Alternatives to New York City: five cool east coast cities that deserve more attention

New York City will always be perennially popular but for those seeking an east-coast break without the crowds, these cities deserve your attention. Here are five to consider for your next trip stateside.

With a historic harbour and trendy new openings, Baltimore is seeing a surge of cool cosmopolitan culture.

Photograph by Alamy
By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 12 Oct 2022, 06:03 BST

Swaggeringly self-assured, New York City is an indomitable force. This mega metropolis, immortalised on the silver screen countless times, has bags of assets and knows how to flaunt them: steel skyscrapers squeezed together like blades of grass, sandy beaches, bold Broadway plays, snatchingly-good grub, grand galleries, and paths crisscrossing Central Park’s vast meadows, hills and gardens. Stretching along the Hudson and East Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, New York is split into five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. It’s North America’s largest city by a long shot, and remains a nonstop raucous ride with late nights, bright neon lights and cool cosmopolitan clout.

According to NYC & Company, visitor numbers to the US’s most popular place have nearly tripled since 1991. The pandemic affected this towering trajectory, but the organisation predict a record of over 70 million tourists to touch ground in New York in 2025. So, why not step off the crowded sidewalks and try another east coast city instead? Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Boston are close by, making them ideal add-ons, with plenty of historical and cultural capital to rival the Big Apple, while hip coastal Portland (not to be confused with the Oregon one) and quirky Baltimore have big town charm in a smaller package.

1. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

New York may be the cultural capital of North America, but Philadelphia birthed the nation. Only a 90-minute train ride southwest from NYC, Philly is a satisfying mixture of glass skyscrapers and historic red-brick rowhouses. Both cities are walkable and museum-mad, but it's Philly’s rich colonial history that sets it apart. Time travel to America’s infancy at Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution was created and the Liberty Bell hangs. Learn more at the exhaustive 2017-opened Museum of the American Revolution. In its learned league are other renowned institutions like the riverfront Philadelphia Museum of Art; rooms stuffed with French Impressionist works at the Barnes Foundation; and medical oddities at the Mütter Museum.

But Philadelphia is no stale artefact. Clustered in cool neighbourhoods like Northern Liberties and Fishtown are craft beer bars, live music venues, evolving walls of street art, a retro arcade and gallery open house nights the first Friday of each month. More quirk can be found at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, whose labyrinthine surfaces are covered entirely in mosaics. In summer, stroll Spruce Street Harbor Park’s Delaware River boardwalk, where you can tackle a gooey Philly Cheesesteak from Chickie’s & Pete’s and hang in hammocks that swing beneath a canopy of colourful lights.

Where to stay: In art deco digs: boutique four-star Kimpton Hotel Palomar is situated in central Rittenhouse Square. With pops of paintings and colourful busts of former presidents, the hotel has a playful atmosphere. Book a room at the top for views across the city from the towering windows. Rooms from $259 (£225) per night.

The historic Quincy Market in downtown Boston.

The historic Quincy Market in downtown Boston.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Boston, Massachusetts

Hugging Boston Harbor are a collection of distinct neighbourhoods that give this New England city the laid-back atmosphere of a trendy town. In fashionable Back Bay, restaurants serving New England clam chowder spill onto sidewalks around Copley Square and swish Newbury Street is flanked with bougie boutiques. Cobbled streets run into a palette of brick facades traced with ivy in grand Beacon Hill, while the North End’s Italian roots mean piles of pasta or sweet spools of chocolate-dipped cannoli at Mike’s Pastry. Bustling downtown doubles as a hub for the city’s rich history. Take the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile route through 16 sites — from meeting houses and burying grounds to a frigate ship and Boston Common — important to the American Revolution.

Like New York, Boston is easy to navigate by foot and has great public transit affectionately termed the ‘T’. Ride the rails from a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, the oldest ballpark in the country, to the Museum of Fine Arts and nearby Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to take in its vast collection of paintings, sculpture and tapestries. Ride the red line across the Charles to collegiate Cambridge, which is home to Harvard, America’s oldest university. Stroll through Harvard Yard’s grassy expanse that leads up to the university’s historic brick buildings.

Where to stay: Overlooking Boston Public Garden and the brownstones of Back Bay, five-star The Newbury reopened in May 2021 after a renovation. Splash out on a suite with a woodburner and marble bathroom, and order the drool-worthy northern Italian dishes from rooftop restaurant Contessa. Rooms from $600 (£525) per night.

Many of Washington, DC's famous monuments, memorials and museums are clustered around Capitol Hill, where the ...

Many of Washington, DC's famous monuments, memorials and museums are clustered around Capitol Hill, where the domed US Capitol building crowns the neighbourhood.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Washington, DC

America’s political capital is a maze of monuments, memorials and museums. Many are clustered around Capitol Hill, the seat of government, where the domed US Capitol building crowns the neighbourhood. The vast, grassy National Mall fans out beyond with grand icons like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, while the White House occupies an adjacent stretch off Constitution Avenue.

One of the city’s biggest draws has less to do with its political predilection. It’s a hub for the renowned (and completely free) Smithsonian Institute museums, which are one of Washington’s best assets. Most are concentrated around Independence Avenue with some standouts including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art.

The museums might rival those in New York, but Washington, DC is no megatropolis. This cyclist-friendly city is small and green without the noise of its northern cousin. It’s also low-slung: there’s a limit for maximum building height, so stout structures swing around wide boulevards, while New York’s narrow streets are spiked with tightly packed skyscrapers. For its small town character, head to scholarly Georgetown for quaint coffee shops, independent boutiques and its federalist architecture of old brick rowhouses.

Where to stay: Find your spiritual side at The LINE. This boutique hotel has taken over a former neoclassical church: there’s a soaring vaulted ceiling, a chandelier made from the former church's pipe organ and mahogany pews repurposed for lobby seating. Design-led rooms are bright with wooden floors, while the hotel boasts a popular on-site restaurant, bar and coffee shop. Rooms from $179 (£155) per night.

The iconic Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse still in use in America.

The iconic Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse still in use in America.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Portland, Maine

Salt-licked and windswept, Portland is a city of the sea. Lobster rolls are doled out by the dozens, seagulls twist overhead, fishing boats balloon on the horizon beyond rocky shorelines. And keeping watch over it all from Cape Elizabeth is the iconic Portland Head Light, the oldest lighthouse still in use in America. Portland is pint-sized, but its trendy Williamsburg vibe means there are plenty of palate-pleasing pit-stops and independent shops tucked into converted red-brick warehouses. Join the queue at The Highroller Lobster Co. for a locally sourced lobster grilled cheese. Or visit some spots where former NYC chefs have opened up shop: natural wine bar Maine & Loire or Dutch’s for gut-busting biscuits with fillings like crispy chicken dripping with sausage gravy.

And for lubrication, Portland is bursting with breweries. Oxbow Blending & Bottling pours fermented farmhouse ales (try the Abrico, an ale aged with apricots) to punters in their buzzy warehouse. In addition to live music, cheese tastings and yoga classes, Oxbow also hosts rotating exhibitions at Gallery 49. Down a drink at award-winning Breakside Brewery, head to Cascade for tart kettle sours, try small-batch Culmination Brewing and sink a pint at experimental Great Notion Brewing for good measure.

Where to stay: Centrally located, The Press Hotel, Autograph Collection is in the former headquarters of the Portland Press Herald, and the hotel seamlessly weaves its journalistic history into its fabric: walls display typewriters and quotes from Maine’s literary minds. On the lower level, a permanent gallery features local Maine artists. Rooms from $195 (£170).

5. Baltimore, Maryland

With a historic harbour, handsome brownhouses and trendy new openings, Maryland’s biggest city is seeing a surge of cool cosmopolitan culture. It’s long been in the shadow of nearby powerhouses New York, Philadelphia and Washington, but even though it’s smaller, it’s mighty. The walkable city’s cutting-edge art bounty can be viewed at the admission-free Baltimore Museum of Art, which displays the world’s largest Matisse collection in a public institution. The Walters Art Museum, meanwhile, spans seven millennia of art and artefacts, making it one of the most important cultural hubs in the country. Its treasure includes Greek sculptures, Old Master paintings, Egyptian mummies and Ancient Roman sarcophagi. Scholarly sightseers should visit the George Peabody Library, a knock-out cathedral of tomes, in which a series of cast-iron balconies and columns rise from a marble floor towards the latticed skylight.

Baltimore’s creative pep extends beyond closed doors, too. Street art is splashed across each inch of vibrant Graffiti Alley, while murals pop on walls all over Station North. Join the cool young things in Hampden, who slip into Hunting Ground for vintage frocks and boho-chic clothes made by small designers; independent Atomic Books, who have a quirky comic book-themed bar; and The Bluebird, dripping in dark blue and chandeliers, for playful literary-inspired cocktails.

Where to stay: Bed down in a former mansion at Hotel Revival Baltimore. In the historic Mount Vernon neighbourhood, this boutique hotel has eclectic rooms with mid-century furniture, contemporary art and art deco bathrooms. Chow down at Dashery Café or Topside bar and restaurant, which perches on the top floor with knock-out views over the city. Rooms from $239 (£210).

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