America's Best Cities for Fall Travel
Even bears prefer Chicago during the autumn.
“It's cooler, the trees on Michigan Avenue are turning colors, and it's a great time to visit Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos,” said Lillian Polz, the head of a Chicago marketing firm. “The animals that were lethargic during the summer — like the bears and big cats — are all in their best winter coats and are much more lively.”
Related: America's Best Fall Foliage Drives
No doubt, the crisp air and vibrant fall foliage can put a spring in your step. And for travelers, autumn offers added incentives: summer crowds have dissipated, hotel rates have wafted downward, and in many cities, the best local experiences are ready to shine. In San Diego, California, you can find the most summery temperatures of the year, along with emptier beaches and better surf. In Portland, Oregon, you can taste the city’s famed microbrews at their fresh-hops best. And in Orlando, Florida, you might get downright teary-eyed at the significantly shorter lines for Space Mountain.
Then, of course, there's the seasonal scenery. “Santa Fe is at its most beautiful and arresting in autumn,” said Melissa Carl, who does cultural excursions with Curious Oyster Seminars. “The weather remains brilliant, and the changing of the leaves makes for an almost sublime experience. A quick drive up to the Santa Fe ski basin, when all the aspens are in color, is like living in a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.”
The leaves start turning early in the resort towns outside Denver, but the city’s foliage takes center stage during October, when you can see it nicely from the Cherry Creek Bike Trail, or along the High Line Canal, lined with brilliant yellow cottonwood trees. Beer fans, however, might be forgiven for never noticing any trees. Fall here brings a chockablock lineup of sudsfests: the Denver Oktoberfest, the Denver Beer Fest, and the Great American Beer Festival, featuring 3,500 different beers from more than 700 brewers.
Music City lives up to its nickname particularly well in fall, when it hosts the Independent Music Festival and the Americana Festival. Indeed, the biggest parties in Nashville increasingly reflect the city’s love affair with southern, farm-to-table cuisine. The Music City Food & Wine Festival features cooking demos from Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and musical multitasker Trisha Yearwood. And, as a reminder that not every lyrical turn of phrase in this town is belted out, the nearly 20-year-old Southern Festival of Books returns in October.
To see the best local foliage, hike up Bradbury Mountain, just outside town, or pedal around using the bike-share program Zagster. After all, some exercise amid the foliage is a convenient way to rationalize all of the good eating to be done in this lobster-filled city. Dig in at October’s acclaimed foodie-palooza Harvest on the Harbor. Highlights include the showcase of samples at the Grand Tasting on the Harbor, and the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year competition—where, happily, audience members get to taste and vote alongside the professional judges.
New York City, New York
For just one version of pastoral bliss in Central Park, head to the meadow by Belvedere Castle, which gets covered with red leaves from the black tupelo trees — or book a Central Park-facing room at the Mandarin Oriental New York. Heading downtown, explore the latest stretch of the High Line — the park space created out of old elevated rail tracks — between 30th and 34th Streets. Well into October, you can enjoy its seasonal food kiosks, such as Blue Bottle Coffee or The Taco Truck.
Santa Barbara, California
It’s long been called the American Riviera, and, like its French cousin, this southern California enclave enjoys a tony summer season. But come fall, hotel prices plummet — weekend rates at the legendary Four Seasons Biltmore, for instance, drop by nearly 50 percent from August to September. And you often get better weather in fall than summer anyway (which can be prey to foggy June Gloom). Given its proximity to the Santa Ynez Valley wineries, Santa Barbara also has an increasing number of grape-harvest-friendly tasting rooms. Check out Deep Sea Wines, which sits on Stearns Wharf, right over the water.
A third of the world’s bourbon whiskey comes from this Kentucky city, and locals toast their output during September’s National Bourbon Heritage Month. You can celebrate all fall, however, along Lousiville’s 34-stop Urban Bourbon Trail. One stop is the Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant, which serves 160 bourbons, a pecan pie cocktail (bourbon with praline liquor and spiced cherry bitters), and whiskey brisket chili. For a non-alcoholic stroll, check out the foliage in Iroquois Park (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for NYC’s Central Park), and stay until after dark during October, when the annual Jack -O’-Lantern Spectacular features 5,000 carved pumpkins.
Salt Lake City, Utah
The autumn months generally mean the lowest prices, thin crowds, and the chance to see bright foliage while hiking or driving along Big or Little Cottonwood canyons. The Utah State Fair happens in SLC in September — with its rodeo and Western Music Festival — and the lederhosen-filled Oktoberfest lasts nearly two months at Snowbird. And some years, there's enough snow to ski here by Halloween.
New Orleans, Louisiana
There’s less humidity and fewer crowds in the Crescent City during fall, when the ever-festive vibe is channeled into such parties as September’s New Orleans Burlesque Festival, the Voodoo Music Experience in October, and the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival in November. Fall also means the return of the near-religious fervor for Saints football: before home games, you can join black-and-gold-festooned locals at Champions Square, a public space right next to the Superdome, for live music, tailgating cuisine (try the Pigskin Po-Boys), and friendly Who Dat revelry.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
While plenty of locals happily pedal around town during the depths of winter, for most people, fall is the last hurrah for bicycling and jogging around the lakes. One high point is September’s Minneapolis Bike Tour, which offers routes of varying lengths around the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway; another is October’s Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, which has been called the prettiest urban marathon, thanks to its tree-canopied route along parkways, lakes, and the Mississippi River. To prove that you’re as hardy as the locals, go watch the Minnesota Vikings play outdoors for the next two seasons, while their new stadium is being built.
A certain back-to-school excitement fills the air in Boston, even if you’re not signed up for American Lit this fall. Beloved bookstores like Brookline Booksmith and Harvard Book Store have an uptick in readings and events. To catch the best of the local foliage in the early fall, walk through Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, in Jamaica Plain; by late fall, you can go ice skating at Boston Common’s Frog Pond. (It opens in mid-November.)
If you want to bring your preschoolers to the theme parks — or just ride Space Mountain over and over, without any kids in tow — the beginning of the school year is the prime time to come to Orlando, when prices dwindle just like the lines. The city is more than just turnstiles, too. Check out the ever-expanding dining scene in downtown and Winter Park. You’ll find artisanal pies and Lowcountry shrimp-and-grits at The Coop (opened by the chef behind local favorite 4 Rivers Smokehouse) and tapas-style pintxos at Txokos Basque Kitchen, run by James Beard Award-nominated chef Henry Salgado.
If the Windy City has a sweet spot for weather, it’s during the early autumn months, when the cool air clearly makes people feel like dancing. September kicks things off with the World Music Festival, the punk-powered Riot Fest, and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. The newest addition to Chicago’s festive lineup is the quirky Great Chicago Fire Festival, features flaming sculptures, acrobatics, and music to commemorate the city’s revival after the epic fire of 1871.
San Francisco, California
This is the time of year to take a “summer vacation” to the Bay Area. While the actual summer months are chilly and foggy, fall tends to be warm and sunny. That makes it all the better for enjoying the diverse mix of events, from the irresistible Ghiradelli Chocolate Festival to the races at the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival. The only possible pitfall during autumn: rates (especially at business hotels) can be higher, since it’s peak season for conferences.
San Antonio, Texas
By fall, temperatures have finally drifted out of the triple-digit range, and the locals are ready to whoop it up outside: The party lineup includes Oktoberfest, the post-Halloween Day of the Dead, and the International Accordion Festival. Thanks to the recent upgrades to the River Walk’s Mission Reach portion, you can also hike, rent bicycles, or kayak along the San Antonio River. It’s a convenient way to burn calories if you come for November’s Wurstfest, a 10-day celebration of all things sausage in nearby New Braunfels.
Sure, the midnight sun has set — but so have the highest prices, and most of the cruise-ship-layover tourists. Unlike many small Alaska towns, Anchorage doesn’t close up shop just because summer is over. Early fall usually means there are still berries to be picked on the city’s Flattop Mountain, or you can take the Alaska Railroad up to Talkeetna to see the foliage (and perhaps better views of Mount McKinley). As leaves fall, it’s also easier to spot moose and Dall sheep that may have been playing coy behind the branches. And by night, you can start seeing the northern lights.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
After its boisterous boardwalk party (the Neptune Festival) ends in late September, this resort city with 35 miles of shoreline quiets down nicely. Unless, that is, you’re a bird or a striped bass. The big fish are biting in droves in the Chesapeake Bay during the fall, and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers a perch for watching migrating ducks and snow geese — thousands of them. Another perk of the off-season: you can saddle up with Virginia Beach Horseback for riding tours on the sand.
Providence, Rhode Island
Come fall, the Rhode Island capital turns on the perfect mix of pastoral and urbane charms. While blazing foliage lights up the daytime, WaterFire — the bonfires that line the city’s rivers — illuminates the evenings through October. Autumn also brings some quirky entertainment: Providence hosts the Vortex Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror Film Festival, and Steel Yard does an “Iron Pour” around Halloween, turning steel working into live performance art.
Against a pretty backdrop of leaves, the spooky sights of this infamously haunted city swing into high gear during fall. Take your pick from Blue Orb’s City of the Dead Tour, Moon River Brewing Company’s haunted pub crawls, and the mysterious knocks and thumps inside haunted hotels like 17Hundred90 Inn, supposedly inhabited by the spirit of a jilted servant. Nervous Nellies might prefer to focus on Savannah’s mix of culinary festivals, from the Savannah Bacon Festival in September to Shalom Y’all, a southern-Jewish food fest in late October.
Fall is good news for Portland’s locavore menus: Plenty of salmon are swimming in the Columbia River, and butternut squash and heirloom tomatoes are falling off the vines. Try any of the dishes from the regularly changing menu at the all-wood-fired kitchen at Ned Ludd (a cheeky take on Luddites). It’s also fresh hop season for beer, when brewers use newly harvested hops, which taste distinctly different than the dried hops employed the rest of the year. You can sample some excellent results at Hopworks.
San Diego, California
Plenty of surfers insist that autumn is the best time to catch a wave in San Diego, when south swells mix with the season’s warm Santa Ana winds. In late October, the Del Mar Racetrack — where the turf meets the surf, as Bing Crosby used to sing — opens its annual horse-racing season with a Hollywood Fashion Contest. That same month, you can sample acclaimed local craft brews at San Diego Beer Week, which includes a beer garden at The Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
You know it's chile harvest season in this southwestern city by the smell of roasted peppers emanating from roadside stands. A few great places to try them, in a non-taco format: gastropub Fire & Hops, which tops its poutine with cheese curds, bacon, and green chile gravy; and Kitchen Window Café, where the Red Chile Brownie is accented with peppers and candied pecans. In early October, it’s a quick drive to hike the foliage-lined Aspen Vista trail, about 14 miles from downtown, or take in the “hot air” at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.