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5 Cities with Big Outdoor Appeal

When you're planning a city vacation, it's easy to fall back on perennial favorites like New York or Los Angeles. They offer activities galore, a wealth of shopping and culture, and high-end dining, but bigger isn't always better. Traffic and crowds make exercising outdoors a challenge, and the budget-busting prices mean this might be your only vacation for a while. The next time you need an urban fix, consider heading to a smaller but still action-packed locale where you can be active and find top restaurants and museums. To downsize your vacation price tag, but not your expectations, check out these five up-and-coming spots.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: A True River City

Sitting at the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers, the 'Burgh boasts more bridges than Venice, Italy. To see a dozen-plus of them, rent a canoe or kayak at Kayak Pittsburgh (412-255-0564), under the Sixth Street Bridge, then paddle by such landmarks as Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, or the impressive Smithfield Street Bridge. If your oar-handling skills are rusty, stay on land and work up a sweat by hiking or biking along the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile crushed-limestone path that starts in Pittsburgh and meanders all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. (There are a few side trails but no loops, so plan accordingly.) If you're up for a drive, head an hour east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Laurel Highlands. The three-county region, home to Pennsylvania's highest mountain (3,213-foot Mt. Davis), offers hiking, kayaking, biking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and even white-water rafting.

See the City
Pop-art lovers won't want to miss the Andy Warhol Museum (warhol.org), filled with more than 8,000 pieces of the contemporary artist's work. A 10-minute walk or five minute cab ride northeast takes you to the Strip District, a 10-block shopping area where you can find everything from seafood (Wholey's Market has the freshest around) to Oriental rugs.

Where to Stay
The Morning Glory Inn (from $135; gloryinn.com), a Victorian townhouse situated in Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood, features a lush courtyard and complimentary bikes, which you can borrow to tour local sites.

 

Tucson, Arizona: Desert Attraction

Ringed by five mountain ranges that are laced with hundreds of miles of trails, Tucson offers virtually every kind of land-based outdoor activity. Combined with the fact that it also enjoys an average of 350 days of sunshine a year, there really is no excuse for staying away-oh, except for the heat (an average of 87 degrees during July). But it just makes scheduling your adventures (usually early in the morning) that much more important.

Hikers should tackle the Sendero Esperanza Trail in Saguaro National Park West, about 30 minutes from downtown, which winds along an old mine road and through a rare saguarocactus forest to the top of 4,600-foot Wasson Peak (up and back will take about two hours). Pima Canyon Trail is steeper and more challenging, but wildlife watchers may prefer this option since it runs through a bighorn- sheep preserve.

If mountain biking is more your thing, the intermediate-level Starr Pass Trail west of town leads you on a two-hour loop through the Tucson Mountains and Sonoran Desert, and offers stunning valley views. You can do all of these activities solo, or find a guide to take you at swtrekking.com.

See the City
Looking for a memento of your trip? Head to Old Town Artisans in the El Presidio Historic District, where hundreds of local and regional artists sell their work and fine crafts in six shops tucked in a 150-year-old adobe. Just a mile and a half east are the Lost Barrio Shops (in the 200 block of South Park Avenue), where you'll find an astonishing array of ethnic home furnishings and décor, such as New Guinean masks and Mexican chandeliers.

Where to Stay
Tucson is loaded with hotels, B&Bs, resorts, and guest ranches. The JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort & Spa (from $179; jwmarriottstarrpass.com or 520-792-3500) is the city's first new resort in nearly 20 years. Perched on a hill overlooking Tucson Valley, it's the perfect place to watch those breathtaking desert sunsets.

 

Portland, Oregon: One-Stop Sports Shop

Portland is renowned for being bike-friendly, so saddle up at Waterfront Bicycle Rentals (from $9 an hour; 503-227-1719) and tool around the city's 257 miles of bike paths and lanes. A popular three-mile downtown loop runs along both sides of the Willamette River, offering superb city views; avid cyclists can peel off onto the Springwater Corridor from the loop for a 40-mile round-trip ride. If you really want to escape from it all-without leaving the city limits-wheel over to the 5,100- acre Forest Park, which boasts 70-plus miles of interconnecting hiking and biking trails. And for something really different in a summer vacation: Just 50 miles east of town is the scenic Mount Hood Recreational Area, where you can ski year-round (as well as hike, mountain bike, and fish).

See the City
Make tracks to the Pearl, Portland's trendy shopping enclave, loaded with unique restaurants, galleries, and shops, including Powell's City of Books, the world's largest new and used bookstore. Parched? There's a coffee shop or brewpub on nearly every corner.

Where to Stay
Hunker down at the Avalon Hotel & Spa (from $155; avalonhotelandspa.com or 888-556-4402), a boutique property on the Willamette River Greenway Trail.

 

Charlotte, North Carolina:  World-Class White Water

Known for furniture making and car racing (it's a NASCAR hotbed), Charlotte has also earned a rep for churning out elite athletes, thanks to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. The world's only multichannel artificial white-water river-the rapids (up to Class IV) on the two man-made loops around the property are powered by pumps-serves as a training ground for both Olympic hopefuls and novices. Learn how to kayak, or take a guided trip by raft or kayak (from $33 per person; 704-391-3900). In addition, the center boasts two climbing walls and 11 miles of mountain biking, hiking, and running trails. Back in town are more than 50 golf courses. Hit the links at Ballantyne Resort, home of the Dana Rader Golf School. Rader, an LPGA master professional, offers women-only classes by the hour or as part of a three-day session (from $80; danarader.com).

See the City
Charlotte prides itself on its art, so print a Public Art Walking Tour map at artsandscience.org and stroll around downtown looking for the nearly 50 works on display, such as Ben Long's famed frescoes at the Bank of America Corporate Center. The Mint Museum of Craft and Design showcases an extensive collection of glass, ceramic, fiberglass, metal, and wood pieces ($6 per person; themintmuseums.org). For handiwork you can take home, drive the 45 miles to High Point Furniture Sales, one of the nation's largest furniture and design centers.

Where to Stay
Bed down at the posh Ballantyne Resort (from $209; ballantyneresort.com or 866-248-4824), where you'll have access to a resistance pool (it has a current so you can swim "laps" in place) and three jogging paths. If you have time, check out the spa and get the Ballantyne Red Clay Mask ($95), which uses North Carolina's indigenous red clay.

 

Columbus, Ohio: Arts and Park

Thanks to an ongoing downtown- revival project and Ohio State University (with nearly 60,000 students), Columbus has a young, energetic vibe. When they're not enjoying gallery hops and outdoor concerts, residents run, bike, and power walk along the Olentangy River Greenway, a scenic 13-mile path winding from downtown through the university and out to Worthington, a northern suburb. Stop midway at OSU's 43-acre Fred Beekman Park, where you can use the volleyball and basketball courts for free, no reservations required (equipment is gratis too; 614-292-7671 for hours). Four miles past Worthington is Highbanks Park, where you can hike 11 miles of rolling trails that are fronted by 100-foot shale bluffs.

See the City
Spend at least half a day roaming around the Short North Arts District, a narrow, mile-long neighborhood that links downtown Columbus and OSU. Lined with galleries, boutiques, and restaurants, the district's eye-catching building murals include a sideways rendition of the Mona Lisa. A short jog away is the renowned Topiary Garden, which contains 54 sculpted evergreens recreating Georges Seurat's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Where to Stay
Bunk at the Lofts (from $189; 55lofts.com or 800-735-6387), a chic 44-room boutique hotel in the historic Carr Building. Most rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows, exposed brick, and wood beams.