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Cool Cities: Honolulu, Phoenix, and Victoria

These three capitals are perfect escapes for travelers seeking out-of-the-ordinary urban delights.

Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Michael Wheatley / Alamy
Photo caption
Craigdarroch Castle crowns Victoria.

Best for old-world charm: Victoria, B.C.

The Victorian age lives on in British Columbia's atmospheric capital. Travel back in time with a horse-drawn carriage ride past the copper-domed Parliament Buildings and the château-style Empress Hotel, then up through Beacon Hill Park's landscaped gardens dotted with wandering peacocks. East of downtown, Craigdarroch Castle embodies the grand ambitions of a 19th-century coal baron; self-guided tours showcase the castle's ornate woodwork and 32 stained glass windows. Less grandiose but equally charming, the 119-year-old Gatsby Mansion honors the English tradition of afternoon tea with tiers of pastries and finger sandwiches served in a historic dining room overlooking the grounds. An evening concert inside stunning Christ Church Cathedral tops off your day with choir voices and pipe organ echoing through the vaulted space like a haunting refrain from long ago.

Best for outdoor adventure: Phoenix

Surrounded by the rugged Sonoran Desert and averaging nearly 300 days of sunshine a year, Arizona's capital calls to both nature lovers and the vitamin D deficient. You can get a breathtaking overview from the basket of a hot air balloon flying low enough for you to spot coyotes. Hikers flock to the city's 16,000-acre South Mountain Park and its 3.5-mile Hidden Valley loop, which includes a diet-inspiring squeeze through the boulders of Fat Man's Pass, and cyclists mark their calendars for Silent Sundays, when all park roads are closed to cars. For a real South Mountain adventure, saddle up at Ponderosa Stables and ride to sunset overlooks, American Indian petroglyphs, and the T-Bone Steak House. If you visit during the holidays, don't miss Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden (November 25–December 31 this year), an annual exhibition featuring 8,000 small lanterns that light up the garden's prickly pears, saguaros, and towering boojum trees.

Best for local flavor: Honolulu

Sure, there's sand and surf. But Hawaii's largest city also appeals with its one-of-a-kind attractions and rich cultural mix. For a taste of island-style cuisine, order a "local bowl" of ahi poke, kalua pork, and lomi salmon at Fresh Ahi Off the Boat. Or try a malasada—a holeless Portuguese doughnut—at Leonard's Bakery, which offers versions filled with haupia (coconut custard) or rolled in li hing sugar (made with salty dried plums). Properly fueled, you can tour the opulent Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States. For more treasures, head to Na Mea Hawaii, which sells shell necklaces, feather leis, and woven bags, along with books in English and Hawaiian. Then detour to Foster Botanical Garden to appreciate the bizarre hard-shell fruit of the cannonball tree or, if your timing is right, the unforgettable stench of a giant blooming corpse flower.

This article was first published in November 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.