The Great Underrated American State Capitals

They rarely steal the limelight, but our writer makes the case for America’s unloved state capitals.

In the hit new film Lady Bird, showing onboard this month, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson spends her last year at high school looking for love, falling out with her mum and trying desperately to escape her hometown of Sacramento, California.

So far, so teen angst. But this film’s special. With Lady Bird, first-time writer-director Greta Gerwig does the impossible and enriches the most cliched genre in all of Hollywood with authenticity, humour and heartwarming pathos. The critics noticed, bestowing it with two Golden Globes and five Oscar nominations.

USA, Vermont, Montpelier, buildings, Vermont State House
INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo / Argusphoto

But the surprising star is the city itself. Old Sacramento is a 11-hectare National Historic Landmark District, along the banks of the Sacramento River, which recreates the ambience of the 1849 Gold Rush era: restored Old West buildings, raised wooden sidewalks, steam trains, paddle-ships and horse and carriage rides. There’s the Rio City Cafe, with an outdoor patio overlooking the water; and the art, shopping and nightlife of the city’s hip Midtown neighbourhood, including the stylish rustic-modern Red Rabbit for fresh seasonal produce (Sacramento is California’s farm-to-fork capital) and artisan cocktails. Sacramento is on its way up; Lady Bird would have been proud.

This unsung state capital of California may not have the glamour of Los Angeles, the culture of San Francisco or the silicon of San Jose, but it makes you think: if Sacramento is secretly cool, which other state capitals are hiding in the shadow of their louder, hipper neighbours?

Olympia, Washington


Seattle is the state of Washington’s celebrity city, but little-known Olympia, just 100 kilometres south, at the foot of Puget Sound – home to one of the highest concentrations of whales and dolphins in the world – has that same laidback culture condensed to a walkable size. Stroll the historic downtown, which is filled with artisan shops, street musicians and some of the best craft beer in the country, including at local’s favourite the Fish Tale Brewpub; eat fresh oysters watching the sunset at Anthony’s Hearthfire Grill; or just rent a bike and explore the city’s numerous outdoor spaces – including Tumwater Falls Park, where you can watch salmon leap upriver each autumn to spawn. Just as good is the city’s location: Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument (home of the eponymous volcano that erupted in 1980), Mount Rainier (the highest peak in the state) and the gorgeous coastline of the Olympic Peninsula are all an easy day trip away. The 19th century Swantown Inn & Spa, in a quiet downtown location, makes the perfect base.

Montpelier, Vermont


Montpelier is the smallest state capital in the country, home to just 7,500 people. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in quintessential New England charm. Set in the foothills of the Green Mountains, the heart of autumn leaf-peeping territory, Montpelier has a thriving arts scene with streets laden with cute independent galleries, artsy cafes and fresh, farm-to-table restaurants, including Kismet (start with a Vermont gin infused Honey Martinez cocktail for a real treat). The Vermont State House, one of the oldest and best-preserved capitol buildings in the country, is worth a visit; the Three Penny Tap Room showcases the best of Vermont’s microbrew scene; and this being New England there’s as much maple syrup as you can handle. What you won’t find is a McDonald’s: Montpelier is the only state capital in the country without one. Stay at The Inn at Montpelier, a 19th century building with elegant four-poster beds and handwoven quilts, for some serious spoiling.

Carson City, Nevada


Las Vegas may have all the glitz and neon lights, but Carson City has Old West charm, outdoors fun and plenty of gambling, but on a smaller, friendlier scale. Follow the Kit Carson Trail through downtown to learn about the 150-year history of the capital; take a ride onboard The Glenbrook, an authentic 19th century steam train; or explore Carson City’s huge selection of antiques shops – Hanifin’s Arts & Antiques is a veritable Aladdin’s cave and one of the biggest in Nevada. But this is an outdoor town at heart: the city limits stretch all the way to the shoreline of Lake Tahoe, with secluded beaches, bright turquoise water and hills all around. Float trip down the Carson River, hike up to the King’s Canyon waterfall and finish off at the century-old Carson Hot Springs Resort for a soothing soak and swim. Check out The Union for seasonal local food and the Gold Dust West Hotel & Casino for good gaming and accommodation deals.

Salem, Oregon


Portland is one of America’s coolest leftfield cities: food trucks, awesome tunes and quirky coffee shops on every corner. But, Salem, fewer than 80 kilometres south, has something even better: wine – and loads of it. Oregon’s award-winning pinot noir region, in the Willamette Valley, is like a down-to-earth Napa Valley minus the crowds. Check out the tiny J Wrigley Vineyard, hidden in the midst of rolling vine-clad hills, for one of the best. The city itself has a lively arts scene (there’s the 1926 vaudeville Elsinore Theatre, once graced by Clark Gable); historic homes to tour (the 1878 Italianate mansion, Bush House, with its 42 hectare garden is superb); and lovely, quirky places to stay nearby, including Goatel: a yoga-inspired glamping retreat with goats roaming around (yes, really). And when you tire of wine touring, Oregon’s spectacular coast is only an hour away: lush rainforests spilling onto windswept, deserted beaches roaring with some of the best surf in the Pacific Northwest.

'Greetings from Salem, Oregon', postcard, USA
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo / Argusphoto

Tallahassee, Florida


Tallahassee is Florida with a southern twist. It may not have Miami’s glamour, or the thrill rides of Orlando, but Florida’s capital is rich in history and hospitality, more akin to its Deep South neighbours than the rest of the state. Check out the Bradfordville Blues Club, down a dirt road on the outskirts of town, sprawling oaks dripping in moss all around, for one of the liveliest and most authentic juke-joints in the US; local institution Dog et Al, where you can order a hot dog in one of 10,230 variations (one for every day of the next 28 years); and the Museum of Florida History, to learn about the state’s 14,000 year history of human habitation. Just as good as what’s in the city is what surrounds it: more than 950 kilometres of park trails, and at St George Island, an hour out of town, one of the most beautiful shell beaches in the south. The boutique Hotel Duval makes a great base in the city, with good rooms and an excellent restaurant to boot.

Boise, Idaho

Boise, USA

Boise is the perfect combination of city life and outdoor adventure: whitewater rafting by day, swanky wine bars by night (new kid on the block Camel’s Crossing is one of the best). Bike the 40 kilometre riverside Greenbelt trail in the morning and catch a show by Idaho Dance Theatre, or at Ballet Idaho, in the evening; spend all day hiking in the foothills of the Boise Mountains and then sample some traditional culture at the Basque Block: the epicentre of the largest Basque community in North America, with fabulous restaurants including Bar Gernika, which does superb tapas and cocktails. But whatever you do, The Inn at 500 Capitol will make the perfect base: a plush boutique hotel in the heart of the cultural district with gorgeous rooms and balconies overlooking the city. Come during summer to enjoy one of the many outdoor festivals that line the streets, including the free Alive After Five concerts; or in winter for some big mountain skiing at Bogus Basin, just 25 kilometres northeast of the city.

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