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4 of the United States' Best Second Cities for a Family Vacation

May 16, 2019
12 min read
Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas
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A "second city" is one that doesn't immediately come to mind when you think of a vacation destination -- for example, visiting Marseille in France rather than Paris. However, if you're willing to venture a bit off the tourist track to these less visited cities, you'll be rewarded with not only fewer crowds and lower prices but also terrific regional cuisine and family attractions. A recent post about international "second cities" generated a lot of interest and a number of recommendations for US cities that deserve more recognition than they receive.

This post is meant to whet your appetite with a couple of my favorite things about these cities, but is by no means a comprehensive guide. Think of it as a starting point for your own second city journey.

(Photo by L. Toshio Kishiyama/Getty Images)

Baltimore

Washington, DC, and Philadelphia merit their status as iconic historical cities. However, many folks don't realize that Baltimore Harbor has a pedigree of its own. It is here that Francis Scott Key composed the national anthem while imprisoned on a British warship during the War of 1812.

Baltimore's two marquee family attractions -- the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center -- bookend the Inner Harbor, which is where families will likely spend most of their time. However, Baltimore is so much more than the Inner Harbor. Here are some more family-friendly (and free) Baltimore ideas.

I especially like Baltimore in the winter when an ice rink and a German Christmas Market set up shop in the Inner Harbor. If you're visiting in the spring or summer, Camden Yards is a beautiful baseball stadium and an Orioles game can be a fun and inexpensive family outing with tickets as low as $15. Even better, kids get to run the bases after Sunday home games.

One of the things no one tells you about Baltimore: The cuisine is top-notch. Maryland is rightly famous for its crabs, and you can't go wrong with a crabcake sandwich paired with a Natty-Boh (National Bohemian beer, Baltimore's nectar of the gods). However, right outside the Inner Harbor lies a Little Italy neighborhood where you can get your fill of handmade pasta, red-checked tablecloths and Chianti-bottle candlesticks.

The Blacktip Shark Reef exhibit at the Baltimore Aquarium. Image by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The Blacktip Shark Reef exhibit at the Baltimore Aquarium. (Image by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Where to Stay in Baltimore

Hyatt has the two best points options in Baltimore and, fortunately, both of them just dropped in points required to redeem a free night. The Hyatt Regency Baltimore is now a Category 3 costing 12,000 World of Hyatt points a night. The Regency is right on the Inner Harbor and the Harbor View rooms boast great views. The Regency Club is small, but the attendant has been there forever and everybody raves about his personal service.

The Hyatt Place Baltimore is a bit off the Inner Harbor, but within walking distance of the National Aquarium. At only 8,000 Hyatt points a night for studio rooms, it's a bargain. You can top off World of Hyatt points with transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards or with points from the World of Hyatt Credit Card.

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Tampa

When tourists think of Florida, they often think of Miami or Orlando, giving Tampa a pass. That's a shame because Tampa and neighboring St. Petersburg offer many great family attractions. Busch Gardens Tampa is in some ways the anti-Disney World with its focus on animal conservation. My daughter and I really appreciated the animal interactions we could enjoy in between the roller coaster and water rides.

St. Petersburg has some of Florida's best beaches and the Gulf of Mexico water is warmer than the Atlantic coast. Inland, we loved the Chihuly Collection. Many times art doesn't feel accessible to kids, but Chihuly glass installations charm even the youngest museum visitors. Here are some more things to do in Tampa.

The Morean Chandeliers in the Chihuly Collection. (Photo courtesy of Morean Arts Center)

Where to Stay in Tampa

In Tampa, the Grand Hyatt is in an optimal location that has water views and a nature walk, but is still downtown and near attractions. As a Category 3 hotel, it's a good deal at 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night. It also has a lovely club that could be worth the extra 5,000/night points for a club room (or an Explorist/Globalist Club upgrade). This hotel would also be eligible for a Hyatt Category 1–4 award.

(Photo courtesy of the Grand Hyatt Tampa)

If you are just looking for sun and fun, one of the most interesting options is the Waterline Marina Resort & Beach Club. On Holmes Beach, about an hour south of Tampa Airport, the resort features two-bedroom suites with kitchens from 50,000 Marriott points a night. This hotel would qualify for the free night certificate given on your card anniversary by the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card (worth up to 50,000 points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program (certain hotels have resort fees)).

(Photo courtesy of Marriott)

Charlotte

Many might transit Charlotte's airport due to its status as an American Airlines hub. However, if you leave the airport, Charlotte has many charms for families.

For starters, Charlotte is the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which features 18 iconic cars and stories behind them. I especially like the Hall of Fame for families -- particularly if your visit coincides with the second Saturday of the month. That's when your kids can participate in educational activities connected to NASCAR such as helping to solve engineering challenges or inventing the next new way to make cars more safe. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open every day except Tuesdays from 10am–5pm, with extended summer hours until 6pm. Admission is $12–$25 depending on age, with packages that include simulator rides for just a few extra bucks.

If your kids love thrills, waterparks or Snoopy, head to Carowinds theme park. If you have a need for speed that NASCAR can't satisfy, The Fury roller coaster goes up to 95 miles per hour. It's the fastest steel coaster in the world. Carowinds is owned by the same company as Cedar Point in Ohio, which gets more props for its coasters, but the NC outlet is no slouch when it comes to excitement. Waterpark entrance is included with admission at Carowinds, so families don't need to pay twice to enjoy both facilities. Standard tickets are $67 for adults and $45 for kids, but keep an eye on Carowinds' website for frequent specials.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Entertainment Expenses

(Image via Carowinds PR)

Looking for a great meal? The King's Kitchen (129 West Trade Street) adds a dash of empathy to a classic Southern family meal. The Charlotte institution trains and employs people who have faced poverty and donates 100% of proceeds to local charities. The food is comforting for both the tummy and the soul. Another option is Pinky’s Westside Grill (1600 W. Morehead Street). The restaurant is a fun spot for families to carbo-load on fried pickles and crab puppies (crab-stuffed hush puppies).

Where to Stay in Charlotte

Kimpton Tryon Park combines Kimpton’s quirkiness with Charlotte’s old Southern charm. This hotel brand is best known for its included wine happy hours — much appreciated after a day exploring Freedom Park with little ones. Kimpton Tryon Park takes it up a notch with craft beers, cocktails and sweet teas as well. There was recently an award chart change in travelers' favor as this luxury hotel actually went down from 50,000 to 45,000 IHG Rewards Club points a night. If you need IHG points, check out the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card, which also provides the fourth award night free.

(Photo courtesy of Kimpton Tryon Park Hotel)

San Antonio

While you might remember the Alamo, you might not know that San Antonio makes for a terrific family destination. After your kids have learned a bit about Texan history, they can go back to the Jurassic Age at the Witte Museum. The Witte is open Monday–Saturday from 10am to 5pm, plus noon to 5pm Sundays, with extended hours till 8pm on Tuesdays. Admission is $14 for 12 and older and $10 for kids 4 to 11.

The San Antonio Riverwalk is touristy but in the best way, as it's pretty, clean, interesting and safe. You could easily while away a day wandering between the shops, restaurants and tacky-but-fun Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Guinness Book of World Records museums. If your feet need a rest, a canal-boat ride is just the ticket. Either way, be sure and enjoy some Tex-Mex and a margarita.

The San Antonio River Walk and the scenic canal tours via boat.(Photo by dszc / Getty Images)
The San Antonio River Walk and the scenic canal tours via boat. (Photo by dszc/Getty Images)

Where to Stay in San Antonio

I recently wrote about hotels that were once jails and the Holiday Inn Express San Antonio North Riverwalk Area piqued my interest. Dating from 1879, the building shows many scars from its days as a prison. You can even stay in Rooms 108 or 218, which used trap doors to form a gallows(!). The hotel is a popular stop on the San Antonio ghost tour circuit, and I’ll admit this one is now on my list.

As a Holiday Inn Express, the hotel features free breakfast for guests, a much-appreciated feature for families. Rooms with two queen beds sleep four. Reward nights are from 25,000 points a night, with the fourth night free if you have the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card. However, like many IHG properties, cash rates in the $100/night range make using points a poor value most times of the year.

(Photo courtesy of Holiday Inn Express)

If you want a little more luxury with your San Antonio getaway, check out the St. Anthony, a Luxury Collection Hotel, bookable for just 35,000 Marriott points per night. This means you could even stay here using an up to 35k certificate provided annually from the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card. Considering paid rates can top $400 per night, that is a fantastic deal.

(Photo courtesy of St. Anthony's Luxury Collection)

Bottom Line

These four places above barely scratch the surface of US second cities, but they all have one thing in common: You won't find their charms if you don't look. I'd love to hear about some of your favorite "second cities" in the US and beyond.

Looking for some other domestic vacation destinations for your family? How about:

Featured image by Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. Credit: Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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6%6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%)
6%6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions
3%3% Cash Back on transit including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more
3%3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months.

    $250
  • Annual Fee

    $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

If you like cash back and spend a lot on groceries at U.S. supermarkets, you can’t get much better than the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. This card offers 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then 1%). Check out our latest guides, news, and reviews for this card below.

Pros

  • This card has one of the best earning structures out there for cash-back credit cards.
  • The card does come with access to Amex Offers (enrollment required), which can save you even more money on specific purchases.

Cons

  • There is a $6,000 spending cap on the U.S. supermarket bonus category, which may not work for those with large grocery budgets.
  • You’ll have to pay a foreign transaction fee on international purchases, so it’s not a great choice when you’re traveling abroad.
  • Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months.
  • $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.
  • Buy Now, Pay Later: Enjoy $0 intro plan fees when you use Plan It® to split up large purchases into monthly installments. Pay $0 intro plan fees on plans created during the first 12 months after account opening. Plans created after that will have a monthly plan fee up to 1.33% of each eligible purchase amount moved into a plan based on the plan duration, the APR that would otherwise apply to the purchase, and other factors.
  • Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases from the date of account opening, then a variable rate, 18.24% to 29.24%
  • 6% Cash Back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%).
  • 6% Cash Back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions.
  • 3% Cash Back at U.S. gas stations and on transit (including taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more).
  • 1% Cash Back on other purchases.
  • Thinking about getting The Disney Bundle which includes Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+? Your decision made easy with $7/month back in the form of a statement credit after you spend $13.99 or more each month on an eligible subscription with your Blue Cash Preferred Card. Enrollment required.
  • Cash Back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees