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The Most Underrated Cities in America for Gay Travelers

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Cities like Detroit and Sacramento may not register as high on your gaydar as Boston or San Francisco, but that doesn't mean they don't have plenty to offer gay travelers. Many of us end up passing through smaller or less glamorous cities, perhaps on business, visiting friends or relatives, or enjoying a quick weekend getaway. It's always a pleasant surprise to discover that a destination you had modest hopes for fosters a vibrant gay social scene. Here are some of my favorite underrated cities.

 

1. Columbus, Ohio

Skyline - Columbus, Ohio
James Blank/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Ohio's largest city has two of the components that make for a great gay scene: it has a major collegiate presence (Ohio State University), and it's a center of government (being the state capital). An extremely high number of gays and lesbians live here, and enjoy its lively downtown neighborhoods (such as the gay-popular Short North and German Village areas). Columbus has one of the Midwest's best culinary reputations, a high number of art galleries, numerous gay sports clubs, and a youthful but unpretentious gay nightlife scene. What more could a worldly traveler ask for?

 

2. Albuquerque, New Mexico

photo by Andrew Collins

Sometimes unfairly dismissed as a mere gateway to Santa Fe and Taos, the nation's hot-air ballooning capital has enough going for it to merit at least a three-day visit. Many lesbians and gay men call the "Duke City" home. You can explore up-and-coming downtown's and historic Old Town's galleries and museums, Nob Hill and Route 66's trendy restaurants and handful of gay clubs, and the dramatic, 10,600-foot Sandia Mountains that fringe town - visit them via the aerial tramway (the world's longest). Best of all, hotel rates here are about half what you'll pay in Santa Fe, and Albuquerque has several gay-friendly B&Bs.

3. Providence, Rhode Island

photo by Andrew Collins

Just 45 minutes from Boston and one of the largest cities in America that's had an openly gay mayor, Providence has long been a tolerant, erudite, and progressive community. Artsy, left-leaning colleges like Brown, Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales bring in a steady stream of gay students and academics. Superb restaurants, a vibrant Little Italy, restored historic neighborhoods, and a moderate cost of living (by Northeastern standards) are further draws to Rhode Island's state capital. Providence is also the only city in New England with any gay bathhouses, which makes it something of a draw for guys on the make. There's a fun gay bar scene in Providence, too.

4. Kansas City, Missouri

photo by Andrew Collins

Near the nation's geographic center, Kansas City is nevertheless often overlooked by gay and lesbian travelers. It's a shame, because this surprisingly hilly and leafy metropolis on the Missouri River possesses considerable charms, and although the gay scene is comparatively discreet, it's still active and sizable. K.C. has plenty of gay-friendly bars and eateries, plus a super snazzy retail and dining district, Country Club Plaza, famous for its elaborate Spanish-style architecture. First-rate art museums, a respectable theater scene, and mouthwatering barbecue offer further enticements to come and stay for a while.

5. Salt Lake City, Utah

photo by Andrew Collins

Nestled in the shadows of the spectacular Wasatch Mountains, which offer some of the world's best skiing as well as the annual (and very gay) Sundance Film Festival (held in nearby Park City), Salt Lake City has a conservative reputation owing to its Mormon heritage and Utah's decidedly red-state status. But Salt Lake is an eclectic city with plenty of outdoorsy, environmentally minded, socially liberal residents, and the handful of gay nightclubs here are wildly fun, much to the surprise of first-time visitors. There are several gay-friendly B&Bs in town as well as the gay-popular Hotel Monaco.

6. Indianapolis, Indiana

photo by Andrew Collins

America's 13th-largest city, Indianapolis has experienced ups and downs over the past half-century, but it's definitely in an "up" mood of late, with ambitious redevelopments of downtown neighborhoods; outstanding museums, theaters, and sports venues; and an increasingly visible gay and lesbian community. A beautiful canal-walk along the White River extends from downtown and passes by several notable museums, and the gay-popular Mass Ave Arts District abounds with cool places to eat and drink. You can cycle along a scenic bike trail north from Mass Ave Arts to the city's hip Broad Ripple River neighborhood, where you'll find another hotbed of great dining and entertainment. The city's gay nightlife scene is friendly and diverse, too.

7. New Haven, Connecticut

photo by Andrew Collins

Famous for Yale University, New Haven has enjoyed one of the Northeast's most stunning renaissances in recent years, following decades of urban ills. It's the most liberal city in a state that recently legalized same-sex civil unions, and gays make up a big chunk of the social fabric here. Yale operates some outstanding museums, and the surrounding neighborhood has a dynamic, eclectic retail and dining scene that you'd expect of a much larger city. Theater buffs watch top-notch plays and musicals at the city's three highly respected performing arts venues. Did we mention Jodie Foster and Larry Kramer are Yale alums?

8. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

photo by Andrew Collins

With a hilly, scenic setting at the confluence of three major rivers, the Steel City has gradually shed its image as a gruff blue-collar town, as new high-tech industries have moved in, and fans of arts and culture have become more familiar with such attractions as the fabulous Andy Warhol Museum, the provocative Mattress Factory modern art museum, and many museums associated with Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. The U.S. version of the TV show Queer As Folk was set in Pittsburgh (although filmed in Toronto), which has helped increase the city's queer visibility.

9. Sacramento, California

photo by Andrew Collins

California's state capital is as desirable for what it's near as for what it is - within a two-hour drive are San Francisco, Tahoe, Napa and Sonoma, and Yosemite National Park. But this laid-back, attractive river city has its own charms as well, including a dynamic downtown shaded by leafy trees and packed with historic Victorian and Arts and Crafts homes, not to mention a number of stellar restaurants and convivial, gay-popular coffeehouses. Sacramento also has a handful of gay bars and gay-owned accommodations, making it a friendly, relaxed alternative to some of California's bigger and pricier urban destinations.

10. Detroit, Michigan

photo by Andrew Collins
One of America's largest cities, Detroit hardly lacks name recognition. Unfortunately, since the decline of the auto industry and the urban exodus of the mid-20th-century, Motor City has battled with image problems. The highly pronounced gay population here lives and plays mostly in the nearby towns of Ferndale and Royal Oak, but downtown Detroit itself has among the nation's most vaunted cultural treasures: historic theaters and performance halls, the estimable Detroit Institute of the Arts, and such outlying attractions as the Henry Ford Museum and Cranbrook Art Museum. This is a city whose star is rising.

11. Fort Worth, Texas

photo by Andrew Collins

Nearby Dallas may have more gay bars and a ritzier reputation, but this fast-growing, self-proclaimed Cow Town of about 750,000 people has some exceptionally impressive cultural attractions, including such renowned institutions as the Kimbell Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and Bass Performance Hall. The city also has a number of first-rate restaurants, the infectiously fun if honky-tonk Stockyards district, and a handful of down-home friendly gay bars. And the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame has something of a lesbian following.

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