Top 10 US travel destinations for 2013

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Every year our US-based editors team up with Lonely Planet’s expert authors to compile a list of US destinations that are prime for the next year. Best in Travel 2013 already covered two places we think the world should be looking at – San Francisco and the Gulf Coast – but here we wanted to dig deeper and shine a light on 10 places in the US that travelers should add to their wish lists for the coming year. Our 2013 picks are literally all over the map: once-in-a-lifetime northern lights, new top-tier museums, moose trails, Polynesian paradise and barrels of bourbon. Enjoy, and send us a postcard!

1. Louisville, Kentucky

Could it be that the new Portland is in… Kentucky? Louisville has asserted itself as a lively, offbeat cultural mecca on the Ohio River. New Louisville, also known as the East Market District or NuLu, features converted warehouses used as local breweries, antique shops and the city’s coolest restaurants. On Bardstown Rd in the Highlands you’ll find a hipster strip of shops and bars, not to mention many ‘Keep Louisville Weird’ stickers. Bourbon reigns in Louisville. This is the traditional jump-off for the Bourbon Trail; with bourbon’s current wave of popularity, new upstart microdistilleries, including some in and around Louisville like the small-batch Angel’s Envy, are giving the old names in bourbon a run for their money. Try for the first Saturday in May to witness the ‘greatest two minutes in sports,’ the Kentucky Derby.

The coolest hotel in town is 21c Museum Hotel, an edgy contemporary hotel with scissor chandeliers and loft-like rooms.

On Louisville's Urban Bourbon Trail
Photo by Marty Pearl, courtesy of Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau

2. Fairbanks, Alaska

Have you seen aurora borealis (aka the northern lights)? The sensation of seeing Arctic skies crackle with smoky blues, greens and reds has long drawn off-season travelers way north. 2013 will be big, marking the end of a fiery 11-year-cycle, when sunspots are particularly feisty, making for a big show in the Fairbanks sky 240 nights a year. Go. From May to mid-August daylight is too strong to see much, but by late summer they start to appear, and Fairbanks is the place to be. On the ground, curious foodies can sample traditional Athabascan cuisine at Taste of Alaska (call to book in advance) at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, or take part in a unique pub-crawl, The Great Fairbanks Pub Paddle. Open all year, the 414-mile Dalton Highway plies north of Fairbanks into the Arctic, and air taxis reach the pristine 800-sq-mile Gates of the Arctic National Park, but the light show will be best back in Fairbanks.

A favorite place to stay is Ah, Rose Marie B&B, a homey Dutch-built cottage that takes its breakfasts seriously.

A stunning display of aurora borealis over a cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska
Photo by Todd Paris, courtesy of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau

3. San Juan Islands, Washington

Lonely Planet guidebook author Brendan Sainsbury has a new name for these dreamy islands north of Seattle: the 'Gourmet Archipelago'. Proudly home to a decidedly un-Pacific Northwest-like 250 days of sunshine a year, the San Juan Islands have always gone for self-sufficiency. You’ll find fresh, fresh food, with local artichokes and marionberries from farmers markets, seafood plates of oysters, razor clams and freshly caught salmon, and foraged edibles like seaweed and elderflowers at places like the Doe Bay Café on Orcas Island, or Willows Inn on Lummi Island whose head chef is an alumnus of world-renowned Noma. Hop on a bike, explore the beaches and enjoy the scenery, but be sure to eat!

For more options, see Brendan’s article on the Gourmet Archipelago.

Friday Harbor Farmers’ Market, San Juan Island
Photo by Barbara Marrett, courtesy of San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau

4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Forget the cheesesteaks and tri-corner hat, Philadelphia is becoming known as an art capital. In addition to the world renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art, the formerly remote the Barnes Foundation, a once private collection of Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne, has a new central location. And it’s not just the big museums – Philly’s gallery scene is exploding with new venues like the Icebox garnering international attention and turning the Northern Liberties and Fishtown neighborhoods into the new hot arts hub. First Fridays, the monthly gallery open house, long a tradition in Old City, has expanded to the refurbished Loft District, where the party goes on in a host of new bars, clubs and live music venues.

For places to stay, the vintage-boutique inn Rittenhouse 1715 is around the corner from the namesake park.

Barnes Foundation gallery, Philadelphia
Photo by R. Kennedy courtesy of GPTMC

5. American Samoa

Did you know that a US passport can get you to an isolated South Pacific paradise without even leaving US territory? From the US mainland, American Samoa is a longer trek than Hawaii, but the distance rewards the visitor with some of the most stunning, untouched beauty of the Pacific and a national park that even the most ardent park system fans won’t have checked off their list yet. From the US, flights run from Honolulu to Pago Pago on lovely Tutuila, with waterfalls, fishing villages and spectacular beaches nearby. But press on with a quick flight on Inter Island Air to the tiny nearby Manuʻa Islands of Taʻu and Ofu, with shining, palm-fringed white sand beaches flanked by shark-tooth-shaped mountains. The best time to visit is Flag Day, April 17, when there are activities galore. This may be US territory, but it’s some of the purest Polynesia you’ll find anywhere.

It’s simple, but the family-run Vaoto Lodge can get you snorkeling within minutes of arrival.

Ofu Island, American Samoa
Photo courtesy of American Samoa Visitors Bureau

6. Eastern Sierra, California

This year, hop past Yosemite – just beyond lies the secret California dream: the Eastern Sierra, the overlooked flank of the Sierra Nevada range, with other-worldly natural attractions and surprises (Basque culture?), not to mention far fewer visitors. Just follow the scenic US Route 395 as it connects wonders like the Travertine hot spring in Bridgeport, the Gold Rush ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake’s bizarre calcified tufa towers, or the surreal Devils Postpile National Monument’s 60-foot curtain of basalt columns made from rivers of molten lava. Eastward, ho!

In Lee Vining stop at perhaps the greatest wonder of all: fantastic food served out of a gas station at the Whoa Nellie Deli with live music during the warmer months

July 24thTufa towers in Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra
Photo by John Lemieux, Creative Commons Attribution license

7. Northern Maine

Moose, white water rafting, epic hiking. No, not the Rockies – we’re talking about Maine. Maine isn’t only lobster rolls, lighthouses and rocky shoreline. The woodsy interior, on the top half of the Maine ‘thumb’ reaching north to the Canada border, makes for a wilderness adventure. The Appalachian Trail begins/ends atop Mt Katahdin (which literally means ‘Mt Great Mountain’) in primitive Baxter State Park, with 200,000 acres of lakes and mountains to reach by hiking boot. Nearby is Moosehead Lake, home to a 99-year-old steamboat to ride, and the source of the Kennebec River, with great rafting opportunities at the Forks. To the north in remote Aroostook County, miles of old rail beds have been transformed into bike trails, and multi-day canoe trips can paddle you right up to the Canadian border.

Baxter is camping only. A good B&B nearby is the Greenville Inn on Moosehead Lake, built from a century-old lumber baron’s home.

Near Chimney Pond, Mt. Katahdin
Photo by Jue Wang, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

8. Twin Cities, Minnesota

Lake Wobegon might be ‘the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve,’ but time has been much kinder to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St Paul. Minneapolis is often called the country’s best bike city and the Nice Ride bike-share system with its web of new bike lanes proves the point. The St Anthony Falls Heritage Trail is a 2-mile path along the banks of the Mississippi River. Plan time for Uptown’s Bryant-Lake Bowl, an old bowling alley with seriously good food (think artisanal cheese plates). And pay homage to the epicenter of Twin Cities’ music scene, First Avenue & 7th St Entry – hometown hero Prince sometimes comes by (seriously). St Paul is quieter, but key to see. Pedal over for a meal at the Hmongtown Marketplace, with authentic Lao dishes, and a show at the Fitzgerald Theater, where Garrison Keillor tapes his Prairie Home Companion.

Wales House is a cheery B&B with a fireplace lounge and frequent scholar guests working at the nearby University of Minnesota. (Go Gophers!)

Twin Cities Jazz Festival, St Paul
Photo by Chris McDuffie, courtesy of Visit Saint Paul.

9. Verde Valley, Arizona

Between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, the Verde Valley is taking off as Arizona’s go-to destination, and not just among the spa and crystal Sedona-fans of years past. The Verde Valley region is beautiful, with green canyons rimmed by red rocks, and towns like Cottonwood, Jerome and Sedona that have long drawn visitors for good food, art and mining lore. But the Verde boost is all about the wine. The new Verde Valley Wine Trail links four new vineyards clustered around Cornville, near Sedona. Most fun is reaching the Alcantara Vineyards… by kayak. Less fun is being the designated kayaker.

Sedona’s Cozy Cactus is a, well, cozy B&B in an adobe with easy access to local hiking trails.

Kayaking to Alcantara Vineyards, Verde Valley
Photo courtesy of Verde Valley Wine Trail

10. Glacier National Park, Montana

One of the countries wildest, most remote and pristine national parks, Glacier is everyone’s favorite national park who’s been. Its jagged, snow-blanketed ridges and glacier-sculpted horns tower dramatically over aquamarine lakes and meadows blanketed in wildflowers. Most visitors stick to the drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, so it's easy to escape crowds by venturing beyond it. A relatively new shuttle system offers an eco-friendly alternative. But go soon. The park’s 25 glaciers are melting – and could be gone altogether by 2030 if current climate changes continue!

The summer-only Many Glacier Hotel, built like a Swiss chalet, is a once-in-a-lifetimer hotel set on Swiftcurrent Lake like a queen on a throne.

Swiftcurrent Lake at Many Glaciers, Glacier National ParkSwiftcurrent Lake from at Many Glacier Hotel
Photo by Bill Weaver, Creative Commons Attribution license