The United States is vast and varied, spanning roughly 3000 miles from east to west and 1650 miles from north to south – and that’s not including Alaska and Hawaii. You could spend a lifetime exploring and barely scratch the surface.
But that just means there’s plenty to keep you busy, whether you’re looking for outdoor adventure, a relaxing beach getaway, an urban vacation or a deep dive into history and culture. One thing’s for sure: you’ll never find yourself at a loss for things to see and do in the US.
1. Get your urban fix in a vibrant US city
From the bright lights of exciting New York City to the steep hills of picturesque San Francisco, the nation’s urban centers are pulsing with energy and filled with diverse neighborhoods and top-notch restaurants, museums and historic sites. The capital, Washington, DC, holds the nation’s collective history and culture in trust along the National Mall with its many impressive government buildings, museums and memorials. Boston, the site of a crucible of revolution and literature, occupies an indelible place in American history and culture. Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans…the list of cities worth visiting is endless.
2. Go wildlife watching
A tremendous array of wildlife inhabits America’s varied landscapes, many of which are protected as national parks and other reserves. Yellowstone, Glacier, and other Rocky Mountain parks are top destinations for moose, bison, elk and bears, while Alaska is in a class of its own, with good chances of seeing wildlife almost anywhere you go. Maine has over 60,000 moose, while the Great Smoky Mountains shelter some 1500 black bears. Paddling or boating the Florida Everglades or Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp provides good chances of spotting alligators. Every March, roughly a million migrating sandhill cranes stop over along Nebraska’s Platte River, while Washington’s Skagit River Valley draws hundreds of bald eagles in winter.
Numerous marine mammal species frequent American coastal waters, including orcas around Washington’s San Juan Islands and humpbacks, dolphins and other whales in Massachusetts, Florida, California, Hawaii and Alaska.
Planning tip: If you plan to visit multiple parks, buy an America the Beautiful (Interagency) Pass, which costs $80 and is valid for a year at all sites operated by the National Park Service and other federal agencies. It covers the driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle or up to four adults at sites that charge per-person fees.
3. Explore history and uncover the stories of the past
Though a relatively young nation in the global scheme of things, the US is full of fascinating history. Go way back in time at the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park and Canyon de Chelly. Discover the stories of early English settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts and follow Boston’s Freedom Trail past sites related to the road to independence.
Dig deeper at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution and Independence Hall, where the Constitution was signed in 1787. Tour Civil War battlefields to learn about the bloodiest conflict in US history, and pay tribute to the sacrifices of later American soldiers at the war memorials in Washington, DC, where you can also learn more about the people who have shaped the country at the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Planning tip: There are nearly 150 officially designated National Historic Parks and National Historic Sites across the US; the annual America the Beautiful (Interagency) Pass is valid at those that charge a fee.
4. Take an adventurous road trip
As the birthplace of the automobile, the US literally invented the modern road trip. An intricate network of highways and byways crisscrosses this huge country, creating an endless number of possible routes for exploration. Get your kicks on historic Route 66 from Chicago to California, or retrace the route of 19th-century migrants across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Drive the magnificent Pacific Coast Highway or make a circuit through the west’s spectacular national parks. In the east, the backroads and byways of New England reveal picturesque towns and farms set among hills and valleys that burst into famously glorious color each autumn. Further south, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Natchez Trace Parkway offer a captivating mix of scenery, history and local culture.
5. Soothe your soul with an island escape
Hawaii is the ultimate island destination, a distant archipelago with breathtaking scenery and a warm aloha spirit, a welcoming vibe that’s actually enshrined in Hawaiian law. Washington state’s scenic San Juan Islands are known for abundant wildlife and recreational opportunities, while gorgeous Catalina Island in southern California makes an equally great getaway, with two charming towns and lots of wild space for outdoor adventures.
In the east, the islands dotting the Maine coast include Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park and its gateway community of Bar Harbor. Massachusetts has Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, which draw everyone from artists to presidents with their picturesque villages, lighthouses and sandy beaches. In the south, head to the Florida Keys, where driving the island-hopping road to the furthest point, Key West, is an adventure in itself.
Planning tip: If you’re visiting Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket in the busy summer season and plan to bring a car, book your ferry passage well in advance, as vehicle spaces fill up quickly.
6. Climb a mountain (or just admire the view)
The US has many gorgeous mountains, from the ancient Appalachians in the east to the glacier-studded Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Cascades in the west. Standouts include Washington’s Mt Rainier, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, and California’s Sierra Nevada range, to name just a few. Alaska’s countless stunning peaks include the continent’s highest, Denali, which can be seen from as much as 150 miles away.
Hiking possibilities are endless, and many ascents can also be made by road, including New England’s tallest peak, Mt Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains; Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in Acadia National Park. During snow-free months, the Going-to-the-Sun Road through Montana’s Glacier National Park is not to be missed.
Planning tip: If you’re venturing into the wilderness, be sure you’re adequately prepared with appropriate footwear, warm moisture-wicking clothing, plenty of water, food, sun protection, first aid supplies, and other items to keep you safe if something unexpected happens.
7. Marvel at desert wonders in the American Southwest
Few desert landscapes can compare with the diversity and sheer magnificence of the southwestern US. Hike among sandstone cliffs eroded into dramatic shapes in places such as Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches National Parks. Explore the red rock country of Sedona, Arizona, on foot or mountain bike, and feast your eyes on the awe-inspiring vastness of the Grand Canyon, its multi-hued layers carved by the Colorado River a mile below the rim. Climb the massive dunes of New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, and take a float trip on the meandering Colorado river beneath the soaring red walls of Glen Canyon. There’s fascinating plant life to be discovered, too, from the towering saguaro cactuses of the Sonoran Desert to the fantastical Joshua trees that dot the Mojave Desert like something dreamed up by Dr Seuss.
8. See baseball at a legendary ballpark
There’s nothing more quintessentially American than a day at the ballpark, complete with stadium food – which nowadays ranges from the classic peanuts and Cracker Jacks to truly gourmet offerings – and the traditional singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch.
The most storied ballparks are Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field, both built before WWI. They may be small and somewhat cramped compared to newer ballparks, but the ambiance and the sense of history and tradition make attending a game at either one a special experience. Other ballparks that regularly top best-of lists for their locations, due to their combination of excellent sightlines over the field, scenic views, food and other amenities include PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Petco Park in San Diego, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Oracle Park, situated right on the bay in San Francisco (fans often arrive by boat).
9. Feast your ears on magnificent music
Rock and roll, jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel, hip-hop – the US has given rise to so many musical genres. The result of this incredible legacy is that music-loving travelers are spoiled for choice, with outstanding options in every corner of the country. Austin, Texas, bills itself as the Live Music Capital of the World, with a tremendous array of concert venues and music events. Tennessee is another musical hub, with blues, soul, rock and roll, and gospel all rooted in Memphis, while Nashville is the heartland of bluegrass and country music. Jazz was born in New Orleans, where the annual Jazz Fest is a can’t-miss event for fans of the genre, though you’ll also find great jazz (and many other types of music) in places like New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
Detour: If you’re interested in music history, Kansas City, another great jazz town, is home to the American Jazz Museum and the Jazz Walk of Fame. Other music-related attractions include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit.
10. Relax and play at the beach
Beach lovers, rejoice! The shores of the US are lined with beautiful stretches of sand where you can soak up some sun, enjoy a refreshing ocean dip, peek into tidepools or simply admire some of the world’s finest coastal views. Florida and California are both quintessential beach destinations, but where Florida has warmer water, whiter sand, flat terrain and humid air temperatures California has more varied coastal scenery and better waves for surfing, but chillier water.
Further north, the Oregon Coast and the coastal strip of Washington’s Olympic National Park are dotted with dramatic sea stacks that make for spectacular photos, especially at sunset, but the water is too cold for swimming. In the northeast, Cape Cod and the New Jersey Shore are studded with scenic lighthouses and lovely stretches of sand that are popular with swimmers and sunbathers in summer and great for walks in the quieter off-season.
11. Eat your way across America
Nowhere is the diversity of the US more evident than in its food, which ranges from deeply rooted regional dishes to an ever-evolving array of international and fusion cuisines. From the spicy Cajun and Creole cuisine of Louisiana to the pizzerias and Jewish delis of New York, you could spend months sampling the different flavors. Feast on Pacific Northwest salmon, Maryland crab cakes, or New England clam chowder and lobster. Indulge your sweet tooth with a slice of key lime pie in Florida or salsa and jam made with Michigan cherries. They say the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, so be prepared to fall in love.
Planning tip: As you travel through small towns and rural areas, keep an eye out for farm stands where you can pick up delicious seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as many other local food products.