This Is the Summer of Second Cities

You’ve had your vaccines (check) and ordered new luggage (check). You’re ready for some R&R, at last.

There’s just one problem: The pampering vacation you’ve been fantasizing about since Covid-19 descended has long been sold out for the season. Take the Tennessee foodie wonderland that is Blackberry Farm: “We are practically booked throughout the summer, although there might be a pocket [of availability] here or there,” says Sarah Elder Chabot, vice president of marketing.

Amangiri—that minimalist reprieve in Utah that’s become a hideout for Kardashians and Jenners? Fully committed until mid-July. Meanwhile, international boltholes remain hazy. The European Union is now promising that vaccinated individuals will soon be able to visit, and yet the U.S. State Department says it plans to declare 80% of the world’s nations as likely no-go zones

This Is the Summer of Second Cities

While the old favorites are on standby, consider looking for luxurious hotels, pampering spa services, creative restaurants, and a dose of culture in places that typically fly under the radar. Many of these “second-tier” American cities have benefited from the outflow of creative professionals from major urban hubs and are brimming with hospitality. Besides … are you ready for a bite of the Big Apple quite yet?

Clients are “still easing into going back to travel [and] looking for an option that’s not a bustling high-density city,” says New Orleans-based Amina Dearmon, luxury travel adviser and owner of Perspectives Travel. “It gives people an opportunity to dip their toes in the water and see about getting back out there—without being in the midst of a larger tourist destination.”

Driveability is key. Anything within an eight-hour road trip is fair game for Dearmon’s clients, whose top requests have been Greenville, S.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Bentonville, Ark. “We are seeing a lot more requests for domestic travel and subsequently ‘secondary’ domestic spots,” says Jenny Westermann, owner and luxury travel adviser of Sanders Travel Centre in Fort Worth. “People are going to smaller, ‘undiscovered’ locations.”

This Is the Summer of Second Cities

These less-visited spots often teem with artful offerings and big hotel news that can start Instagram engines. Consider Tulsa, a city with a high concentration of art deco buildings where the 1927, Bruce Goff-designed Tulsa Club Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton was recently reborn with preserved Italian stonework, brass-accented rooms, and absinthe cocktails at the gold-and-marble bar, Commerce. It’s less than three miles down the road from the Gilcrease Museum, which was founded in 1949 by a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and now holds a collection of 350,000 Native American works, made from 12,000 B.C. to today. Also nearby: the Philbrook Museum of Art, housed in a European-style villa once owned by oil tycoon Waite Phillips. (Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are on view there throughout the summer.)

In El Paso,Plaza Pioneer Park, the grande dame hotel that hosted newlyweds Elizabeth Taylor and Conrad Hilton, emerged from a total revamp in June 2020. Now in each room: matouk linens on the channel-tufted beds and Calcutta marble-sheathed bathrooms. (Upgrade to one of their 11th-floor, 755-square-foot Landmark Suites for an even more Liz Taylor-worthy experience, including Tivoli audio systems, Le Labo toiletries, and an extra powder room for getting camera-ready.) 

Adding to the appeal of the second-tier city? “Smaller destinations have a more intimate feel that’s easier to explore over a long weekend,” Dearmon says. New York and L.A. have it all—but they don’t have that. Smaller cities also offer the same sumptuous luxuries that can be had on the coasts—at significantly better value.

It goes without saying: Once you’ve found your ideal spot, be sure to check that spots on your intended itinerary are open amid the pandemic. And continue to take all the precautions that doctors recommend. 

The Best Cities to Visit Now 

Here are four places topping our summer vacation lists, each with ideas for where to stay, new and notable outdoor dining options, and a little cultural edification.

This Is the Summer of Second Cities

St. Louis

The Hotel  Adjacent to the Mississippi River, Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis (from $395) has starter rooms that are 111 square feet larger than those you’ll find at Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown, with floor-to-ceiling windows, rain showers, and butler service on request. Other perks: a 12,000-square-foot spa (among the largest in the Four Seasons stable); a Topgolf Swing Suite for tee times in a simulator; and a wood-fired menu at Cinder House whipped up by James Beard award-winning chef Gerard Craft (don’t miss the grilled ribeye and Hen of the Woods mushrooms with chorizo butter).  

The Dish  Free-range chicken with pickled sunchoke mole and ramps at The Lucky Accomplice, a locavore spot that opened in 2020. Order it to go. Lafayette Park—designed in 1851 on 30 acres—is just a three-minute drive, and it makes an idyllic picnic ground.

The Must-Do  The Saint Louis Art Museum is exhibiting work by Israeli-born artist Dana Levy that depicts the Palace of Versailles in the middle of an imagined earthquake (on view Feb. 26-Aug. 15). Bringing kids? Tucked in a century-old warehouse downtown, City Museum is a family favorite for its rooftop Ferris wheel.

Pittsburgh

This Is the Summer of Second Cities

The Hotel  The gleaming tower of Fairmont Pittsburgh (from $178) is a local go-to for Floor 2, a throwback diner designed by Barcelona’s modernist Lázaro Rosa-Violán (order the tomato fondue with charred bread). And don’t miss the spa for a heated stone Swedish massage and restorative spell in the eucalyptus steam rooms and cedar saunas.

The Dish  Scottish ocean trout with rhubarb gastrique and Anson Mills farro verde pilaf at Fig & Ash, a restaurant opened amid the pandemic—with a wood-fired, locally built oven. Eat on-site in the restaurant’s tented courtyard, or have it wrapped up for a picnic in the 154-year-old Allegheny Commons Park, two blocks away.

The Must-Do  Andy Warhol was born “Andrew Warhola” to immigrant parents in a two-room apartment here. Ogle the world’s largest horde of his work at The Andy Warhol Museum, spread over five airy floors. The Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens also offers easy social distancing. It has 15 acres of manicured grounds, plus a 14-room conservatory for colorful lady slipper orchids and rare plant species such as the spiky Munch’s cycad fern, which predates the dinosaurs.  

Cleveland

This Is the Summer of Second Cities

The Hotel  Every guest room at The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland (from $409) feels plush, with Frette linens and rainforest showers in the marble-lined baths. But it’s worth booking a 626-square-foot Junior Suite for prime overlooks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Bonus: There are dishes on the room service menu featuring local delicacies, including a beer-battered Lake Erie walleye. Take a 20-minute walk across the Cuyahoga and you’ll find the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, whose 230,000-gallon shark exhibit has a 175-foot long “sea-tube” corridor that makes you feel like you’re underwater.

The Dish  Just-opened comfort food boîte The Last Page makes a mean Faroe Island salmon with black garlic soubise and whiskey-glazed onions. Its megawatt Old Hollywood-esque interiors offer socially distanced seating options; the location, within a newly developed mixed-use plaza in upscale Beachwood, offers several options for outdoor seating if you get everything to go. Bonus: Graeter’s Ice Cream, beloved for such Ohio-inspired flavors as Buckeye Blitz, is just a few doors down.

The Must-Do  Stroll the Ohio City district west of downtown to indulge in ultra-hip breweries and restaurants galore, including the beer garden at the all-American Nano Brew Cleveland—where the beer list rotates weekly—and Momocho, a modern Mexican spot with crab and pickled-corn guacamole. Then pop over to Hingetown, a subsection of Ohio City known for its enormous and plentiful murals, featuring everything from Prince to “Ohio hieroglyphics” and pizza. 

Greenville, S.C.

This Is the Summer of Second Cities

The Hotel  Greenville’s boutique hotel scene has room to grow. Leading the charge is the AC Hotel Greenville Downtown (from $249), which opened in April with 196 simple rooms near Falls Park on the Reedy, a formerly blighted strip used by 19th century yarn and gingham textile mills that’s now a lush 32-acre reprieve with a suspension bridge lofted over a rushing creek. It’s well situated but not glamorous. More decadent is Hotel Domestique, a Tuscan-inspired oasis with a saltwater pool, 30 minutes outside town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Dish  French Laundry alum (and 27-year-old) Chef Drew Erickson is opening his modern American restaurant Camp in a newly constructed space downtown in mid-May. Your order: crispy mussels fried and tossed with saffron emulsion and marinated artichokes.

The Must-Do  Toast your trip at Vault & Vator, an underground speakeasy-inspired cocktail bar with tipples like the Bonnie & Clyde—guava rum, hibiscus vodka, Pasubio Vino Amaro (an aged wine from the Dolomites), mango, and spicy honey. Or go straight to the source with a tour at Six & Twenty Distillery, where South Carolina-grown grains are transformed into Old Money single batch whiskey, Heirloom Rye vodka, and more. Yes, they’re both indoors, but they offer lots of personal space—and a refreshing reminder of what life was like pre-2020.

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