If you still haven’t made your vacation plans for July, you might find yourself staring down expensive last-minute summer bookings. So get started now, because it’s never too early to plan a summer vacation.
Whether you’re looking for an epic (and safe) Fourth of July, an island beach getaway, or some relaxing wine tasting, there are plenty of towns and cities around the country to satiate your thirst. Just be sure to set aside your preconceived notions of the “classic summer trip.” From Seward, Alaska, to Jekyll Island, Georgia, these are the best places to travel in the US this July.
1. Saratoga Springs, New York
For most people, Saratoga Springs is most commonly associated with its racetrack and horse racing culture. Contrary to popular belief, however, you don’t need to be a racing aficionado to enjoy Saratoga — or even to enjoy a day at the races. The world-famous Saratoga Race Course is over 150 years old, and home to some of the top thoroughbred horses in the world. It opened in 1863, making it one of the oldest sporting venues in the country, and the track attracts families, racing enthusiasts, and casual gamblers to this day. Even if you don’t know anything about horse racing, it’s still fun to put $10 on a horse with a funny name and spend an exciting two-minutes cheering it on. The track is open from late July through Labor Day, with events taking place every weekend. Just be sure to stay up-to-date on COVID-19 restrictions before attending.
If horse racing’s not your thing — or if you’ve already lost $300 on an ill-conceived bet — head to the springs. You can’t visit Saratoga Springs without bathing in the springs themselves, after all. Unlike hot springs, Saratoga’s mineral springs are relatively cool, heated from 55 degrees to body temperature. The springs at Roosevelt Baths & Spa, and nearby Medbery Day Spa, are rumored to have healing and curative properties, though if you’re superstitious, local legend says that sipping from Big Red — the natural spring behind the picnic area at Saratoga Race Course — brings good luck.
Between horse racing, bathing in mineral springs, and cruising the streets to gawk at the city’s stately historic homes, Saratoga Springs can feel pretty ritzy. You might as well lean into that vibe even further with some wine tasting. Saratoga Springs is known for its melomel — a type of mead made by fermenting locally sourced fruit with sweet honey in Kentucky bourbon barrels. The Saratoga Winery is the best place to try it. There’s also Oliva Vineyards and Thirsty Owl Saratoga, where you can sip on a sunny patio or sample in a cozy tasting room.
2. Madison, Wisconsin
Wisconsin isn’t exactly the warmest state in the country for most of the year, but July is the perfect time to take advantage of its many opportunities for outdoor adventures, especially when it comes to hiking in Wisconsin. Madison, specifically, is an ideal summer hiking destination. Madison’s most accessible hike is the trek up to Picnic Point at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Just a five-minute drive from the center of town, this hike along Lake Mendota’s south shore is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. You’ll find rentable fire circles all along the peninsula, and dense hardwood trees line the dirt path. It won’t take long to reach the terminus of Picnic Point, where you’ll be rewarded with views of the water.
To really delve into the Wisconsin wilderness, head a half-hour west of Madison to Blue Mound State Park. At 1,716 feet the park is the area’s highest point, covering 1,200 acres and featuring over 20 miles of off-road trails. The elevation might not be able to rival peaks in states like Colorado, but hiking all the way up will afford you views of the ancient Baraboo mountain range and the Driftless Area to the south once overrun by glaciers. The park’s most distinct feature is probably the Caves of the Mounds — limestone caves just waiting to be explored.
For a potentially less sweat-inducing outdoor experience, take a leisurely stroll through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens on Madison’s waterfront. The 16-acre gardens are in full bloom in summer. Built in 1952, they’re known for their vibrant collection of roses, impressive glass conservatory, and the “sala” pavilion donated by the government of Thailand — just one of four such pavilions that exist outside Asia.
3. Bristol, Rhode Island
If you happen to be traveling around the Fourth of July, Bristol, Rhode Island, is the quintessential New England destination for a healthy dose of patriotism. It’s home to the oldest continuous Fourth of July parade in the country, which has run for 235 years. Every year, Main Street is painted red, white, and blue, flags wave from the stoops of historic homes, and a National Guard flyover puts an exclamation point on the festivities. If braving the holiday traffic sounds less-than-appealing, there’s still plenty to keep you busy in Bristol on the average summer weekend.
With a preserved waterfront district, historic port, and stately captain’s mansions from the 17th century, Bristol is packed with character. Its most impressive home is probably the Blithewold Mansion & Arboretum that sits on 33 acres of gardens on Bristol Bay. The 45-room estate is the perfect representation of the city’s rich maritime tradition. It’s pretty impossible to forget Bristol’s close proximity to the water. The entire western border of Colt State Park abuts Narragansett Bay, with unforgettable viewpoints and an abundance of kayak trails for the truly adventurous.
The best part about a college town in summer is that you don’t have to share the bars with students trying to pass off fake-IDs. While Roger Williams University is out for the season, check out Aidan’s Pub and Judge Roy Bean Saloon for pub fare at college kid prices, or Thames Waterside Bar & Grill for a slightly more upscale seafood experience with water views.
4. Seward, Alaska
As the gateway to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward is the ideal base for your trip to southern Alaska. Just a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage, Seward is a town of just under 3,000 residents that’s a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage. It’s known as the “Mural Capital of Alaska,” and has an expansive waterfront park, beach, and plenty of eye-catching street murals that show where the town got the moniker. There’s also the SeaLife Center, an aquarium housing puffins, sea lions, harbor seals, and giant Pacific octopuses.
If you’re visiting Alaska, though, you should probably venture outside town. Kenai Fjords National Park is known mostly for its glaciers and wildlife and is just a two-minute drive away. The park is home to over 40 glaciers, sloping down to the Harding Icefield before emptying into the ocean. The Exit Glacier is the park’s most famous — an alpine glacier that’s a favorite among hikers. It may look imposing, but tackling it is actually rather easy. Several well-maintained trails extend from the visitor center to the toe of the glacier, and the Glacier Overlook Trail reaches up to an overlook for views of the glacier itself.
The other best way to experience Kenai Fjords’ glaciers is via the water. Tours leaving from Seward’s harbor will guide you through the fjords and glaciers of Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. You can also rent your own kayak and explore the waters on your own, though due to rough waters, only fairly experienced kayakers should give it a go.
While you’re out on the water, it’s possible to see puffins, orcas, gray whales, sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, and a variety of marine birds including peregrine falcons. The best way to spot them is on the half-day wildlife cruise that departs from Seward Harbor. You might also spot a brown bear hunting around the park’s coastline. For a more intimate way to see bears, you could always take a fly-in day trip or overnight camping excursion in the wilderness. You’ll get closer to the area’s landlubbing animals than you thought possible — just don’t get too close.
5. McCall, Idaho
Mountain towns have become cliche winter vacation destinations, especially in states like Utah and Colorado. Yet there’s something special about a small community of just 3,000 residents that isn’t overrun with visitors in the summer. McCall, Idaho, is a former mining and timber town known not only for its picturesque mountain aesthetic and lakeside location, but also its prominent beer culture.
First and foremost, take advantage of the myriad of outdoor activities in this little town. You can kayak in Ponderosa State Park, zip line above the trees with Cascade Raft, boat on Payette Lake, or just relax at a hot spring. There are several hot springs around McCall, including Burgdorf Hot Springs and Rocky Canyon Hot Springs. Some require a hike to reach, but there’s no better reward for physical activity than taking a dip.
One of the best ways to see everything McCall has to offer is via a self-guided bike tour. One of the most popular routes starts on a paved pathway in front of Ridley’s Family Market and brings you to the Spring Mountain Ranch pathway past thick forests, meadows, and wetlands. It ends in Ponderosa State Park, where you can take the Peninsula Trail to follow the park’s western shoreline.
McCall might be a small town, but it’s built a hefty reputation for its brewing culture. The town is home to three breweries — McCall Brewing Company, Salmon River Brewery, and Broken Horn Brewing. But don’t limit yourself to just these three venues. Take the McCall Ale Trail, which visits several stops around town. You can pick up your trail passport at the Chamber of Commerce, collect 10 stamps at participating bars, and win a commemorative McCall Ale Trail pint glass.
6. Jekyll Island, Georgia
Georgia might not be the first place you think of when picturing a summer island vacation — unless you’re familiar with Jekyll Island. Jekyll Island is one of Georgia’s four barrier islands, and encompasses 5,700 acres of land. Accessible by car, the island is known for its bike trails, quiet sandbars, and historic architecture.
As with most island getaways, the beach is Jekyll Island’s main attraction. Driftwood Beach is probably the island’s most famous, with ancient driftwood lining the waterfront. You might recognize Glory Beach, on the south end of the island, for its role in Glory — a 1989 Civil War drama. Remnants of the production still remain there, including the long boardwalk built to create an easy walkway across the sand dunes for the production staff.
Architecturally, Jekyll Island has some of the most impressive homes in the entire state. In the early 1900s the island was a private club retreat, hosting upper-crust socialites like the Rockefellers. Today, the historic mansions can be visited via a tram tour of the National Historic Landmark District. Check out the Goodyear Cottage, built in 1906 in a Mediterranean Revival style, and the grand Hollybourne Cottage, built in 1890, which resembles an English country manor.
July is also one of the best times to visit the island’s Sea Turtle Center. Georgia’s first sea turtle rehabilitation, research, and education facility, the center cares for sick and injured sea turtles, and offers public education through a variety of exhibits. Guests are allowed to see the hospital where the turtles are treated and visit the rehabilitation pavilion where turtles live during their recovery. Since June and July are nesting season, you’ll also be able to take a guided tour to see wild sea turtles on the beaches of Jekyll Island.
7. Fredericksburg, Virginia
Just an hour from Washington, DC, Fredericksburg, Virginia, is the perfect day or weekend excursion. The town combines modern galleries and restaurants with a historic aesthetic and enough locally-made beverages to keep you buzzing for a few days.
As the site of the Battle of Fredericksburg, the town is a bastion of Civil War history. Start by touring the battlefield itself, including the Sunken Road — the site of seven Union assaults against the Confederate army — and Chatham, a Georgian-style plantation that served as an artillery platform and hospital. There’s also the nearby Chancellorsville Battlefield, where Confederate Robert E. Lee defeated General Joseph Hooker’s Federal Army of the Potomac around a wilderness crossroads. If you’re just staying in town, there are Civil War walking, trolly, or carriage tours you can take.
Delve even further into the town’s history at the Mary Washington House, purchased by George Washington for his mother in 1772. She lived there for the last 17 years of her life. On guided tours you’ll learn all about her life in Fredericksburg, including the frequent visits by her son. The Hugh Mercer Apothecary is another relic of Fredericksburg past. The 18th-century apothecary-turned-museum gives visitors an inside look at the period’s medicinal practices, with costumed guides giving full rundowns of treatments from leeches to lancets. Don’t end your historic tour of Fredericksburg without a stop at the Rising Sun Tavern. Originally built in 1760 as a home for George Washington’s youngest brother, it became a tavern in 1792 and an integral fixture of the community. Don’t expect DJ music until 2:00 AM, but the tours offer fascinating insights into the “nightlife” of the 18th century.
As the Founding Father would tell you, the only way to end a full day of education is with a healthy helping of liquor. A. Smith Bowman Distillery distills gin, rum, and vodka, but it’s particularly known for its range of bourbons. You won’t be starved for choice, so take a tour of the facility and taste to your heart’s content. If wine’s more your style, the Hartwood Winery is just a half-hour north of town. Opened in 1989, the winery has an outdoor deck and lawn where you can enjoy the signature Raven Hart port, or Deweese White.
8. Pismo Beach, CA
A classic West Coast beach town about three hours north of Los Angeles, Pismo Beach has all of the California vibes without the hustle of coastal cities like LA or San Francisco. With a homey downtown, picturesque sand dunes, and iconic pier, this 8,000-resident destination is the ideal beach getaway for those looking to keep it low-key.
Pismo City Beach has a special recreation area where visitors can rent four-wheelers or motorcycles to explore the dunes. Of course, you could also simply relax and enjoy the view of Pismo Beach Pier, the 1,370-foot-long wooden pier extending into the ocean. A symbol of Pismo Beach, the pier serves as a community gathering place and pedestrian walkway where tourists can fish, stroll, and take sunset photos. Just a few minutes from the beach, the Dinosaur Caves Park, perched atop a bluff with sea caves below, is one of the most stunning oceanfront parks in the country. Adventurous kayakers can even explore the sea caves with rentals available downtown.
It might not be Napa, but California’s central coast has some notable wineries of its own. Right near downtown you’ll find the Monarch Grove Winery Tasting Room — an outdoor tasting venue — and Tastes of the Valleys. Both offer guests samples, flights, and a wide selection of rieslings, cabernet francs, pinot noir, and sauvignon blancs.
To cap off your trip, it’s time to head to another beach — but not for the reason you think. At the entrance of Avila Beach, just 15 minutes north of town, lie the Avila Hot Springs. The pools are two feet deep and heated by a subterranean mineral spring. There’s also a freshwater pool for a more traditional aquatic experience. Perhaps most importantly, the hot springs offer Swedish, hot stone, and deep tissue massages to really help you decompress before your return to the daily grind.
9. McMinnville, Tennessee
Road trippers will want to take special note of McMinnville, Tennessee. Located halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga, McMinnville is the stop you never knew you needed to make. A town of just 34,000 people, McMinnville is known for its Victorian-style mansions, natural scenery, historic downtown, and, most of all, Cumberland Caverns.
Cumberland Caverns, first discovered in 1810, is one of the longest caves in the country. It’s 23 miles long, and tours though the vast complex are offered year-round. There are daytime walking tours, spelunking tours, and overnight tours, depending on your area of interest. It’s also a show cave where weddings, birthdays, and concerts are hosted. The cave’s Volcano Room is home to Cumberland Caverns Live — a concert series with a steady lineup of live acts.
When you emerge aboveground, you’ll find yourself immersed in history. Falcon Rest is one of Tennessee’s best-known Victorian mansions. A mansion turned hospital and nursing home, Falcon Rest is an allegedly-haunted property that offers tours and even rooms to spend the night. Beware: Many have heard phantom whistling sounds on the staircase, seen mirrors shattered by an unseen hand, and felt inexplicable gusts of cold air. The good news is that the rest of McMinnville’s historic downtown is completely ghost free (as far as we know). From the cozy, historic aesthetic of the old streets to the Brady-Hughes-Beasley Photography Archives and Museum and the Warren County Heritage Center and Museum, this town’s affinity for the past is contagious.
Once you’ve had your fill of spelunking and arguing about the existence of ghosts, Rock Island State Park is the best introduction to Tennessee’s scenic wilderness. A 883-acre park on the headwaters of Center Hill Lake, the park has some of the area’s most striking geographical features, like waterfalls, pools, and limestone paths. The Blue Hole — a popular fishing site — along with Twin Falls and Great Falls, are among the park’s most popular attractions.