The best cities and towns for: art, art festivals, vegan dining options, art and gift shops, and nature in the U.S.

We’ve explored art towns and art festivals for over 15 years, picking at least one new city or town in the U.S. each spring, summer or fall. These are the cities and towns with the most culture, the best museums, the best vegan food, and the best art festivals.

My mom Carol and I started these adventures after I got married and moved to Nashville. It was our little way of staying connected and getting to see a new part of this incredible country we get to live in.

We had plans to go to the Tempe Arts Festival in March 2020, and, like the rest of the world, our plans were cancelled due to the Coronavirus. I love the Phoenix and Tucson areas, so of course I am bummed, however I’m mostly thankful that this virus has not affected my loved ones. I simply want to keep it that way.

Now with my immediate travel lust for this gorgeous land we live on, I decided to recap the best art cities and the best art festivals during this journey of ours.

Over the past 15 years, here’s our best of (most listings have a full trip recap linked):

1. Ann Arbor, Michigan

The Ann Arbor Summer Art Festival is quite possibly the largest in the world of truly handmade, quality art; it most definitely is in the U.S. This is a gorgeous college town with great art galleries and a lot of eclectic restaurants. This was our first art trip, and that might be part of why I enjoyed it so much. I also simply love college towns, and Ann Arbor is one of the best. This is the only one I don’t have a full trip recap on, and since it was 15 years ago, I can no longer remember all the places we visited. I do remember Detroit being way more interesting than I thought, and Farmington being a great town for high-end shopping, and Ann Arbor for the art galleries, food, university and this incredible festival (they hold two festivals actually – the Original and the Art Fair. They are next to each other. And they are awesome! – wear comfy shoes!!).

2. Madison, Wisconsin

Madison’s downtown square is where the art (and farmers market) action is during their 2-day festival. The university is gorgeous, there’s a ton of cute independent restaurants and art shops, and a great college vibe. The city is beautiful with a ton of bike trails, and the waterfront is a perfect place to spend an afternoon.

3. Portland, OR

Portland might be my favorite simply for the vegan food (OMG) and the Japanese Gardens. The architecture in this city is beautiful, too. And of course, the bookstores are great, it’s close to the ocean, the hiking and exploring nature are unbeatable.

4. Santa Fe, NM

Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos, Abiquiu…I can’t get enough of any of these cities and towns. If I could go anywhere, I would go here, over and over and over again. And…I have. There’s nothing like the light in New Mexico. The mountains and rocks and trees and desert, the Indian culture, the Pueblos and pottery, the jewelry, the farmers markets, and the artist vibe. It surrounds you and sucks you in, in the best way. Side note: Santa Fe is getting a bit snootier year by year. If it turns you off as much as it does me on some visits, just head up to Taos or down to Albuquerque… sometimes it’s nice to take a break from all the ritziness.

5. Amherst, MA

The art festival was excellent in Amherst. The people seemed a bit snooty, but this is coming from a Texan… I often think northerners seem snooty. Maybe it’s my stereotyping…maybe you feel it, too. Either way, the Eric Carle Storybook Museum is probably my favorite place in this whole area. The Normal Rockwell Museum was excellent too. The nature and the little cafes and the flower bridge – all were unbeatable. This is a great fall weekend destination.

6. La Quinta, CA

Just, wow. The La Quinta Festival of the Arts is on a gorgeous lake and filled with incredible artists. La Quinta is near Palm Springs, which for me I thought would be a little cooler…maybe I’m not as intrigued by mid-century as I used to be. However, it’s near Joshua Tree NP too – and that is most definitely worth the trip. We flew into and out of San Diego, which is a little further, but La Jolla and SD are great places to stop and check out the galleries and bookstores and cafes, and hippie enclaves. The art fests in La Jolla and it’s northern neighbor Laguna Beach I thought were just OK; I’d skip them and do La Quinta again personally.

7. Des Moines, IA

I had heard for years that the Des Moines festival was worth checking out. And this is going to sound ignorant, but, Iowa?? Really? What’s in Iowa? Wow, we were pleasantly surprised. Des Moines and Iowa City are filled with art galleries, nature, delicious vegan food, art museums, and so much more. This was a perfect 4-day weekend destination.

8. Seattle, WA

The Tacoma Arts Festival was awesome and in simply a gorgeous setting. Seattle, of course, has incredible coffee shops, great vegan food, cute restaurants, beautiful neighborhoods, and the best farmers market I have ever been to.

9. Denver, CO

OK, Denver, really, isn’t my fave. But – the Pearl Street Arts fest in Boulder is excellent, the accompanying art galleries are excellent, there’s tons of great food and of course that Colorado hiking and mountain air.

10. Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis! Am I saving the best for last? I might be. Cafes galore, vegan food galore, awesome art galleries and gift shops, and a wonderful art festival. Beautiful trails, tons of options for biking and walking. We loved it here!

11. Oh, wait, one more: Fort Worth, TX

I have to put my home on the list: Fort Worth. The art festival is insane good (just get there on a Thursday or Sunday eve: otherwise you will not get to see any art; it’s just too crowded). The fest is held downtown, which is part of the appeal, and quite honestly, part of the reason it is so damn crowded. It’s better for live music lovers, in my opinion, than purchasing art, unless you can get here during an off time. The rest of the city is filled with great places to check out: The Near Southside for breweries, coffee shops, gift shops, and it’s a bit walkable, which is rare in FW. Downtown (Sundance Square) is cute at night especially with the fountains running, the Water Gardens are gorgeous, the art museums are great, and there’s a good amount of vegan food options in the city nicknamed Cowtown.

12. I lied, one more: Nashville, TN

Nashville…it’s a great city for sure: gorgeous, delicious farm to table food, beautiful college campuses, tons of great music. The art fests are great too, although I believe a few of them are no longer happening. There’s a wonderful art gallery by Vanderbilt and of course the new Ann Patchett bookstore. East Nashville and Franklin, my old homes, are great places to visit. Nashville deserves a solid 4-day weekend.

The ones we’d skip if we could do it over again:

Arkansas Craft Fair (although Bentonville and Fayetteville are cute for one night), Kansas City Plaza Art Fair (the fountains in this city are pretty and, I realize how silly and white this sounds, but: the Whole Foods is outstanding – otherwise, I’d skip it), Louisville Art Festival (argh I don’t even know what to say about this one).

The ones that you’d expect to see on this list:

Austin… of course… it does have good art and great food and good nature. It also has too many damn people, really crowded and quite frankly, ugly streets. Sorry, I can’t get into this place. The art fests that I have been to seem more craft/funky than what you’d see at a typical art festival. You might love that. I personally don’t.

Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, D.C. … Yes, these art cities are incredible. They are each worth a visit on their own, hands down. At this point in my life, I’d much rather go to smaller places than these huge metropolises, and so, I have left them off the list.

The ones we can’t wait to get to:

Park City, UT, Tempe, AZ, Richmond, VA
… and, where else? What do you all think? What are we missing?

Special thanks to Joe Ramos for designing this map for us.