America’s greatest cities aren’t defined by their brightest lights and most spectacular skyscrapers. They’re composed of collections of neighborhoods, each infused with its own unique character — and it’s the neighborhoods that make these cities shine.

Whether it’s an artists’ enclave turned food-and-drinks destination in the shadow of Philly’s skyscrapers or a tree-dotted Puget Sound-side haven in Seattle, each of the following five areas is worth exploring.


Ballard — Seattle

Even in a city of unique neighborhoods, Ballard stands alone. The area’s shipyards and red-brick streets pay homage to its maritime past, while upscale eateries and bars exist within Seattle’s tech-fueled, cosmopolitan present.

Ballard is removed from the heart of Seattle by a few miles, lending it a sense of serenity that bustling Capitol Hill and Belltown can’t match. The area sits adjacent to the Ballard Locks, a small canal that connects nearby Lake Washington to the Puget Sound. The Ballard waterfront remains in use today, its docks filled with fishing boats. Just a block away from the working waterfront sits the heart of the neighborhood’s dining, drinking and shopping scenes — Ballard Avenue.

Seattle’s urban planners focused development efforts on Ballard in the past few years in an effort to discourage suburbanization and depopulation of the city. This effort led to a boom in new housing development just off of Ballard Avenue and a corresponding growth in commercial offerings along and on neighboring streets.

Some of the neighborhood’s best restaurants focus on seafood: the oysters, ceviche and trout at The Walrus and the Carpenter are among the region’s best. Others step out of the region’s most notable niche to try their hand at barbecue (Bitterroot BBQ), tapas (Ocho), and more. Along with diverse dining, the area offers shopping options both classic (Sonic Boom Records) and modern (Prism), and plenty of cocktail and beer bar choices.

The Independent List — Ballard

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Northern Liberties — Philadelphia

Just a short walk from the glassy skyscrapers of Center City and the red-brick sidewalks of Old City, Northern Liberties offers a distinctively different take on dining, drinking and shopping, all with the familiarity and casual feel Philly is known — and loved — for.

This corner of northwest Philadelphia transformed from a historic district to a forward-thinking arts hub in the late 20th century. In 2015, Northern Liberties is far from an undiscovered artistic frontier — it’s the epicenter of young professional life in the city.

The backbone of Northern Liberties is its community of makers and artists, who operate boutiques, galleries and studios across the area. The neighborhood’s drinking and dining options echo its artistic side, offering creative takes on burgers at PYT, comfort food at Honey’s Sit N’ Eat, and cocktails at Emmanuelle and Bourbon & Branch.

The Independent List — Northern Liberties

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NuLu — Louisville

Louisville is best-known for its sports and its spirits, but the city’s fast-emerging east side is home to more than bourbon and baseball bats. NuLu — officially known as the East Market District — covers the area directly east of Downtown Louisville. This small area is densely populated with new restaurants, bars, and shops, as well as classic architecture more typically associated with coastal cities.

The culinary offerings of NuLu are both diverse and regionally specific, relying on Louisville’s position at the intersection of the south and midwest to create a unique brand of American fusion. Decca brings an upscale tilt to American meat-veggie-side style of dining, serving spaghetti squash a la plancha alongside pan roasted chicken breast and semolina dumplings.

The area’s nightlife steps outside the ordinary while maintaining a decidedly down-to-earth feel. Locals lift high-end craft beers in a charmingly un-refined atmosphere at the aptly named Garage Bar, and many of the area’s restaurants offer well-considered cocktail programs — most heavy on the sweet brown spirit for which Kentucky is renowned.

The Independent List — NuLu

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Allston — Boston

Every legendary Boston neighborhood maintains a piece of its own unique history: The North End has its winding one-lane streets. Beacon Hill has its regal 18th-century architecture. The South End has its greenery-filled pocket parks. And Allston has its rock clubs.

Tucked away just west of Boston’s better-known sections, Allston has been the heart of Boston’s music scene for decades — and a fast-emerging cultural, dining and drinking destination for the past few years. Long-standing venues like Great Scott and the Brighton Music Hall are still throwing shows (not just rock shows, these days) alongside relatively new additions to the neighborhood, including vegan restaurants and craft beer bars.

The neighborhood doesn’t have the architectural pedigree to match some of Boston’s other areas, but it offers a glimpse of the Boston more commonly seen by locals: friendly, down-to-earth, and filled with youthful energy. Brighton Avenue and Harvard Avenue are Allston’s main thoroughfares: They’re home to relatively young eateries like Lone Star Taco Bar and FoMu, along with classic favorites like Le’s Vietnamese Restaurant and Azama Grill.

The heart of Allston — and all its its upstart energy — is located approximately 30 minutes from Boston Common on the city’s MBTA subway Green Line.

The Independent List — Allston

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Downtown Brooklyn — NYC

Just one subway stop away from Lower Manhattan, a short walk away from Brooklyn Heights’ brownstones and within minutes of DUMBO’s panoramic waterfront views, Downtown Brooklyn has spent the past few years emerging as a destination in its own right.

The neighborhood began its stint as a commercial powerhouse in the 1990s, as MetroTech Center brought dozens of companies and thousands of employees to the area each day. The pedestrian-only Fulton Mall was — and remains — the focal point of the neighborhood’s retail and dining scenes, filled with department stores, restaurants, and local shops.

As the areas surrounding Downtown Brooklyn boomed in the 2000s, demand for housing seeped into the neighborhood and new construction picked up steam. The new high-rise towers — along with new food-and-drink destinations — lent the neighborhood the lively feeling it was missing during its years as a commercial hub.

Though Downtown Brooklyn still serves as home to government offices and many corporations, its artistic side shines through at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (better known as BAM). BAM hosts national touring musicians, opera, dance performances and musical theatre performances, in addition to a four-screen cinema, showing indie and mainstream films. The neighborhood’s transformation stretches past the boundaries of the BAM cultural district westward, where new-wave ramen shops (Ganso), upscale restaurants (Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare) and boutique hotels (NU Hotel) set a refined tone.

The Independent List — Downtown Brooklyn

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