Savannah, Georgia, USA at Forsyth Park Fountain.

Small Destinations Perfect For Memorial Day Weekend

BY Matt Meltzer | May 15, 2024

As the unofficial start of summer vacationing, Memorial Day weekend not only honors the sacrifices of military service members but also sets the tone for the travel season ahead. Whether you want to kick off summer 2024 with sun on a boat, a parade with friends and family, or by losing yourself in Americana, there’s probably a weekend destination within a few hours’ drive of your home that fits the bill. The trick is, you might not have considered it yet, and that’s where we come in. Here are underrated places to go for Memorial Day across the United States that welcome summertime with a salute. 

Annapolis, Md.

Photo courtesy of Amy McGovern | CC BY 2.0

The home of the United States Naval Academy seems a fitting place for Memorial Day, and the Maryland capitol throws one of the most robust parades in the country, packed with bands, midshipmen, floats and veterans from every war of our lifetimes. Annapolis’s military history is equaled only by its sailing heritage, and for those who want to spend the holiday aboard a yacht, few places offer more opportunities. For those not lucky enough to land themselves on a yacht, you can tour the Soldiers Home National Cemetery at President Lincoln’s Cottage. 

Carlsbad, Calif.

Photo courtesy of beingzoe | CC BY 2.0

This small beach town just outside Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is a calming Pacific departure from the frenetic pace of Los Angeles and San Diego. That doesn’t mean this military town doesn’t know how to party, though. Crawl through downtown’s lively bars and mingle with Marines and others who’ve served, or get out on the water on a mega-yacht booze cruise. If you want a more low-key vibe, check out the colors of the famous flower fields, a striking backdrop for your Memorial Day weekend photoshoot. But don’t let the boozy beaches and the blooming fields distract you from Carlsbad’s Memorial Day parade, where the community and resident service members join together to honor the fallen.

Lake Havasu, Ariz.

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management | CC BY 2.0

Because the desert isn’t quite at its scorching worst yet, Lake Havasu traditionally enjoys its last gasp of pleasant weather over Memorial Day Weekend. Houseboats book up nearly a year in advance along the lake, and those with smaller watercraft race around the desert lake bouncing from party to party. The celebration energy becomes more manageable once you return to land, however, and you can escape into nature along the lake’s abundance of hiking trails, trekking into the slot canyons in Crack in the Mountain or strolling the waterfront on the Shoreline Trail. 

Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.

Photo courtesy of Ben Jacobson | CC BY 2.0

In the Midwest, few places announce the arrival of summer quite like Lake of the Ozarks during Memorial Day Weekend. Boat parties fill the jagged coves along the lake’s 1,150 miles of shoreline, ranging from tame, family get-togethers to the wild scenes you’ve probably seen on Playboy TV and “Ozark.” The weekend also welcomes the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, an offshore boat race that brings with it the requisite high-speed thrills and late night parties. Those who like their watersports a little calmer can take part in Big Cedar Lodge’s pedal-boat family fishing tournament or just enjoy a lakeside picnic after stopping by the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. Beyond the water, you can tee off at world-class golf courses like Bear Creek, The Ridge or Indian Rock, or maybe even do something a little healthy and sign up for the Run to Remember 5K.  

Mystic, Conn.

Photo courtesy of R Boed | CC BY 2.0

For some of our New England friends, summer means weekends in coastal northeastern towns. They emerge from their gray-skied winters to months of water-bound fun and walks through historic streets. That essence is captured perfectly in Mystic, where the streets of the colonial downtown are filled with eclectic boutiques and charming cafes, leading to the impressive collection of boats at the Mystic Seaport. The place takes on an almost-iconic look when the annual parade and picnic take over the main drag, as flags and celebratory bunting deck the city out like a textbook image for American summers. 

Rapid City, S.D.

Photo courtesy of Dean Franklin | CC BY 2.0

Within the rough beauty of the Black Hills, Rapid City acts as the gateway to one of the United States’ most iconic landmarks, Mount Rushmore. And while the presidents carved into granite rock offer a symbolic way to celebrate Memorial Day, the region can give you a lot more than just a presidential photo op. After your requisite Rushmore trip, venture to Custer State Park and drive where the buffalo literally roam, then through the narrow passages along Needles Highway. Take a UTV through the towering canyons of Spearfish, and up to mountaintops overlooking wide open spaces. Ok we lied, there is another presidential photo op: In town, see even more presidents as you pose by Rapid City’s street corner presidential statues. There’s one every person to have held office up to Obama. Enjoy a rooftop drink with a view of the black hills atop the historic Hotel Alex Johnson, then explore the city’s mural-filled alleyways and innovative craft breweries. 

Saugatuck, Mich.

Photo courtesy of Hywell Martinez | CC BY 2.0

If you’re looking for a Midwestern small town patriotic parade, they don’t get much better than the one in Saugatuck, which marches through this town on the shores of Lake Michigan starting at 9 am on Memorial Day. Once you’ve gotten your fill of heart-swelling American pride, head down to the lake and explore a beach that Conde Nast once rated one of the world’s 25 best. You can also take a boat out on the Kalamazoo River or meander around the lake and feel the sun on your skin. If you’re headed up for a full weekend, venture out into Michigan wine country and hit spots like Modales and Wyncroft Wines for a relaxing afternoon. 

Savannah, Ga.

Photo courtesy of Ken Lund | CC BY-SA 2.0

Summer can get downright sultry in the South, but even if the Georgia heat arrives a little early this year, Savannah has plenty of places to cool off. The city is known for its historic squares brimmed with green space, and live oaks laden in Spanish moss create shady respites on walks among the city’s historic homes. Once the sun lowers and you’re ready to emerge from the cover of oaks and genteel front porches, hop between waterfront rooftop bars in historic downtown. Grab a cocktail at Rocks on the Roof at the Bohemian then roam next door to Top Deck. Continue your walk along the Marsh Island Channel as you enjoy outdoor beers at Squirrel’s, then finish with pizza and drinks on the top floor of the Thompson Hotel.

St. Augustine, Fla.

Photo courtesy of John W. Tuggle | CC BY 2.0

In the historic cobblestone streets of St. Augustine, Memorial Day weekend takes on a special significance as the nation’s oldest city pays homage to our fallen service members. Throughout the weekend, a variety of events and activities honor the military and commemorate the holiday, including a solemn tribute and wreath-laying ceremony. But the weekend is not solely about remembrance, and the city’s waterfront hosts live music performances and a beach picnic. Of course, no trip to Florida is complete without some beach time, and St. Augustine’s is one of the most underrated in the state, a perfect stretch of tropical sand that often gets overshadowed by the city’s abundant history. Head a little north to the Guana River preserve, and you’ll find a stretch of golden sand dunes that feel a world away from the historic downtown.