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America’s 50 capitals are extremely diverse. While some are sprawling cities with populations well over a million, others could almost be considered a small town. What these 18 capital cities have in common is a wealth of things to do, ranging from fascinating sites for the history buff to spectacular scenery, cultural attractions and more, making them well-worth traveling to.
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Boston is not only one of the oldest cities in the nation, it’s an extremely walkable city with a rich history as the setting of some of the most important events in America. The city is full of fun things to do and see like magnificent architecture, world-class museums and universities. Boston is especially breathtaking in the spring when flowers are in full bloom and is well-known for its stunning autumn foliage in the fall. Walk the Freedom Trail leading to 16 sites like the Old North Church, the location from which the famous “One if by land, and two if by sea” signal is said to have been sent; Faneuil Hall, the site of famous speeches encouraging independence from Great Britain; and Boston Common, the oldest park in the country. If you prefer sports over history, you can always catch a game at Fenway Park, though it’s pretty historic too as the oldest ballpark in the major leagues.
Helena is a fabulous place to visit for those who love the great outdoors as well as for history enthusiasts. One of the smaller cities on the list with a population under 30,000, it owes its existence to the discovery of placer gold, quartz gold, silver and lead. Helena became the “Queen City of the Rockies” with the boom that came with the 1864 gold strike. Today the area is known for sapphires and gold. Visitors can explore this picturesque town by taking a ride on the Last Chance Tour Train or learn more about its past by visiting the Montana Historical Society museum, which is filled with interesting objects in addition to featuring a large collection of Charles Russell art at the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art housed inside. Helena also makes a great base for experiencing outdoor adventures in the surrounding Rocky Mountain foothills. Take the Gates of the Mountains boat tour to view one of the most scenic stretches of the Missouri River in the west.
Carson City, Nevada
Carson City is another one of the smaller U.S. capital cities with a population of roughly 55,000, though it’s growing rather quickly. It offers inexpensive accommodations and affordable dining options along with a striking setting. It has a surprising number of outstanding museums featuring history, trains, natural history and interactive exhibits for kids as well as a ton of year-round outdoor recreation opportunities. You’ll find Nevada-style gaming too, but on a more laid back, smaller and friendlier scale as compared to its more famous neighbor, Las Vegas. Carson City is also centrally located, just a 30-minute drive from the breathtaking beauty of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Victorian-era town of Virginia City with its authentic board sidewalks and the energetic city of Reno.
Santa Fe, New Mexcio
Santa Fe is not only the capital, it’s the most visited city in New Mexico, attracting travelers with its abundance of unique attractions, wide array of art galleries, extraordinary museums and incredible architecture. This adobe city is filled with numerous great eats and is well-known for embracing a holistic lifestyle. Santa Fe is also renowned for its transformative qualities, with many coming for the area’s healing energy. It’s also been a haven for artists, including Georgia O’Keefe, for decades. By staying in the downtown area’s historic La Fonda on the Plaza, visitors can walk to the Plaza and discover handmade jewelry and browse beautiful works of art.
Austin is no longer a sleepy college town. One of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, it retains its small town atmosphere while offering a ton of things to see and do as well as being a popular destination for foodies with world-class BBQ and ethnic cuisine. Best known for its incredible live music scene, giving it the nickname Live Music Capital of the World, whether it’s country, bluegrass, rock, punk, folk, Celtic, jazz or classical, you’ll find it here. It’s also home to great art galleries and the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum. While you’re here, don’t miss taking a scenic drive through nearby Hill Country.
Of all the capital cities, Juneau arguably has the most breathtaking views. Sitting on an Alaskan hillside overlooking the Inside Passage, the downtown area is tucked between Mount Juneau, Mount Roberts and Gastineau Chanel. Its maze of narrow streets run past a mix of old storefronts, new structures and charming houses that feature early 19th century architecture from its gold mining beginnings. Juneau is even home to Mendenhall Glacier, located just a short drive from downtown. Popular activities include whale watching tours providing a great way to see the wide variety of marine life like humpback and killer whales, as well as Steller sea lions and Dall’s porpoise. Or you can always just enjoy sipping a pint at the Alaska Brewing Company.
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence was once named America’s Favorite City by Travel & Leisure, with its world-class institutions, quirkiness and independent nature, amazing cuisine, architecture and art just a few of the reasons for receiving the honor. Providence is also a legitimate culinary capital, becoming an increasingly popular destination for food connoisseurs with a number of outstanding eateries like Chez Pascal and Nick’s on Broadway even offering “boat-to-table” seafood direct from local fisherman. With seven performing arts venues along with eight colleges and universities, it’s also been called the “Creative Capital.”
As an island city, what’s not to love about Honolulu? It offers the most spectacular tropical scenery of any capital city along with a practically endless list of possible activities. Honolulu has surf, sand and sun in abundance as well as the chance to snorkel among colorful fish in Hanauma Bay. When you’ve had enough sun, head indoors to explore any one of its world-class museums, like the Hawaii State Art Museum devoted to Hawaiian artists, the Honolulu Museum of Art featuring international masters, and The Bishop Museum focused on natural history. Of course you won’t want to miss visiting the National Cemetery of the Pacific, which serves as the resting place for nearly 50,000 veterans.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Baton Rouge is a beautiful city with an almost overwhelming number of things to see and do. It’s filled with grand old mansions, including Magnolia Mound which began as a small, late 18th century home and expanded into a gracious plantation home with French Creole styling, a coved ceiling and French and Caribbean details. Guides donning period costumes point out the sights. The city also offers riverboat casino gambling, a zoo and a number of impressive museums.
Boise is often overlooked, but it’s affordable and offers lots of small town charm with big city amenities. It’s also the starting point for an endless array of outdoor activities, as well as offering whitewater rafting and inner tubing right through the city along the Boise River. Fly-fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing and hiking are just a few of the other popular outdoor pursuits in the area. In the revitalized downtown, visitors can enjoy lots of great people watching, shopping and dining. Or, you can always soak up some culture at the Boise Art Museum and learn more about the state’s history at the History Museum.
Salem, twice-named an All-American City, is steeped in history, including everything from the Capitol building to stately homes with storied pasts as well as hosting the Willamette Heritage Center, Historic Deepwood Estate and the Bush House Museum. It not only offers a lot for history buffs, but for outdoor adventure lovers as well. Nestled between the Oregon Coast and the Cascade Mountain Range, visitors and locals alike enjoy easy access to a wealth of beach and mountain activities along with opportunities on the abundance of rivers in the area, including the Willamette River which winds right through the city. Downtown is filled with numerous eateries, boutiques, music venues and art galleries, while a multitude of world-class wineries can be found just a short drive away.
You probably already know that Nashville is the Country Music Capital, but it’s not just about the steel guitars and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. You’ll find lots of classic rock n’ roll, indie rock, gospel and even a few hip-hop venues. All types of musicians from Sheryl Crow to Robert Plant live here, in addition to many of the big country artists. You can also explore the historic Ryman Auditorium or The Hermitage, the former home of U.S. President Andrew Jackson which is filled with his family’s personal possessions and even includes the furniture they personally purchased. The active might want to join a running tour. Nashville Running Tours’ offers the ‘Stache and Dash jogging tour that features spots like The Grove record shop and the old Slow Bar.
The “Mile-High City,” so called because it sits exactly one-mile high in altitude above sea level, is the largest city as well as the capital of Colorado. It offers easy access to the magnificent Rocky Mountains with its multitude of year-round outdoor recreation from hiking, climbing, mountain biking and whitewater rafting in the summer to fantastic skiing and snowboarding in the winter. You’ll also find an abundance of sunshine with more than 300 days of sun a year, beautiful scenery and fabulous attractions in the city that celebrates its mining and cowboy history with a modern arts and culture scene. Be sure and check out Union Station and the American Museum of Western Art.
Madison is the home of the University of Wisconsin, so it may not be all that surprising that the city is filled with all sorts of things to do, including exploring multiple museums and fantastic art galleries, browsing or buying at funky shops and enjoying the performing arts. It also offers all sorts of outdoor activities. Madison often boasts about the fact that there are more bikes than cars here as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the nation, and it also has more than 120 miles of scenic biking and hiking trails to access along with over 260 parks and beaches.
Downtown Olympia has a picturesque waterfront as well as a small town atmosphere with big city amenities. Visit the State Capital Museum and Outreach Center in the historic Lord Mansion to learn about the history and culture of the state, including Native American history. The Olympic Flight Museum features everything from WWII trainers to jet interceptors, while the historic Capitol Theater offers the chance to catch a movie, concert or discover local art in a magnificent old movie palace. You’ll also find all sorts of wonderful parks and gardens providing the opportunity for hiking, wildlife watching and relaxing.
Wyoming’s capital city truly embodies the spirit of the Old West. It’s considered to be the rodeo and railroad capital of the U.S., and is home to a wide range of museums, historical hotels and mansions as well as Western-themed attractions, resorts, ranches and a collection of steam engines. It even has a thriving art community and an eclectic selection of great dining and shopping options. The Cheyenne Depot/Depot Museum, built in the late 1800s, is known as one of the most beautiful railroad stations on the continent, and is one of the last remaining grand 19th century depots left from the transcontinental railroad. If you’re here in July, you won’t want to miss Cheyenne Frontier Days. The city has celebrated its Old West roots with this festival for well over a century. The centerpiece is the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, drawing top professionals, while a variety of concert performances feature some of the biggest names in music.
The Golden State’s capital is home to more than 10 theaters, two professional theater companies, lots of great museums and an Old West heritage. Old Sacramento, running along the waterfront is a historic district with wooden sidewalks, gold-rush era storefronts, cobblestone streets and a multitude of shops. Visiting the California State Railroad Museum, featuring locomotives, restored cars and illustrated displays throughout six buildings is a must. Crocker Art Museum is considered the crown jewel of the city, with its extraordinary permanent art collection and diverse exhibits. If you’re up for a nice walk, or a bike ride, hit the American River Bike Trail, a 33-mile trail winding from downtown and stretching out to east to the foothills with scenic riverside views and nearly endless lush parks.
Salt Lake City, Utah
In picturesque Salt Lake City, there are so many things to do, the hardest part is narrowing down your options. Take a carriage ride or a guided bicycle tour to get a lay of the land along with fascinating insight into the history of the city that was founded in 1846 by Brigham Young. Check out Temple Square, Salt Lake’s most popular attraction, or do a little research into your family history at the FamilySearch Center in the city known as the “Genealogy Capitol of the World.” The region is considered one of nature’s greatest playgrounds, with hiking and mountain biking in local canyons found just minutes from the city center, while numerous resorts and guest ranches offer guided fishing and wildlife experiences. Winter activities include everything from skiing or snowboarding at nearby ski resorts as well as heading out on snowshoes or snowmobiles.