Whichever way you look at it - from the crater of a colossal canyon, staring up from the foot of a cloud-skirting skyscraper, gazing out across a great lake, or peering through the forests of a jungle-swathed island - it’s fair to say that the United States of America does nothing by halves, as revealed in The Rough Guide to the 100 Best Places in the USA.
Showcasing the most inspiring, exhilarating and beautiful places to visit in the USA, this picture-packed whopper of a book - a great gift for all the adventurers in your life - will have you yearning to explore this epic country. Before you start packing, read on to uncover a selection of the best places to visit in the USA featured in this inspirational guide.
1. Adirondacks, New York State
This vast northern region between Albany and the Canadian border covers an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, meaning when it comes to grandeur, the awe-inspiring Adirondacks take some beating. For context, 46 of its peaks scale more than 4000ft. Visit in summer to see the purple-green mountains stretch into the distance as a series of tree-shrouded tiers.
Come autumn, you’ll be rewarded with a shimmering show of russet red and gold. Once the preserve of fur trappers, loggers and Manhattan millionaires, its rugged wilderness is now better known as a top destination for mountaineers, skiers and hikers.
Maine more than lives up to its “the way life should be” motto, not least for travellers who like to get out and about in their own time, in their own space. lts forests, lakes and seaside settlements invite leisurely exploration, especially if you’re into food and drink. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to lobster shacks to stop off in. Local brewery tours are fun and fulfilling, as are the region's culinary tours.
What’s more, though it’s as big as the other five New England states combined, Maine has barely the year-round population of Rhode Island, which means it’s the perfect place to wander and ponder in peaceful, picturesque surroundings.
Going on a solo trip? Check out our guide to the best places to travel solo in the USA.
3. Manhattan, New York City
If you think of New York, chances are Manhattan’s staggering skyline will spring to mind. Chances are, too, you’ll want to see it from atop the 102-storey Empire State Building (try to time your visit to reach the top at sunset, and look to book an express admission ticket to beat those queues). Central Park is another Manhattan icon, and boy is it an experience, with tonnes of criss-crossing paths to walk or explore by bike or electric scooter, and plenty of cool places to sip cocktails at sundown.
Culture vultures won’t want to miss the visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since you could easily spend weeks meandering the Met, it’s worth buying a skip-the-line ticket in advance. Oh, and while you’ll want to see all these iconic sights, remember that New York has its share of off-the-tourist-trail attractions too.
Most visitors to Chicago are usually immediately stopped in their tracks by its skyline. From Mies van der Rohe’s creations for the Illinois Institute of Technology, to the 110-storey Willis Tower, it presents a masterclass in modern architecture (a great way to appreciate this is to take an architecture-oriented river cruise).
While also known for the magnificent Millennium Park, and the Art Institute of Chicago, the city is perhaps best loved for its live music scene - think backroom jazz and blues clubs exuding atmosphere and top tunes until the early hours. Exploring the city doesn’t have to break the bank either - there are plenty of fun things to do in Chicago for free.
5. Indiana Dunes National Park
Clutching over 15 miles of the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Park rewards visitors with a remarkable range of landscapes. Alongside the eponymous ancient dunes, here you’ll find wetlands, prairies, pine forests, and rivers – all of which means the park presents especially rich habitats for birdlife, with over 50 miles of trails for wildlife-watchers and walkers to enjoy.
Highlights include Mount Baldy Beach, with its towering 126ft-high sand dune, the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk (best in spring for migratory birds), and the Great Marsh behind Dunbar Beach.
5. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
If you’re looking for spectacular get-away-from-it-all coastal scenery, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan has it by the bucket. Spanning 42 miles of Lake Superior, it serves a jaw-dropping blend of multi-coloured cliffs, undulating dunes and secluded sandy beaches, all arguably best seen from a boat.
Take a trip from the little village of Grand Marais to Munising, watching out for the massive Log Slide dune and the Miners Castle geological formation along the awe-inspiring way. This is also a top destination for hikers, with trails running from Hwy-58 to the shoreline.
6. Black Hills, South Dakota
South Dakota’s Black Hills - where the Midwest meets the West - rise from a sea of plains, extending for a hundred miles between the Belle Fourche River in the north and the Cheyenne to the south. For generations of Sioux, their value was - and remains - immeasurable. They represent a spiritual stronghold, a place where warriors went to speak with Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit). For most visitors today, the Black Hills mean prairie dogs and bison.
They mean making an excursion to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, exploring the enchanting caverns of Wind Cave National Park, and enjoying epic outdoor adventures, including hiking the historic Flume Trail.
7. Lincoln, Nebraska State Capitol
Located fifty miles southwest of Omaha, Nebraska, Lincoln might be smaller, but it’s big on cultural dynamism, world-class culinary experiences, and architectural attractions, courtesy of its 400ft Art Deco tower. Jutting skyward like a sleek Byzantine skyscraper, this “Tower of the Plains” is capped by a golden dome.
Inside is every bit as impressive, with a soaring cathedral-like vestibule and rotunda, and an unicameral chamber that boasts a glorious gold-stencilled ceiling. Shoot up in the elevator to the fourteenth-floor observation deck to enjoy a birds’-eye view of the city (and beyond).
Tucked between Texas and Kansas, Oklahoma was put on the global map by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their first musical. The state was also one of the hardest hit by 1930s Depression, as explored in John Steinbeck’s novel (and John Ford’s film), The Grapes of Wrath, and the songs of local boy Woody Guthrie.
More West than Midwest – expect to see ranchers sporting Stetsons, and Native Americans mingling with oilmen – today visitors are drawn by the Americana-laced Route 66, artsy Tulsa, rejuvenated capital Oklahoma City, and excellent museums devoted to Native American history - the state is home to 39 sovereign Native American tribes, and “oklahoma” is the Choctaw word for “red man”.
9. Florida Keys
Love beaches, books and watching birds? How about sailing, snorkelling, hiking and diving (best enjoyed on an eco-adventure tour)? Then the Florida Keys might just be made for you. Free spirits and bibliophiles won’t be short of reasons to visit Key West, in particular. Lying on the archipelago’s most southerly tip, and once a rip-roaring buccaneers’ town, it’s closer to Cuba than mainland Florida, and feels a million miles from the rest of the USA.
The island’s boisterous history and unique “Floribbean” vibe draws all kinds of visitors - from water-babies and 24-hour party people, to nature-lovers. Key West is also home to a host of Hemingway hangouts including his former house (now a museum), and Sloppy Joe’s. Downing zesty daiquiris is pretty much de rigueur here at Papa Hemingway’s former favourite bar.
Perched above the Mississippi, atmospheric Memphis (think faded downtown streets dappled with diners, bars and retro stores) is arguably the single most exhilarating city in the South, especially for music-lovers. This city was built on rock ‘n’ roll, blues and soul. Head to Beale Street to soak up that vibe, or else take a tour of Sun Studio and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
Elvis aficionados would do well to check out tour experiences that take in his Memphis upbringing and grand Graceland residence. Beyond music, Memphis is home to many sites that honour its Civil Rights history, including the National Civil Rights Museum. Oh, and it’s also known as the nation’s BBQ capital.
South Beach parties, bronzed roller-bladers, high class hotels - Miami is certainly a place to get your glamour on, especially along Ocean Drive. The main allure of this iconic strip is its Art Deco architecture, backdrop for many a movie, and former haunt of Hollywood heyday icons. One great way to experience South Beach’s attractions is on a food tour – see the sights while sampling the city’s excellent street food, with flavours from the likes of Italy, Colombia and Cuba.
Talking of which, Little Havana is a Miami must-visit - a vibrant neighbourhood in which Cuban cuisine and adrenaline-kicking coffees are served to a soundtrack of blasting salsa trumpets. For a history fix, tour the Bay of Pigs Museum to find out about the USA’s failed 1961 invasion of the Bahía de Cochinos.
And don't forget to take care of your accommodation when planning your trip to Miami. You'll find a variety of options in our in-depth guide to the best places to stay in Miami.
12. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park in Texas is one of the largest, most remote and least-visited parks in the United States. It’s also one of the most hauntingly beautiful, which is really saying something given that the country has so many stunning National Parks. It’s the perfect place for peaceful hikes, tranquil boat trips, excellent birdwatching and awe-inspiring archaeological heritage – 9000-year-old fossils have been unearthed here.
A breath-taking 800,000-acre expanse of forested mountains and ocotillo-dotted desert, The Apache believed the Great Spirit used this wilderness as a dumping ground for the rocks left over from the creation of the world.
13. Monument Valley, Utah
Utah’s Monument Valley delivers an archetypal Wild West landscape of sandstone buttes and pinnacles of rock jabbing from an endless expanse of scarlet sands. Straddling the Arizona-Utah state line, the sheer majesty of the place truly takes your breath away.
Add to that the fact that it remains a stronghold of Navajo culture, and visiting the valley can be considered an undeniable experience of a lifetime. Stunning to behold at any time of day, taking a sunset tour of Monument Valley makes for an extra-magical experience.
14. Santa Fe, New Mexico
Capital of New Mexico, it’s not for nothing that Santa Fe is known as the “City Different”. One of America’s oldest and most beautiful cities, it was founded by the Spanish in 1610 - a decade before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock.
Spread across a high plateau at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, Santa Fe remains resplendent with the adobe houses and baroque churches of its original architects, while its newer museums and galleries attract art-lovers from all over the world (in fact, it’s home to America’s first UNESCO creative community). From discovering its architecture and wine, to exploring the nearby Hispanic villages, hot springs, ancient caves and ski spots, this truly is a different kind of destination.
15. Glacier National Park, Montana
Two thousand lakes, a thousand miles of rivers, thick forests, blustery meadows and awe-inspiring peaks make up one of America’s finest attractions - Montana’s Glacier National Park. A haven for bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions, it takes its name from the massive flows of ice that carved these immense valleys 20,000 years ago (today it contains 25 small, retreating glaciers).
Through summer, it’s a glorious place to hike and white-water raft, while winter brings crisp air, icy waterfalls and bountiful snowfall. Magic.
16. Telluride, Colorado
Set in a pretty valley at the base of immense steep-sided mountains, Colorado’s Telluride is a former mining village that was once home to a young Butch Cassidy (he robbed his first bank here back in 1889). Today, though, it’s better known for being a top ski region that rivals Aspen when it comes to visiting celebrities.
That said, it remains alluringly rugged and beautifully preserved. If you’re not into skiing, visit in summer to enjoy excellent hikes, and consider staying in a beautiful boutique hotel that's close to town and the mountain action.
17. Yellowstone National Park
It’s easy to understand why Yellowstone National Park attracts a jaw-dropping three million visitors every year (though there are ways to lose the crowds). The sheer variety of what’s on offer is mind-bending. First up, there’s the jaw-dropping mountain scenery, from the shifting colours of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, to the azure Yellowstone Lake.
Then there’s all the wildlife - grizzly bears, herds of heavy-bearded bison, horned elk, marmots, prairie dogs, eagles, coyotes, and elusive wolf packs. Yellowstone also happens to be one of the world’s largest volcanoes.
18. Kauai, Hawaii
Rich rainforests, colossal canyons, cascading waterfalls and emerald valleys - the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the oldest of the archipelago, has a distinctly dramatic landscape. Aptly known as the Garden Isle, Kauai is a lesser-visited tropical treasure for travellers seeking breath-taking back-to-nature experiences. On the west of the island, Waimea Canyon State Park is blessed with forty-five miles of trails that traverse striking red rock cliffs, and includes the epic Waipo’o Falls.
Further north, the eleven-mile Kalalau Trail within the Nā Pali Coast State Park is oft cited as one of the world’s most spectacular - and dangerous - trails. But fear not if you don’t fancy tackling this fearsome hike - you could always view the spectacular coastal scenery on a sightseeing flight.
19. Santa Cruz, California
75 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is a classic Californian beach town. Stunningly sited at the foot of thickly wooded mountains beside a stretch of sandy beaches, its laidback vibe and university-town status provides a contrast to the upscale resorts of Monterey Peninsula across the bay.
Base yourself here to enjoy excellent biking and hiking trails - the Natural Bridges State Park and Santa Cruz Mountains set the stage for mighty fine outdoor adventure experiences, while the lively beach boardwalk boasts a scattering of lovely boutique hotels to rest up in.
20. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is a wild wonderland of snow-capped peaks, towering cliffs and giant granite domes that seem to be conjured from a fantasy world, with Yosemite Valley an undisputable contender for showcasing some of the world’s most stunning scenery - as such, it’s pretty darn essential to visit Yosemite Valley.
Created by glaciers scoring through the canyon of the Merced River, the valley is walled by 3000ft near-sheer cliffs, marbled by waterfalls and topped by domes and jagged pinnacles. On the ground, deer, coyotes and black bears abound in the grassy meadows and forests.
For more US travel inspiration (or to give the gift of inspiration to your friends and family), you might want to get your hands on a copy of The Rough Guide to the 100 Best Places in the USA.