Center yourself in these delightful downtowns

As Petula Clark once sang about heading downtown, the “lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.” And she was right! A great downtown — one that is filled with vibrant cultural spaces, a variety of shops and high-quality restaurants — not only draws a crowd, but also elevates a city. Here are nine downtowns across the U.S. that are well worth your patronage.

Boise, Idaho

Boise boasts a walkable downtown 

(Image credit: Darwin Fan / Getty Images)

Lively without being overwhelming, Boise’s downtown offers an essential mix of stores, bars, restaurants and entertainment, all packed neatly into a historic district that’s easily walkable and bikable. Some downtowns empty out at night, but this one stays active even after office workers head home for the day; residents socialize with friends at popular spots like Trillium and Fork (home of the delicious B.C.S., aka Boise Chopped Salad) or catch a show at The Egyptian Theatre. On the first Thursday of every month, downtown merchants stay open late for special events like trunk shows and art exhibitions; in the summer, free concerts are held at the Grove Plaza. 

Athens, Georgia

City Hall in Athens, Georgia, at sunset

Live music is a huge draw in Athens

(Image credit: SeanPavonePhoto / Getty Images)

You can practically hear tunes floating through the air on your way to downtown Athens. The city, long regarded as one of the South’s best college towns, is known for its electric music scene. Venues like the iconic 40 Watt Club (an early homebase for R.E.M. and the B-52s), Flicker Theatre & Bar, Hendershot’s Coffee & Cafe and The Georgia Theatre offer live music most nights, featuring local acts and major names alike. This is a well-balanced downtown with plenty of shops, bars and restaurants to choose from, including The National, a Mediterranean-inspired neighborhood spot founded by Athens-born chef Peter Dale.

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Vancouver, Washington

The Interstate Bridge carries traffic over the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon

The Interstate Bridge sweeps drivers over the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon

(Image credit: HildeAnna / Getty Images)

Downtown Vancouver, Washington (not to be confused with the Canadian city in British Columbia!) was made for sauntering. You could spend all day walking from one end to the other, perusing the galleries and one-of-a-kind boutiques and eating your fill at food trucks and restaurants. History buffs will appreciate the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Pearson Field and Air Museum and Clark County Historical Museum, while the more artistically inclined might gravitate to the colorful murals found on nearly every street corner. Between stops, enjoy some fresh air at the scenic Vancouver Waterfront Park. 

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The view of Philadelphia's City Hall from Broad Street

Philadelphia’s city hall is the largest municipal building in the U.S.

(Image credit: Claire Gentile / Getty Images)

When you’re exploring Philadelphia’s historic Center City neighborhoods, you might need to check your calendar to make sure it’s not 1776. Striding down Old City’s charming cobblestone streets past 18th century brick buildings can feel like taking a trip back in time — especially if you stop at Independence Mall, Elfreth’s Alley or the Betsy Ross House. There are plenty of modern haunts as well, like Sonny’s Famous Steaks, an Eater-recommended spot to grab a classic Philly cheesesteak. Be sure you make time for a visit to Philadelphia’s majestic Second Empire-style city hall. Guided tours are available, including one that takes you to the top of the tower for stunning panoramic city views.

Greenville, South Carolina

Falls Park on the Reedy

Reedy River Falls are in the heart of Greenville

(Image credit: Denis Tangney Jr. / Getty Images)

Falls Park on the Reedy is the perfect starting point for exploring downtown Greenville. This verdant space covers 32 acres in the Historic West End, and walking along Liberty Bridge will grant you sweeping views of Reedy River Falls. Next, head over to Main Street to find 10 blocks of shops and restaurants, and grab an outside table for people watching; Jianna comes recommended by Southern Living for its balcony views and “expertly curated wine list.” You might even find some fun surprises along the street, like the Mice on Main scavenger hunt. For real animals, hit up the nearby Greenville Zoo, home to lions, giraffes, orangutans and red pandas.

Montpelier, Vermont

An aerial view of downtown Montpelier, Vermont

Montpelier is home to about 8,000 people

(Image credit: John Greim / LightRocket via Getty Images)

For the smallest capital city in the U.S., Montpelier has a downtown that feels big. USA Today named it America’s best small town for shopping, and it houses dozens of independently-owned specialty boutiques. One gem is Bear Pond Books, a space stuffed with old and new tomes. The highlight is the upstairs Children’s Room, where kids can climb through secret passageways, hug giant stuffed bears and meet a Russian tortoise named Veruca. Another special spot is the gold-domed Vermont State House, which contains treasures including a massive statue of Abraham Lincoln. Take a tour to see it up close, as well as the 160-year-old House and Senate chambers with original interiors. 

Fargo, North Dakota 

The front sign for The Fargo Theatre in Fargo, North Dakota

The Fargo Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places

(Image credit: Davoud Davies / Getty Images)

Downtown Fargo packs a lot into six blocks. The main attraction is the beloved Art Deco Fargo Theatre, where you can catch a brand new release or see a classic film, depending on your mood. But this theater shows more than just movies; throughout the year, comedians and bands like The Wallflowers and Five for Fighting stop by for live performances. Downtown Fargo has a good mix of shopping, restaurants, bars and cultural spots like the Plains Art Museum. Those interested in the area’s history can take a self-guided walking tour highlighting prominent buildings that helped shape the city.

Alexandria, Virginia

Colorful row homes in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

Colorful colonial homes abound in Old Town

(Image credit: Grace Cary / Getty Images)

Along the Potomac River waterfront sits Old Town, Alexandria’s historic downtown founded in 1749. Exploring by foot is the way to go — this makes it easier to stop and appreciate the colorful details of the colonial homes on Queen Street and the red brick sidewalks of King Street, home to most of Old Town’s independent boutiques. You can book an eerie tour, like the guided Ghost & Graveyard Tour that’s conducted by lantern light, or learn from a more serious tour like the ones tackling Alexandria’s role in the slave trade. A self-guided walk through the Duke Street corridor includes stops at the Bruin Slave Jail and Freedom House Museum, dedicated to honoring the “lives and experiences of the enslaved and free Black people who lived in and were trafficked through Alexandria.” 

Omaha, Nebraska 

A family sits outside of Tannenbaum, a holiday decor store, in Omaha's Old Market district

Old Market is a family-friendly neighborhood with activities for all ages

(Image credit: Robert Cross / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Art galleries, ice cream parlors, pubs and live music venues — you name it and Old Market has it. This historic neighborhood in downtown Omaha is active year-round, but it really comes alive after Thanksgiving, during the Holiday Lights Festival. Strings of sparkly lights are laced through the trees and along the buildings of Old Market, and carolers often perform in the evenings (Santa has even been known to make an appearance or two). In December, the busiest store is likely to be Tannenbaum, an Old Market staple that opened in 1985 and sells holiday and seasonal decor.