Natural and synthetic histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors generally derive their strong binding affinity and high potency from a key functional group that binds to the Zn(2+) ion within the enzyme active site. However, this feature is also thought to carry the potential liability of undesirable off-target interactions with other metalloenzymes. As a step toward mitigating this issue, here, we describe the design, synthesis, and structure-activity characterizations of cyclic α3β-tetrapeptide HDAC inhibitors that lack the presumed indispensable Zn(2+)-binding group. The lead compounds (e.g., 15 and 26) display good potency against class 1 HDACs and are active in tissue culture against various human cancer cell lines. Importantly, enzymological analysis of 26 indicates that the cyclic α3β-tetrapeptide is a fast-on/off competitive inhibitor of HDACs 1-3 with K i values of 49, 33, and 37 nM, respectively. Our proof of principle study supports the idea that novel classes of HDAC inhibitors, which interact at the active-site opening, but not with the active site Zn(2+), can have potential in drug design.