Whenever I talk to people who are planning their first visit to the US, I can almost always predict what their travel itinerary will look like. New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas all figure prominently in those plans, which I can understand but it also makes me sad. I understand why people want to visit these iconic destinations, they’re iconic. New York is naturally well worth the visit, Vegas to a lesser degree and LA not at all, but I’m not going to change anyone’s minds on those three. What I can do though is to offer some advice on other travel activities, experiences that I think go a long way in showcasing what the US is all about and provide a fantastic first glimpse into what it really means to be an American. There are many more I could add to this list, but I think these destinations and experiences are the best places to start for any first-time visitor to the country.
If Americans didn’t invent the road trip, then we certainly perfected it and with good reason. America is huge, on a scale that most people around the world really can’t grasp at first. To really see and better understand what makes America tick a great road trip is in order. We love our cars so much here because it’s the only way to get around, and the small towns and beautiful landscapes you will experience on a long drive are just an added bonus. There are many great routes you could take, from an exploration of the Deep South to an old fashioned Route 66 drive. Something I personally would love to do is to drive around the American West, stopping off at National Parks, quirky towns and who knows what else. It’s only by getting out, talking to people in smaller towns and seeing what daily life is really like that you truly begin to understand this great country.
The first thing I hear about Americans is how fat we are, and how badly we eat, and blah blah blah. I’m tired of hearing it frankly as it’s mostly not true. Yes we have free refills on sodas and our serving sizes can be a bit large, but our cuisine is so much more than hamburgers and fries. We pioneered salad as a meal, we make the best breakfast in the world and our soul food and BBQ can stand on its own against any other national cuisine. But to enjoy it you need to leave the big cities and travel through the real America. Throughout the country are any number of iconic, regional dishes that, when assembled, tell the story of America. Whether it’s a lobster roll in Maine, great Virginia BBQ or a Hot Brown in Kentucky, experiencing the American story through the palate is the best way to understand us.
I hate this term, but in the past couple of years fate has found me exploring the cities of Middle America, what we usually call the Rustbelt. It’s a horrible term, but it refers to the region straddling the Great Lakes and Midwest States and alludes to the economic decline and urban decay of the 1980s due to a vanishing industrial sector. At one point, yes, the term was an apt one but not anymore. Recent wanderings have proven to me that these cities are undergoing a powerful renaissance, a dramatic change in their urban cores and it’s a beautiful thing to see. At first led by creative artists and enterprising planners, today cities like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland have emerged into destinations in their own right. So get out there and experience the ingenuity that is purely American and enjoy these once forgotten cities for the urban treasures that they are.
America’s best idea, I don’t think anyone would disagree that our National Parks are perhaps our greatest societal asset. I’m also proud to say that America started the modern conservation movement in the 19th century when it created the first National Park. Since then we have added 58 more and many other national monuments and sites forming a vast web of areas so important, that we have deemed they must be forever protected. The so-called North American model of conservation is now the norm around the world, but to really appreciate its importance a visit to a few American parks is in order. From Yellowstone to Yosemite and Volcanoes National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains, we have a lot of options and no one should ever miss the opportunity to visit a few.
Learning Our History in Washington, DC
OK, I may be biased since this is my hometown but I really do think that DC is an important first stop when visiting America. Our nation’s capital, all of the important monuments and memorials are found here, many of which line the beautiful National Mall. Also along the Mall are some of the best museums in the world, the always free to enter Smithsonian Institution museums that cover everything from American History to Air and Space and some smaller, more unusual ones as well. But we’re not just about museums and monuments, in recent years the city has seen a shift in demographics and old neighborhoods have come back to life. Explore new restaurants and bars in Barracks Row or head to Georgetown to do some high-end shopping. DC is also well located, an easy drive, bus or train ride from Philadelphia and New York so there’s really no excuse NOT to visit the capital city region.
Where do you think first-time visitors to the US should go and what should they experience?