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10 Low Cost, High Culture Escapes for the Creative Traveler

A sense of discovery is a driving force in the heart of the creative traveler.  While Europe and Asia are the most common destinations for those who wish to immerse themselves in something different, experiences like these can be had without leaving the borders of North America.  If your budget and free time are too tight to warrant a trip overseas, these 10 destinations can provide both a rich cultural and environmental experience that you may not have at home.  So pencil in a long-weekend on your calendar and explore the gems of this continent without breaking the bank.

Charleston, South Carolina

In the 1700s, Charleston, South Carolina was one of the new world’s largest cities and one America’s most culturally progressive.  The first theater in America was founded in Charleston in 1736, one of the gems of a wealthy class that invested in the arts in this stylish seaside community.   Today, much of Charleston remains unchanged, as the architecture, old oaks and stony streets are the same today as they were nearly 300 years ago.  For those who love a bit of history, boutique-style shopping, old-world landscapes and sandy beaches nearby, Charleston is an experience to treasure.  We suggest hitting up one of the myriad bed-and-breakfast inns scattered throughout downtown Charleston, plus a visit to the Hominy Grill, a well-reviewed comfort food restaurant that represents the varied cultural influences on this old American city.

Charleston, South Carolina Gallery

Quebec City, Quebec

Arguably North America’s most European city, Quebec City is an oasis of French tradition in an English and Spanish dominated continent.  The cobble stone streets with French signage, the Roman and Parisian-influenced architecture, and the very pace of life here are on an entirely different scale than other North American cities.  And while Montreal may be the obvious choice for a French vacation within this continent, Quebec City is the capitol of the old world in North America.  We suggest a Spring or Summer visit to Quebec City, as the winters can be quite frigid to those who aren’t comfortable in the cold.  But if you desire an escape from conventional American thinking, Quebec City is the closest thing to Europe you’ll find without crossing an ocean to get there.

Quebec City, Quebec Gallery

San Juan Puerto Rico

When it comes to travel based on creative inspiration, San Juan Puerto Rico is certainly not a tough sell.  The nearby beaches and the tropical temperatures put Puerto Rico on the itinerary of most hedonism-bound travelers.  San Juan, however, has virtually endless value to the traveler seeking cultural inspiration in the modern world.  San Juan is the oldest city in the modern United States, dating back to its Spanish-settled roots in 1521.  That 18th century design has been carefully maintained in Old San Juan, a neighborhood with vibrant, colorful architecture that is dotted with mom-and-pop restaurants, bars and shops that cater to an informed crowd, not just your average tourist.  Parts of San Juan can be a bit rough-and-tumble, but a respect for the environment and the natives can guarantee an experience that is as other-worldly as it gets within US borders.

San Juan Puerto Rico Gallery

Michigan’s West Coast

Wait a minute, Michigan?  As the old slogan goes, “Yes, Michigan”.  The long shoreline along Lake Michigan features some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States, as well as a line of culturally progressive towns that dot its coast.  A visit to the Lake Michigan Recreation Area in Manistee National Forest has precisely the feel of a Humboldt County beach in Northern California.  Dunes climb higher than the eye can see, forests stretch for miles in every other direction, and a string of hamlets provide a kind of sensibility that his hard to find in the Midwest.  We suggest you fly into Chicago or Grand Rapids, and start your adventure in Saugatuck-Douglas Michigan.  A rental car will provide a scenic drive through Holland, Grand Haven and Muskegon, on your way past Charlevoix and into Traverse City as your final destination.  This drive is the perfect way to experience the turn of the fall colors, but beware that booking rates will peak during this season.  While Michigan may not be an obvious choice for your next getaway, it is easily amongst the most rewarding late-summer travels that we ourselves have enjoyed.

Michigan’s West Coast Gallery

Mexico City, Mexico

The largest city in North America is also its oldest.  Mexico City, Mexico contains more than 20 million people in a land mass less than half the size of New York City.  It was founded all the way back in 1325, then known as Tenochtitlan, prior to its Spanish conquest in 1521.  The cultural aura of Mexico City retains the spirit of its early native ancestors, while encompassing the Spanish order that plays itself out in architecture, in infrastructure and in language.  Most non-Spanish speakers wouldn’t think of Mexico City as a travel destination, but this mammoth city has a world of experience to offer it its visitors.  The cuisine, the variances in culture, the 17th century architecture and the people within provide a feeling that is hard to replicate within this continent.  Getting there isn’t expensive, given the sheer demand of transportation in and out of this Mexican metropolis.  If you visit, do so safely, but don’t let the wives tales prevent you from enjoying one of this hemisphere’s most incredible living cities.

Mexico City, Mexico Gallery

St Augustine Florida

All the way back in 1492, Christopher Columbus certainly did sail the “ocean blue”.  He was not, however, the first to discover the land now known as the 50 United States.  The first modern state to be discovered by European explorers was Florida, namely its oldest inhabited city of St Augustine as discovered by Ponce De Leon.  Today, Florida’s “first coast” encompasses a stretch of quiet, historically rich towns that include St. Augustine, Amelia Island and Jacksonville.  Visitors to St. Augustine will experience the remnants of early Spanish conquistadors, luscious beaches, museums at every turn and no shortage of mom-and-pop lodging options.  While Miami and Orlando may be the top billing destinations in Florida, St. Augustine is one of our two favorite under-the-radar experiences.

St Augustine Florida Gallery

Yellowstone National Park, Montana

While cultural awakenings may be the focus of this feature, the natural world shares equal inspiration to the creative traveler.  If nature drives you as a creative person, it is tough to find a better destination than Yellowstone National Park.  Yellowstone is one of the most rare and geologically active environments in the world, where the Earth’s crust is perforated with the heat of the mantle below.  The colors, the heat and the activity of our planet are all alive in a tiny portion of the surface that feels other-worldly to its visitors.  It is likely that you won’t see colors like these anywhere else in the world save for flowers and sunsets (both of which can be experienced here as well).

Yellowstone National Park

Flagstaff Arizona

Like Yellowstone, Flagstaff Arizona is a retreat focused on nature more so than the cultures of humanity.  Flagstaff, however, is a mix of both– a progressive, small-town community that is surrounded by some of nature’s most monumental achievements.  Nearby Sedona features a gallery of stunning red rock mountains that must be seen to be believed, plus a new age retreat for those with a penchant for mysticism.  Cornville, Arizona is home to Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, who produces award-winning wines in the craggy hills of this Arizona countryside.  Greater Flagstaff is progressive in spirit but with an eye on tradition and nature.  Both can provide immense benefit to the creative traveler, those who wish to snap out of conventional thinking and realize a sense of discovery in this mapped-out world.

Flagstaff Arizona Gallery

Vancouver British Columbia

Vancouver, BC is one of North America’s most geographically and culturally dynamic cities, a melting pot of over 2 million people in its metropolitan area.  The cuisine, the arts, the economy and even the ecology of greater Vancouver have gained from a large immigrant population from China, India, Portuguese and Eastern Europe.  Over half of Vancouver’s population belongs to a minority group, and the city boasts one of Canada’s largest gay communities– both of which suggest a tolerance and respect for people of different backgrounds and lifestyles.  The result is a truly cosmopolitan city, one of great art, architecture, cuisine and style that rests just beyond the United States border.  To get a sense of the beauty of Vancouver and its environment, be sure to take in Ecstaticset‘s flickr set whose work is featured here.

Vancouver British Columbia Gallery

Tampa Bay, Florida

The city of Tampa is quickly glossed over when considering the cultural destinations in the southern states.  If you visit the wrong part of town, you’d be sure that the entire Tampa Bay is made up of sprawling strip malls, chain stores, strip clubs and corporate restaurants.  If you visit the right part of town, you’ll find an absolutely stunning city with vibrant history and a very relaxed lifestyle.  Ybor City, shown above, is the birthplace of the American cigar industry (and the home of the Cuban sandwich) with old brick and iron architecture that recalls the feel of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  Also on Tampa’s south side are the Hyde Park and Palma Ceia neighborhoods, whose picturesque old oaks stretch over brick-paved streets that terminate on the waters of the Tampa Bay.  The architecture here features countless early century bungalows that have been faithfully and carefully restored to near mint condition.  It provides a small town feel that is located just a stone’s throw away from the sky scrapers downtown.

A short drive across the bay will bring you to bohemian St. Petersburg, Florida, an arts community with a string of nearby beaches that are no stranger to “Best in America” awards.  St. Petersburg is home to the Salvador Dali Museum, which features the largest collection of Dali masterworks in the world.  Glass artist Dale Chihuli has set up his own permanent collection in St. Petersburg, and the growth of the gallery movement in the city is still booming.  Nearby Pass-a-Grille Beach mandated long ago that no high rise condo or hotel would dominate its landscape, and the result is an Old Florida beach community with quaint cabins and unparalleled views of sunsets on the Gulf.  For an area that was built on tourism and retirement, there is a sense of history and cultural progress that is beating loudly in the Tampa Bay.  If you head North of Kennedy Ave. in Tampa, you might miss it altogether.

Tampa Bay, Florida Gallery

Thanks for reading, creative traveler!  If you’ve visited any of these areas and have tips to share, please do so in the comments.  If you’ve discovered a cultural experience of your own in another North American location, share your story in the comments.  In the mean time, our friends (and sponsors) at Hyundai are working with us to share a free stay in a boutique hotel in a destination city like these.  Stick around to find out how you can win a $250 gift certificate at EpoqueHotels.com!

This feature is brought to you by the fuel-efficient 2011 Hyundai Elantra, which helps you “Snap Out” of your routine to live your life at its best.

Want to win a free $250 gift certificate for EpoqueHotels.com, a collection of over 300 boutique hotels throughout the world?  You can be eligible to win this gift certificate courtesy of Hyundai by tweeting us your thoughts on this article or creative travel in general.  Send us a tweet @thecoolist with the #snapout hash tag to become eligible to win a $250 hotel stay gift certificate at EpoqueHotels.  If there’s something you dig in these 10 ideas for creative travel, tweet it to the world and you’re all set to go.  Read the official rules for more info– good luck!

(Image Sources: Quebec City a, b, c, d, e;  Yellowstone a, b, c, d, e, f;  St Augustine a, b, c, d, e, f;  San Juan a, b, c, d, e, f;  Mexico City a, b, c, d, e, f;  Flagstaff a, b, c, d, e, f;  Charleston a, b, c, d, e, f.)