From the Local's Eye View
Part of the appeal of traveling to a new city is, of course, the tourist attractions. To get the true flavor of a place it helps to walk in the locals’ shoes; only then will your experience be authentic.
Part of the appeal of traveling to a new city is, of course, the tourist attractions. You don’t go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, and a trip to Sydney demands a commemorative picture at the Opera House. But every city has its backbeat, too—the more subtle rhythm the locals follow as they carry out their daily lives. To get the true flavor of a place it helps to walk in the locals’ shoes; only then will your experience be authentic.
Read on for a guide to the residents’ favorites in four great American cities. These spots may not make the popular travel guides and some may be off the beaten path. But one thing’s for sure: they are worth the trip.
You can learn a lot about American history with a walk on the Freedom Trail through Boston. Relive the history of the American Revolution on this 4-kilometer route. But in between history lessons, you can also get a drink or a bite to eat somewhere a Bostonian of 2013 would frequent. Here is the lowdown on happening neighborhoods and local hotspots.
Located on the northwest end of the city, Allston-Brighton encompasses the Boston College campus and is home to students and young professionals. Though it is outside of downtown, resident Emily Gittes says the area is very accessible. “Wherever you go, everything’s connected in Boston,” she adds.
Gittes, 24, loves the Allston-Brighton neighborhood for its plethora of cheap eats and hang-out spots. Among them, she recommends Eagle’s Deli, which has “everything you can think of ” on its menu, she says, and Yamato Japanese restaurant for an all-you-can-eat sushi experience. Former Brighton resident Dan Maiorana, 25, recommends Devlin’s for “live jazz, good food and drinks.”
Gittes and Maiorana agree that this separate city, connected to Boston by bridge over the Charles River, is a must-visit for cuisine, nightlife and general ambience. Home to many educational institutions, including Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge boasts a diverse population of international students and young people, along with a high concentration of quality Indian restaurants, says Maiorana.
While in Cambridge, be sure to check out Davis Square, which is technically in neighboring Somerville, for shops, cafés and art. At night, Gittes recommends heading to Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square for drinks and $1 oysters after 11 p.m. If it is music you seek, both Gittes and Maiorana recommend The Middle East, a restaurant and nightclub with up to four floors of different music each night.
Other neighborhoods to explore include Little Italy and the South End, says Gittes, while Maiorana recommends a waterfront meal in Charlestown, complete with breathtaking views of the city.
Just one other bit of advice from Gittes: “I recommend coming in the summer or the spring. The locals tend to hibernate in the winter.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans will always have its claim to fame: the French Quarter. Home to Mardi Gras celebrations and fun-filled Bourbon Street, the French Quarter is a destination worth exploring, say residents Jessica Riegel and Chris Thompson, both 23. Yet, they implore would-be visitors not to miss what Thompson calls “the real New Orleans.”
The real New Orleans
“New Orleans neighborhoods are said to be a ‘checkerboard’—that is, the dynamics can change dramatically from block to block,” says Riegel. The best way to travel from one place to another, she says, is by hopping on the historic streetcars, which cost less than $2 per ride. A few areas not to miss, according to Thompson, include Marigny, Bywater, Mid-City, Lower Garden District and Uptown.
In Riegel’s neighborhood, Uptown, visitors can enjoy a walk through “amazing” Audubon Park or take a stroll down Magazine Street, “a long street with a ton of restaurants, boutiques, vintage shops [and] antique stores,” she says. Tulane University is also in the area. For dinner in Uptown, Riegel and Thompson agree that Jacques-Imo’s is worth the wait for its “absolutely delicious food including a must-have shrimp and alligator cheesecake....”
Eats, drinks and nights out on the town
Thompson has several other must-eats for visitors to his city: Willie Mae’s Scotch House for the “best fried chicken in New Orleans,” Emeril’s Delmonico “when you want to spend a little extra for the service, atmosphere and food,” and Elizabeth’s for weekend brunch complete with “their signature praline bacon, spicy Bloody Mary’s and the duck waffle.” Riegel would add Delachaise wine bar and restaurant, and Bacchanal, which allows you to bring your own wine and includes outdoor dining with live music.
The local hotspot for music, dancing and nightlife is clear—Frenchmen, Frenchmen, Frenchmen, says Thompson. Frenchmen Street is filled with clubs that are free of cover charges, serve good food and drinks, “and all they ask is for you to tip the musicians if you are enjoying the music!” Thompson says. His favorites include Maison, The Spotted Cat Music Club, The Three Muses and Apple Barrel.
The largest city in America’s evergreen-covered Pacific Northwest, Seattle is a haven for the outdoorsy and artsy alike. For residents Emily Doherty and Dick McKibbin, both 26, its charms accommodate its climate of mild, temperate summers and equally mild, though quite wet, winters.
The great outdoors
Seattle has several parks that offer different perks to the out-of-town visitor. Cal Anderson Park, which Doherty counts as her favorite, includes a wading pool, oversized chessboards, promenades and is “right near tons of restaurants,” she says. Gas Works Park provides spectacular city views, while Golden Gardens in the Ballard neighborhood, which McKibbin recommends exploring, offers lookouts on the surrounding Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains.
It is this surrounding geology that sets Seattle apart from other cities, and within it visitors can enjoy “any activity one can dream of…camping, hiking, sailing, boating, etc.,” says McKibbin. There is music out there, too: two-and-a-half hours east of the city sits The Gorge Amphitheater, an outdoor venue Doherty says is “to die for.”
When the rain comes
Rain can certainly factor into a visit to Seattle, but fear not, because excellent indoor entertainment options abound. For food, Doherty recommends some “amazing” vegetarian fare at Café Flora, Sutra and In The Bowl Bistro, which is in her neighborhood—the young, vibrant and diverse Capitol Hill. Also nearby, Annapurna offers an authentic taste of India, Nepal and Tibet. And for fresh local catch, head to The Walrus and the Carpenter for oysters, mussels and more.
In between meals, travelers can treat themselves to copious chocolate samples on the Theo chocolate factory tour, a bargain at $6. For a pricier but truly memorable experience, visitors can learn to create art glass during an intro class at Seattle Glassblowing Studio, says Doherty, a glassblower herself.
When it comes to music, check out the “gorgeous” Paramount Theater, Showbox or Can Can, which brings “great live shows from music to burlesque acts—think tiny Moulin Rouge but done via Seattle,” says Doherty. If you need a great date spot, try the Knee High Stocking Company, a “speakeasy type bar where you have to ring the doorbell to get in,” she says. Or, catch an independent film at the Harvard Exit Theatre, one of the oldest movie theaters in America.
San Francisco, California
About 1,300 kilometers south of Seattle lies the City by the Bay, San Francisco. Famous in part for its rolling hills, majestic bridges and Lombard Street—the crookedest street in the world—San Francisco has tons of hidden gems, ranging from lesser-known lookout points to corner cafés.
Adventures at Lands End
At the city’s western limit (the Pacific Ocean) is a park called Lands End that offers hiking trails, paths to Ocean Beach and a memorial to the USS San Francisco, a decorated battle ship from World War II.
“It’s one of the best views of the Golden Gate [Bridge]…what’s cool about it is it has a lot of historical meaning while being in a good spot and having that local feel,” says Talia Citron, 18, a Bay Area native.
Citron recommends a stop at Louis’ restaurant for a meal “right on the beach” to complete a trip to the park.
The Marina to the Mission
San Francisco comprises several captivating neighborhoods, from the Italian North Beach to the Beat-era reminiscent Haight-Ashbury. Two pockets that offer great options for nightlife include the Marina and the Mission.
If it is a more chic scene you seek, the Marina is the place to go. For dinner, try Betelnut on Union Street for Asian fusion cuisine, says Georgina Martinez, 25. Then, head to MatrixFillmore, “a lounge with good dancing, and if you don’t feel like dancing, you can sit,” Martinez says. Popular movies play on screens throughout the bar, as well. If the sun rises and you find yourself still in the area, Martinez recommends Curbside Café for a breakfast of “amazing French toast.”
Across town in the Mission, there is a more “laid back vibe,” says Martinez, with “a bunch of people bar hopping.” But before they hit the bars, they are likely sampling some of the authentic Mexican and Central American food that pervades the area. Spots to try for Mexican include Papalote, Tacolicious and Gracias Madre for a vegan spin on the classics. For Peruvian food served tapas style, Martinez says Limon is “simply delicious.”
And in the daylight…
Just go for a walk.
“You can walk from block to block and find yourself surrounded by totally different people and cultures,” says Martinez. “San Francisco never gets boring.”
Brooklyn, New York City
Brooklyn is not technically its own city—it is one of five boroughs of New York City—but for 20-somethings it can operate as its own dearly-loved metropolis.
“My favorite thing about Brooklyn is discovering it.… It’s a very exciting place to be at this time of our lives,” says Chelsea Miller, 22. “Brooklyn is growing and developing, but still not losing itself…which kind of mimics what many of us are going through in our 20s.”
Miller lives “right between the growing art and social scenes of Bushwick and the heart of Williamsburg, where there’s a lot of fun and established places to go and things to do,” she says. The two neighborhoods form a sort of enclave for young adults, a community Miller experiences as “very friendly and down-to-earth,” with “a really good mix of different types of people.”
Good eats and drinks
Among Miller’s top food spots is Roberta’s, a pizza place in Bushwick that is “absolutely delicious” with a “fun, hip vibe,” she says. Also not to be missed: Brooklyn Mac for macaroni and cheese dishes named after Brooklyn neighborhoods and landmarks. Miller also recommends Dun-Well Doughnuts for vegan baked fare and Momo Sushi Shack, with its atmosphere that is “very unique and chill.”
Fellow Brooklynite Erica Turner, 24, recommends Commodore in Williamsburg, a bar and restaurant that serves “the best [French] fries—it’s impossible to stop eating them.” Turner also likes Sea, a Thai bistro that “is very romantic but is also great for just hanging out with friends.”
Nights on the town, often on the cheap
One of Turner’s favorite aspects of the Williamsburg area is its plethora of inexpensive nightspots. She recommends Berry Park for its “good beer selection and very attractive rooftop seating area,” and The Charleston, a rock bar with a strong line-up of bands and a deal that includes a free personal pizza pie with each cocktail purchase.
Both Turner and Miller say not to miss Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg that plays “a mix of new and old movies and serves cocktails and food based on the movie,” according to Turner.
And after the show? Take a moonlit walk on the Williamsburg waterfront and catch the view of the Manhattan skyline.
The unofficial capital of the Midwest, Chicago is also a beach town. Sure, there are harsh winters, but in the hot summers Chris Olszewski, 22, a student at Loyola University, spends his days on the Lake Michigan lakefront at one of the beaches in his Rogers Park neighborhood. It’s a relaxing getaway right in the heart of the city.
Beyond its sand and surf (or, lake) Chicago boasts all the urban diversity and intrigue a visitor could want.
A neighborhood for everyone
Chicago neighborhoods are “all different,” says resident Gabrielle Hernandez, 23, and part of their charm is the variety of activities and ambiences they offer.
“Downtown is busy, Lincoln Park is college-y and young, Old Town/Gold Coast is more laid-back and nice…Wrigleyville is super young and fun because it’s close to the baseball and all of the bars, and Wicker Park is really ‘hipster’ with cool dive places,” she says. Wrigley Field is the second oldest ballpark in America, built in 1914.
Olszewski counts Wicker Park and Bucktown as his favorite stomping grounds because of “the culture and shopping.”
For unique dining experiences, Olszewski has recommendations all around town. They include Kuma’s Corner in Avondale for burgers, Grahamwich, which is downtown, and Uncommon Ground in Rogers Park, which the Green Restaurant Association has deemed the Greenest Restaurant in America.
“It has a rooftop garden and their menu changes based on the season. I love their sweet potato fries,” Olszewski says.
BBQ, Chicago style
The city may be better known for its deep-dish pizza, but Chicago has great barbeque as well. Hernandez swears by Chicago q, a “really cute neighborhood spot” that takes a gourmet spin on traditional barbeque.
Olszewski enjoys southern cooking, and loves going to Dixie Kitchen in Evanston, Barn & Company in Lincoln Park, Smoke Daddy in Wicker Park and Wishbone in Roscoe Village.
If you find yourself sampling the fare in Wicker Park, head to Salud Tequila Lounge for pre- or post-meal drinks, Olszewski says. Or, trek back to Lincoln Park to check out Barrelhouse Flat, “a cocktail bar that looks like a speakeasy from the 1920s.”
“If you go upstairs it has velvet high back chairs, amazing wood flooring, along with a pool table,” he adds.
With its two big music festivals, Austin City Limits and South by Southwest, and the constantly available selection of live music performances, Austin certainly has a beat.
But what makes the city truly great is that it has everything else going for it, too. Food, outdoor activities and uniquely Austin attractions are part of what lifelong resident Willa Jolink, 19, loves about her hometown.
Also, “it’s hard not to love a city whose inhabitants love it so much in return,” she says.
Down to the swimming hole, out on the town
If variety is the spice of life, Austin is extra hot. In the summer, which “feels like nine months of the year,” according to Travis Pittman, 28, head to the Barton Springs Pool just south of downtown. It’s “a beautiful freshwater pool on an offshoot of the Colorado River…The water feels great and there’s tons of people watching,” Pittman says.
After a day in the water, options abound for a night out. While, as Pittman says, “the quintessential Austin nightlife experience will always be on Sixth Street,” off the beaten path, there is no shortage of bars, restaurants or food trucks. Both Pittman and Jolink recommend a visit to the Alamo Drafthouse. It is “the best movie theater chain in the country, which serves food and drinks, [and] has loads of special events and screenings,” Pittman says.
Jolink also likes the Austin Poetry Slam on Tuesday nights at the 29th Street Ballroom.
“Not only do the poets manage to say things each week that really make me think, but the experience also perfectly exemplifies what it means to be an Austinite,” she says.
Mexican and more
Located in central Texas, Austin is a hot spot for Mexican flavors. Jolink recommends Zocalo Café for “fresh, light and delicious” fare and Fonda San Miguel for “the best Mexican food in town.”
Austin takes the cake for best cuisine in other categories as well. Pittman claims Ramen Tatsu-Ya is “honestly the best Japanese ramen shop I’ve been to, including…in San Francisco and New York City.” His other favorites include Nubian Queen Lola’s for soul food and Cajun, and Tam Deli & Café, “for all Vietnamese standards…and cream puffs!”
Portland has earned its place as a West Coast haven for artists, scholars, bikers and coffee enthusiasts alike. Its café culture breeds innovation, and its accessibility to mountains, gorges and oceans make it an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.
“There are creative minds throughout [Portland] who are passionate about whatever they take up.… People care about their health, from fitness to food and the environment,” says resident Jenna Besaw, 25.
In the heart of it all
Besaw lives in the Pearl District, a former industrial area turned into a center for shopping, art, dining and culture. “Extremely walkable and easy to get around,” the Pearl offers access to downtown via streetcar, a waterfront path “great for biking and walking,” and “some of my favorite inner city parks…Jamison Square and Tanner Springs,” says Besaw.
On a visit to the Pearl, Besaw says to seek out some of the new restaurants constantly emerging to showcase Portland’s “blossoming…culinary talent.” Besaw’s current favorites include Isabel, Daily Café, Lovejoy Bakers, Oven & Shaker and Mio Sushi. Look beyond the Pearl as well, she encourages, especially to the city’s “exceptional and affordable” food carts. Fellow Portlandian Alise Sanchez, 28, recommends the food cart pod by Portland State University, which sports Indian food at New Taste of India.
Also in the Pearl is Powell’s City of Books—perhaps not a tourist destination, but one both Besaw and Sanchez say not to miss. “It is such a quintessential Portland experience,” says Sanchez.
Portland has 95 officially recognized neighborhoods, and while you may not hit them all, there are several others worth exploring, such as North Portland.
Sanchez lives in the St. Johns section of North Portland, where she recommends a meal at The Baowry, a new spot for “amazing” Asian fusion cuisine. If it is a Friday night, Sanchez likes Ducketts for “the best karaoke ever.”
“[There’s] an amazing song list full of classic punk, as well as all the karaoke standards. After you [have] your fill there, head to Javier’s Taco Shop on North Lombard—it’s open 24 hours,” Sanchez says.
Besaw suggests venturing to Mississippi, Williams and Alberta streets in northeast Portland, and “funky and fun” Hawthorne Street and “slightly off the beaten path” Sellwood Street in the southeast section.
Wherever you go, if it is winter and you are stuck in Portland’s constant mist, you will need a good raincoat and boots.
“Don’t carry an umbrella,” says Besaw. “Everyone will know you are not a local!”
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.