Four nights + Olafur Eliasson + Nordic jazz = $440 for a long weekend.
Denmark’s second-biggest city, Århus, a three-hour train ride from Copenhagen, is like a Nordic version of Austin, Texas, crammed with artists, musicians, and students instead of tourists, which means culture and beds (and beer) cost half the kroner. The main draws: the jam-packed beer bars lining Århus Å River; the beautiful four-year-old ARoS (from $15; aros.dk), a cube-shaped museum with works by all the great Danes, from landscape painter P.C. Skovgaard to Olafur Eliasson; and Denmark’s longest cathedral, the Århus Domkirke, where you can admire a unique painted-glass (not stained) window behind the altar. Hear what Nordic jazz and chamber music sound like at the glowing, glass-walled Musikhuset (from $25; musikhuset-aarhus.dk). Relive your semester abroad by putting back a Tuborg ($6) alongside apple-cheeked coeds at Café Svej (Aboulevarden 22) on the river. Stay at the waterfront Havnehotellet (from $100; havnehotellet.dk), which looks like an Ikea catalogue come to life.
Two nights + bacon doughnuts + new Renzo Piano building = $226 for a two-nighter.
In a city with no shortage of attractions, Renzo Piano’s new, much-hyped, ultragreen California Academy of Sciences building is the one everybody can’t stop talking about ($25, free every third Wednesday; calacademy.org). Go to gawk at the undulating flower-and-plant-covered roof, sample the locavore offerings at the hot new Moss Room (themossroom.com), then skip down to the constantly evolving and always cheap Mission district. The low-priced treat of the moment comes from the seatless Dynamo doughnut store (dynamosf.com), which bears a striking resemblance to the Lower East Side’s Doughnut Plant. Snack on organic maple-bacon doughnuts ($3 each), then take a bart train downtown toward SFMoMA for the huge group show “The Art of Participation,” which includes a daily performance of John Cage’s silent score, 4’33” ($12.50, November 8 through February 8; sfmoma.org). Stay a few blocks away at the new Good Hotel (from $99; jdvhotels.com), a former motor court made into a stylish eco-hotel on a Boweryesque avenue still lit by SROs and check-cashing joints.
Two nights + po’ boys + art biennial = $175 for a two-nighter.
December is the best time to hit New Orleans if you want les bons temps minus the Mardi Gras chest-flashers. Hotels slash prices all month, and there are also cheap eats and inexpensive art everywhere. The free Prospect.1 New Orleans biennial (November 1 through January 18; prospectneworleans.org) is spread out among museums, churches, and historical buildings throughout the city (a free shuttle bus is provided between locations). For more contemporary-art galleries, stroll the warehouse district. LeMieux Galleries (lemieuxgalleries.com) showcases interesting Gulf Coast artists. For an inexpensive after-art repast, order the eponymous grub at Johnny’s Po-Boys ($5.25; johnnyspoboy.com). Put back a few hot toddies sold by street vendors in Jackson Square, or go the dessert-wine-and-cheese route at the Delachaise (thedelachaise.com). Magazine Street still has the best shopping; the cool home store Hazelnut (hazelnutneworleans.com) is co-owned by actor Bryan Batt (Salvatore Romano on Mad Men). The Funky Pirate (tropicalisle.com) in the French Quarter is many locals’ blues bar of choice; the Maple Leaf Bar in Riverbend (right near the classic “N’awlins” restaurant Jacques-Imo’s Cafe) is a neighborhood favorite with lots of brass bands and funk. Stay at the shockingly cheap—but clean—Le Richelieu, also in the French Quarter ($85, down from $250 during Mardi Gras; lerichelieuhotel.com).
Four nights + goat tacos + Mexican art, sans Frida = $785 for a long weekend.
A cosmopolitan hybrid of sprawling, manic Mexico City and mountainous, buttoned-up Geneva, Monterrey is the financial and cultural capital of northern Mexico. Your first stop should be the stellar Latin American art collection at the MARCO ($3.50; marco.org.mx), where you can find the works of María Izquierdo, a contemporary of Frida Kahlo’s, through January. Stop for lunch at Horno Tres (horno3.org), a massive former steel mill that houses the modern-Mexican restaurant El Lingote. Or, for more-adventurous fare, try a couple of roast cabrito (goat) tacos ($1 each) from a vendor in the city’s packed Main Square. Then hit the Museo del Noreste ($3; 3museos.com), which chronicles the region’s rich pre-Columbian culture as well as its recent industrial history. Dress in layers—winter temps can swing from the sixties to the thirties in a matter of hours. Stay at the city’s first contemporary nonbusiness hotel, the Habita Monterrey (from $195; hotelhabitamty.com), a sleek yet reasonably priced property designed by Philippe Starck protégé Joseph Dirand, within the quiet San Pedro district.
Two nights + Iron Chef tasting menu + Colombe coffee = $320 for a two-nighter.
Philly’s reputation as a cheaper version of New York is well deserved, and not just because of its cut-rate artists’ lofts and liberal BYOB policies. The city’s cheap-dining scene has also gotten awfully New York–y lately. In July, Iron Chef winner Jose Garces opened Distrito, where nothing runs more than $16, and even a three-course chef’s tasting menu of flatiron-steak tacos only costs $40 (grg-mgmt.com/distritorestaurant.com). The Japanese meat-on-a-stick trend just arrived, too; Yakitori Boy does $1 yakitori skewers on Tuesdays (yakitoriboy-japas.com). And Philadelphia Java Company (215-928-1811)—serving La Colombe coffee and Middle Eastern snacks—might as well be on St. Marks Place. Buzz by the big Frank Gehry show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art ($14; opens November 8; philamuseum.org). Stay at the new, modestly priced Independent (from $139; theindependenthotel.com).