Though the cities of the USA draw the most tourists – New York, New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all incredible destinations in their own right – America is above all a land of stunningly diverse and achingly beautiful landscapes. With all the variety in mind, we have tried to gather the best things to do in the USA.
The classic southwestern landscape of stark sandstone buttes and forbidding pinnacles of rock, poking from an endless expanse of drifting red sands, is an archetypal Wild West image. Only when you arrive at Monument Valley – which straddles the Arizona–Utah state line, 24 miles north of Kayenta – do you realize how much your perception of the West has been shaped by this one spot.
Such scenery does exist elsewhere, of course, but nowhere is it so perfectly distilled. While moviemakers have flocked here since the early days of Hollywood, the sheer majesty of the place still takes your breath away. Add the fact that it remains a stronghold of Navajo culture and Monument Valley can be the absolute highlight of a trip to the Southwest.
2. Redwood National Park, CA
Nearly forty miles north of Arcata, the small town of Orick marks the southern limit and busiest section of the Redwood National Park. Tall Trees Grove here is home to one of the world’s tallest trees – a mighty 367-footer. Many visitors hike to it on the 8.5-mile trail from Bald Hill Road near Orick but check with the Kuchel information centre if the access road to the closest trailhead has reopened.
Of the three state parks within the Redwood National Park area, Prairie Creek is the most varied and popular. Highlights include the meadows of Elk Prairie, where herds of Roosevelt Elk wander freely. Spectacular coastal views can be had from trails in the Klamath area, especially the Klamath Overlook, two miles up Requa Road and about three-quarters of a mile above the sea.
One of the best things to do in the USA is to visit some of its 240 national parks — each with unique natural sites. Don't miss our guide to the best national parks in the USA.
Experiencing the full, pristine grandeur of the Rockies, and especially its wildlife, is one of the essential things to do in the USA. A full third of the park is above the tree line, and large areas of snow never melt; the name of the Never Summer Mountains speaks volumes about the long, empty expanses of arctic-style tundra.
The showpiece of the park is Trail Ridge Road, the 45-mile stretch of US-34 that connects the small gateway towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake. The highest elevation paved road in any US national park affords a succession of tremendous views and several short trails along the way. Majestic peaks and alpine tundra are at their most breathtaking on either side of the Alpine Visitor Centre.
This tailor-made trip to Nashville & Smoky Mountains explores the USA from Music City to Mile High City. A great combination of city culture and pristine wilderness.
Piled high with salmon, lobster, clams and crabs, Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington is home to some great seafood restaurants. Few cities in America have anything like Pike Place Market, founded in 1907 and overlooking the waterfront and the oldest continuously working public market in the USA.
The covered complex is a labyrinth of thirteen buildings on a triangular, nine-acre lot, holding some three hundred produce and fish vendors, bakeries, craft stalls, touristy shops and small retailers. An expansion, which opened in 2017, created space for over forty new stalls, an on-site brewery and more.
- For central location: Hotel Theodore
- For classic American style: Seattle Gaslight Inn
Where to stay in Seattle:
American towns don’t come much more beautiful than Savannah, seventeen miles up the Savannah River from the ocean. The ravishing historic district, arranged around Spanish-moss-swathed garden squares, formed the core of the original city and boasts examples of just about every architectural style of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
One of the most soulful things to do in the USA is to wander the side streets and admire the shuttered Federal, Regency and antebellum houses, embellished with intricate iron balconies. More than twenty residential squares, shaded by canopies of ancient live oaks and ablaze with dogwood trees, azaleas and creamy magnolias, offer a peaceful respite from the blistering summer heat.
- For charming historical vibes: Olde Harbour Inn
- For an authentic atmosphere: Foley House Inn
Where to stay in Savannah:
Scattered through desert landscapes like New Mexico’s magnificent Bandelier National Monument, the dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans afford glimpses of an ancient and mysterious world. Few visitors to the Southwest are prepared for the awesome scale and beauty of the desert cities and cliff palaces left by the Ancestral Puebloans, as seen all over the high plateaus of the “Four Corners” region.
Although the earliest humans reached the Southwest around 10,000 BC, the Ancestral Puebloans first appeared as Basketmakers, near the San Juan River, two thousand years ago. Named for their woven sandals and bowls, they lived in pits in the earth, roofed with logs and mud. Over time, the Ancestral Puebloans adopted an increasingly settled lifestyle, becoming expert farmers and potters.
Yellowstone is the national park that has one of the best things to do in the USA, from steaming fluorescent hot springs and spouting geysers to sheer canyons and meadows filled with wildflowers and assorted beasts. America’s oldest and easily its most famous national park, Yellowstone National Park attracts over four million visitors every year, for good reason; the sheer diversity of what’s on offer is mind-bending.
Not only does Yellowstone deliver jaw-dropping mountain scenery, but it’s jam-packed with so much wildlife you might think you’ve arrived at a safari park. What sets Yellowstone apart, however, is that this is one of the world’s largest volcanoes, with thousands of fumaroles jetting plumes of steam, mud pots gurgling with acid-dissolved muds and clays, and of course, hot springs.
8. Going to a baseball game - one of the best things to do in the USA for a national spirit
America’s summer pastime is a treat to watch wherever you are, from Chicago’s ivy-clad Wrigley Field to Boston’s Fenway Park, the oldest in the country. Home to Boston’s beloved Red Sox baseball team, Fenway Park was constructed in 1912 in a tiny, asymmetrical space just off Brookline Avenue, resulting in its famously awkward dimensions.
The 37ft left-field wall, aka the Green Monster, is its most distinctive quirk; that it is so high makes up for some of the park’s short distances. Tours of the ballpark are fun and deservedly popular, but your best bet is to come to see a game. The season runs from April to October, and tickets are reasonable, though tough to snag (Sox fans are an exceptionally devoted lot).
9. Graceland, Memphis, TN
Pilgrims from all over the world pay homage to the King by visiting his gravesite and an endearingly modest home. In itself, Elvis Presley’s Graceland was a surprisingly modest home for the world’s most successful entertainer – it’s certainly not the “mansion” you may have imagined. Visits are affectionate celebrations of the man; never exactly tongue-in-cheek, but not cloyingly reverential either.
Elvis was just 22 when he paid $100,000 for Graceland in 1957. Built in 1939, the stone-clad house was then considered one of the most desirable properties in Memphis. Today the neighbourhood is distinctly less exclusive, its main thoroughfare – Elvis Presley Boulevard – slightly dodgy and lined with discount liquor stores, ancient beauty parlours and surprisingly few Elvis-related souvenir shops.
- For atmospheric immersion: Big Cypress Lodge
- For Graceland location: The Guest House at Graceland
Where to stay in Memphis:
10. Sweet Auburn, Atlanta, GA
One and a half miles east of Centennial Park, Auburn Avenue stands as a monument to Atlanta’s black history. During its heyday in the 1920s, “Sweet Auburn” was a prosperous, progressive area of black-owned businesses and jazz clubs, but it went into a decline with the Depression from which it has never truly recovered.
Several blocks have been designated as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, in honour of Auburn’s most cherished native son. This short stretch of road is the most visited attraction in all of Georgia and it’s a moving experience to watch the crowds of school kids waiting in turn to take photographs. Head first for the park service’s visitor centre where an exhibition covers King’s life and campaigns.
- For modern stays: Reverb by Hard Rock Atlanta Downtown
- For Sweet Auburn location: Socially Savvy Atlanta
Where to stay in Atlanta:
11. Niagara Falls, NY
Every second almost three-quarters of a million gallons of water explode over the knife-edge Niagara Falls, right on the border with Canada some twenty miles north of Buffalo. This awesome spectacle is made even more impressive by the variety of methods laid on to help you get closer to it.
At night the falls are lit up and the coloured waters tumble dramatically into blackness, while in winter the whole scene changes as the fringes of the falls freeze to form gigantic razor-tipped icicles.
Some visitors will find the whole experience a bit too gimmicky, although the green fringes of the state park provide some bucolic getaways. Once you’ve seen the falls from as many different angles as you can manage and traced the Niagara Gorge, you’ll have a better time heading back to Buffalo.
12. Driving Highway 1, CA
The rugged Big Sur coastline, pounded by Pacific waves, makes an exhilarating route between San Francisco and LA. The breathtakingly unspoilt area extends inland for about twenty miles, well into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Running through this striking terrain is exhilarating Hwy-1, carved out of bedrock cliffs hundreds of feet above the frothing ocean and opened in 1937.
Resist the temptation to bust through Big Sur in a single day, though; the best way to enjoy its perfect isolation and beauty is slowly. Leave the car behind as often as you can and wander through its numerous parks, where a mere ten-minute walk can completely remove you from any hint of the built environment.
13. Crater Lake, OR
Just over a hundred miles south of Bend, the blown-out shell of Mount Mazama holds the hypnotically beautiful Crater Lake, formed after an eruption 42 times greater than that of Mount St Helens. You won’t forget the first time you see the volcano rim: the Wizard Island, is the tip of a still-rising cinder cone, and the so-called Phantom Ship is a jagged volcanic dyke that, in dim light, resembles a mysterious clipper on the water.
In its snowy isolation, the lake, at a depth of nearly 2000ft, is awe-inspiring. In summer, wildflowers bloom along its high rim. Regular boats cruise the lake, reached via the sheer, mile-long Cleetwood Cove trail which provides the only access to the lake surface. The trail is on the north edge, but visitor facilities are clustered on the south edge at tiny Rim Village.
14. Crazy Horse Memorial, SD
The timbered, rocky Black Hills rise like an island from a sea of grain-growing plains, stretching for a hundred miles between the Belle Fourche River in the north and the Cheyenne to the south. Indeed, though there’s plenty of kitsch fun throughout the Black Hills, there’s also plenty of history, and no place is much farther than a ninety-minute drive from Mount Rushmore and its counterpart, the Crazy Horse Memorial.
In 1939, prompted by the sight of the Rushmore monument, Sioux leader Henry Standing Bear wrote to Korczak Ziolkowski, telling him that Native Americans “would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too”. Less than a decade later, Ziolkowski moved to the Black Hills to undertake a vastly ambitious project: The Crazy Horse Memorial, depicting the revered warrior Crazy Horse on horseback.
15. Las Vegas, NV
A dazzling desert oasis, entirely devoted to thrilling its visitors, Visiting Las Vegas is one of the most exciting things to do in the USA. Without its tourists, Las Vegas wouldn’t even exist; everything, from its spectacular architecture to its world-class restaurants and showrooms, is designed to sate their every appetite.
Not only does Las Vegas hold most of the world’s largest hotels, but that’s pretty much all it holds. It’s the hotels themselves that forty million people a year come to see. Each is a neighbourhood in its own right, crammed full of places to eat, drink, dance and play, and centring on an enormous casino, crammed with slot machines and table games.
- For price and quality: Desert Paradise Resort
- For families: Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino
Where to stay in Las Vegas:
For more accommodation options, read our guide to the best places to stay in Las Vegas.
16. Hiking in the Grand Canyon, AZ
Even though almost seven million people visit Grand Canyon National Park every year, the canyon itself remains beyond the grasp of the human imagination. No photograph, no statistics, can prepare you for such vastness. At more than one mile deep, it’s an inconceivable abyss; varying between four and eighteen miles wide, it’s an endless expanse of bewildering shapes and colours.
The overlooks along the rim all offer views that shift unceasingly from dawn to sunset. You can hike down into the depths on foot or by mule, hover above in a helicopter or raft through the whitewater rapids of the river itself. You can spend a night at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor or swim in the waterfalls of the idyllic Havasupai Reservation. And yet that distance always remains – the Grand Canyon stands apart.
17. Visiting Walt Disney World, Orlando, FL - one of the best things to do in the USA with kids
As significant as air conditioning in making the state what it is today, Walt Disney World turned a wedge of Florida farmland into one of the world’s most lucrative holiday destinations.
Four main theme parks are quite separate entities and, ideally, you should allow at least a full day for each. The Magic Kingdom is the Disney park of popular imagination, where Mickey mingles with the crowds. Known for its giant, golfball-like geosphere, Epcot is Disney’s celebration of science, technology and world cultures.
The smaller Disney Hollywood Studios take their inspiration from movies, TV and music, offering some good thrill rides and live shows that will appeal to all ages. The most relaxed of the four, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, brings all manner of African and Asian wildlife to the theme park setting.
- For a location: Buena Vista Suites Orlando
- For big families: Caribe Royale Orlando
Where to stay in Orlando:
18. Glacier National Park, MT
Two thousand lakes, a thousand miles of rivers, thick forests, breezy meadows and awe-inspiring peaks make up one of the best things to do in the USA, Glacier National Park. Although the park does hold 25 small (and rapidly retreating) glaciers, it takes its name from the huge flows of ice that carved these immense valleys twenty thousand years ago.
In the summer months, this is prime hiking and whitewater rafting territory, while huckleberries litter the slopes in autumn. Outside of summer, the crisp air, ice-cold waterfalls and copious snowfall give the impression of being close to the Arctic Circle; in fact, the latitude here is lower than that of London.
19. San Francisco, CA
One of America’s most stunningly sited cities, San Francisco sits poised on the northern tip of a slender peninsula along the California coast. Home of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, hippies, Levi’s, Craigslist and Yelp, it’s arguably the most beautiful, and probably the most progressive major city in the USA.
It’s a surprisingly compact and approachable place, where downtown streets rise on impossible gradients to reveal stunning views, and where fog rolls in on a moment’s notice to envelop everything in mist. This is not the California of monotonous blue skies and slothful warmth – the temperature rarely exceeds 80°F (27°C) and usually hovers in the 60s (15–20°C), until summer weather finally arrives in autumn’s early weeks.
Explore three major US cities on this tailor-made Cross country USA trip: from the hilly streets of San Francisco to the glitzy lights of Las Vegas (and an aerial view of the Grand Canyon!) to the French Quarter in New Orleans, this tour allows plenty of time to discover hidden local gems.
- For central location: Chancellor Hotel on Union Square
- For city views: Stanford Court San Francisco
Where to stay in San Francisco:
Find more accommodation options in our guide to where to stay in San Francisco.
20. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
The Big Island’s southernmost volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, jointly constitute Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, thirty miles from Hilo and eighty from Kailua. As well as two active volcanoes, the park’s dramatic landscapes include desert, arctic tundra and rainforest.
Until its most recent eruption finally ended in 2018, Kilauea had been in the longest state of continuous eruption ever recorded anywhere in the world, since 1983. The park itself had to be closed to visitors for four months as the final throes played out, but most of it is now open once again.
The main focus of the park is Kilauea Caldera, the summit crater of Kilauea, twenty miles up from the ocean. Close to the rim, the visitor centre offers basic orientation. Kilauea is said to be the home of the volcano goddess Pele, who has followed the “hot spot” from island to island.
21. The White House & National Mall, Washington DC
The elegant, two-mile-long National Mall stretches between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and is DC’s most popular green space, used for summer softball games and Fourth of July concerts. When there’s a protest gesture to be made, the Mall is the place to make it. What the Mall is perhaps best known for, however, is its quartet of presidential monuments, along with the White House.
For nearly two hundred years, the White House has been the residence and office of the President of the United States. Standing at the edge of the Mall, due north from the Washington Monument at America’s most famous address, this grand, Neoclassical edifice was completed in 1800 by Irish immigrant James Hoban, who modelled it on the Georgian manors of Dublin.
- For major sights and attractions: Hotel Washington
- For boutique stays: Lyle DC
Where to stay in Washington DC:
22. Mardi Gras, New Orleans, LA
New Orleans’ carnival season – which starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, and runs for six weeks or so until Ash Wednesday – is unlike any other in the world. Though the name is used to define the entire season, Mardi Gras itself, French for “Fat Tuesday”, is simply the culmination of a whirl of parades, parties, street revels and masked balls.
The official carnival took its current form in 1857. At this time, the concept of the “krewes”, or secret carnival clubs, was taken up enthusiastically by the New Orleans aristocracy, many of them white supremacists who, after the Civil War, used their satirical float designs to mock Reconstruction. Nowadays about fifty official krewes equip colourful floats, leading huge processions with different, often mythical, themes.
- For a large company: Roami at Factors Row
- For friendly vibes: NOPSI Hotel New Orleans
Where to stay in New Orleans:
For more accommodation options in New Orleans, explore our list of the best places to stay in New Orleans.
23. New York City, NY
The cultural and financial capital of the USA, if not the world, New York City is an adrenaline-charged, history-laden place that holds immense romantic appeal for visitors. Its past is visible in the tangled lanes of Wall Street and tenements of the Lower East Side; meanwhile, towering skyscrapers serve as monuments of the modern age.
Street life buzzes around the clock and shifts markedly from one area to the next. The vibrant waterfront and the landscaped green spaces give the city a chance to catch its breath. Iconic symbols of world culture – the neon of Times Square, the sculptures at Rockefeller Center, the sky-high glow of the Empire State Building – always seem just a stone’s throw away.
For raw energy, dynamism and social diversity, you’d be hard-pressed to top it; simply put, visiting New York City is one of the best things to do in the USA.
Visit 4 of the most iconic East Coast cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Take the Amtrak trains between cities and have private local guides introduce you to each city. From foodie gems over Broadway shows - this tailor-made East Coast Adventure allows you to explore greatly.
24. Yosemite Valley, CA
Put simply, Yosemite Valley, nestled in Yosemite National Park, and created by glaciers gouging through the canyon of the Merced River, is one of the world’s most dramatic geological spectacles and one of the best things to do in the USA.
Just seven miles long and less than one mile across, it’s walled by 3000ft near-vertical cliffs, streaked by tumbling waterfalls and topped by domes and pinnacles that form a jagged silhouette against the sky. At ground level, grassy meadows are framed by oak, cedar and fir trees; deer, coyotes and black bears abound. You can visit any time of year – even in winter when the waterfalls ice over and most trails are blocked by snow.
25. Miami’s Art Deco, FL
Miami is intoxicatingly beautiful, with palm trees swaying in the breeze and South Beach’s famous Art Deco buildings glowing in the warm sunlight. Even so, it’s the people – not the climate, the landscape or the cash – that make it so noteworthy. Two-thirds of the two-million-plus population is Hispanic, the majority of them Cuban, and Spanish is spoken here almost as often as English.
Miami has a range of districts that mirror its variegated cultural, economic and social divisions. Separated from the mainland by Biscayne Bay – and actually, a separate city – the most popular is Miami Beach, which is defined largely by the bacchanalian pursuits along South Beach. In addition to an enticing stretch of sand, this is home to much of the city’s Art Deco architecture.
Find more accommodation options with our guide to where to stay in Miami.
26. Driving US-1 to Key West, FL
Folklore, films and widespread hearsay have given the Florida Key – an image of glamorous intrigue they don’t deserve; at least, not now that the go-go days of the cocaine cowboys in the 1980s are long gone. The Keys can more accurately be described as an outdoor lover’s paradise, where fishing, snorkelling and diving dominate.
For many, the various keys are the only stops on the way to Key West. This self-proclaimed “Conch Republic” has vibrant, Caribbean-style streets with plenty of convivial bars in which to while away the hours, watching the spectacular sunsets. Wherever you are on the Keys, you’ll experience distinctive cuisine, served for the most part in hip little shacks where the food is fresh and the atmosphere laid back.
- For quiet comfy stays: Courtney's Place Historic Cottages & Inns
- For beach location: Douglas House
Where to stay in Key West:
Perhaps no other cuisine is as essentially American as BBQ – smoked ribs pulled pork and brisket – with the Carolinas, Texas and Kansas fighting it out as the nation’s top pitmasters. Southern cooking, or soul food, is delicious and very fattening – everything from grits to collard greens, from crispy fried chicken to teeth-rotting pralines.
Barbecue is also very popular in the South, especially in Tennessee and in particular in Memphis, where every neighbourhood has its classic ’cue hut, offering anything from dry-rub ribs to sweetly smoky barbecue. Other barbecue centres outside the South include Kansas City and Chicago.
28. Venice Beach, LA, CA
Combines wacky LA culture with Muscle Beach, surfing, sand and good food, all a short drive from the glitz of Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Immediately south of Santa Monica via Main Street or the boardwalk, Venice is the eccentric, loopy version of Los Angeles, home to outlandish skaters, brazen bodybuilders, panhandlers, streetballers, buskers and street-side comedians.
It’s been this way since the 1950s and 1960s when the Beats and then bands like the Doors bummed around the Beach, and though gentrification has had an impact in recent years, Venice retains an edgy feel in parts, with a gang culture that has never really been eradicated.
- For Downtown stays: citizenM Los Angeles Downtown
- For Venice Beach: Venice Beach Gem
Where to stay in Los Angeles:
Find more attractive accommodation options in our guide to the best places to stay in LA.
29. Lake Tahoe, NV
One of the highest, deepest, cleanest and coldest lakes in the world, Lake Tahoe is perched high above the Gold Country in an alpine bowl of forested granite peaks. Longer than the English Channel is wide, and more than 1000ft deep, it’s so cold that perfectly preserved cowboys who drowned more than a century ago have been recovered from its depths.
The lake straddles the Nevada state line as well and lures weekenders with sunny beaches in the summer, snow-covered slopes in the winter and bustling casinos year-round.
30. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, OH
Housed inside this striking glass pyramid is an unparalleled collection of rock music’s finest mementoes, recordings, films and exhibitions. The museum’s architect – I.M. Pei – wanted the building “to echo the energy of rock and roll”. A trademark Pei tinted-glass pyramid, this white structure of concrete, steel and glass strikes a bold pose at North Coast Harbor on the shore of Lake Erie, especially when illuminated at night.
The museum is more than an array of mementoes and artefacts. Right from the start, the emphasis is on the contextualization of rock. The exhibits chart the art form’s evolution, acknowledging influences ranging from the blues singers of the Delta to the hillbilly wailers of the Appalachians. Elsewhere in the subterranean main exhibition hall, there’s an in-depth look at crucial rock genres through the cities that spawned them.
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