Lonely Planet’s travel experts have scoured the states to create the ultimate US travel wish list for 2016. Some of our choices are perennial favorites, while others are just stepping into the spotlight, but all have one thing in common: now is the time to go.
1. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Visited by Pope Francis, hosting the Democratic National Convention in July, and freshly crowned as the US’s first and only World Heritage City (joining the ranks of Cairo, Paris and Jerusalem), Philly’s on a roll.
NYC’s more neighborly neighbor is experiencing a transformation to its urban core, as many US cities are right now. Craft breweries? Check. Hot new locavore restaurants? Big check. But Philadelphia is steadfastly managing to retain its historic roots and gritty flavor, as well as its affordability – a pleasant surprise for a city so cosmopolitan and accessible. Hands up to the sky, Rocky fans: celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary in 2016 with a sprint up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
2. Natchez, Mississippi
Natchez will be rolling on the river in 2016. It is one of the oldest continuous settlements on the Mississippi River, beating New Orleans by two years, so it’s celebrating its 300th anniversary all year long with over 300 events.
Join the tricentennial party in August, come for the city’s celebration of its Native American roots at the Natchez PowWow in March, or find thrills on the ground and in the air during the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race in October. Renowned for its collection of well-preserved pre-Civil War architecture, the Natchez Spring and Fall Pilgrimages take visitors into local homes – and into the city’s antebellum past – complete with guides in period garb.
3. Yellowstone National Park
The US National Park Service turns 100 in 2016 – why not celebrate the big event in the place where it all began: the geyser-studded landscape of Yellowstone. The eerily regular Old Faithful geyser, the park’s biggest draw, just got a springy new boardwalk made from recycled tires to accommodate the millions of annual visitors.
But with 9000 square kilometres of wilderness, it’s not all about boiling steam vents, bubbling mud pots and psychedelic hot springs. Go wolf-spotting in the Lamar Valley, take a Wild West tour by horseback or stagecoach, zoom through some the country’s best snowmobile territory in the cold months, and explore the gateway towns like Gardiner, Montana, and Cody, Wyoming, all gussied up for the centennial.
4. Birmingham, Alabama
Could Birmingham be the coolest city in the South? The once industrial Avondale neighborhood has seen a surge of pubs and breweries and good eats, like the drool-worthy barbecue at Saw's. Night owls take note: your options include a friendly, 24-hour bar packed with comic book art and Star Wars memorabilia (if you dress as Han Solo, do you take the first shot?), and beers in a backyard junkyard.
The Civil Rights District is the place to go for history buffs, notably the Civil Rights Institute, the 16th St. Baptist Church and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Want to try before you go? Sample Birmingham’s eclectic soul wherever you are by streaming Birmingham Mountain Radio, perhaps the best radio station you’ve never heard of.
Hey Americans: have you crossed the Arctic Circle in your own country? In 2015, President Obama became the first sitting president to do it – why not follow in his footsteps?
Visit the newly renamed Denali, America’s tallest peak: experienced mountaineers can ascend on foot, and others can view the mountain in style from the Denali Star train or bump through the park by bus. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the death of America’s favorite chronicler of the north, Jack London. Let 2016 be the year you heed the call of the wild.
6. Somerville, Massachusetts
Boston’s hippest ‘hood has moved a few stops up the Orange Line to Somerville. If you’re a cutting-edge restaurant, craft brewery or a secret speakeasy, chances are you’re in Somerville right now.
The Boston area has no shortage of big, grand museums – Somerville museums lean toward quirk, with the hugely popular Museum of Bad Art and the Tiny Museum, in the running for the world’s smallest. Somerville festivals are one-of-a-kind, including the Fluff Festival, a celebration of the local, world-altering invention of Marshmallow Fluff, and HONK!, a festival of community-driven music-making.
7. Northwest Arkansas
Northwest Arkansas is a wild surprise, with mountains, crystal blue lakes and green river valleys that give the Rockies a run for their money. Each town brings a fresh surprise: in one you'll find religious fundamentalists who outlaw alcohol; the next town will have rainbow flags and health food shops; the next town will have both plus packs of bikers.
Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, is an artsy bubble with a vibrant literary scene; Bentonville (home of Walmart) is an international town with an array of good eats; Eureka Springs has a beautiful historical core and access to some of the best hiking in the Ozarks.
8. San Antonio, Texas
Take a hearty stew of Mexican culture, add a dash of Austin weird and a big dollop of pure Texas ‘tude, and you get San Antonio: the Lone Star State’s most compelling city right now.
The River Walk, long an attraction for travelers, has been transformed from the previous three-mile walk to a whopping 15 miles, connecting museums in the north to downtown and the historic missions in the south with river views and parkland in between. San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions, the largest concentration of missions in North America, were recently named Unesco World Heritage Sites. The high-design Pearl Brewery District, continues to evolve with top-notch restaurants, a cooking school and outdoor events throughout the year.
9. Southern New Mexico
Santa Fe, Taos, and the state’s famed obsession with chile peppers have long been staples of American travel – and, by golly, they’re as good as ever. But if it's Southwestern wilderness you're after, head toward the border. The recently established Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, named for its dramatic pipe-like granite spires, shows off the borderlands at their rugged best. Saddle up for a real cowboy adventure, visit places where WWII bombers and Apollo astronauts trained, and trip out in volcanic fields and epic scenery.
The strange scenery continues at White Sands National Monument, where you'll find alien landscapes far more out-of-this-world than anything in Roswell.
10. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Chicago may cast a big shadow, but Milwaukee is enjoying its moment in the sun. Synonymous with beer since the 1850s thanks to an influx of German immigrants, the city’s beery side still bubbles strong. Brew-loving travelers can tour both the Miller and the Lakefront breweries, have a draft at Best Place in former Pabst headquarters and sample the new wave of craft brews at the many local pubs.
The German history also comes through in the local obsessions with sausages and dairy: get brats and beer cheese soup at Milwaukee Brat House and sample local cheeses at Uber Tap Room. Have your camera ready for the Milwaukee Art Museum, with the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion that looks poised to take flight over Lake Michigan at any moment.
Now find out which destinations made Lonely Planet's latest Best in the US list.