The United States is extraordinarily diverse when it comes to attractions. There is always something to see; even when you think you have seen everything a place has to offer, the next destination is only a drive away.
The Great American Road Trip is the most traditional way to see a variety of sights; just get in the car and drive along the highways, stopping at convenient roadside hotels and restaurants when needed, and stopping at all the interesting tourist traps along the way until you reach your destination.
Indescribably beautiful landscapes, history that reads like a screenplay, entertainment that can last for days, and some of the most beautiful architecture in the world: whatever your pleasure, you’ll find it almost anywhere in the United States.
From the spectacular glaciers of Alaska to the forested and eroded peaks of the Appalachians, from the desert landscapes of the Southwest to the vast waters of the Great Lakes, few other countries offer such a wide variety of natural landscapes as the United States.
America’s national parks are a great place to start. Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first true national park and remains one of the most famous, but there are 57 others. The Grand Canyon is probably the most spectacular canyon in the world; Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks are both home to the tallest living organisms in the world; Glacier National Park is a great place to see huge sheets of ice; Canyonlands National Park could easily be mistaken for Mars; and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers abundant wildlife amid beautifully forested mountains. National parks are not just for sightseeing; each one also offers many outdoor activities.
But national parks are just the beginning. The National Park Service also manages National Monuments, National Memorials, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, National Heritage Areas… the list is long. And each state has its own state parks, which can be just as interesting as the federal versions. Most of these destinations, whether federal or state, have an entrance fee, but all of it goes towards the maintenance and operation of the parks, and the rewards are well worth it.
But these are not your only options. Many of America’s natural treasures can be seen without walking through the front doors. The world-famous Niagara Falls straddle the border between Canada and the United States; on the American side, you can experience the rush first-hand and feel the power that formed the Niagara Gorge. The “purple majesty” of the Rocky Mountains can be seen for hundreds of miles in every direction, while the serene coastal regions of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic have relaxed Americans for generations. And although very different, Hawaii and Alaska are perhaps the two most scenic states; they don’t just have attractions – they are attractions.
Americans often have the mistaken impression that their country has little history. The United States has an enormous wealth of historical attractions, more than enough to fill months of history-oriented tours.
The prehistory of the continent can indeed be somewhat difficult to explore, as most Indian tribes did not establish permanent settlements. But especially in the West, you will find beautiful cliff dwellings in places like Mesa Verde, as well as almost ubiquitous rock paintings. The Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is another great place to learn about American culture before the arrival of European settlers.
As the first part of the country to be settled by Europeans, the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Southern states have more than their share of sites from early American history. The first successful British colony on the continent was Jamestown, Virginia, although the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts is more present in people’s minds.
In the eighteenth century, important trading centres developed in Philadelphia and Boston. As the colonies grew in size, wealth and self-confidence, relations with Britain became increasingly strained, culminating in the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War that followed.
There are a large number of historical sites associated with the American Civil War, the most destructive conflict on American soil.
Monuments and architecture
Americans have never been shy about engineering feats, and many of them are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions.
Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital, has more monuments and statues than you can see in a day, but be sure to visit the Washington Monument (the world’s tallest obelisk), the imposing Lincoln Memorial and the incredibly moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The city’s architecture is also an attraction: the Capitol and the White House are two of the country’s most iconic buildings and often serve to represent the entire nation to the world.
Indeed, a number of American cities have world-class skylines, and perhaps none more so than the concrete canyons of Manhattan, New York City. There, a new World Trade Center tower has sprung up on the site of the fallen Twin Towers, while the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building still stand as tall as they have for nearly a century. Chicago, where the skyscraper was invented, can no longer claim the tallest building in the country, but still has a large number of very tall buildings. Other skylines worth seeing are San Francisco (with the Golden Gate Bridge), Seattle (with the Space Needle), Miami and Pittsburgh.
Some human constructions, however, transcend the skyline and become iconic symbols in their own right. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan, the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles and even the fountains of the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas draw visitors to their respective cities. Even the incredible Mount Rushmore, far from any major city, still attracts two million visitors each year.
Museums and galleries
In the US, there’s a museum for just about everything. From toys to priceless artefacts, from show legends to dinosaur bones, almost every city in the country has a museum worth visiting.
The largest concentrations of these museums are, of course, in the largest cities, but none compares to Washington, D.C., home of the Smithsonian Institution. With nearly twenty independent museums, most of which are located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian is the leading curator of American history and achievement. The most popular museums are the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History, but any of them is a great way to spend an afternoon, and it’s completely free.
New York City also has an excellent selection of world-class museums, including the Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
You could spend weeks exploring the cultural institutions of D.C. and the Big Apple, but here’s a small selection of the other great museums you’d miss:
- Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh
- Indianapolis Children’s Museum – Indianapolis, Indiana
- Exploratorium – San Francisco
- The Henry Ford Center – Dearborn, Michigan
- Hollywood Walk of Fame – Los Angeles
- Monterey Bay Aquarium – Monterey, California
- Museum of Science and Industry – Chicago
- Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – Springfield, Massachusetts
- National Aquarium of Baltimore – Baltimore, Maryland
- National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – Cooperstown, New York
- National Museum of Nuclear Science and History – Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Philadelphia Museum of Art – Philadelphia
- Pro Football Hall of Fame – Canton, Ohio
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum – Cleveland, Ohio
- San Diego Zoo – San Diego, California
- Strong’s National Gaming Museum – Rochester, New York
Here are a handful of itineraries covering the regions of the United States:
- Appalachian Trail – a hiking trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine.
- Braddock Expedition – traces the route of British General Edward Braddock (and a younger George Washington) during the French and Indian War, from Alexandria, Virginia, through Cumberland, Maryland, to the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh.
- El Camino Real (the Royal Road) is a historic route that connects the 21 Spanish missions in Alta California (now the state of California) and offers a fascinating insight into California’s history.
- Interstate 5 – the main interstate highway along the West Coast, running from the Mexican border with California to the Canadian border with Washington State, passing through major West Coast cities and three state capitals.
- The Jazz Track – a national tour of the most important clubs in jazz history and current jazz shows.
- Lewis and Clark Trail – retrace the northwest route of the great American explorers along the Missouri River.
- Oregon Trail – the path taken by western settlers from Missouri to Oregon in the mid-19th century.
- Route 66: Discover the iconic historic route from Chicago to Los Angeles.
- Santa Fe Trail – a historic settlement route of the Southwest from Missouri to Santa Fe.
- Touring Shaker country – takes you to one current and eight former Shaker religious communities in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Midwest regions of the United States.
- U.S. Highway 1 – which runs along the east coast from Maine to Florida.