We wouldn’t dare rank our nation’s natural assets—who could choose between yosemite and Yellowstone? But the man-made attractions? You bet. Behold, our picks for the country’s most epic buildings, monuments, & engineering feats, with advice for navigating them smarter, better, & with fewer crowds.
Everyone knows about the delights of New Orleans in the spring, when Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest turn the 70-block antebellum French Quarter into a rollicking 24-hour party, but an off-season visit delivers far morevalue. Hotels are a particular bargain during the summer months, when venerable institutions such as the 125-year-old Hotel Monteleone, a favorite haunt of Tennessee Williams, slashes its rates from the Mardi Gras high of $179 down to just $129 (hotelmonteleone.com). The deals don't stop there: The city was named the country's most affordable dining destination last November by Zagat Survey. And as part of an initiative by Coolinary New Orleans, more than 30 ritzy Quarter restaurants such as Antoine's offer three-course lunches for $20 during August and September. nomcvb.com
8. Gateway Arch, St. Louis, MO
Some Americans might be surprised to discover that the country's tallest man-made monument isn't the Statue of Liberty (305 feet) or the Washington Monument (555 feet)-it's St. Louis's Gateway Arch, a 630-foot wonder with vertigo-inducing views of paddle-wheel boats steaming down the Mississippi. Two tram services carry the 4 million annual visitors on four-minute rides to the top. Architecture buffs opt for the north leg, which features an exhibit on the arch's construction, while armchair historians make for the south leg, which focuses on 19th-century life along the St. Louis waterfront. Either way, you'll want to avoid gusty days, as the arch's apex can sway up to 18 inches. coreofdiscovery.com, $10.
9. National Mall, Washington, D.C.
No story about American icons would be complete without the National Mall, that 1.9-mile stretch lined with dozens of memorials, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Capitol building, and the Washington Monument. We went one better and devoted an entire feature to D.C. Last year, the whole mall was outfitted with Wi-Fi hotspots, so you can always access our story online.
10. Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, PA
As befits the birthplace of American democracy, access to Independence National Historical Park, home of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, is free and easy. Tickets are required to visit Independence Hall from March to December, and a mere $1.50 fee allows you to reserve passes up to a year in advance-a good idea in the summer. Otherwise, plan to arrive right at 8:30 a.m., when the visitor center opens, to be sure of securing a spot on one of the day's 23 half-hour tours. History gets the rock-star treatment with Liberty 360, a 15-minute 3-D film that opened in September. The show-which is projected onto a 360-degree cylindrical screen-features an original score performed by 65 musicians as well as jaunty narration by a modern-day Benjamin Franklin. historicphiladelphia.org
11. Statue of Liberty, New York, NY
Lady Liberty's crown, which reopened after an eight-year hiatus in 2009, is scheduled to close again in November (along with the rest of the statue) for at least a year's worth of safety upgrades, so act fast to see the famous 125-year-old French gift from the inside. As you exit the ferry at Liberty Island, you'll need to purchase a Crown Visit wristband at the information center. The only thing you're allowed to take inside is a camera. Even cell phones and wallets are no-gos, so travel light and bring two singles to feed the three-hour lockers where you'll stash your goods. (There's no change machine, and to complicate the matter further, only singles and dollar coins are accepted). One wardrobe must: shoes with good grip. Descending the crown's 354 steps can be a slippery affair. nps.gov, $3 admission, plus $9 for ferry ticket.
12. Times Square, New York, NY
Even though the new pedestrian-only zones and bike lanes along Broadway between 47th and 42nd streets are threatening to turn the formerly frenetic Crossroads of the World into an oasis of urban calm, neon enthusiasts will still find a satisfying amount of hustle and bustle. The revamped TKTS booth at 47th Street and Broadway, whose translucent-red staircase-to-nowhere has fast become the area's prime spot for photo ops, is still the best source for discounted theater tickets. The smartest time to queue up is at 10:30 a.m.-between the morning commute and lunchtime rushes-when lines are shortest (tdf.org, from $50 for plays and $65 for musicals). For a hint of the area's former grittiness, head to the hole-in-the-wall Jimmy's Corner, an old-school boxing bar complete with jukebox, bowls of mixed nuts, and a gruff-but-friendly staff (212/221-9510, pints from $3).
Did You Know...
John Steinbeck helped build California's Highway 1.
Around 250 marriage licenses are issued each day in Las Vegas.
Hoover Dam is larger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
It took 900 tons of stainless steel to build the St. Louis Arch.
The National Mall contains over 3,000 Japanese cherry trees.
The Statue of Liberty is only as thick as two stacked pennies.