Coolest Suburbs Worth a Visit
Americans have a love-hate relationship with the ever-sprawling communities outside the country’s big cities. The quest for more space than cities can afford often means giving up the unique stores and restaurants that spring up in urban centers. Of course, Hollywood hasn’t helped the suburban profile, typically portraying these communities as boring, conformist places, spiced up by a few desperate housewives here and there. Yet a number of suburbs around the country blow up the stereotype and are worth a visit on your next trip.
Some of these are old inner-ring suburbs, while others are small cities that have been folded into a greater urban area due to population expansion and improved transportation—but have managed to maintain an independent identity.
Roswell, GA, for example, is known for its 19th-century Old South streetscapes and for Bulloch Hall, the antebellum home of Teddy Roosevelt’s mother. But it’s not trapped in the past. The roads are lined with restaurants like Relish, which draws a crowd seeking its innovative takes on fried black-eyed peas and pickled green tomatoes. There’s also a lot of city-like energy. “Roswell is just an amazing place for singles,” says Valerie Jackson, owner of the Ann Jackson Gallery, which holds the country’s largest collection of works by Dr. Seuss. “On my street alone there are 14 restaurants.”
Alameda, CA, built on an island just east of Oakland in San Francisco Bay, is another cool suburb. It’s a place lined with well-kept beaches and no shortage of spectacular views. A chill vibe is maintained with the help of a strictly enforced 25 mph speed limit. Alameda is also home to the Pacific Pinball Museum, where you can try your hand at a classic game of Buccaneer or Magic Circle, and Forbidden Island, a tiki bar with a distinct rockabilly atmosphere and a reputation for skillfully mixed rum concoctions that draws drinkers from afar.
So instead of trying to escape from suburbia, join the commuting crowd and try one of these unsung neighborhoods: you’ll have no trouble finding culinary and cultural hot spots. Just leave your copy of American Beauty at home.
Montclair is one of the few New York City suburbs that can legitimately call itself cool. It’s home to many New York artists and a growing population of media professionals, including New York Times reporter David Carr and New Yorker contributor Ian Frazier. The town features the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair State University, and a mix of smaller theaters offering indie film and live performances. Funky shops, galleries, and tempting restaurants line Bloomfield Avenue.
See: Many well-known music acts—Lyle Lovett, the Smashing Pumpkins, and more—are booked at the Wellmont Theatre.
Taste: A favorite among locals, Palazzo offers a modern take on classic Italian fare.
One of Chicago’s vintage inner-ring suburbs has its own distinct vibe. Home to Northwestern University, Evanston is a midwestern intellectual hub and a regional incubator for high-tech industries. Besides the gorgeous campus, Evanston is home to four miles of wide, sandy public beach along Lake Michigan. Along Dempster Street, a diverse sidewalk café scene has emerged along with small, specialized shops catering to the community’s young, hip crowd.
See: The Grosse Point Lighthouse was once a primary beacon for guiding ships to Chicago.
Taste: Oenophiles will feel at home at the Stained Glass Bistro, where veteran Chicago chef and owner Victor Hernandez offers 32 wines by the glass.
Set along the cliffs of Lake Erie, this inner-ring suburb of Cleveland has been on the radar of the young and urbane for some time. It has a well-established (and thriving) nightlife and gastronomic scene along Detroit Avenue, as well as a sizable gay and lesbian community.
See: Every Sunday the Lakewood Band Shelter at Lakewood Park offers free performances, often big band ensembles. Rock and blues acts play the Winchester Tavern and Music Hall.
Taste: Sip on a signature Red Delicious martini while taking in the magnificent view of Lake Erie and downtown Cleveland from the nautically themed Pier W. For heartier fare (though not necessarily healthful), head over to Melt Bar & Grilled, where chef Matt Fish has elevated the grilled cheese sandwich to gourmet status.
This onetime sleepy suburb of Seattle (just across Lake Washington) has undergone a flash of development in recent years, including the completion of the Bravern, a massive high-end shopping, office, and condo complex where Microsoft has taken space. The younger crowd is making its presence felt in the scene-y sections of Lincoln Square and the area around Bellevue Towers.
Taste: Drop by the sophisticated Taphouse Grill, where you can feast on fish tacos and down them with one of the 160 beers on tap.
Located 20 minutes north of downtown Atlanta, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, Roswell has been winning over young urbanites (the population’s average age is 35) with its mix of Old South and the culture and food of a cosmopolitan city. This bike-friendly, walkable community has an established restaurant base, exquisitely repurposed 19th-century architecture, and an evolving arts scene that includes three theaters.
See: The Chattahoochee Nature Center is one of the Southeast’s largest natural science and learning hubs. And East Roswell Park is a favorite among Frisbee golf fans, who come for its regulated course.
Taste: Once you get past the fact that Relish was once Roswell’s funeral parlor, you’ll see that the place is nicely light-filled and spacious. Chef and proprietor Andy Badgett is known for his new southern cuisine, including fried black-eyed peas and Krispy Kreme bread pudding.
Because of its geographic isolation—an island just off Oakland, in San Francisco Bay—and a strict 25 mph speed limit, life here hums at a slow pace. The town is filled with large Victorian homes, pristine beaches, and wonderful views of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Dozens of niche restaurants and shops—as well as the beautifully restored Alameda Theatre—are located along Park Street.
See: Try your hand at a game of Mystic Marvel or Daisy May, just two of the classic pinball games found at the nostalgic Pacific Pinball Museum.
Taste: Bay Area residents know all about Forbidden Island and its fresh spin on the classic 1960s tiki bar. Ask one of the smart (and proudly tattooed) mixologists for a China Clipper, a concoction of five secret spices, fresh lemon juice, and rum.
The Woodlands, TX
This suburb is a master-planned community built within 28,000 acres of forest, 25 miles from downtown Houston. After opening in 1974, the town has wooed many young Texans; the average age is 36. One main attraction is its thriving town center, filled with great restaurants, bars, and major retail outlets, all accessible by foot or trolley. Fox Sports Network and Anadarko Petroleum are headquartered here, and an elaborate park and lake system is navigable by water taxi.
See: Check out a concert with 17,000 of your friends at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Taste: How can a town that is less than 40 have a pub that’s 107 years old? Simple: it was shipped from Ireland. At the well-traveled Goose’s Acre Bistro and Irish, dine on sirloin shepherd’s pie or a Monte Cristo O’Brian sandwich.
West Hartford, CT
This well-kept nabe is five miles from Hartford, but its vibe is a world away. And new transplants have spurred a flurry of activity and buzz along Farmington Avenue, where a young, trendy set can be found late at night ordering bottle service and grooving to house music at Shish Lounge.
See: West Hartford Reservoir (entrance on Farmington Avenue) is West Hartford’s version of Central Park. The 3,000-acre reserve has nearly 30 miles of paved and gravel trails and is frequented by people from neighboring towns who come to bike, hike, and cross-country ski.
Taste: Chef Billy Grant says the Italian comfort fare he serves at Restaurant Bricco is inspired by childhood memories of his mother’s cooking. Order some orecchiette with sautéed shrimp, then wrap up with a dish of homemade olive oil gelato.
It’s not uncommon to see Detroit Red Wings players milling about in this posh Detroit suburb, or to find yourself in a local bistro seated near a major Hollywood celebrity: Madonna, Clint Eastwood, and Bette Midler have all stayed in Birmingham while on business in the region. Tap into the social scene at the Townsend Hotel, home to the Rugby Grille and the Corner, a favorite among Birmingham’s cocktail crowd.
See: Dinner and a movie go hand-in-hand at Birmingham’s Palladium 12 Theatre. For $27 you get a movie ticket and access to a dinner buffet prepared by in-house chef Ian Forest.
Taste: On the upper floor of 220 & Edison you’ll find a relaxed local crowd that comes for dishes like the sautéed lake perch piccata. Downstairs, it’s about socializing over well-crafted mixed drinks or wine.
Ashland, 20 minutes from downtown Medford, put itself on the map with its internationally renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, now in its 75th year. The town is also home to Southern Oregon University and is a favorite launching point for the mountain-loving outdoor set—it’s only an hour and a half from the ever-awe-inspiring Crater Lake.
See: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs from February to November.
Taste: For mid-century style ambience, complete with red leather booths and tiny martini glasses, try Omar’s, which cooks up highly regarded steaks and classic seafood recipes.
Tucked along the Rocky Mountain foothills, this onetime mining camp has maintained its entrepreneurial spirit, evident along bustling Washington Avenue. You’ll find outdoor types, Denver commuters, natural-resources buffs (who attend the highly regarded Colorado School of Mines), and Coors beer lovers, who make a beeline for the brewery.
See: On fall weekends, sled down the half-mile-long Heritage Square Alpine Slide (18301 West Colfax Ave.; 303-279-1661).
Eat: Enjoy one of Golden’s best views while feasting on Rocky Mountain rainbow trout at The Briarwood Inn (1630 8th St.; 303-279-3121).
Glen Allen, VA
This onetime sleepy suburb just north of Richmond is now a major shopping and economic hub, and most of the action unfolds in the Short Pump area. Over the past decade, new condo construction and contemporary lodging like the Hotel Sierra have created a lively street scene.
See: At the Short Pump Town Center (11800 West Broad St.; 804-360-1700), you can find everything from a comedy show to an Apple Store.
Eat: Stop for a drink at the lively Bar Louie (11788 West Broad St.; 804-440-7301), then crack open a live Maine lobster with drawn butter at Copper Grill Lobster & Steakhouse (11800 West Broad St.; 804-360-1700).
Round Rock, TX
Living in the shadow of a place as dynamic as Austin can be challenging, but this Texas Hill Country suburb has carved out its own niche. Besides offering natural beauty, it has a booming jobs sector and vibrant social scene, plus it’s home to three colleges as well as the world headquarters of Dell.
See: Catch the Triple-A baseball team Round Rock Express at the Dell Diamond (3400 East Palm Valley Blvd.; 512-255-2255).
Eat: Stop at Round Rock Donuts (106 West Liberty; 512-255-3629), which has been in business since 1926 and maintains its secret hand-rolled-doughnut recipe.
Santa Monica, CA
This beach community has long served as an oasis for sun worshipers and skateboarders, as well as a backdrop for iconic TV shows Baywatch and Three’s Company. And no wonder—it has bragging rights to 310 days of sunshine per year, and (unlike Los Angeles) it’s truly pedestrian friendly.
See: Saunter along the Santa Monica Pier for great views of the Pacific.
This once hardscrabble inner-ring suburb bordering Cambridge has evolved into an epicenter for the well educated and ambitious. Harvard students and young professionals who work in Boston head to Davis Square for its mix of small shops, restaurants, and bars.
See: Johnny D’s Uptown (17 Holland St.; 617-776-2004) is a classic jazz and blues joint and a regional institution.
Eat: Redbones Barbecue (55 Chester St.; 617-628-2200) is a Boston area favorite. You can’t miss with the Memphis Ribs.
Mt. Lebanon, PA
Part of this town’s allure is the friendly vibe and proximity to downtown Pittsburgh, six miles away. It’s also on the light-rail line, better known as the T. Social life bustles along Washington Road, where you’ll find the requisite boutiques and bistro-style dining options as well as specialty purveyors like Dinardo’s Candy.
See: Whether it’s custom jewelry, pottery, or hand-built furniture, you’ll find it at Handworks Gallery (670 Washington Rd.; 412-341-1744).
Eat: The younger crowd gravitates to The Saloon, but the stylish bar at Bistro 19 (711 Washington Rd.; 412-306-1919) is the spot for drinks.
Take a town, plop 30,000 college students in it, and something hip is bound to happen. That’s certainly the case in Norman, 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. Experience the town’s vibe in coffeehouses along the revitalized downtown on Main Street and Gray Avenue.
See: The Weitzenhoffer collection at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is one of the largest selections of French Impressionist art bequeathed to an American university (555 Elm Ave.; 405-325-3272).
Eat: Head to the patio at The Mont (1300 Classen Blvd.; 405-329-3330) for a frozen margarita and sangria combination known as the Sooner Swirl.
Coral Gables, FL
South Beach may get all the Miami-area attention, but Coral Gables has its own form of beauty. Built in the late 1920s, Coral Gables draws upon an air of authentic glamour with its exquisite Mediterranean-style homes and a sophisticated international flavor.
See: Independently owned and beloved by South Floridians, Books & Books has nearly 60 author readings per month.
Eat: Try the Caribbean-influenced fare at Ortanique on the Mile (278 Miracle Mile; 305-446-7710). Start with mojitos at the intimate bar, then savor the Bahamian black grouper served with a sweet plantain mash.
La Jolla, CA
The rugged Pacific coastline sets the backdrop for this San Diego suburb. The action hums along Prospect Street and Girrad Avenue, where you’ll find great shopping and dining choices. Take in the view from Scripps Park or walk down into the La Jolla Cove to check out one of California’s smallest but most coveted beaches.
See: The Sunny Jim Cave (1325 Coast Blvd.; 858-459-0746) is a magnificent ocean-carved cave accessible (for a small fee) through the Sunny Jim Cave Store.
Eat: Head to the relaxed ocean terrace at George’s at the Cove (1250 Prospect St.; 858-454-4244) for local white sea bass with a zucchini basil purée.
New Hope, PA
Tucked along the Delaware River, this arty outpost is nearly an hour’s drive from Philadelphia yet its thriving street life, vibrantly restored 19th-century homes, and commercial enterprises make it worth the trip. Shop along Main Street or walk across the bridge into Lambertville, NJ, where an equally exciting town (known for its antiques shops) awaits.
See: Enjoy Broadway-style entertainment at Bucks County Playhouse (70 South Main St.; 215-862-2041). This onetime gristmill is a national landmark and has played host to a long line of performers, including Grace Kelly and Robert Redford.
Eat: Get a taste of Colonial times at the Logan Inn (10 West Ferry St.; 215-862-2300), one of New Hope’s oldest continually running establishments.
Wedged between Dallas and Fort Worth, Grapevine has nine wineries, a dynamically restored downtown, and great bars and restaurants, plus it’s home to the Gaylord Texan, the official hotel of the Dallas Cowboys. On weekends, board its vintage passenger steam train for the leisurely ride into Fort Worth.
See: At Delaney Vineyards and Winery (2000 Champagne Blvd.; 817-481-5668), learn about the unique north Texas climate while sampling five of Delaney’s prized wines.
Eat: For southwestern fare, try Ama Lur at the Gaylord Texan (1501 Gaylord Trail; 817-778-1000), a massive entertainment complex that pays homage to the Lone Star State.
Just 20 minutes from Phoenix, Gilbert is perfect for outdoor lovers, with biking and walking trails as well as the Riparian Preserve, a wetland that attracts more than 200 species of birds. Then stroll around the town center, also known as the Heritage District.
See: Check out Gilbert’s Cosmo Dog Park (2502 East Ray Rd.), one of America’s best, according to Dog Fancy magazine. Watch dogs swimming or jumping off the doggie dock.
Eat: If the idea of a restaurant growing its own produce right outside appeals to you then you’ll love Joe’s Farm Grill (3000 East Ray Rd.; 480-563-4745). Order the Fontina Burger, which comes with field greens and a farm-made pecan pesto.
University City, MO
This St. Louis suburb has forged a unique identity as both a home to Washington University and a cultural epicenter for the region’s young hipsters. Get a feel for the neighborhood by strolling along Delmar Boulevard and its St. Louis Walk of Fame, honoring onetime residents like Tennessee Williams, Tina Turner, and Kevin Kline.
See: If you’re a fan of American pop culture memorabilia, stop by Blueberry Hill (6504 Delmar in the Loop; 314-727-4444), where live music accompanies great cheeseburgers.
Eat: A closely guarded root beer recipe is a key to the success of Fitz’s American Grill & Bottling Works (6605 Delmar Blvd.; 314-726-9555). Watch the bottling line while savoring a slice of Voodoo Pizza with Cajun chicken and andouille sausage.
Eight miles from downtown Minneapolis, Edina comes to life at the intersections of 50th and France, where this sprawling suburb takes on a small village feel. Browse the quaint shops or have a glass of wine at the cheeky Salut Bar Americain.
See: Check out the sculpture exhibit along Edina Promenade pathway leading into Centennial Lakes Park (7499 France Avenue South; 952-833-9580), where you can play croquet, ride paddleboats, or skate along three ponds linked by canals.
Eat: Ask any local and they’ll send you to Edina Grill (5028 France Avenue South; 952-927-7933) for steak and pierogies with crispy tobacco onion strings.
Tampa’s SoHo (South of Howard Avenue) in the trendy Hyde Park section is hipster central. But 12 miles northwest, another social scene is emerging in the newly built suburb of Westchase. You’ll find close to 30 neighborhoods here, but it’s the village center of West Park that has cornered the scene when it comes to good food and nightlife.
See: If you like your late-night crowd clean-cut, then you’ll fit right in at Oak Room (9882 West Linebaugh Ave.; 813-926.6746). Order a chocolate martini and join the party on the dance floor.
Eat: Order up fresh black grouper or tuna steak at Catch Twenty-Three (10103 Montague St.; 813-920-0045).