As George Washington once said, America is a land of promise. When it comes to travel, the U.S. offers both promise and fulfillment, given the staggering diversity of its landscapes, its vibrant cities and glorious coastlines. Any “best” list of the U.S. could run into the hundreds, but we’ve undertaken the unenviable task of whittling down the selections to our favorite 20 places. We’ve included a wide-ranging geographic mix of urban icons and wilder places, with mountains, beaches and jazz-filled neighborhoods all part of the great American portrait.
America’s biggest metropolis wears numerous crowns, and there are as many ways to experience New York as there are people crammed into its rush hour A Train. You can focus on its limitless cultural potential, hitting grand museums like the Met, the MoMA and the Whitney, before getting your fill of Broadway shows or more cutting-edge theater downtown. There are fabled restaurants, rooftop bars, and verdant green spaces like Central Park and the High Line, where the people-watching is unrivaled. The best way to experience NYC, though, is simply to pick a neighborhood and dive in, wandering the streets to your heart’s content.
Read more: New York City Travel Guide
Cheerfully painted trams, fog-swept bridges, eye-catching Victorian homes: San Francisco is like a picture book come to life. It’s hard not to fall for the city by the bay with its creative restaurants, vibrant gallery scene, and captivating neighborhoods just crying out for exploration. While there’s much to see, allow ample time to linger in the city’s atmospheric bookstores and cafes followed by leisurely walks along the waterfront (ocean or bay) and taking in the views from strategic spots, like Dolores Park in the Mission.
Read more: San Francisco Travel Guide
The Big Easy knows a thing or two about living large, from late-night revelry at fiery jazz clubs to feasting Creole-style on some of the best cooking in the USA. Best known for its weeks-long partying leading up to Mardi Gras, New Orleans loves a good celebration. And whether you come for Satchmo Summerfest, Jazz Fest (hint — it’s in October this year), Halloween, Greekfest, or simply game day in the Superdome, you’re in for a memorable stay. Of course, even when there’s nothing on, the city still celebrates. Just head down to Frenchmen Street and watch the evening unfold.
Read more: New Orleans Travel Guide
One of America’s oldest cities, Boston is littered with historic sights. Get your fill of colonial meanders on visits to Boston Common, the Old State House and the Paul Revere House, then fast-forward a few hundred years to the delectable foodie scene in the South End. Far from being frozen in the past, Boston has cutting-edge museums and galleries, and a buzzing nightlife.
Read more: Boston Travel Guide
Temptation comes in many forms in this glittering desert oasis (it’s not called Sin City for nothing). You can swill cocktails under palm trees while digging your toes in the sand at the tropical-themed Mandalay Bay, or party late into the night at decadent clubs like Omnia. There’s money to be won (or lost) while working the blackjack table, and countless ways to spend your earnings — from the fashion boutiques in the Roman-inspired Forum Shops to bespoke cocktails and fusion tapas at the Waldorf Astoria’s aptly named Skybar.
Read more: Las Vegas Travel Guide
California’s biggest city feels less like a metropolis and more like a hundred villages woven together in one palm-filled, sun-kissed landscape. There’s gallery-hopping and fine dining in Santa Monica, people-watching on quirky Venice Beach, surfing in Malibu and nature escapes (and panoramic views) in rugged Griffith Park. There’s no right way to experience LA. Even its revitalized downtown has wide-ranging appeal, and LA’s myriad cultures and clans makes for some memorable urban wanders.
Read more: Los Angeles Travel Guide
It seems a little unfair that one place would have it all: Gorgeous beaches, volcanoes and fabled resorts, not to mention a surfeit of outdoor adventures. You can go whale-watching, surfing, snorkeling, kayaking, or hiking, and there are plenty of idyllic spots when you simply want to enjoy the scenery (like the sunset view from atop Haleakala Volcano).
Packed with iconic monuments and some of America’s best museums, Washington, DC is an obligatory stop for anyone interested in exploring the nation’s complicated backstory. You could spend days wandering the vast corridors of the Smithsonian museums along the mall, then get your fill of nature on walks or runs along the Potomac or mountain biking in the surprising wilderness-like reserve of Rock Creek Park. Not surprisingly, the international food scene is outstanding, and the nightlife offers boundless possibilities.
Florida’s most seductive city isn’t shy when it comes to flaunting its many charms. Comely beaches, hedonistic nightlife, and a photogenic Art Deco district (the largest in the country) are just a few reasons why you might need to delay your flight home while you’re in town. Miami is also a fine gateway for a south Florida road trip: taking in alligators and anhingas in the Everglades, and island-hopping your way down the Florida Keys.
Read more: Miami Travel Guide
Soaring high above the western shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago is a city of grand architecture, vibrant neighborhoods, and a towering arts and culture scene. Its ethnic enclaves afford you a global tour (and brilliant dining) without leaving the U.S., and the open-air festival calendar makes for a packed summer of good times. There’s great theater, an unrivaled blues scene and plenty of leafy escapes when you need a break from big city exploring (don’t miss much-loved Millennium Park).
Read more: Chicago Travel Guide
The trendsetting city in the Pacific Northwest is best known for its coffee culture, intriguing neighborhoods and strong green credentials. You can spend a perfect day browsing Pike Place Market, feasting on pan-Asian fare in the International District, then catching a sunset from the iconic Space Needle. With Mount Rainier in their backyard and a shimmering waterfront staring them in the face, Seattleites don’t lack for appealing outdoor escapes — not to mention the temperate rainforests of Olympic National Park just across the way.
Read more: Seattle Travel Guide
Ostensibly a landlocked city near the center of Florida, Orlando is actually a portal to countless other realms. Here you can visit Hogwarts, Pandora, and the vast plains of Africa. You can ride some of the world’s most thrilling roller coasters, or watch flamingoes while relaxing at a beach-like resort that does a pretty fine imitation of Paradise Lost. There’s too much to experience on one trip, though with careful planning you can make the most of your time in the world’s undisputed theme park capital.
Dune-backed beaches and fresh oysters set the stage for a memorable getaway along New England’s most captivating shoreline. Home to over 400 miles of beaches, picturesque lighthouses and historic towns, Cape Cod has wide-ranging appeal. You can spend your day cycling past cranberry bogs along the Cape Cod Rail Trail or explore the galleries and eateries of perfectly placed Provincetown. You can even get there by ferry from Plymouth, for a taste of old-fashioned travel.
One of America’s oldest cities, Santa Fe has been going strong since 1610. The adobe-filled city is famed for its galleries and age-old craft traditions, though you’ll also find innovative restaurants, spa resorts and abundant cultural options. Set at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, Santa Fe has a backyard full of wonders, including the Pecos Wilderness and the Santa Fe National Forest, with outstanding hiking and biking.
You won’t have to look hard to find live rhythms in one of the America’s top music destinations. Every night of the week, bands take the stage at the 100 or so venues around town playing indie rock, funk, rockabilly, jazz, salsa, and myriad other sounds. Austin is famed for its festivals (South by Southwest, Austin City Limits), though there’s really no bad time to visit the Texas capital. Music aside, there’s a burgeoning food scene (including some of the nation’s best barbecue), a nightly bat spectacle and vintage shopping and urban exploring on South Congress Ave.
Around 50 miles north of San Francisco, the fog-swept coast and towering redwoods give way to the rolling vineyard-covered hillsides of Napa Valley, home to over 200 wineries. America’s renowned wine region has glorious options for wine lovers — and those just along for the ride. There’s wine tasting plus fabulous art gazing at the Hess Collection, the verdant gardens and orchards of Frog’s Leap, and even a 13th-century replica of a medieval castle called the Castello di Amorosa. Book well ahead to score a table at celebrated dining rooms like French Laundry.
Read more: Napa Valley Wine Guide
Tracing a 175-mile coastline along the edge of North Carolina, the Outer Banks are a fragile place of mystery and allure. Wind-swept dunes, secluded beaches and lonesome lighthouses dot this serene coastline, and there are plenty of surprises: wild horses roam the shores near Corolla and you can step back in time at the unaltered landscape where a strange contraption piloted by the Wright brothers (for all of 12 seconds) would change history.
Read more: Best Deserted Islands in America to Visit
In the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, this northern Colorado town puts you in the epicenter of all things outdoorsy. The four-season playground offers great cycling, mountain biking, hiking and rock-climbing, plus fine skiing in the winter. After a day on the trail (or the slopes), Boulder’s microbreweries and creative dining scene provide the perfect setting to unwind.
Sitting pretty near the eastern shores of Georgia, Savannah is pure Southern charm with antebellum architecture and massive live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. You can look for the ghosts of the past on historic home tours or focus on Savannah’s reputable culinary scene, including standouts like The Grey, set in the former 1960s Greyhound Bus Terminal. Nearby, you can ferry out to Cumberland Island, a pristine coastal wilderness where feral horses (and wild turkeys) still roam.
Read more: Savannah, Georgia City Guide
The perfect introduction to Maine’s many charms, Portland is a lively waterfront town with a dynamic foodie scene, copious cultural options and buzzing nightlife. The stunning location is perhaps Portland’s best feature, with lovely waterfront parks and an island-dotted bay ideal for a day’s exploration. The cobblestone streets of the Old Port are packed with seafood restaurants and microbrew pubs, and you can’t leave town with visiting the 1791 Portland Head Light, Maine’s oldest functioning lighthouse.
Read more: Portland, Maine Travel Guide
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