little extra time. About an hour west of the city are the spectacular blooms of Longwood Gardens, where you can easily spend a full day—or combine a garden visit with a few hours exploring the American collection at the nearby Brandywine River Museum of Art.

Over the summer months, Philadelphia can get hot and muggy, so a day trip to the Jersey Shore can offer a welcome respite. The city is within easy driving distance of the elegant seaside resort of Cape May, the glitzy casinos of Atlantic City, and the family-friendly beaches and boardwalk of Ocean City. For more advice, see The 8 Best New Jersey Beaches to Visit This Summer.

Other Philadelphia day trip options include a shopping excursion to King of Prussia Mall, the largest mall on the East Coast, or a drive up to the arts community of New Hope, where a bevy of galleries, boutiques, and riverside views make for pleasant strolling.

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Sarah Schlichter visited the city as a guest of Visit Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. Carolyn Spencer Brown contributed to this story.

Arts & Culture Cities Food & Drink Historical Travel

Hidden Philadelphia: 10 Under-the-Radar Gems Worth Discovering

You’ve snapped a selfie with the Liberty Bell, toured the hallowed halls where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and climbed Rocky’s steps up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But that doesn’t mean you’ve seen everything the City of Brotherly Love has to offer. Travelers with extra time to explore can head off the beaten path to discover the gems of hidden Philadelphia—including vibrantly colored murals, museums full of unexpected treasures, and one of the country’s oldest candy shops. Below are a few of my favorite Philadelphia hidden gems.

Shofuso Japanese House and Garden

shofuso japanese house and garden philadelphia

Tucked away in Philadelphia’s massive Fairmount Park is Shofuso, a 17th-century-style Japanese house that was built in Nagoya in 1953, exhibited at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and then moved to Philadelphia in 1957. Its traditional Japanese garden, complete with a pond, stone lanterns, and a small waterfall, is one of the city’s most serene spots. You can take off your shoes and walk through the house to appreciate the murals, created by contemporary Japanese artist Hiroshi Senju.

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National Museum of American Jewish History

national museum of american jewish history philadelphia

Did you know that the first permanent Jewish settlers in America came not from Europe but from Brazil, all the way back in 1654? That’s just one of many new things I learned at the National Museum of American Jewish History, which isn’t hidden so much as hidden in plain sight. It’s got a prime location just across the street from Independence Mall, and yet it was surprisingly quiet during my recent weekend visit. The museum is a fascinating place for travelers interested in history and culture, telling the stories of Jewish people in the U.S. from the American Revolution to the Holocaust and beyond.

Mural Arts Tours

philadelphia muses mural

As you wander around Philadelphia, it’s not uncommon to turn a corner and happen upon a colorful mural wall overlooking a parking lot or community garden. Many of these were created as a part of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which works with artists and local communities to produce up to 100 public art projects each year.

You can check them out on a guided tour by trolley, train, or foot, learning about the artists and inspiration behind each mural. Can’t make it for a guided tour? Mural Arts offers maps so you can take your own self-guided walking tour.

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The Rosenbach

woman at rosenbach museum philadelphia

Literature lovers won’t want to miss a stop at The Rosenbach, where you can see a re-creation of the poet Marianne Moore’s New York City living room, discover the personal letters of George Washington, and marvel over James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript. These and other rare books and documents are displayed in a 19th-century townhouse near Rittenhouse Square, amid a collection of decorative arts and antique furniture.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

magic gardens courtyard philadelphia

Once threatened with demolition to make way for a cross-town highway, South Street has since become one of Philadelphia’s hippest districts, thanks in large part to visionaries like Isaiah Zagar—the artist behind Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. While you can spot Zagar’s mosaic artwork on hundreds of walls across the city, his most celebrated achievement is this unique conglomeration of colorful mosaic tiles and found objects such as bottles and bike tires, covering every square inch of what was once a vacant lot. Zagar began working on the site in 1991, and it opened to the public in 2008.

In addition to tours, PMG also offers special events including family programs, happy hours, and meditation workshops.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

penn museum philadelphia with spring flowering trees

Often called simply the Penn Museum, this institution on the University of Pennsylvania campus is the spot to marvel over Egyptian mummies, Middle Eastern funerary relics, Greek pottery, Roman statues, and other treasures of the ancient world. Highlights include the headdress and jewelry of Puabi (a Mesopotamian queen) and Sumerian cuneiform tablets with some of the world’s oldest examples of writing.

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Shane Confectionery

shane confectionery shop phliadelphia

Indulge your sweet tooth at Shane Confectionery, which claims to be America’s oldest candy store. Located at the eastern edge of Old City, the store has been serving up chocolates and other sugary confections since 1863. Employees in period dress ring up your purchases at antique cash registers, just as they would have in the old days.

Be sure to go all the way to the back of the shop to the Chocolate Cafe, where you can sip drinking chocolate spiced with cinnamon, orange zest, jasmine petals, or even chili pepper. If all that isn’t sweet enough, you can stop next door at the Franklin Ice Cream Bar for a Keystone Bar dipped in chocolate from Shane Confectionery.

Schuylkill River Trail

schuylkill banks boardwalk philadelphia

Join the locals for a jog, walk, or bike ride along the Schuylkill River Trail, which follows the river for about 10 miles through Philadelphia, passing by the Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania along the way. (The full trail covers some 60 miles, extending well outside the city.) One particularly popular section is the Boardwalk, which continues the trail out over the river from Locust Street to South Street. This 2,000-foot stretch offers four scenic overlooks where you can stop, rest, and take in the city skyline.

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National Liberty Museum

national liberty museum flame gallery

The family-friendly National Liberty Museum tells the stories of inspiring figures from around the globe, including Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and the heroes of September 11, 2001—as well as “ordinary citizens who make a difference” such as teachers and firefighters. The recently renovated Flame Gallery features a monumental, 21-foot glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. The museum is located just a few blocks from Independence Hall and is one of the area’s hidden gems.

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South 9th Street Italian Market

south 9th street italian market philadelphia

Escape the crowds at Center City’s Reading Terminal Market with a stroll down 9th Street in South Philly. Here’s where you’ll find the Italian Market, one of America’s oldest open-air markets. Shops and sidewalk stalls offer up everything from fresh produce and meats to infused olive oils and specialty cheeses. Visiting at lunchtime? There are plenty of restaurants in the area as well, including the city’s most famous cheesesteak joints: Pat’s and Geno’s.

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Sarah Schlichter was hosted by Visit Philadelphia in her quest to discover hidden Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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7 Fun Things to Do in Wilmington, NC

Wilmington, North Carolina made headlines last year when Hurricane Florence hit the region, flooding the city with nearly two feet of rain and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. But the area is bouncing back. While some local residents are still waiting on housing assistance and repairs, most hotels, restaurants, and attractions in the Wilmington region have reopened and are eager to welcome back visitors.

On a recent trip to Wilmington, I discovered not a disaster zone but a friendly Southern city with a growing riverfront district, a burgeoning food scene, and streets full of gracious historic homes with rocking chairs on their front porches. The city is within a quick drive of several beach towns, making it easy to combine an urban getaway with a day or two of sun and sand. Below is a sampling of the many fun things to do in Wilmington, NC.

Explore Downtown and the Riverfront

historic downtown wilmington nc

The heart of Wilmington is its historic downtown, which runs inland from the Cape Fear River. Shops, galleries, eateries, and a 1.75-mile-long wooden Riverwalk make this area an excellent spot for a stroll. While it’s fun to wander on your own, a good guide can offer context and local color to bring the area to life. Consider a spooky ghost walk, a literary tour with Old Books on Front Street, or even a horse-drawn carriage ride. You can also get out on the river with Wilmington Water Tours.

One of the best downtown shopping spots is the Cotton Exchange, a collection of boutiques and restaurants housed in a 19th-century building that was once home to the largest flour mill in the South. Recommended stops here include Down to Earth for aromatherapy oils, Heart of Carolina for local gifts, and Two Sisters Bookery for books (while you’re there, say hi to Katie, the bookstore cat).

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Visit Battleship North Carolina

battleship north carolina

This WWII-era battleship is one of Wilmington’s most famous landmarks, docked on the opposite shore of the Cape Fear River from downtown. The ship earned 15 battle stars during action in Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and other encounters in the Pacific.

The battleship is bigger than it looks from across the river: It stretches the length of two city blocks and has nine different levels for visitors to discover. Wear comfortable shoes for climbing from one deck to another as you explore the engine room, bridge, mess, and berthing areas. Keep an eye out for Charlie, an alligator who lives in the swamp surrounding the battleship.

Tour Historic Homes

bellamy mansion

There are three historic homes-turned-museums within easy walking distance of each other in downtown Wilmington. Bellamy Mansion was built on the eve of the Civil War, and the family who owned it had to flee to escape the war. Today it’s notable not only for its grand architecture and attractive gardens, but also for its well-preserved urban slave quarters—a rarity in the U.S.

Just a few blocks away is Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, which dates back to 1770 and is the only colonial home in Wilmington that’s open to the public. The house is furnished with elegant antiques, while the gardens include colonial-era culinary herbs as well as flowering trees and plants.

Also worth a stop is the Zebulon Latimer House, built in 1852 and now the headquarters for the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. Tours are available to guide you through the house’s 14 rooms and tell you about the lives of the people who once lived here.

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Check Out Local Museums

wilmington railroad museum

Want to learn something new? Visit the museums of Wilmington, NC. The Wilmington Railroad Museum details the history of what was once one of the city’s key economic drivers: the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Exhibits include a 100-year-old steam locomotive, more than 20 scale-model trains, and even a Thomas the Tank Engine play area for kids.

The Cape Fear Museum is another must-visit, with wide-ranging collections of all things regional, from Native American artifacts to 20th-century photographs and toys.

Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Cameron Art Museum, which hosts a rotating slate of exhibitions as well as select objects from its own collection of regional, national, and international artwork. Leave time to stroll the museum’s sculpture garden and nature trails.

If you’ve got kids in tow, you won’t want to miss the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, where little ones can enjoy hands-on activities like playing on a pirate ship and going “shopping” in a market exhibit.

Stroll Through Airlie Gardens

airlie gardens

The lush wooded grounds of Airlie Gardens are just a short drive from downtown Wilmington. Scattered across the garden’s 67 waterfront acres are sculptures, ponds, historical buildings, a chapel made entirely of bottles, and the Airlie Oak, the state’s largest oak tree, which dates back to 1545.

Come in early spring to see camellias, azaleas, and flowering trees, or in the warmer months (mid-May through mid-October) to explore the seasonal Butterfly House.

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Get a Taste of Wilmington

oysters at surf house carolina beach

For a small city, Wilmington has a wide variety of great food. Sample it for yourself with Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours. The company runs afternoon and evening food tours to restaurants around Wilmington. Another option is Tasting History, which offers food tours in nearby Carolina Beach and Kure Beach.

Beyond the tours, you’ll want to make time for full meals at some of these popular local spots: Savorez (for vibrant Latin American flavors), Manna Ave. 123 (the city’s only AAA Four-Diamond restaurant), Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria (for pasta, wood-fired pizza, and other Italian delights), and Indochine (for authentic Thai/Vietnamese cuisine).

Hit the Beach

boardwalk onto kure beach

There are three beach towns within a half-hour drive of Wilmington, each with its own unique vibe. The closest is Wrightsville Beach, known for watersports, spas, and chic boutiques. Here you can go stand-up paddleboarding, take an eco-cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, or simply relax on the sand.

A few miles south is fun-loving Carolina Beach with its family-friendly boardwalk and a state park where you can see Venus flytraps growing in the wild. There’s also a lake in the center of town where you can rent paddleboats or watch outdoor movies in the summer. Don’t miss a meal at Surf House, one of the region’s best restaurants.

With just one stoplight and no full-service hotels, Kure Beach is the quietest and most laid-back of the Wilmington, NC-area beaches. You can see the remains of a Civil War-era fort at Fort Fisher State Historic Site or learn about local marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area features nearly six miles of pristine, undeveloped beach.

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Wilmington, NC, as a guest of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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8 Trips You Didn’t Know You Could Afford in 2019

Your next vacation might not be as expensive as you think. In some of the destinations below, the U.S. dollar will go further in 2019, with unexpectedly reasonable rates for lodging, activities, and dining; in others, I’ve unearthed hidden gems that are actually affordable. And while the cost of flights is never as low as most travelers want it to be, I’ve even found budget-friendly flights to many of these spots. Plan your next escape to one of these surprisingly cheap places to travel.


garden in hawaii

[st_content_ad]Affordable airfare is making the everyman’s bucket list trip a reality for 2019 (and we’re not just talking about flights from the West Coast). According to Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, some flights to Hawaii actually cost less than $500 from East Coast and Midwest cities in 2018. The reason? Multiple major airlines announced new routes to Hawaii, creating fierce competition for the best fares—a trend that’s expected to continue in 2019.

Hawaiian Airlines will soon offer Basic Economy fares, while budget carrier Southwest Airlines is expected to launch service to Hawaii soon. And while you can easily spend a pretty penny at luxury resorts, you can just as easily save with vacation rental properties steps from the beach.

Where to stay: Enjoy affordable accommodations at the Aston Waikiki Circle Hotel, located across the street from world-famous Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

kuala lumpur at night

Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Malaysia offer an exotic vacation destination with a not-so-exotic price tag. “Although the country is relatively more well developed than its neighbors around Southeast Asia, the Malaysian capital has some of the world’s cheapest rates for five-star hotels,” says travel blogger Bino Chua of I Wander. You can stay at luxe hotels for under $200 a night—and at three- or four-stars for even less.

Currently, one Malaysian ringgit is equal to 24 US cents, which means your dollar will go a long way when it comes to meals and activities, too. And in many cases, you won’t even need to pull out your wallet—admission-free museums, walking tours, religious sites, and parks make it easy to save. As for transportation, “a 10- to 15-minute car ride within Kuala Lumpur will cost around $3 USD (or even less),” says Chua. If you hop on one of the purple GO KL buses, you’ll pay nothing.

Where to stay: You can regularly find rates under $100 per night at the newly opened Hyatt House Kuala Lumpur, which offers accommodations with kitchens and complimentary breakfast.

London, England

london at night

London is calling in 2019. “The fall in the value of the British pound means foreign visitors get more bang for their buck when visiting the U.K., with competitive prices on hotels, attractions, and shopping,” says Freddie Julius of Tourist England. “The U.K.’s political instability, the result of a lack of clarity in the Brexit negotiations, means this situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Airfarewatchdog predicts more flight deals to the U.K., too, noting that airfares have been decreasing with competition from low-cost carriers and the introduction of basic economy pricing. London also offers a wealth of free museums and parks that have always made a trip across the pond a decent deal.

Where to stay: The Ibis London Shepherds Bush – Hammersmith Hotel offers above-average breakfast at no additional cost, and is about a 10-minute walk from the nearest Tube station.

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dome of the rock jerusalem

“Israel—which had its best year ever thanks to more than four million visiting tourists in 2018—meets the needs of every type of traveler, including the budget-conscious visitor, because of its delicious yet inexpensive food options, wide range of hotel choices, many free historical sites, and wonderful outdoor activities,” says Ellen Shapiro, North America PR Director for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

Explore the ancient biblical sites and colorful flea markets of Jerusalem; stroll Tel Aviv’s vibrant neighborhoods; go for a hike and sample wine in the north; or float in the Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth) and Red Sea in the south—all of it can be done on a budget. Another way you’ll save? Many of the Holy Land’s hotels offer lavish, complimentary buffet breakfasts so you can eat shakshuka to your heart’s content (and, of course, you can fill up on cheap and delicious hummus and falafel everywhere you go).

Where to stay: Tal by the Beach Hotel Tel Aviv is a boutique hotel that won’t break the bank. Complimentary amenities include happy hours with hors d’oeuvres and bike rentals to explore the city.


curacao beach

Curacao is seriously underrated, and not just because of its beautiful beaches and candy-colored capital of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Dutch-Caribbean island is also affordable, especially during the summer, when you can score round-trip flights in the $300 range from many major U.S. cities. Luxurious beachfront resorts are surprisingly affordable, too—think less than $200 per night. The food is surprisingly cheap as well, considering the island has one of the best culinary reputations in the Caribbean.

Where to stay: The Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort has a Four Diamond rating from AAA, yet it offers rates under $200 per night almost year-round. It also offers an all-inclusive option.

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Lake Como, Italy

lake como

You don’t need to bring home John Legend’s and Chrissy Tiegen’s paychecks to vacation in Lake Como. Save by staying in the historic city of Como, which offers reasonably priced lodging and is the area’s transportation hub. “The Romans first identified Como as a holiday destination,” explains Shelley Clark, spokesperson for Como-based Lario Hotels. “Today, in addition to being the gateway to what many consider the world’s most beautiful lake, Como remains a world-class destination loaded with quaint charm and an impressive array of historical, cultural, retail, and dining options.”

Free and low-cost activities include exploring the nearby nature trails and fairy-tale villages that surround the lake and riding the inexpensive Como-Brunate funicular to the Brunate, the “balcony of the Alps.” You can even enjoy a bit of luxury for less at the Lido di Cernobbio, which offers a glamorous poolside experience for less than $25 per person.

Where to stay: You can find reasonable nightly rates at the hip Posta Design Hotel, located in Como’s medieval old town just a short stroll from the waterfront promenade.

El Salvador

volcano in el salvador

Did you know the official currency of El Salvador is the U.S. dollar? Not only does this take the guesswork out of budgeting for a vacation, but everything is also very affordable in El Salvador, Central America’s smallest country. Admission to two of the country’s most famous sites—Joya de Cerén, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (known as the “Pompeii of the Americas”), and San Andrés, a pre-Colombian site—costs less than $5.

You can also hike the country’s highest volcano, take an inexpensive surf lesson at Playa del Tunco, and learn about the country’s coffee culture at El Carmen Estate. Bonus: More than a dozen U.S. airports offer direct flights to El Salvador; from New York, it’s only five hours.

Where to stay: The luxe Sal & Luz Hotel comes at a reasonable price, with a quiet location and fabulous on-site restaurant.

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northern lights in iceland

While Iceland is a relatively short flight from the East Coast, its pricey reputation has also kept many travelers at a distance. But that should change in 2019. “Right now, the U.S. dollar is worth 20 percent more than it was in early 2018,” says Mero Geesey of Carpe Mundo, a travel agency that specializes in Iceland. “There have also been a lot of new hotels and guesthouses that have opened up within the last year, and several new tour operators offering glacier hikes, snorkel tours, and more.”

Hidden Iceland, for example, provides travelers with intimate alternatives to overcrowded and overpriced experiences. “Instead of the Blue Lagoon, you can explore an ice cave as part of a two-day trip to a glacier lagoon that also includes searching for the northern lights,” says Ryan Connolly, cofounder and marketing manager of Hidden Iceland. “In the spring, travelers can play with newly birthed lambs at an authentic farm guesthouse.”

Where to stay: About an hour outside of Reykjavik, Lambastadir Guesthouse is located on a farm and features an outdoor hot tub and sauna.

For more ideas, see Top Travel Destinations for 2019.

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Amanda Norcross is the editor of Family Vacation Critic. Her travel expertise has appeared on NBC News, The New York Times,, The Travel Channel,, and more. Follow her at @amandafromafar for more travel tips and inspiration.

Arts & Culture Cities Weekend Getaways

How to Do a Weekend in Albuquerque

Made famous by Breaking Bad, New Mexico’s largest city makes for a quirky weekend trip. I found my trip here to be relaxing and inspired by the elements. From Native American influences to a Main Street that’s part of Route 66, the city offers a variety of architecture, cuisine, and culture. Here’s how to do a weekend in Albuquerque and get a glimpse of it all.

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The Hotel: Los Poblanos Ranch & Inn

As you make the turn down the tree-lined road to Los Poblanos Ranch & Inn, you’re instantly hit with the smell of lavender and enchanted by this working farm from the ’30s. Accommodations range from rooms at the original inn to the newly built farmhouses that skirt the lavender fields and roaming llamas. The property has an outdoor pool, event space, an onsite restaurant called Campo, and a farm shop that sells goods made with in-house harvested lavender. Inside the shop is a cafe stand that sells unique drinks like iced lavender lattes. It’s hard to want to leave the property, but when you do, here’s a suggested itinerary for a weekend in Albuquerque.

Itinerary: How to Do a Weekend in Albuquerque

weekend guide to albuquerque


  • Afternoon: Arrive and check into Los Poblanos. If you arrive early, take a ride on the Sandia Tram. Fun Fact: Sandia means “watermelon” in Spanish, and the mountain is named after the pink color it turns during sunrise and sunset.
  • Night: Head to the Casa Rondeña Winery tasting room, which only a few minutes’ drive away. For dinner, go to El Pinto, which is known for its free-range “hen hotel.” It’s the only animal welfare-approved restaurant in the U.S. Try the world-class margaritas and homemade (and generously distributed) salsa.


  • Morning: Rise early for a hot air balloon ride with Rainbow Ryders. Afterward, check out the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, located at Balloon Fiesta Park, where the city’s famous annual hot air balloon festival takes place.
  • Afternoon: Orient yourself with the city on a bike tour with Routes Bicycle Tours. You can pick from several themes, like Breaking Bad, Bike & Brew, and more.
  • Night: Eat at Farm & Table, where you literally can see the farm where the fresh ingredients in your food come from. Then head to downtown Albuquerque and see a show at the historic KiMo Theatre (and if no show is playing, you can take a tour).


  • Morning: Enjoy breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant, Campo. The avocado toast and lavender latte are to die for.
  • Afternoon: Pick a day trip. I went to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. Leave plenty of time to hike the trails and take photos in the slot canyon. If you have time, go to nearby Cochiti Lake for a swim or stand-up paddleboarding.


Restaurants & Cafes

Day Trips


Highlights from my Weekend in ABQ:


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SmarterTravel Editor Ashley Rossi traveled to Albuquerque courtesy of Visit Albuquerque. Follow her adventures (big and small) on Twitter and Instagram.

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Indulging in Sao Paulo, Where Luxury Travel Is Shockingly Affordable for Americans

Ever since I fell down the Netflix rabbit hole that is Chef’s Table, I’ve had the reluctant dream of eating at a Michelin-star restaurant. I say reluctant because while I’ve become mesmerized by the chefs and destinations on the show, I’ve never had any real desire to pay hundreds of dollars to experience a slew of artfully tiny dishes. For example, a sushi tasting at three-Michelin-star Masa in New York is $595 per person. Experiencing the seasonal menu at Copenhagen’s two-star noma, which was named the best restaurant in the world four times over, starts at $350 per person. And that’s if you can get in.

But that expectation was recently shattered when I ate a five-course meal at TUJU, a Sao Paulo restaurant with not one but two Michelin stars, for less than I’ve paid at many subpar American restaurants: $46.

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Tuju_main dining room sao paulo credit carol gherardi

And like most other things that are absurdly affordable in Sao Paulo, a meal at TUJU is no joke. Dishes like citrus-marinated amberjack ceviche with pumpkin shoots, a warm mushroom and egg-yolk soup, steamed white fish in a rich black sesame sauce, and blackened quail in a lentil curry each arrive more beautifully prepared than the last. An extra $25 gets you sommelier-selected wine pairings for each course. TUJU’s new seasonal menu (for Sao Paulo’s high season) currently starts at $95 for the five-course meal option.

Click on the image below to view the interactive version of this story.

Indulging in sao paulo

In the Lap of Luxury, for Less

Tuju1_Credits gilberto bronko

Somewhere between the soup and Instagramming my caramel apple dessert (served as a gel alongside thyme honey ice cream), I realized that splurging in Sao Paulo is anything but, by American standards. And this special brand of ultra-affordable splurging is a necessary part of embracing the cosmopolitan vibe of Sao Paulo, the single largest city in all of the Americas.

Because 58 percent of its international visitors are business travelers, Sao Paulo has a reputation for the finer things. Shopping on Oscar Freire Street, rooftop bars with sparkling skyline views, a lavish arts scene spanning many museums, and, yes, Michelin-star restaurants all make this metropolis a socialite’s paradise. But you don’t have to spend like a socialite to go luxe in the beating heart of Brazil.

New eVisas and Emerging Flights

The key to Brazil’s affordable luxury is, of course, its advantageous three-to-one exchange rate for Americans (see current exchange rates at But a 2018 change in visa requirements for Americans (and Canadian, Australian, and Japanese citizens) will also save you money before you even head to Brazil: eVisas are now available online for about $40 and a waiting period of five days. The process applies to both business and leisure visitors, and visas are valid for two years for multiple visits of up to 90 days.

Compared to the hefty $160 fee and in-person consulate appointment previously required to get a Brazilian visa, getting to Brazil is easier and more affordable than it’s ever been. And while you might think of rainforests and Rio beaches when you hear “Brazil,” the best way to introduce yourself to the massive country is to make a stop in the world-class city you’ll almost certainly have to fly through.

Chilean carrier LATAM Airlines expanded its nonstop U.S. routes to Sao Paulo in 2018, with direct flights to Sao Paulo now operating from Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, D.C., and Orlando. The move is creating price competition for all airlines operating U.S.-Brazil routes through Sao Paulo’s massive Guarulhos International Airport. And while Brazil is, of course, colossal, almost every major tourist city—Rio de Janeiro, Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Brasilia, and more—is just a few hours by plane from Sao Paulo. A weekend here is the best way to break up the journey to any of them.

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The World’s Largest Japantown

Liberdade sao paulo shutterstock

Perhaps the best representation of Sao Paulo’s diversity and culinary prowess is the fact that it’s home to the largest Japanese diaspora in the world outside of Asia. The Liberdade neighborhood offers a taste of Japan in South America with Asian markets, Japanese arches and street art, convenience stores stocked with imported Asian goods, and authentic sushi and ramen restaurants ranging from hole-in-the-wall vendors to high-end eateries. On weekends its outdoor artisan market sells goods like local Japanese art, T-shirts, and jewelry, as well as kitchenware and painted chopsticks. The surprisingly otherworldly enclave is just a few subway stops from both Sao Paulo’s city center and the shopping and food neighborhoods Jardins and Bela Vista.

Bela Vista and Bixiga are another distinct cultural community within Sao Paulo: The Italian populations here make up a Little Italy nestled between the City Center and Paulista Avenue, a main artery closed to traffic on Sundays. The Sao Paulo subway system stretches for 45 miles and is cheap ($1 per ride), clean, and safe. It’s the perfect alternative to sitting in the city’s perpetual traffic jams—though Uber is available if you need it.

True Value in Brazilian Fine Dining

Michelin stars like TUJU Chef Ivan Ralston’s aren’t the only motivation for eating out in Sao Paulo; the city is home to some of the world’s top culinary minds. Celebrity chef and former DJ Alex Atala hails from here, and is credited with introducing the culinary world to Amazonian ingredients to create Brazilian cooking as the world knows it today. His restaurants include two-Michelin-star D.O.M., where hardcore fine diners can try a $250 tasting menu that includes golden Amazonian ants (watch his Chef’s Table episode for the full explanation). Atala was the first Brazilian chef to earn two Michelin stars, but now shares that honor with Ralston of TUJU.

There are also exceptional casual spots in Sao Paulo to try something new, like the innovative pork creations (think pork “sushi” and bacon-caramel desserts) at reservations-free Casa do Porco. Charcoal-kissed vegetables and seafood at Chou, and World’s Best Female Chef 2014 Helena Rizzo’s quintessentially Brazilian ingredients at Mani Manioca (try the open-air patio for a power lunch paired with bright local juices) prove that some of the best food in Sao Paulo is coming from female chefs.

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Where to Stay in Sao Paulo

Stay like a business traveler in the affordable sky-high Renaissance Sao Paulo, where suites guarantee a cityscape view plus access to a top-floor business lounge for free hors d’oeuvres, wine, and beer throughout the day. The Renaissance also has an extensive spa offering an array of massages, plus an indoor hot tub and outdoor pool.

Opting to stay near food-renowned neighborhoods in Sao Paulo like Jardins, Vila Madalena, Bela Vista, or Liberdade means you won’t have to sit in traffic as bad as L.A.’s to eat your way through this metropolis. Sao Paulo’s city center is worth visiting during the day for historic sites like Se Cathedral and the Municipal Market, but it’s an area of frequent unrest that makes the neighborhoods south of it popular among business travelers and vacationers. For value in spending a bit more, the sleek Hotel Unique adjacent to Ibirapuera Park, has an ultra-modern spa and pool deck, a sky bar, and whimsical interiors like sloped floors and an indoor pool complete with a modern slide.


Oscar freire sao paulo

Hotels on famed shopping street Rua Oscar Freire, such as the affordable Regent Park Hotel, give you easy access to all the local designer shops. They’re worth visiting even if you’re not looking to spend anything: Free snacks, impressive interior design, and hidden cafes make the most striking stores worth wandering into, like nk store and the always-changing art and plastic-shoe haven Galeria Melissa. For affordable shopping try Riachuelo for H&M-style value and Havainas flagship store for the Brazilian-Japanese flip flops. But also keep in mind that the pricey luxury goods here are a better deal than they appear: They’ll be a third of what their listed price is when you’re converting to U.S. dollars.

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Sao paulo terraco italia

One of the most popular reasons to visit Sao Paulo is its eclectic array of nightlife options, from low-key watering holes to live Brazilian music, along with a vibrant LGBT scene (the annual Pride parade is one of the largest in the world) and sky-high cocktail bars with sparkling views of the seemingly endless urban skyline. Caipirinhas at Terraco Italia’s elegant Terrace Piano Bar (above) are the perfect aperitif (snacks and the view make the mere $8 cover well worth it) to see the city from a cozy armchair 42 stories up.

For live music and churrasco, head to historic Bar Brahma nearby, which has been a watering hole for the city’s musical, political, and academic elite since the 1950s. Vila Madalena is an upscale neighborhood for wine bars, craft beer, art galleries, and trendy eateries. After hours, bars and dance clubs go all night in the Baixo Augusta and Jardins neighborhoods, with cozy options like Guilhotina Bar and MeGusta offering respite from the crowds.

Sao Paulo Art and Free Things to Do

Sao paulo art

You’ve probably seen the work of famed Brazilian street artists like Eduardo Kobra and Os Gemeos across the globe from Boston to Paris, and on the world stage at the Rio Olympics in 2016. So it might not come as a surprise that perusing street art is one of the best things to do in Sao Paulo. On the sides of massive buildings and on Batman Alley’s thickly painted walls, art is everywhere, and it’s free or cheap to enjoy. One of the best views of the city is also free of charge thanks to the free-admission Museum of Contemporary Art, which has an outdoor observation deck overlooking Ibirapuera Park.

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Sao Paulo’s answer to New York’s Central Park, Ibirapuera Park is home to its own world-class museums, like the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which is free on Saturdays and just $2 the rest of the week. The park is also home to a massive Afro Brazil Museum (also $2 to visit), and Japanese Pavilion with a koi pond and tea house ($3 to visit).

Sao Paulo’s most famous museum is the historic yet modern Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), which sits on Paulista Avenue; admission starts at $4. The main artery of Sao Paulo, Paulista Avenue is closed to traffic on Sundays for live music and vendors—making MASP and its surroundings the place to be on Sunday afternoons. (Editor’s note: All prices are approximate, based on currency exchange rates at the time of publication.)

The boisterous energy of Sao Paulo is best felt in its finest, yet surprisingly affordable, art and entertainment institutions—and they’re beckoning to Americans now more than ever.

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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon visited Sao Paulo as a guest of LATAM Airlines and Embratur, Brazil’s tourism board. Follow her on Instagram: @shanmcmahon.

Arts & Culture

Visit Museums Across the U.S. for Free This Saturday

Have you had your eye on an interesting museum but haven’t gotten around to visiting? It’s time to clear your schedule on Saturday, September 22, because nearly 1,500 museums and cultural institutions nationwide will be free and open to the public for one day.

[st_content_ad]Saturday marks Smithsonian Magazine’s 14th annual Museum Day, which celebrates the knowledge and inspiration museums provide visitors. The theme of this year’s Museum Day, “Women Making History,” honors female trailblazers in the arts, sciences, innovation, and culture.

In keeping with the theme, New York City’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum will host Smithsonian and Microsoft’s new mixed-reality experience showcasing female contributions to space exploration. The experience is narrated by former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison.

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Need some inspiration for museums to visit? Many of Washington, D.C.’s famous museums, including the Newseum and the Phillips Collection, will be free on Saturday. New York City’s 9/11 Tribute Museum, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will also be open and free.

You can download one ticket per email address to any participating museum, and admission is good for two people. Take advantage of this special day when you can save money, learn something new, and celebrate women’s contributions to American history and culture.

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SmarterTravel co-op Alyssa Lukpat loves exploring new places. Follow her on Twitter.