With 50 states, 14 territories, and countless, ever-changing destinations for curious travelers, choosing where to go on vacation in the US can be a challenge. Luckily, we love a good travel challenge.
Washington, DC and Rocky Mountain National Park were recommended in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015, but we couldn’t leave it at just two. As in previous years, we tapped into the expertise of Lonely Planet’s US authors and editors to come up with the top 10 American destinations primed for a visit in 2015.
2015’s Best in the US list includes a mix of up-and-coming destinations, old faves with new highlights and places poised to shine. And we hope you like to eat and drink, because the whole country seems to be enjoying a local food renaissance. No matter what your taste in travel, these destinations are sure to satisfy your appetite for the coming year.
Which of these destinations is best suited for you and your travel style? Take our quiz to find out!
1. Queens, New York
Queens, New York’s largest borough, is also quickly becoming its hippest, but most travelers haven't clued in… yet. With microbreweries springing up, new boutique hotels, a reinvented seaside at Rockaway, a world-class art scene, and a truly global food culture, 2015 is the year to try Queens.
Nowhere is the image of New York as the global melting pot truer than Queens. Browse New York’s biggest Chinatown in Flushing, shop for brilliantly colored saris in Jackson Heights, and inhale the heady aromas of coffee and hookahs in Astoria. The incomparable array of world cuisines makes Queens a destination for food lovers from all parts of New York City.
For your art fix, ogle the new upgrades to the Queens Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image, look for the new Emerging Artists Festival (conceptionevents.com) held in Long Island City, and stroll Astoria’s new 24-block arts district (kaufmanartsdistrict.org). If you prefer sand and surf to paint and canvas, head to Rockaway. Don’t miss the prime eating and drinking scene that has popped up around the boardwalk – this is no cruddy carnival food: think succulent fish tacos, wood-fired pizzas, and wine bars.
Dig deeper into NYC's hottest destination with Queens: New York’s biggest borough comes into its own and check out our video on Uncovering Queens.
2. Western South Dakota
With a combination of vast natural beauty, quirky small-town charm, Native American cultural sites, and some famously larger-than-life presidential noggins carved into a mountain, it’s hard to find anywhere that looks more like the America of one’s imagination than Western South Dakota.
2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, a chance for cowboys and cowgirls to show their stuff as they move the park’s 1400 buffalo to their winter grazing territory. The Oglala Sioux and National Park Service are working to create the first tribal national park in the southern Badlands, with the aim of bringing buffaloes back to the grasslands where they roamed long before humans settled the area.
An even larger and noisier herd is gathering in 2015 for the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the largest annual meeting of motorcycle enthusiasts in the world. Over 500,000 people gather each August, and the 2015 rally is the perfect excuse to channel your Easy Rider and head out on a motorcycle road trip.
Find out more about where the buffalo roam in Adventures in South Dakota.
3. New Orleans, Louisiana
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ future was far from certain. A decade later, it's clear: The Big Easy is back and thriving. With a mix of refurbished history and new upstarts, the city has a raft of fresh options for travelers – all uniquely New Orleans.
In a region that has always prided itself on its local culinary and cocktail traditions, New Orleans hasn’t lost a beat. New Orleans chefs shone at the James Beard awards this year and bars like Twelve Mile Limit are pushing deep into craft cocktail territory making spins on classics, using locally produced products such as old New Orleans Rum and Huhu's Ginger Brew. After dinner and a drink, head to St Claude Avenue for the latest and most eclectic nightlife, from cabaret to gypsy jazz, punk rock, and bounce, New Orleans' homegrown hip-hop dance music.
New Orleans’ love for the spirit of celebration is triumphantly on display every weekend (except during the height of summer) in Second Lines (wwoz.org), community parades put on by neighborhood Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, and their associated brass bands, that march through the city.
Read more in New Orleans 10 years after Katrina: old meets new.
4. Colorado River region
Ever dreamed of rafting down the Colorado River? With a controversial proposal for large-scale development at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers – with hotels, a gondola, and more – not to mention diminishing rainfall, and ever increasing flyover traffic from sightseeing tours, now is the time. Some 140 years since John Wesley Powell shared his account of the first river descent, the trip down the longest stretch of navigable river in the US has become one of the iconic US adventure travel experiences – and one that might not last forever.
Starting in its namesake Colorado, the river is born as a trickle in Rocky Mountain National Park, a hiker’s paradise. In Utah, it runs through Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Located between the two, the city of Moab is the go-to hub for desert adventures, with legendary mountain biking, canyon hikes, and river floats. In Arizona, the 280-mile stretch from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead through the Grand Canyon features 98 rated rapids, sandy beaches and ancient ruins. The National Park Service restricts the number of people allowed on the water here, so rafters can experience the winding course in relative solitude.
Flagstaff, often treated as a pit stop on the way to the Grand Canyon, is worth a fresh look with its Flagstaff-Grand Canyon Ale Trail for wandering beer lovers and, as the first city to be designated an International Dark Sky City, lots of stargazing options.
5. North Conway, New Hampshire
If you find yourself in New England, and two roads diverge in a yellow wood, take the one that leads to North Conway, the picturesque village celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2015 along with several neighboring villages. North Conway is quintessential New England, with covered bridges, quaint B&Bs and lazy canoe rides. In autumn, when the town is ablaze with color, visitors can take in the dramatic foliage either on the famed Kancamagus Highway or rail fans can hop aboard the Conway Scenic Railway.
Once you’ve had your fill of apple cider donuts and maple syrup, North Conway will help you work it off: it also has New England’s best skiing, miles of hiking trails, and premier climbing destinations in the White Mountains. Never rock climbed before? No worries – North Conway is the perfect place to learn the ropes. Pros scramble for the cliff face of Cathedral Ledge, but local outfitter International Mountain Equipment (ime-usa.com) welcomes newcomers with instruction and popular summer climbing camps for kids.
Find out more in our article North Conway: small town, big adventures.
6. Indianapolis, Indiana
Prepare to be surprised by Indianapolis. On a trip to Indianapolis today, you can drink mead, entertain the kids at world-class museums, eat food grown on local micro-farms, tap out some witty prose on Kurt Vonnegut’s typewriter at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (careful what you type – it live tweets), and then dash off to play computer games with curious apes at the Indy Zoo’s new International Orangutan Center (indianapoliszoo.com).
Indianapolis has a long-running love affair with cars. The recently opened Dallara IndyCar Factory (indycarfactory.com) lets you take the wheel in realistic driving simulators. For the real deal, head to the nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway (indyracingexperience.com) for a pedal-to-the-metal spin around the legendary track with a real IndyCar driver at the wheel. If your automotive tastes run a tad greener, the US’s largest electric car sharing program, BlueIndy (blue-indy.com), is launching in 2015.
Turning 90 this year, the ginormous Children's Museum of Indianapolis (childrensmuseum.org) is the world’s largest museum just for kiddos, complete with a vintage carousel and a massive dinosaur collection. At the Rhythm Discovery Center kids love banging their way through the percussive instruments of the world, while adults get a chance to go wild on a full drum kit in a studio.
Indianapolis has even more up its sleeve – see Indianapolis: America's most surprising city.
7. Greenville, South Carolina
With the Blue Ridge Mountains in its backyard, outdoor adventure is one of Greenville’s main draws, and it starts right in town in Falls Park on the Reedy (fallspark.com). The banks of the Reedy River were once lined with mills, textile factories, and warehouses. Today, inviting trails and gardens greet visitors, leading off to a revitalized Main Street, with local shops, craft-beer pubs, and a global array of restaurants.
Museums cluster in Heritage Green, just west of Main Street. Works by Andrew Wyeth and South Carolina artist Jasper Johns are highlights at the Greenville County Museum of Art (gcma.org), and families can head next door to The Children’s Museum of the Upstate (tcmupstate.org). Public art spills out on to Main Street with the small bronze statues of “Mice on Main,” which doubles as a scavenger hunt.
Greenville's B-Cycle (greenville.bcycle.com) bike share program lets travelers wind their way through the city’s extensive network of trails and roads. Grab a bike and follow an old railroad route along the still expanding GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail (greenvillerec.com), following the Reedy River. For day trips, six rugged state parks are easily reached from the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (scenic11.com). Hikers head for popular views atop Table Rock Mountain and Caesars Head State Park (southcarolinaparks.com), where birdwatchers gather September to November for the annual Hawk Watch (gcbirdclub.org).
What’s happening in Greenville? Read more in Falling for Greenville: A Blue Ridge Mountain surprise.
8. Oakland, California
As prices nudge up against the stratosphere in San Francisco, the quirky artsy cool has moved east across the Bay to find a home in more affordable Oakland. Lonely Planet’s west coast home since the 1980s, we’ve long appreciated Oakland’s charms as locals, and watched first-hand as it has grown, flourished and become an enticing destination for travelers as well.
Oakland has become an incubator for adventurous restaurants, from Michelin-starred avant-garde Commis to down-home soul food with modern twists at Brown Sugar Kitchen (anyone for some buttermilk fried chicken with a cornmeal wafﬂe and apple cider syrup?) The food love continues Saturdays at the weekly Grand Lake Farmer’s market, a produce-themed party on the tip of Lake Merritt, as well as the annual Eat Real Fest (eatrealfest.com) on Jack London Square’s charming waterfront.
The first Friday of every month, Oakland’s Art Murmur (oaklandartmurmur.org) is a can’t-miss cultural event, where galleries open their doors, and locals stroll the streets joined by food trucks, outdoor exhibitions, and a chilled street festival vibe. Exploring by bike? Pedal your way to the newly opened Bay Bridge trail, where you can venture out on to the new span of the Bay Bridge.
More reasons why Oakland is hella cool: The reinvention of Oakland
9. Duluth, Minnesota
More than 150 Olympians hail from Duluth, and one visit will show you why. With trails in every direction, Lake Superior's waves crashing on one side, and snow-covered slopes on the other, Duluth has emerged as the Midwest’s premier outdoors hot spot. The 290-mile Superior Hiking Trail (shta.org) hugs the lake from Duluth en route to Canada, passing waterfalls, red-rock overlooks, and the occasional moose. Without even leaving town, the mountain biker (and snowshoer) fantasy known as the Duluth Traverse (coggs.com) is in the works, linking several existing trails to cover the 26-mile length of the city.
Local boy Bob Dylan’s classic album Highway 61 Revisited turns 50 in 2015. Before leaving Duluth like a rolling stone, fans can pay a roll-by visit to his birthplace and then head out down 61 itself, the legendary Blues Highway extending all the way to another city on this list: New Orleans. Dylan road trip anyone?
How many roads must you walk down in Duluth? Read more in Duluth’s great outdoors.
10. Mount Shasta region, California
The snow-capped volcano of Mount Shasta cuts a striking Mt Fuji-esque figure in the skyline of one of California’s lesser-known corners. Native Americans from the region viewed it as the center of creation, and it is still a deeply spiritual place for many. Upon seeing it for the first time, the famed naturalist John Muir said, "...all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since."
Mt Shasta City sits just below the volcano, and with plenty of inns and B&Bs, coffee shops, galleries, and a comfortable blend of old-timey and new-agey, it’s a great base camp for exploring of the area. On foot, hikers can climb high up Mt Shasta's many trails in summer for views to other nearby peaks including Mt Lassen, the next volcano down the chain. Reaching the summit is only for experienced trekkers, but other trails for hikers of all levels wait nearby, including access to the Pacific Crest Trail that runs through nearby Castle Crags State Park. Surrounding the mountain is a slew of gorgeous alpine lakes including Lake Siskiyou, Lake Shastina and the dramatic Castle Lake.
In the small historic railway town of Dunsmuir, you can find fine California cuisine at Café Maddalena, microbrews, and other tasty treats. To the east, the historic mill town of McCloud is a woodsy get-away with heritage hotels, lots of nearby hiking trails and McCloud Dance Country, where you can show off your square dancing prowess (or learn some).
Dig deeper into Mount Shasta region in California's best kept secrets: Lassen, Almanor, Shasta and Lava Beds.
Tweet us @lonelyplanet with your thoughts on this list, or check out #BestintheUS to see what our community has been saying about this year's Top 10!