5 Most Underrated Riverfront Cities in America

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The United States has many famous riverfront cities. Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans rose to prominence thanks to their locations on the Mississippi. Kansas City sprawls across both sides of the Missouri River. New York, Boston and Chicago aren’t known primarily as riverfront cities, but have one or more rivers that are prominent in each city’s history and economy. And anyone who has ever watched a televised sporting event from Pittsburgh knows from the blimp-cam shots that the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet there to create the Ohio River. But there are a number of other American cities situated by famous and not-so-famous rivers that offer some fun options, from great waterfront restaurants and lodging to sublime greenways and sightseeing cruises. Here are five American cities that are not famous for their riverfronts … but maybe should be.


5. Boise, Idaho

The Boise River is a popular draw for visitors and residents alike in Boise, Idaho.

Tubers float the Boise River through downtown Boise; Actual Randy

The Boise River that meanders across northern Boise, Idaho, is not on the same scale as the Mississippi, Ohio, Columbia or America’s other great rivers. But the river is a big part of the Boise experience, both for residents and tourists, and city leaders more than 40 years ago wisely decided to capitalize on this by building an extensive greenway system along the river. The 22-mile-long Boise River Greenbelt is extremely popular with runners, walkers and cyclists. There are some hotels and restaurants located either beside the greenway or a short walk away, and the greenway runs by or within a half-mile of many of the city’s major attractions, including Boise State University and the Idaho state capitol building. If you’re in Boise for a couple of days, visit a local outfitter so you can raft, kayak or canoe through town along this picturesque urban river.


4. Washington, D.C.

A Potomac River cruise offers a different perspective on Washington, D.C.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial seen from the Potomac River; © Mark Vandyke/Dreamstime.com

The United States capitol is obviously better known as the seat of the federal government and some world-famous museums and monuments, but if you’ve already been there and done that — maybe two or three times — you can get a unique perspective on the city from the waterfront. Several companies offer sightseeing cruises along the Potomac River. If you’re more adventure-minded, sign up for a kayaking trip down the Potomac. Or bring your golf clubs to play a round along the Potomac at East Potomac Park Golf Course, which is open to the public. The Anacostia River is not as popular for recreation because of pollution issues, but you can still book a guided canoe tour down this much-maligned D.C. river. Finish your day off by taking in a Washington Nationals baseball game at Nationals Park on the Anacostia.


3. Savannah, Georgia

The Savannah River is an integral part of the Savannah experience.

A container ship approaches the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge on the Savannah River.

Savannah is well known for its colonial charm and its status as a major seaport, but there’s plenty to see and do along the city’s Savannah River. One popular high-end lodging option is the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, located on Hutchinson Island in the middle of the Savannah River. There are many other lodging and dining options in Savannah’s historic district that are either waterfront or a block or two away. Even if you’re just speeding through the area on I-95 on your way to a vacation somewhere else, take a quick detour into town to grab lunch or dinner at one of the cafes or restaurants on historic River Street along the Savannah River.


2. Sacramento, California

The Tower Bridge is a popular tourist attraction in Sacramento.

The Tower Bridge across the Sacramento River was built in 1935.

The California state capital has two rivers, the American and the Sacramento, although the Sacramento is the better known of the two. It’s impossible to miss the city’s most beloved landmark, the Tower Bridge, a vertical-lift bridge across the Sacramento River. Rent a bike and check out the 32-mile Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail that begins a few hundred feet from the bridge and follows the Sacramento and American rivers. It has been voted the No. 1 bike trail in the U.S. by Trails.com. Baseball fans can enjoy a game along the Sacramento River at Raley Field, home of the AAA River Cats. Cap your visit by spending the night at the Embassy Suites right beside the spectacular lights of the Tower Bridge.


1. Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Minneapolis/St. Paul area has some two dozen parks along the Mississippi.

The Minneapolis skyline along the Mississippi River; © Rudi1976/Dreamstime.com

Quick, name five notable cities along the Mississippi River. Chances are, the first few that come to mind, Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans, are downstream where the Mississippi stretches out like a lake. Or maybe you thought of historic cities like Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi. You probably forgot about the largest metropolitan area on the river: Minneapolis. The city straddles both sides of the Mississippi, but the river isn’t part of Minneapolis’ civic identity the way it is in those aforementioned cities. In fact, Minneapolis is nicknamed “City of Lakes.” That’s not to say the Mississippi gets no respect in town. The Minneapolis/St. Paul area features some dozen parks along the river, in addition to wildlife refuges, historic sites and other places of interest. They’re all located in the National Park Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which operates as a partnership between the NPS, local governments and private businesses. If you’re in town for a day or two, check out one or more of the parks or enjoy a river tour aboard a sternwheeler.


One More: Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio, is undertaking a $35 million project to improve the Scioto River in town.

The Scioto River in downtown Columbus, Ohio; CCA 2.0 John Mueller

More and more cities with prominent riverfronts are investing money in river-related projects to boost tourism and the quality of life for residents. Case in point: Columbus, Ohio. Although the Scioto River flows right through the heart of the Ohio state capital, the river has long been a civic embarrassment to residents. A dam built in 1929 intended to enhance the river instead created myriad problems. As Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman admitted in an April 2012 news conference, the Scioto is “Smelly, dirty, unusable, shallow, muddy, stagnant …” City leaders hope to change all that with an ambitious $35 million project that will remove the Main Street Dam and develop 33 acres of new parkland along the riverfront. “We are going to change our city’s future by changing the course of the Scioto River,” Coleman said in announcing the project. The city has already introduced a couple of popular attractions along the river in recent years, in the Scioto Audubon Park and the Scioto Mile, a 145-acre park.


The author has spent the past 20 years touring the United States in search of travel adventures.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.