12 Unexpected Art Destinations to Explore in the U.S.

Marfa, Texas Elmgreen and Dragset, "Prada Marfa," 2014. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons.

August is the perfect time for a summer road trip. To celebrate the warmer weather and longer days, we’ve gathered the best hidden gem art hubs to explore during a long weekend or break from work. While these small towns and charming cities would be the perfect capstone of a summer vacation, they can also be enjoyed any time of the year during a weekend getaway.

Whether you’re looking to visit the Northeast, Midwest, West Coast, or even the South, be sure to make a stop at these unexpected art hubs to visit along the way. From artsy desert towns like Marfa, Texas to more established art cities like Beacon, New York, each destination on this list will provide you with a fascinating experience sure to revitalize your spirit and spark your creative side. You may even be able to find a unique work of art along the way.

On the East Coast

1. Beacon, New York

Home of Dia:Beacon, the museum for the Dia Art Foundation’s collection of art, Beacon is known as the location of the largest contemporary art museum in the country. The opening of the museum has been instrumental in the transformation of the town from a simple river city to a must-see art destination. Art is front and center in Beacon; both at Dia:Beacon and in the artsy cafes and shops that have since opened in the town. The city has even designated one Saturday a month when the town’s many galleries stay open late and many even offer live music and entertainment.

If you’re visiting Beacon, Dia:Beacon is definitely a must-see. Explore installations of works by artists like Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra in galleries that collectively offer over 250,000 square feet of art and inspiration. After checking out the museum, head over to Beacon’s Main Street, a mile-long stretch featuring interesting shops, cafes, and galleries. Notable galleries include BAU: Beacon Artist Union and River Winds Gallery. Once you’ve had your creative fix, head toward Mount Beacon Park and let the gorgeous views inspire you.

When to visit
Plan your trip for late spring or early summer to guarantee the best weather possible.

2. Abingdon, Virginia

Abingdon, Virginia is home to Barter Theatre, the nation’s longest running professional theater, which opened in 1933 and is still worth a visit today. In addition, Abingdon has a budding live music scene and regularly hosts musicians of all genres—from bluegrass to funk, and everything in between.

After enjoying a show or checking out a live music act, enjoy the beauty of nature and your surroundings on the Appalachian Trail or the Virginia Creeper Trail, which starts in downtown Abingdon. If you’re looking to do some shopping during your stay, check out Heartwood, Southwest Virginia’s artisan gateway, where you can explore the work of regional artists and musicians.

When to visit
To ensure excellent weather during your visit, consider planning a trip during the late spring or early fall months.

3. Burlington, Vermont

Burlington is the largest city in Vermont, and it offers a rare balance of natural beauty mixed with a bustling artistic and cultural scene. Home of the University of Vermont, the city is considered a hub of artistic exploration. If you’re interested in exploring art from a variety of periods and genres during your visit to Vermont, check out the Shelburne Museum, which is known for its diverse collections. From quilts and American art to a transplanted 1950s era homes, this museum’s artistic artifacts and beautiful grounds are sure to leave you feeling inspired.

After visiting the museum, catch a concert or performance at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts. The center is viewed as the cultural pulse of Burlington and features everything from ballet to mariachi bands inside an Art Deco building. In addition to shows and museums, explore some of Vermont’s gorgeous natural gems like Waterfront Park and Lake Champlain. We’d also recommend checking out Church Street Marketplace, a car-free walkway that features funky street performers, historic architecture, quaint outdoor cafes, and unique shops.

When to visit
Consider visiting Burlington between May and September, when the festival schedule picks up and the city is bursting with beautiful greenery.

On the West Coast

4. Ojai, California

Ojai is known for nurturing its artists, and it’s also seen as a hidden gem for health enthusiasts and those seeking spiritual enlightenment. There is inspiration to be found in all corners of this tiny town—from the music and art to the friendly culture. The city is located northwest of Los Angeles and has a village-like center full of both high-end art galleries and new age shops that are worth exploring. Start your trip to Ojai in downtown, which is where much of the city’s cultural and artistic centers are housed.

While there, visit the Ojai Art Center and Ojai Valley Museum before checking out the town’s array of galleries. Top galleries to explore include Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts and Tartaglia Fine Art.

When to visit
Consider visiting during the spring and summer months when you can enjoy festivals in Libbey park, the town’s gathering place, such as Art in the Park, the Ojai Storytelling Festival, and the Ojai Music Festival.

5. Slab City, California

Slab City is found just a few miles east of Niland, California and many people refer to it as an “anarchist RV town” due in part to its lack of modern day amenities. While that might not make it sound like your traditional art hub, Slab City has a fascinating art and culture scene to explore if you know what to look for. The most iconic place to visit in Slab City is Salvation Mountain, which was created by artist and slabber Leonard Knight. Knight worked for over 25 years on his colorful art “mountain” while living out of his truck.

Other notable artworks in the area include the Kinetoscope, a circular mural painted inside of an abandoned water tank, and East Jesus, a sustainable, ever-changing art installation and performance space. This trip is not for the faint of heart, as the town does not have running water, power, or public restrooms. If you’re interested in checking out this hippie haven for abstract art lovers, consider taking a day trip from neighboring Niland.

When to visit
The desert can get quite hot, so consider exploring this town during the wintertime.

6. Tacoma, Washington

Local art takes center stage in Tacoma, Washington, a city full of indie art galleries, thriving theaters, and studios. In this town, the art scene is both growing and is entrenched in the area’s history. ArtFull Tacoma launched in 2016 to support art institutions and enhance the city’s public artworks, showing Tacoma’s renewed commitment to the arts. In contrast, Tacoma Arts Commission has existed for years to improve the diversity of arts in underserved areas and is one of the oldest organizations in the state of Washington.

Visit Tacoma’s central museum row and theater district to get a taste of the city’s lively cultural life. Top museums include Tacoma Art Museum, Washington State History Museum, and the Museum of Glass. Check out Spaceworks Tacoma which is not only an incubator for fledgling creative businesses, but also runs a gallery, street-level art windows, murals, and a video kiosk through their Artscapes program. After checking out local galleries and museums and getting a taste of cultural life in the city, consider heading over to Mount Rainier National Park to take in the beauty of the area’s nature.

When to visit
For the best chance of good weather, aim to visit between July and September.

In the Midwest

7. Spring Green, Wisconsin

With just 1,628 people as of the 2010 census, Spring Green, Wisconsin is technically considered a village. Despite its tiny size, Spring Green is packed with art galleries and cultural amenities. Catch a play at the American Players Theatre, experience the local charm, and visit the town’s array of interesting galleries, architecture, and museums such as Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate and museum.

Top galleries to visit include Art on 23 Gallery, a hand-blown glass studio, and No Rules Gallery, which features the work of over 70 local and regional artists. If you’re visiting in June, consider checking out the Spring Green Art Fair that happens annually to support and promote artists in the River Valley area.

When to visit
For nice, warm-weather, visit Spring Green in mid-June.

8. Chillicothe, Missouri

This small town is known as the “Home of Sliced Bread,” but Chillicothe also has a small but impressive art scene that’s worth exploring if you are in the area. During your stay, check out the 23 original murals that can be found throughout the town by taking the Downtown Mural Walking Tour. The murals were created by artist Kelly William Poling, a resident of the town who is best known for enlarging and reproducing photographs as murals and other large-scale art.

While in Chillicothe, it’s also worth exploring the Cultural Corner Art Gallery, which houses 5,000 square feet of gallery, workshop, and event space.

When to visit
Visit Chillicothe in the springtime for the best chance of pleasant outdoor weather.

9. Minot, North Dakota

Minot boasts a strong art and music scene due to organizations like Minot Area Council for the Arts that help support local culture. . The town also offers regular art-related events like Arts in The Parks and the Minot Street Art Movement. There are also routine events and exhibitions from the arts program at Minot State University.

During a visit to Minot, make sure to check out 62 Doors Gallery & Studios and Heart of the Turtle Gallery. The Taube Museum of Art is also worth a visit, and if you enjoy music check out the Minot Symphony Orchestra, as Minot is the smallest city in the U.S. with a full-sized orchestra. Another happening worth exploring is Why Not Fest which occurs each year in August. This three-day festival showcases everything exciting music and literature related happening both regionally and locally.

When to visit
Consider visiting during the summer months to check out Minot’s best art-related festivals and events.

In the South

10. Marfa, Texas

Marfa, Texas is a tiny desert town in West Texas and a quintessential art hub. Though the population is only 1,747 people, the town is full of interesting art exhibitions to explore, cool galleries, and funky shops and restaurants. If you’re visiting Marfa, the Chinati Foundation is a must-see. The site is an internationally known contemporary art museum that was founded by artist Donald Judd. While driving near Marfa, take a quick stop at Prada Marfa in nearby Valentine Texas. The sculpture is a permanent installation by artists artists Elmgreen and Dragset in 2005.

Those feeling adventurous can camp at iconic El Cosmico in all types of outdoor venues—from teepees to converted RVs and everything in between. Make sure to check out the Marfa Lights during your stay, the mysterious glowing orbs that were first viewed in 1883, though it’s hard to predict their occurence.

When to visit
To avoid the scorching Texas sun, plan a trip between fall and spring.

11. Oxford, Mississippi

Though small, Oxford offers culture that surpasses that of much larger cities. Called the “Cultural Mecca of the South,” Oxford offers access to thought-provoking art to from monthly exhibitions at Southside Gallery and at the University of Mississippi. Adding to the art culture to be found in Oxford, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council established Arts Incubator, which benefits the community and supports local artists.

While visiting Oxford, make sure to enjoy a Broadway show or concert at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The town also holds annual events like the Double Decker Art Fest that can’t be missed. If you enjoy literature, make sure to check out the Oxford Conference for the Book and the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference. If you visit between January and October, consider experiencing the Oxford Art Crawl on the fourth Tuesday of each month.

When to visit
For ideal weather, plan your trip from March to May or September to early November.

12. Buena Vista, Georgia

We added Buena Vista to this for its unforgettable Pasaquan, best known as a nearby “folk art palace.” The impressive large-scale exhibition began in 1955 by a Folk artist named St. EOM (a.k.a. Eddie Owens Martin) who said he established the area after receiving a instruction to do so from three beings from the future. He succeeded in creating six buildings over seven acres of land and each building is covered inside and out with hand-painted works of art.

Since St. EOM’s death in 1986, the Pasaquan Preservation Society has maintained the area as a historic landmark. The funky compound is the main art attraction in Buena Vista, so we recommend a quick day trip on the way to another southern destination.

When to visit
Plan a trip for dates between March and May for the best chance of enjoyable weather.

No matter where you wish to vacation this summer, consider stopping at one of these hidden gem art hubs along the way. Each town on this list offers unexpected art and cultural amenities that are sure to leave you revitalized and inspired.


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