The United States has a captivating array of attractions, from sun-kissed beaches to craggy mountains, with red-rock deserts, verdant forests and vibrant cities all part of the great American landscape. While there's much to experience here, the world's fourth-largest country isn't known for its budget-friendly prices. With a bit of careful planning, however, you can find some remarkable deals — particularly if you skip high-priced destinations like New York and Los Angeles — and focus instead on lesser-known gems. Along the way, you'll find great food, unforgettable scenery and an unrivaled live music scene. The following is our roundup of the top 10 best-value places in the US, covering north, south, east and west.
At first glance, the nation's capital might seem a surprising choice for an affordable getaway. But there's much to recommend this East Coast gem. DC's best attractions won't cost you a penny – including its world-class Smithsonian museums, zoo and grand monuments on and near the Mall. Plus, you can often score hotel deals on weekends when business travellers clear out of town (a recent weekend search yielded $135 for a double at the superb Liaison Capitol Hill). The metro system has excellent coverage, meaning you can get most anywhere you need to go for just a few bucks.
Famous for its microbreweries, cafe culture and liberal, outdoors-loving residents, Portland has quickly become the penny-pinching star of the Pacific Northwest. The city's well-known food trucks allow you to feast on global bites on the cheap, while the staggering microbrewery scene (over 50 at last count!) offers top-notch drinking (plus free tours and tastings). Weekend markets and eye-catching vintage shops add to the appeal. You'll also find eco-friendly budget accommodations (like the Hawthorne Portland Hostel where doubles top out at $64) and loads of great outdoorsy activities, including hiking the wooded paths of Forest Park, with its 80-plus miles of trails.
America's honky-tonk capital, Nashville is awash with country-crooning music joints and boot-stompin' southern bars. Plan your nightlife outings during the week and you'll rarely have to pay a cover charge at dozens of music-filled bars across town. Eating out here is also remarkably affordable in a city known for its home-style cooking. Fried chicken is king, particularly at legendary Prince's Hot Chicken, where a full meal for two can be had for under $20. As an added bonus, Nashville has some of the best-priced lodging of the south, like at the Knights Inn Downtown boasting beds for a mere $56 a night.
Draped across both sides of the picturesque Colorado River, this southern Texas town has much to recommend. With more than 300 days of sunshine and mild winters, Austin offers ample opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors (which, needless to say, won't cost you much). You can find scenic spots for hiking, biking and canoeing without leaving the city, and cool off in natural springs (like Barton Springs Pool, admission a mere $4). When the sun sets, the self-described 'Music Capital of the World' offers a staggering array of sounds – from blues and jazz to folk and indie rock (with many free venues, like the Hole in the Wall and the Continental Club).
Just 90 miles from New York City, Philadelphia is in some ways like a mini, budget-friendly version of its big sibling to the north. You can dine at farm-to-table restaurants, watch cutting-edge theatre and barhop your way around the Old City for a fraction of what you'd pay in Manhattan. As the birthplace of American independence, Philadelphia also has a treasure trove of (free) historic sites. Foodies won't want to miss a stroll through the sensory-rich Chinatown (America's fourth largest) or an impromptu feast on European and Latin American fare at the Italian Market. The perfectly located Apple Hostels has nightly events (walking tours, bar crawls) and affordable digs (double rooms run $86).
A steamy melting pot of French, African and Caribbean cultures, New Orleans feels like a world removed from its surroundings in the American South. Creole cooking, colourful art-filled markets and late-night revelry in the Faubourg-Marigny are just a few facets of this complex but ever enchanting subtropical city. While NOLA has become pricier in recent years, there are still many deals to be had, including free jam sessions all around town and inexpensive lodging outside the French quarter (the antique-filled Prytania Park Hotel has rooms starting at $99) – plus hearty Cajun dining that won't drain your wallet.
7. Charlottesville, Virginia
Set near the striking Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville is a charming little town known for its famous university (the leafy University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson) and pleasant, walkable downtown sprinkled with cafes, restaurants and brewpubs. Just outside of town, you'll find lush hiking trails as well as dozens of up-and-coming vineyards with great scenery to accompany wine tasting and picnicking. Best of all, you won't pay big-city prices for lodging or dining in this affordable town of 45,000. Don't miss craft brew and good Southern fare at South Street Brewery (try the blackened catfish sandwich for $10). Charlottesville also makes a great add-on to DC, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive (or train ride) to the northeast.
8. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Located in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, friendly Eureka Springs is one of the most surprising little towns in the south. Its steep and winding streets are a curious mix of picture-perfect Victorian houses, art galleries, kitschy shops and country music bars. Just beyond the village, hiking, cycling and horseback riding opportunities abound in the seemingly endless expanse of the Ozarks. And you'll find unique lodging options that offer exceptional value, including tree house-style cottages and spa hotels (weekday room rates at the well-located New Orleans Hotel and Spa start at $89).
Ringed by mountains, Phoenix makes for a scenic desert getaway, and offers unbeatable deals for its hotels and resorts – particularly during the scorching summer, when prices plummet. There's much to see in the city, including the dazzling 145-acre desert botanical garden and the Phoenix Art Museum with its trove of works by Georgia O'Keeffe and Diego Rivera. The nearby Heard Museum houses one of the country's best collections of Native American art and crafts. Looping out of town, an extensive trail network takes your through canyons, over grassy hills, past indigenous petroglyphs and up to scenic viewpoints overlooking the city. Start the morning with a cheap and belly-filling meal at the famous Matt's Big Breakfast (mains $5 to $10).
10. Tampa, Florida
For a sun-drenched coastal holiday at a fraction of the price of Miami, Tampa is a top choice. Set on the sparkling Gulf Coast, Florida's third-largest city boasts a revitalized waterfront and loads of attractions downtown, with an excellent zoo and aquarium set along the Riverwalk. Northeast of downtown, the cobblestone streets of Ybor City with its 19th-century architecture, is a picturesque place for a wander. The prime attraction, though, is the shore – powdery white sand beaches just a short drive from the centre. Fort De Soto Park has some of the most spectacular beaches in the state, with kayak and bike rentals and miles of shimmering sands where you can easily escape the crowds Gram's Place, which has private rooms from $50, is one of Tampa's most atmospheric lodging options.