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.
1. Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, CA
Once the world's longest suspension bridge, the 1.7-mile Golden Gate has since been surpassed in size-but not in beauty. Hundreds of people walk the span from San Francisco to Sausalito each day, so you'll want to plan wisely. Bypass the two-hour meters at the overcrowded main lot off S.F.'s Merchant Road in favor of ample free parking at Crissy Field Center (crissyfield.org). There, fair-trade coffee awaits at the Warming Hut Café & Bookstore, a whitewashed shed near the shore that's the perfect place to fuel up for the gentle, half-mile Bay Trail to the bridge (415/561-3040, coffee $2). The Golden Gate's best-kept secret: Although it's closed to pedestrians after sunset, gates are opened for star-gazing cyclists. goldengatebridge.org
2. Highway 1, California Coast
Sure, it stretches almost the entire length of
California, but the part you're dreaming of covers only 123 miles along two nationally designated scenic byways between Monterey and Morro Bay. That's the stuff of road-tripping fantasies, where you'll be curving between windswept cliffs, towering redwoods, and the crashing surf below. You could whip through the whole stretch in less than three hours, but you'd miss out on worthy detours for swimming, kayaking, hiking, and jade-diving. Traffic conditions are continuously updated at the California Department of Transportation site (dot.ca.gov), and crowds generally thin out during the shoulder-season months of May and September.
3. Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, CA
Each year, another 20 to 30 luminaries are added to the more than 2,400 celebrities already immortalized in pink terrazzo along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. The Official Hollywood Walk of Fame iPhone app ($2) tells you exactly where to find Bette Davis, the Beatles, and both Harrison Fords (the other one was a silent film star). Parking in Hollywood is notoriously challenging, so this is a rare moment when L.A.'s subway comes in handy: The Red Line, which runs between NorthHollywood and Down-town, stops at Hollywood and Vine; riders can leave their cars at one of the 1,500-plus free parking spots available at the North Hollywood and Universal City stops at the line's western end. walkoffame.com
4. Las Vegas Strip, Las Vegas, NV
Where else in the world can you find a permanent circus, an indoor sky, and a slice of the Roman Empire? Truth is, Vegas is famous for taking thrills to new heights-more so now than ever. Last April, the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower at the Strip's north end debuted its SkyJump attraction, the highest "controlled free fall" in the world. (Think skydiving with a cable instead of a parachute.) Brave souls, who pay $100 for the privilege, can make the 108-story leap as late as 2 a.m. on weekends, when all the glittering lights amp up the drama. stratospherehotel.com
5. Hoover Dam, Boulder City, NV
It's never been easier to visit this 75-year-old colossus, which provides 20 million residents of California, Nevada, and Arizona with water and 1.3 million with hydroelectricity. Some new engineering is now helping the flow of the near-million annual visitors: a four-lane, 1,900-foot-long Hoover Dam bypass bridge. This bridge is the second-highest in the nation, perched at almost 900 feet above the rushing Colorado River. Avoid the intense summer heat (as high as 110 degrees) by planning your visit during January or February, when temperatures hover in the low 60s. But be sure to arrive by 3 p.m. to tour the dam itself; visitors aren't allowed to the top of the facility after dark, which comes as early as 4:30 p.m. during that time of year. hooverdambypass.org, tour $11.
6. Mount Rushmore, Keystone, SD
You can't actually clamber over the presidents' heads like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. But the 500-foot-tall Mount Rushmore and the surrounding national forest still pack plenty of cinematic punch, thanks to the spiraling bridges, rock tunnels, and pinnacles of granite that line scenic Highway 89 north of Custer. There's no fee to see the busts (sculpted by 400 men), other than an $11 parking permit that, once paid, is good for the calendar year. Don't miss the equally epic Crazy Horse Memorial (crazyhorsememorial.org, entry $10), slated to be the world's largest cliff carving, just 15 miles away. nps.gov/moru
7. French Quarter, New Orleans, LA
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).
13. Grand Canyon Skywalk, Tusayan, AZ
This gravity-defying glass bridge, perched 4,000 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon, on its western rim, has hosted more than 250,000 visitors a year since it opened four years ago-and the knee-buckling privilege doesn't come cheap. The only way to access the Skywalk is via Grand Canyon West, a tourist area run by the Hualapai tribe on land located outside the Grand Canyon National Park. The most affordable ticket option is the Legacy Gold package, an all-day pass that includes a meal, a tour, and tribal demonstrations along with the Skywalk ticket. grandcanyonwest.com, $87.
14. Millennium Park, Chicago, IL
This 24.5-acre park in the heart of downtown Chicago opened in 2004, and is a wonderland of cutting-edge architecture and design. Playful, family-friendly, and free attractions include the Cloud Gate sculpture, which reflects the downtown skyline and visitors' faces like a series of fun-house mirrors, and Crown Fountain, a multimedia installation that pairs splash-worthy sprays of water with 50-foot-tall video portraits. millennium.org
15. Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA
Ninety minutes southeast of Pittsburgh, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece of indoor-outdoor architectural harmony draws 150,000 annual visitors attracted by the spectacle of three cantilevered levels made of concrete and sandstone that jut gracefully over a cascading 30-foot waterfall. Fallingwater celebrates its 75th anniversary this year with a series of special events. To experience the house at its most serene, aim for early May, when the redbud trees are in bloom. fallingwater.org, from $20.
16. Fenway Park, Boston, MA
The oldest major-league baseball stadium in the country (Chicago's Wrigley Field is two years younger), Fenway Park turns 100 in 2012-and a 50-minute daily guided tour, which runs every hour on the hour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on nongame days, celebrates its history. Newbies will want to stop by a Fan Services booth and ask for a free welcome message on the stadium's original, manually-operated scoreboard. If you're one of the first five to arrive at the booth, 35,000 people will see your name in lights-just like Yaz. mlb.com, tour $12.
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