The siren of warm weather and an extra day to enjoy it can be deafening. So deafening, in fact, that you become overwhelmed by your abundance of choices, then mid-May rolls around and you still haven’t made Memorial Day plans. But all is not lost! Plenty of cities around the U.S. are welcoming summer in exceptional ways, from a massive house music festival in Detroit to a two-story T. rex in Portland. It’s not too late to get out of town for the first long weekend of summer. Here are the best spots.
U.S. Virgin Islands
The Virgin Islands are a relatively short flight from most of the East Coast, and they feel like traveling to a foreign country without actually leaving the United States. The islands still have sublime weather ahead of summer, but main attractions like Buck Island — and the reef that surrounds it — won’t be packed with snorkelers. Virgin Island National Park, and its oft-photographed Trunk Bay beach, sees fewer visitors this time of year too. For something a little more active, join the VICF Memorial Day Group Ride for 30- and 60-mile cycles around St. Croix. Or hit Rock Deh Boat, a daylong music festival on the water headlined this year by The Supervillains.
When summer hits, Chicagoans party like an inmate who’s just been let out of prison. Well, maybe not to that level, but the end of the long, cold Chicago winter is always cause for celebration. Memorial Day kicks off the greatest season of the year with a mole cookoff in Pilsen, the Suenos Music Festival in Millennium Park and one of the best cover band convergences on the planet at the Belmont-Sheffield Music Fest. There’s also a giant parade down State Street on Memorial Day that brings out the entire city, and fireworks over Navy Pier Saturday night. Oh, and the Cubbies and White Sox square off in the Crosstown Classic on May 28 and 29.
The sun finally begins to shine over the Pacific Northwest during Memorial Day, and Portland rings it in proudly with opening night fireworks for the Portland Rose Festival. The festival fills the waterfront with a monthlong carnival featuring games, rides and dragon boat races, as well as an annual parade. Off the water, you can also check out the Vanport Mosaic Festival and the Multnomah County Fair. But Portland’s most unusual Memorial Day attraction is the opening of Dinolandia, artist Mike Bennett’s walk-through immersive dinosaur museum, featuring over 50 dinosaurs and a two-story T. rex.
White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.
Before day spas popped up next to every gourmet coffee shop and Lululemon in America, there was White Sulphur Springs, a luxe wellness getaway for the well-to-do tucked into the Allegheny Mountains. The city still retains its wilderness escape charm, home to the vaunted Greenbrier and the newly opened Schoolhouse Hotel, set inside the old White Sulphur Springs High School. The town is also the perfect gateway to America’s newest national park at New River Gorge, where you can traverse some of the most treacherous whitewater in America. For something less death-defying, the Dandelion Festival also runs over the weekend, which is not so much three days of floral celebrations but an immersion in the food, music and culture of mountainous West Virginia.
If there is a better way to ring in summer than partying on a floating tiki bar through the middle of Detroit? No, no there is not. Especially when you can finish partying on said tiki bar and head straight to an outdoor roller-skating rink in the center of the city. Motor City’s Monroe Street Midway brings the rink back for its second year, as the centerpiece of a seasonal park including nine-hole mini-golf and the Rocket Mortgage Sports Zone. Memorial Day also brings EDM back to the birthplace of techno with the Movement Music Festival, where Loco Dice, Louie Vega, The Martinez Brothers and 2 Chainz top the bill. If Mr. Chainz isn’t enough hip-hop for you, hit the Hip Hop Smackdown at the Fox Theater on May 29.
Santa Barbara, Calif.
There is no bad time of year to visit Santa Barbara, where perfect Southern California weather meets a slower pace of life and small-town charm. But Memorial Day brings one of the more colorful events of the year as the Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival takes over the Old Mission. Hundreds of chalk artists from around the world converge on the city and cover the concrete with astounding creations. Late May is also an ideal time to cruise wine country, whether hitting the tasting rooms and wineries in town or heading up to the Santa Ynez Valley and spots like Buellton and Solvang.
One upside of our shifting weather patterns is that ski season runs much later. So late, in fact, that you can ski on Memorial Day if you head to Palisades Tahoe (formerly known as Squaw Valley), which has extended its season through the end of May. That means an MDW jaunt to the Biggest Little City in the World allows you to swim in Lake Tahoe one day, and ski the slopes the next. You can also try your hand at scaling the tallest climbing wall in America at the Whitney Peak Hotel, or try a different kind of hand in the casinos filling downtown.
Bethany Beach, Del.
If you’ve never experienced the true soul of a northeastern beach summer, few places exemplify it better than Bethany Beach. The quintessential mid-Atlantic beach town is an icon of summers on the shore, where a lively boardwalk offers all the popcorn, surf shops and nearby mini-golf one imagines in a summer getaway. Bethany Beach also hosts the annual Poseidon Festival over Memorial Day Weekend, driving the summer fantasy home with live sand castle sculpting, live music, a marine science camp for the kiddos and pirates and mermaids aplenty.
Florida starts to get a little…Florida around Memorial Day, when the warm tropical breezes of spring give way to the sweltering saunas of summer. But Jacksonville keeps its cool a little longer than the rest of the state, as Florida’s northernmost major city boasts a massive Memorial Day beach scene in spots like Jax Beach and Atlantic Beach. Once you’ve made the most of the parties, hit the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival, whose headliners include Herbie Hancock and Patti LaBelle. You can also keep in the spirit of the holiday and visit the nation’s second-largest veterans’ memorial wall, or take a picture in front of the Jacksonville Navy Memorial downtown.
Granted, a state as vast and varied as South Dakota might seem a little daunting to capture in a weekend, but do it right and you can immerse yourself in Americana on this truly patriotic holiday. Fly into Rapid City and take pictures with statues of 44 different presidents before heading up to the big faces at Mt. Rushmore. Cultural America is never more present than at Wall Drug, the landmark variety emporium near the entrance to Badlands National Park. You can also visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, once home to nuclear missiles during the Cold War. Then finish at the South Dakota Air & Space Museum, where you can check out over 30 vintage military aircraft.