View our photos of can't-miss sites across the U.S.A.
SUMMER VACATION IDEAS
20 Places Every American Should See
Think you know America's essential sights? Compare your past trips with our picks for 20 domestic destinations every citizen should visit—from pop culture icons to patriotic landmarks. Consider it your star-spangled bucket list.
What makes a place essentially American? Besides being between our borders, of course? When the Budget Travel editors set out to compile a list of 20 can't-miss destinations in the United States, we knew there was no one right answer. A place couldn't be just historic, or only very beautiful, or merely iconic. But in the best cases, it might be all three. For days (and weeks), ideas were floated, debates were had, some favorites were voted down and others prevailed. The list we arrived at is no American-history textbook quiz—although historic sites are there, along with a sampling of cultural, nostalgic, and guilty-pleasure spots that, we think, evoke the kaleidoscopic American experience. While our list is unranked, incomplete and inherently subjective, we think it is also diverse, surprising, and informative—and well worth keeping in mind as you plan your next vacation itinerary. So why not map out a detour to one of these spots the next time you hit the road? Who knows—you might never think of this country in quite the same way again.
Highway 1, Calif.
Considering that the United States has more miles of paved roads (over 2.7 million) than any other country on earth, is it any wonder that road trips are practically a rite of passage here? One of the most meditative—and celebrated—drives you can take in the States is the 145-mile stretch of California's Pacific Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. Expect view after astonishing view of land meeting sea, as the road snakes and swerves high above the Pacific, past bright-green grasslands and redwood-forested canyons (byways.org).
Photo op:About two hours north of Monterey, Highway 1 crosses San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, a 75-year old marvel of engineering and aesthetics. If the bridge is totally obscured by fog, you can fake your Kodak moment in front of the giant photomontage at the bridge pavilion's new visitor's center.
Insider tip: Take a detour near San Simeon to see the mansion of William Randolph Hearst, the eccentric newspaper magnate made famous by Citizen Kane (750 Hearst Castle Rd., hearstcastle.org, tours from $25).
French Quarter, New Orleans, La.
No other American neighborhood provides as much eye candy as the cobblestone streets of New Orleans' French Quarter—known as "the Quarters" to locals—and we're not referring to the annual Mardi Gras parades, with their thousands of taffeta-draped harlequins strutting to funk, R&B, and Dixie. No, it's the architecture that's intriguing. Stroll this district, which is bounded by the Mississippi River, Rampart Street and Canal and Esplanade, and you'll glimpse nightclubs lit up in neon, French colonial townhouses draped in ivy, Creole cottages built on stilts, and antebellum mansions whose balconies are laced with intricate ironwork. The neighborhood's premiere event is the annual French Quarter Festival in April, which draws hundreds of thousands of listeners for a series of jazz performances, focusing more on up-and-coming artists than the better-known cross-town rival New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (neworleansonline.com).
Photo op: Jackson Square, a patch of moss-bearded oaks in the core of the French Quarter, is home to a striking statue of Andrew Jackson, the Renaissance- and Spanish Colonial-style St. Louis Cathedral, and Cafe Du Monde, which serves the city's signature beignets (fried dough treats).
Insider's tip: The visitor's center at New Orleans Jazz Historical Park offers free self-guided audio tours of famous music institutions, such as a favorite venue of the late trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Preservation Hall No. 4, which re-opened last year after a six-year closure post-Katrina (nps.gov/jazz).
National Mall, Washington, D.C.
There's no place in America where you get more historical bang for your buck than the National Mall—fitting, since two of its most famous memorials (to Lincoln and Jefferson) are stamped on our smallest coinage. This less-than-two-mile stretch of our capital city packs in those memorials, plus the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, among others, and it's lined with Smithsonian Institution museums—none of which cost a dime to enter. Even if politics leaves you cold, there's sure to be something at one of the Smithsonian branches to get you going, whether it's the astronaut ice cream sold in the gift shop at the National Air and Space Museum, the inaugural gowns of First Ladies on display in the National Museum of American History, or the 45-carat Hope Diamond gleaming in the Natural History Museum (nps.gov/nacc and si.edu).
Photo op: The P.O.V. rooftop bar at the W Hotel has the best view of the Mall in the city (515 15th St, NW; whotels.com).
Insider tip: The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian has the most interesting food on the Mall. Try the pulled buffalo sandwich with chayote squash slaw and the cinnamon-and-honey fry bread (mitsitamcafe.com, sandwich $11.25, fry bread $3.35).