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).
Las Vegas Strip, Las Vegas, Nev.
Glass pyramids. Faux Venetian canals. The 1,148-foot tall Stratosphere Tower. A couple of $100 million daredevil circuses called Cirque du Soleil. They're all part of this neon-lit desert outpost 300 miles from Los Angeles—with a magnetic pull like no other. Every American ends up on the Strip sooner or later, whether for a bachelor party, a girlfriend getaway, a trade show, or simply lured by a shockingly cheap hotel-and-airfare deal. It's the place Americans go to let their hair down (and, okay, gamble). Aside from its new $2.4 billion airport terminal, Vegas's latest attraction is the Mob Museum (a.k.a., the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement), a tribute to the mafia in real life and in pop culture that opened in February 2012. Interactive exhibits are plentiful: Be ready to pose for a police line-up shot (themobmuseum.org).
Photo op: For a sure bet on a clear view of the cityscape, head to the Ghostbar on top of the Palms Hotel and Spa (palms.com).
Insider tip: For a retro vibe, veer off the Strip to the hole-in-the-wall Champagnes Cafe, an old-school bar complete with blood-red wallpaper, bowls of mixed nuts, and a jukebox that plays Frank, Sammy, Dean, and Bing (3557 Maryland Parkway South; 702/737-1699).
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Wide-open space is a unique inheritance for every American, and Yellowstone is the most dramatic example of what "wide-open space" really means. In 1872, two-million-acre Yellowstone debuted as America's first national park, and visitors began flocking to soak in its hot springs, see elk and bison roam its grasslands, gawk at its geyser known as Old Faithful, and hear gray wolves sound chill-inducing howls at dawn. Amazingly, visitors can get the same thrills today for nearly no cost. For the fullest experience, stay the night. The lack of light pollution in northwest Wyoming's Big Sky country reveals an astonishing canopy of stars that is virtually unchanged from the time of native tribes, fur trappers, and pioneer explorers (nps.gov/yell).
Photo op: Take the Lake Area Elephant Back Loop Trail for a vista encompassing Yellowstone Lake, the Absaroka Range, and the Pelican Valley.
Insider tip: Enter via the less-traveled Silver or East gates for more solitude on the park's roughly 1,200 miles of trail.
Times Square, New York City
Sure, the crowds can be pushy, but Times Square—the stretch of Broadway between Manhattan's 42nd and 47th streets—delivers the most intense straight-up celebration of round-the-clock visual stimulation in the free world. Three hundred sixty-five days a year, it's all lights, cameras, and action. And in summer, when the city sets out a slew of lawn chairs in its pedestrian-only core, you can take a seat and gaze southward, imagining the scene every New Year's Eve when a million revelers watch the ball drop—an all-American tradition for 105 years.
Photo op: Climb the translucent, ruby-red stairs that seem to lean atop the TKTS booth, which sells same-day discounted Broadway tickets at 47th Street and Broadway; it's a great place to snap a photo without hundreds of strangers' heads crowding the shot.
Insider tip: If you see a guy playing guitar in nothing but his underwear and a 10-gallon hat, don't be alarmed—it's just the Naked Cowboy, who makes the rounds here often.
Soaking up country music in its native habitat is an American music experience like no other. Leafy, laid-back Nashville, Tenn., deserves its nickname Music City U.S.A.: It's dotted with twang-accented institutions, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium (with its famous acoustics), and the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly live-audience radio show that has been continuously broadcast since 1925. Go boot-scootin' at one of the countless honky-tonks lining Broadway, where the line dancing is first-rate (visitmusiccity.com).
Photo op: Head to midtown to pose in front of a life-size replica of the ancient Greek Parthenon, which stands in Centennial Park (2600 West End Ave.).
Insider tip: The Bluebird Cafe is a nightly venue that spotlights the best up-and-coming talents in country. Exhibit A: Garth Brooks once performed at this nondescript club before anybody knew his name (4104 Hillsboro Pike, bluebirdcafe.com).
Grand Canyon, Ariz.
Many American landmarks inspire people to think big, but none can match the leviathan scale of the Grand Canyon (nps.gov/grca). As with anything worthwhile, a mind-melting view of the fire-hued, half-mile-long rock faces at the Grand Canyon must be earned. Take a half-day or overnight mule trip, which involves a guided ride along the canyon rim and down to the Colorado River. Space is limited, so book ahead via Xanterra Parks & Resorts (xanterra.com, 888/297-2757), the operator that has the parks concession, or at the transportation desk in the lobby of Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Lodge, on the South Rim (half-day rides $123, overnight trips $507 including cabin accommodation, breakfast, lunch, and a steak dinner). Your souvenir—aside from a newfound appreciation for more comfortable forms of transportation—will be the vivid sense of timelessness that you can only get from observing a geological wonder more than a million years in the making.
Photo op: Rent a true four-wheel-drive vehicle, such as a Jeep Liberty or a Ford Expedition, from a major chain at the airport before you drive to the park, so you can tackle the sixty or so miles of dirt road to the Toroweap overlook for its 3,000-foot, sheer-drop view ($125 per day from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, budget.com).
Insider tip: When it's open in the summer, skip the South Rim for the lesser-visited North Rim, where a quieter experience awaits.
Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, Calif.
In 2013, Helen Mirren, James Franco, Usher, Jennifer Hudson, Ron Howard, and another 19 actors and musicians will be added to the more than 2,400 celebrities who've left their handprints and bronze-engraved names in the pavement along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street since 1958. (We imagine tourists have been posing with their hands in their favorite stars' prints for about that long, too.) Mercifully, reality TV stars are banned from the sidewalk showcase—only those who've read from a script can be included (walkoffame.com).
Photo op: For a primo view of the famous Hollywood sign, walk west from Vine toward Highland Ave., and then up to the fourth level of the bridge in the Hollywood & Highland Center (6801 Hollywood Blvd., hollywoodandhighland.com).
Insider tip: Famous animals have left their paw prints on the pavement, too. Look for Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even Godzilla.
Disney's Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Fla.
Admire Cinderella's Castle, watch Princess Jasmine hug small children, and listen to the animated model of Abe Lincoln talk in the Hall of Presidents. Those are typical items on the agenda at Disney World, the rare American tourist trap that's worth the trip. Founder Walt Disney pioneered the use of technology to create enchanted moments that surpass the mere roll-into-town carnival. His handiwork is probably our nation's most beloved contribution to global culture. After all, has anyone in the world never heard of Pirates of the Caribbean? We didn't think so (disneyworld.disney.go.com).
Photo op: Get into the picture at Casey's Corner on Main Street, U.S.A., when the parade floats roll past at 3 p.m. daily.
Insider tip: Go clockwise around the original park, starting with Adventureland—to your left, as you enter. Most visitors head the other way, so you'll encounter fewer crowds.
Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Penn.
The Founding Fathers didn't need iPads, PowerPoint, or big-screen projectors to debate the Constitution of the United States, let alone to discuss the Declaration of Independence. So it's apt that the National Park Service keeps its tour of Independence Hall, where those famous discussions were held, free of technological gimmicks. After you pick up your timed ticket from the visitor's center, you queue outdoors and then step into a room as spare as a Quaker meeting house (appropriate for a city whose founders mostly belonged to the unpretentious religious sect). A park ranger talks briefly about how revolutionary the ideas of equality and democracy were when they were discussed more than 230 years ago in this building, which served as the Pennsylvania state house. Then you see the rooms where the treasured documents were signed. No holograms or other tricks are needed to feel a chill. When you're done, go across the street to the simple glass pavilion that houses the Liberty Bell, a two-ton bell that rang when the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud (despite a crack that formed during testing) and later became a symbol of the movement to abolish slavery.
Photo op: In Independence Hall, focus your zoom lens on the back of the assembly speaker's chair, which is emblazoned with the image of a sun hanging halfway over a horizon. Benjamin Franklin famously interpreted this sun as a symbol of the nation's rise.
Insider tip: Not officially part of the park, a slavery memorial called The President's House stands quietly beside the Liberty Bell pavilion at S. 6th St. and Market Street. The city-run site protects the ruins of the foundation of the house in which George Washington kept his slaves while working in the city.
Taos Pueblo, N.M.
At the northern edge of the artist colony of Taos and a couple hours' drive north of Santa Fe, Taos Pueblo is a set of adobe dwellings, ranging from two to five stories tall, whose walls gleam in the sun of the high desert. Some of the 2,000 Tiwa-speaking people who live on an adjacent reservation continue to use this six-century-old settlement for ceremonial rites, such as for the Deer and Matachines Dances, which are usually performed to the sound of heavy drum beats. The Taos Pueblo contains the largest collection of multi-story pueblo dwellings in the country—well worth its UNESCO World Heritage status—and provides an uncommon insight into the culture of the first Americans (taospueblo.com, admission $10).
Photo op: The main north pueblo, Hlauuma, is especially photogenic when the light reflects off its face and the Taos Mountain looms in the background.
Insider tip: It's worth the $6 camera fee to capture the sun-baked facade on film. Just leave your fancy SLR at home—they jack up the fees for folks bringing in pro-level gear.
Fenway Park, Boston, Mass.
No sport is more central to America's identity than baseball, and the best place to pay homage to it is at Fenway Park in central Boston. In operation for 100 years, Fenway is the nation's oldest stadium that's still home to a Major League Baseball team (it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in July 2012). This field of dreams for the Boston Red Sox is a field of nightmares to the players of visiting teams, thanks to its 37-foot-tall "Green Monster," a colossally high left-field wall that gives Sox left-fielders an edge over their counterparts because of the oddly-angled rebounds it causes. The park is steeped in lore, such as for its Pesky Pole, a right-field foul rod so nicknamed because Sox player Johnny Pesky hit a two-run homer around the pole on Opening Day in 1946 (mlb.com).
Photo op: Get prime views of the park from the top of the Budweiser Right Field Roof Deck.
Insider tip: The first five visitors to arrive at the Fan Services booth on the official ballpark tour may request to have their names put up on the original, manually-operated scoreboard (tours from $12).
South Beach, Miami, Fla.
Even in typically overstated Miami terms, no place in the country captures Latin-tropical chic like South Beach, with its 23 pastel-hued blocks of hotels, shops, restaurants, and cocktail bars south of Dade Boulevard. Glamorously restored art deco and art moderne hotels dominate Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, which run parallel to the Atlantic. Check out the high-rise Raleigh, with its curvaceous swimming pool; the Delano, a glossy white Philippe Starck confection; and the Mondrian, with its super-sized chess pieces standing guard near an ebony staircase. Given an average year-round temperature of 75 degrees, SoBe always draws a pretty crowd for people-watching along its ocean promenade (miamibeachguest.com).
Photo op: Sunrise casts the best light on South Beach's Creamsicle-colored hotels. Find peak times for this and other locations at golden-hour.com.
Insider tip: South Beach is home to the most authentic Cuban-comfort-food restaurants outside of Havana. Try Puerto Sagua, where waiters have served ropa vieja (shredded beef) and other staples since 1962 (700 Collins Ave.; 305/673-1115).
Civil Rights District, Atlanta, Ga.
Atlanta's Sweet Auburn neighborhood draws thousands of visitors each year to pay respects to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the renowned African American preacher and civil rights leader who was born here and whose messages on dignified protest still resonate worldwide. Popular locations include King's gravesite, the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized and ordained and where his funeral was held, and the King Birth Home, a Queen Anne-style house where he lived for the first dozen years of his life. A visitor's center at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site displays many artifacts, such as the photographs from the bus boycott that King organized to fight segregation (nps.gov/malu).
Photo op: The visitors' center displays the mule wagon that carried King's body during his funeral procession.
Insider tip: If you want to tour inside King's birthplace home, arrive early at the National Park Service visitor center, as tours book up fast.
Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, Pa.
Compelling battlefield tours are difficult to pull off, as there's often little to see. But Gettysburg, the most visited of Civil War battlefields, manages the trick. At the four-year-old, $135 million visitor's center, a 20-minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman explains how the three-day fight unfolded, while an 1884 Cyclorama depicts an infantry assault in a 359-foot-long-by-27-foot-high wraparound oil painting. Once you're oriented, drive the park's paved roads (a rented audio guide enhances the experience). The landscape you'll see is close to what the blue and grey saw, as the park service is slowly restoring tracts of land and forest to how they would have looked during the battle. Be sure to stop at Little Round Top, where 1,600 soldiers died in just a few hours of fierce fighting—a small portion of the overall grim death toll (1195 Baltimore Pike, nps.gov/gett).
Photo op: An especially photogenic—and pang-inducing—memorial stands at nearby Soldiers' National Cemetery, where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
Insider tip: To find out whether a relative is buried here, check the Veteran's Administration website, va.gov, which has a free searchable database of burials in national cemeteries throughout the United States.
Architecture in Chicago, Ill.
Daring architecture is a hallmark of the U.S.A., and Chicago has long been the epicenter of our nation's "edifice complex." No other American city has tried to erect as many highrises spanning as many styles as the Windy City. The birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago's downtown is currently bookended by two stunning buildings, the 110-story Willis Tower, which held the title of the world's tallest structure until 1998, and the John Hancock Center, whose austere crisscross trusses leave giant X marks rising 100 stories into the clouds. More whimsical works include Tribune Tower, a Gothic fantasy of an office complex; Skybridge, a 39-story, glass-plate wonder that resembles a razor-sharp grater; and Aqua Tower, a two-year-old surrealistic structure that looks like a topographic wave or a stack of potato chips—pick your metaphor (architecture.org).
Photo op: Head downtown to the Frank Gehry-designed BP Pedestrian Bridge, which connects Millennium Park with Grant Park and Daley Bicentennial Plaza. It rises above the tree line to provide astonishing views of the city's buildings (millenniumpark.org).
Insider tip: The most fascinating architecture tour is actually in the suburb of Oak Park, Ill. Take a guided survey of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, typically departing from the late architect's Home and Studio (951 Chicago Ave., gowright.org, guided tour $25).
Ellis Island, N.J.
Four out of 10 Americans have at least one ancestor who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954—a whopping 12 million immigrants in that 62-year period. At the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, you'll visit re-creations of the port's key spaces, such the hearing rooms where people's cases were judged, while an audio tour narrated by Tom Brokaw delivers the back story. (For another perspective, listen to recordings of oral accounts from 1,500 immigrants and island workers at 20 listening stations.) You can also peruse more than 25 million newly digitized arrival records at 11 computer stations throughout the museum (ellisisland.org, from $8).
Photo op: Ellis Island offers the best land-based view of the Statue of Liberty, from one mile away (the statue itself is closed to visitors through the end of 2012 for a $27.25 million renovation); you'll also get great photos of the Manhattan skyline from the island.
Insider tip: Ferries run daily from Manhattan's Battery Park and stop first at the Statue of Liberty (nps.gov/stli), so take an early-morning cruise to travel with smaller crowds.
Pearl Harbor, O'ahu, Hawaii
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the USS Arizona Memorial (nps.gov/usar), which honors the men who died on the famous battleship sunk in 1941's Pearl Harbor air raid. A scale model of the ship inside the monument's museum gives a sense of what it must have been like to be on the vessel while it was under attack, and public tours include a 22-minute movie presentation, followed by a visit to the Memorial itself. Nearby, a nonprofit group maintains the Battleship Missouri Memorial, which was the site of the formal Japanese surrender, while a preserved World War II submarine can be explored at the adjacent USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, run by another independent group.
Photo op: The Kilo Pier looks directly at the Memorial from approximately half a mile away.
Insider tip: Visitors may add the stories, photos, or letters passed down by their family members in the archives of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Project, which aims to make all of the stories available in audio format for generations to come (pearlharborstories.org).
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, N.Y.
If a national temple to the visual arts exists in America, it might just be the Met, a 13-acre venue set, appropriately, within the city's most famous living work of art, Central Park. It draws more than 6 million visitors each year, and has a permanent collection of nearly 2 million works that span 5,000 years of creativity. The museum is currently undergoing renovation and renewal. Its American Wing (which stars Emanuel Leutze's portrayal of General George Washington crossing a near-frozen Delaware River during the Revolutionary War) reopened in January 2012 after extensive refurbishment. In 2007, the Greek and Roman galleries opened in a stunning, 60,000-square-foot-hall after a $220 million renovation, and a suite of 15 wholly revamped galleries for the museum's Islamic art collection debuted in late 2011 to serious acclaim. (1000 Fifth Ave., metmuseum.org, adult suggested donation $25).
Photo op: The rooftop of the Met is open to visitors and provides one of the city's clearest views of the skyline to the east and south, including Central Park and the Empire State Building. Go at sunset.
Insider tip: While a donation of $25 is strongly suggested, entering the museum is technically free, as a way to avoid discriminating against the poor.