If the idea of escaping to the wilderness during the pandemic didn’t appeal, here’s some good news: America’s cities will be teeming again this summer.
Urban centers that emptied out during lockdown are going all out to welcome visitors. Once eerily abandoned streets are blocked off and filled with art and entertainment. Museums, amusement parks, sports arenas and even some theaters are open. Restaurants are firmly holding on to spots once reserved for parked cars.
In response to the pandemic, cities have transformed their landscapes with new attractions, such as outdoor performance spaces and extra bike lanes. They also are adding food trucks, often clustered together with some seats.
“It’s a very exciting time,” says Chris Heywood, executive vice president of global communications at NYC & Company, the city’s marketing arm. “You can feel the energy grow. It’s accelerating much quicker than anyone anticipated.”
Hotel occupancy in urban areas has risen significantly in recent months, up from about a third of rooms filled in January to more than half in preliminary forecasts for May, according to global hospitality data and analytics company STR.
A survey by market research firm Destination Analysts found that of the 75% of American travelers who say they will be taking a leisure trip this summer, 40% are heading to cities—nearly double 2020.The share of respondents who said “I am choosing rural destinations over city destinations” in a national tracking survey by market research and consulting firm Longwoods International dropped to 11% from 16% in just the past six weeks.
It won’t be all back to normal. Covid restrictions vary by state. In Washington, D.C., fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors or out, while in Portland, Ore., they must still wear masks inside in certain settings and can’t even walk outdoors unless they get special clearance on some campuses, like Lewis & Clark College.
To let travelers know what is going on, most cities have event calendars to publicize new attractions. To find smaller, quirkier, less-publicized happenings, try scanning the websites of urban newspapers and local arts organizations.
Here are highlights in five cities:
New York City
If post-Covid urban tourism had an emblem, it might well be Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’s Restart Stages—a new venue with 10 outdoor performance and rehearsal spaces, amid an artificial turf lawn with a snack bar. There will be chamber music concerts, calypso music, theater, dancing and more.
A new park called Little Island, in Hudson River Park by West 13th Street, will showcase the performing arts with outdoor shows by American Ballet Theatre and the Little Orchestra Society, and dance lessons and musical performances curated by World Music Institute.
Another place to lounge and hear music this summer is Central Park’s Great Lawn, where Clive Davis is organizing an all-star concert tentatively for Aug. 21 that will be part of a weeklong city-wide series of events to celebrate the end of Covid. Central Park is also the location for the return of Shakespeare in the Park in the Delacorte Theater, which will feature an adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” called “Merry Wives,” put on by the Public Theater starting in July.
Museums are open and some are moving activities outside this summer. The Brooklyn Museum will have First Saturday Lite, which will include live music and DJ sets, local vendors and art-making activities on select Saturday afternoons. The Whitney has installed a large work of art by David Hammons at the Hudson River near Pier 52. The New York Botanical Garden has an exhibit of Yayoi Kusama’s giant sculptures and other works this summer, including a field of silver orbs called Narcissus Garden and a giant black and orange painted polka-dotted many-legged creature called Dancing Pumpkin.
Eager to refresh its reputation after a year of violent protests, Portland is laying on plenty of attractions this summer.
A new outdoor performance venue called Lot at Zidell Yards will hold more than two dozen events through September, including concerts with the Oregon Symphony and well-known local acts like the Dandy Warhols. The Lot is also working with Portland’s Hollywood Theatre to offer outdoor movie screenings and will be the location for this year’s socially distanced, pod-seating Waterfront Blues Festival.
Polka Dot Downtown, named for the 100 colorful large vinyl polka dots on the streets, will feature performances by local musicians, writers, singers and dancers, along with market vendors. Portland Public Plazas are multiple public summer plazas around the city that will also have live music, roller skating performances by the Rose City Rollers, and beer and wine gardens. The Portland Opera will hold outdoor shows at the Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage, which has outdoor seating pods.
For people in search of exercise, Pedalpalooza, in June, July and August, includes theme bike rides like a Superheroes ride where participants are encouraged to dress like their favorite heroes (nurses and doctors included) to fend off the Covid Monster. Bridge Pedal, in August, closes bridges to cars throughout the city. Matches of bike polo are scheduled for parks around the city. A new bike bridge called Flanders Crossing Bike and Pedestrian Bridge connects the city’s NW District and the Pearl District, both neighborhoods filled with shops and restaurants.
The annual Feast food festival is back in a different form this summer: Called the Summer of Feast, it will include an outdoor movie series pairing films with dishes from local restaurants and themed dinners with up to ten chefs and restaurants at a time.
If having local food in a field is enticing, Side Yard Farm & Kitchen hosts farm brunches, farm yoga and bike-in movie nights, while Topaz Farm has outdoor dinners and a Music Fest series. Just outside the city, Field & Vine Events pairs six-to-seven-course meals with wines at well known Portland wineries. There are plenty of wineries to visit within 45 minutes of downtown—and Mt. Hood and Cannon Beach aren’t much farther.
This city lifted all its capacity restrictions on June 11, with some Smithsonian museums, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the International Spy Museum and the Phillips Collection all open. Visitors can once again see the giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, along with new cub Xiao Qi Ji, at the National Zoo by getting free Panda Passes.
The Reach, a free outdoor stage at the Kennedy Center, returns this summer with music and dance performances and an outdoor restaurant and wine garden. There are free concerts every Wednesday night at the Wharf’s Transit Pier. The Wharf will also host free outdoor movies at its Sunset Cinema.
The July 4th Fireworks return to the National Mall this year and Yards Park will have its giant swimming area and dancing fountains—essentially a free water park.
Among the many choices for outdoor films, a notable option is the DowntownDC Summer Flicks Can I Kick It? series which has films scored with an original soundtrack of hip-hop, soul and more mixed by weekly guest DJs. Coming movies include “Minority Report” and “Tron: Legacy.” The venue is the recently reopened National Building Museum West Lawn, which has gone through a social distancing redesign, with spots for sitting marked on the grass.
At one point the epicenter of pandemic lockdowns, the city is now open, with one of the lowest rates of Covid per capita in any urban area.
Always an open-air kind of place, the city has added more outdoor entertainment, such as a spot for dance performances at the Music Center, including ballet, modern dance and tap. A new theater venue this summer is the outdoor theater stage at the Fountain theater’s two-story building in East Hollywood. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, located in Topanga Canyon, promises a three-play outdoor summer season. These are on top of the city’s existing outdoor concert areas, such as the Hollywood Bowl and the Greek Theater.
Masks are no longer required for fully vaccinated people at Disneyland, Universal Studios, Six Flags or Knotts Berry Farm. You can once again paddle around Echo Lake Park in a swan boat or watch a game at Dodgers Stadium. Major League Soccer’s All-Star Game will take place in August at Banc of California stadium. There are many options for bike and hiking tours.
The city is on an all-out mission to bring back tourists with its #StartYourComeback campaign that gives reduced rates on hotels and tourist attractions.
Many initiatives are aimed at drawing people back, including the Monroe Street Midway, a new area in the heart of downtown with an outdoor roller rink, a sports zone with pickup basketball games, performances by local DJs and food trucks.
A new amphitheater with sofas and white folding chairs on a lawn opened in a former parking lot next to arts center Music Hall and will host outdoor performances. Comerica Park is back to full capacity for cheering on Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers.
Robert C. Valade Park, which recently opened along the city’s East Riverfront, has a sandy beach with volleyball courts, chairs and umbrellas, outdoor yoga classes, a children’s musical garden, a community barbecue pavilion and a floating bar called Bob’s Barge bar.
Architecture aficionados might want to drive 30 minutes north to Bloomfield Hills to visit Cranbrook, a 319-acre campus that has works by Eliel Saarinen, Albert Kahn, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and sculptors Carl Milles, Marshall Fredericks and others.
In August, Detroit will host the Motor City Car Crawl, a walkable, city-wide event showcasing new cars and featuring a performance by Sheryl Crow. If you can wait until Labor Day, the city’s renowned Jazz Fest is back this year.
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