The United States isn’t easily defined, though many try. Traveling to each and every one of its furthest corners (in my case, over and over, during a two-decade period) can raise more questions than it answers. To truly know and appreciate this country for what it is, you almost need to treat it like a full-time job. Unfortunately, life gets in the way. Even for a travel writer.
Still, after all the running around, some clear favorites have emerged. On their own or as a group, they help shed light on the depth, breadth and the indescribable beauty contained within this inspired land. Whether you’re working toward a deeper appreciation of America or looking to fall in love for the very first time, here are ten experiences that ought to live right at the top of your travel to-do list.
#1 A long walk in New York
Pick a weekday and go, preferably in the spring or fall. Start at the Battery, weave through the manmade canyons of Wall Street and around the more vibrant than ever World Trade Center, past City Hall, through Chinatown, Little Italy. Pause for a coffee in chic NoLiTa, admire the mix of old and new architecture in NoHo, window shop in SoHo, admire the recently-completed reinvention that made Washington Square Park a must-see again, then get lost in the back streets of the West Village. After a stop at the Whitney Museum’s new home in the reinvented Meatpacking District (not to mention a quick lunch at the better-than-ever Chelsea Market), hit the High Line Park, strolling north to its terminus at 34th Street. From here, you can go anywhere, but I’d choose to hook into the Hudson River Park, walking north into the West 70s before crossing the Upper West Side and heading into Central Park, ending my day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its seemingly inexhaustible collection of, well, everything. New York will never be as architecturally wealthy as London, as chic as Paris or as overwhelming as Tokyo, but it is, like too few cities, all heart, bragging an all-things-are-possible energy and openness that none of those places can top. For further inspiration, check out Triphustle’s New York coverage.
#2 Ride the train to the ocean Los Angeles
Of the many changes that have swept through the city and region during the past decade, none seem to have impacted the culture quite so much as the relentless drive toward further densification, aided by a growing network of rail transit. A generation of tireless advocates can (and should) be thanked for the fact that today, a visitor can casually ride the Expo Line for $1.75 from a resurgent downtown Los Angeles, straight out to Santa Monica’s pier. And while walkable, affluent Santa Monica has its points, adjacent Venice Beach is the real star—just check out one of the share bikes that now await you at the Downtown Santa Monica rail station and hit the beach. Venice, of course, needs no introduction—the scene along the boardwalk is Times Square meets Coney Island on the Pacific Ocean. (In other words, not to be missed.) Off the beach, the neighborhood proper is changing quickly, as money pours into once-flagging commercial strips along Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Rose Avenue, now laying claim to some of the most popular shops and restaurants in the city. Headed to Los Angeles? Check out the latest coverage on Triphustle.
#3 Summer on Cape Cod Massachusetts
Come July or August, you’ll swear this place has special powers, and perhaps it does. How else to explain the relative calm that seems to take over the crowds of Bostonians, New Yorkers, Washingtonians and lucky people from other Northeast cities not particularly known for their mellow vibes, once they cross the canal and into one of America’s most beautiful—and most cosmopolitan—beach destinations? And why shouldn’t everyone feel more relaxed here—no matter where you are, from the Rockwellian charm of Falmouth on out to happening Provincetown, the living just seems easier. In a perfect world, we’d all spend a couple of weeks on the Cape every year, to appreciate its beaches, its forests, its swimmable ponds, its charming, vibrant towns and its quiet back roads. Take as much as you can get—even if its just a day out from somewhere else in New England. You won’t be sorry.
#4 A sunny day in the San Juan Islands Washington
There is something so unique, so special about this biodiverse archipelago located along the international border, not far from Victoria, BC and easily accessible from the American mainland via the affordable Washington State Ferries. Whether it’s a sunny summer day in the lavender fields near Friday Harbor, a morning stroll along a quiet beach or a night spent on a boat in one of the remote reserves, the glow of the Vancouver skyline off in the distance—you will feel like you’re in on a secret. Let the mountains and rainforests and rugged beaches wait—this is the Pacific Northwest (perhaps North America’s greatest place) at its most magical, at its happiest, its most relaxed. You will absolutely hate to leave. Want more? Check out Triphustle’s recent post on summer in Western Washington.
#5 October on the Keweenaw Peninsula Michigan
Barely 2,000 people live in Keweenaw County, a natural jewel at the tip of this peninsula that juts almost out to the middle of Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. Hence, you could be up here at the height of the fall foliage season—this is one of the best places to view the colors—and not run into a soul. (Being too many hours away from the nearest large city helps.) The area economy bottomed out decades ago and has never been revived, but the region endures, marvelously so. The rocky, storm-shaped shoreline calls to mind more the West than Midwest; the culture too. With a vegan-friendly cafe here, a top notch beer bar there, a microbrewery, a bakery run by monks and other modern conveniences on offer, roughing it was never so quietly cool.
#6 December in the Keys Florida
Come the darkest days of the year, there’s no place I’d rather be than a beach; luckily, that period falls in the quiet season just before the end-of-year holiday rush, meaning I can grab a cheap flight to Fort Lauderdale or Miami, rent a car and hightail it for The Keys, losing myself in their peculiar brand of exotic Americana without having to break the bank. Even if it doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, go stay in Key West and take a stroll down Duval Street and along the waterfront—it’s surprisingly agreeable for an over-touristed town. If you can stick around, plan to join an organized boat trip to the Dry Tortugas, one of our least-visited national parks; at the very least, spend the day exploring Bahia Honda State Park with its split personality beaches—the bayside is typically tropical, the seafront drier, more intricate, more windblown. It’s about as Caribbean as you can get without actually leaving the mainland.
#7 A winter swim in the Rio Grande Texas
Big Bend Ranch State Park—next to the more famous and dramatic national park—is one of the most secluded and subtly gorgeous places on the continent. Go sit in the middle of the river —one foot in Texas, the other in Chihuahua state—and imagine a time (soon, hopefully) when the borderlands are once again appreciated for their beauty, rather than notable for their status as a beaten-up political football. Nearby, the rest of West Texas awaits—it’s tough to find a decent meal and the locals never seem all that thrilled to see visitors, but who needs them—for once, it’s all about the land.
#8 Hang around Anchorage Alaska
There are cities near to nature—parks, trails, rivers, ponds—and then there’s Alaska’s big city. Anchorage doesn’t just have nature. It has windswept peaks where you can die from exposure, accessed by trails that locals jog like a New Yorker would Central Park. You think sharing the road with motorists sucks, as a cyclist? Try being mauled by a bear on an Anchorage bike path. Which is a thing could happen. Then there are the insanely not-normal things you can get to by car in barely a couple of hours. Glaciers, for instance, like the Matanuska. Just 70 miles from town and its creature comforts, she is a beast of a thing, far enough off the beaten cruise passenger track so as to be left (mostly) to serious ice climbers and small group trips. Go out (get crampons, or go with a reasonably-priced guided tour that’ll provide them), gawk, take too many pictures similar to the one above, be super impressed (it’s hard not to be), head back to your car and bolt back to town in time for beer at the very good Midnight Sun brewery.
#9 Disappear into the wilds next door West Virginia
No state is more blithely ignored. Few are quite so wild, so wonderful. (They even made it their slogan. The song, which refers to the state as “almost heaven,” is accurate as well.) For proof, head straight to the top—on a day when the urbanized Mid-Atlantic lowlands are sweltering, up at Spruce Knob, just shy of 5,000 feet above sea level, it’s often wonderfully dry and almost crisply cool, even on an August afternoon. Deep in this high-elevation forest, a 20 minute ride straight up from the nearest main road, it’s hard to imagine West Virginia as anything other than a kind of paradise on earth. For more West Virginia adventures, check out Triphustle’s recent post.
#10 Drive cross country.
After twenty years of travel writing, focusing primarily on North America, I’ve learned that the fastest way to rekindle one’s love affair with the United States is to stop reading the news, stop fretting over its shortcomings, and get out into the thing. For a day, a week, or longer, lose yourself in its vastness, its unique cities and towns, its wealth of preserved lands, embrace the country’s awe-inspiring diversity. You’ll come home with a whole new attitude, every single time—guaranteed. Personally, if I had to choose the ultimate routing, I’d only be able to narrow it down to about four or five. Invariably, because I tend to chase the sun, my first pick will be San Diego to Miami, loosely following the southern border and coastline, stopping for sure in Tucson for Sonoran-style Mexican food, San Antonio for a leg stretcher on the now fifteen mile-long Riverwalk, New Orleans for all that entails, following the Gulf of Mexico and its white sand beaches all the down to charming Naples before making a beeline across the Everglades to crazy/beautiful South Florida. Need a car? We’ve got the #1 way to save a ton of money on your next rental.
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