Wednesday, December 26, 2012

10 places every American should see

What makes a place essentially American? Besides being within our borders, of course? When the Budget Travel editors set out to compile a list of can't-miss destinations in the United States, we knew there was no one 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. 

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.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.Yellowstone National Park (Photo: Hugoht /

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.

French Quarter (Photo: Lawrence Weslowski Jr / 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. 

Highway 1, CaliforniaHighway 1 (Photo: Wangkun Jia /

Considering that the United States has more miles of paved roads (over 2.5 million) than any other country on earth, is it any wonder thatroad trips are practically a rite of passage here? One of the most meditative—and celebrated—drives you can take in the States is the 135-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.

Times Square (Photo: Paul Hakimata / 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.

Grand Canyon, Ariz.Grand Canyon (Photo: Radkol /

Many American landmarks inspire people to think big, but none can match the leviathan scale of the Grand Canyon. 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. 

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.

Taos Pueblo (JTB Photo / SuperStock)Taos Pueblo, N.M.

At the northern edge of the artist colony of Taosand 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.

South Beach, Miami, Fla.South Beach (Photo: Richard Cummins / SuperStock)

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.

Gettysburg Park (Photo: Ken Cole / 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.

Pearl Harbor, O'ahu, HawaiiPearl Harbor (Photoquest /

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the USS Arizona Memorial, 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.

National Mall, Washington, D.C.Washington, D.C. (Photo: Shairad /

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. 

Destinations to watch in 2013

(Photo: Doonagore Castle, Ireland via Shutterstock)

Here's a great New Year's resolution: Travel more. We've looked into the 2013 crystal ball and found destinations to dazzle in the year ahead. Find out why you're invited to the Emerald Isle, how the City by the Bay is making the most of its waterfront, and which country is set to make a dramatic solo debut into the European Union next year.

These 10 picks will inspire your travel adventures and finally give you a New Year's resolution you can stick to.


Irish by ancestry or simply in spirit? Then you're invited home for The Gathering Ireland 2013. This yearlong celebration of Ireland and its people includes festivals, concerts, clan gatherings, and special sporting events. With more than 70 million people around the world claiming Irish descent (including 44 million Americans), this is shaping up to be the ultimate family reunion.

An entire year devoted to welcoming travelers is clearly an ideal time to visit. Want to go big? Join the revelry on St. Patrick's Day in Dublin. Ready to sing and dance the night away? Head to the Temple Bar TradFest. Take a more introspective journey and explore the ghost towns that remain as legacies of the diaspora, or trace your own family roots across the rolling hills of the island. Still sporting an Irish name, say, McKenna, Fitzgerald, or Gallagher? Then you can even join one of the clan gatherings that will take place all over the country next year.

(Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget)

San Francisco
2013 is shaping up to be the year of the waterfront in San Francisco. The already popular stretch between the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate is getting some high-profile additions. Pier 27 will be the center of the action for the America's Cup events (the Louis Vuitton Cup from July 4 through Sept. 1; the America's Cup Finals between Sept. 7 and 22; and the Red Bull Youth America's Cup in August and September). After serving as the America's Cup Village, Pier 27 will become the new James R. Herman Cruise Terminal.

Spring at Pier 15 brings the opening of the newly relocated Exploratorium. The influential hands-on science museum will open on April 17 with a massive new space that has 600 exhibits and 1.5 acres of public outdoor space. In early summer, the Aquarium of the Bay literally brings new life to Pier 39 with the opening of its river otters exhibit. To top it all off, the western span of the Bay Bridge debuts a 1.8-mile long light sculpture in March, and the long-awaited new eastern span is tentatively set to open on Labor Day 2013.

(Photo: Myra May)


Next year, Amsterdam won't just be a destination to watch, it'll be a destination to party with. Add up all the birthdays to celebrate in 2013 and the city would have a bonfire of candles to blow out. Throw in the grand reopenings of two of Europe's most beloved museums and you've got the makings of one very big year.

2013 marks 400 years of Amsterdam's iconic canal system. Anniversary events include special tours, exhibitions, and ice-skating. The Artis Royal Zoo turns 175, and the Royal Concertgebouw celebrates 125 years. The year also marks 160 years since the birth of Vincent van Gogh, a fact visitors can celebrate when the Van Gogh Museum reopens in the summer after extensive renovations. And on April 14, after nearly a decade of renovation, the Rijksmuseum will throw open its doors and once again invite the world to marvel at its 80 halls full of art from the Middle Ages through today.

(Photo: Hangzhou, China via CHEN WS/

Voted one of China's top five destinations in TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice 2012 awards, Hangzhou has long been regarded as one of the country's most beautiful cities. Its fans span the ages, from Marco Polo to UNESCO (which named the city's famed West Lake a World Heritage site in 2011). In 2013, with a new train station, high-speed service to nearby Shanghai, and a new metro opening phase by phase, it will be easier than ever to explore this undiscovered gem of China.

The Hangzhou East Railway Station looks likely to open in the next few months and will serve as the new hub for current high-speed rail services to Shanghai and other cities. The Hangzhou Metro just opened the first of 10 eventual subway lines connecting the city. Line 1, a 30-mile transit corridor running south to north through the city, has 31 stations, including stops for bus and train stations and the West Lake Culture Square.

(Photo: Victoria Falls via Shutterstock)


You presume correctly if you think Zambia has some big things to celebrate in 2013. The country has emerged as one of Southern Africa's best safari and adventure-activity destinations. This coming year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of famed explorer David Livingstone, whose namesake city of Livingstone is a popular gateway to the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls.

Between March and November, Livingstone celebrates the bicentennial with events including an international cultural festival involving 16 nations that Livingstone visited, a Victoria Falls ultramarathon trail run, a full-moon concert featuring well-known Zambian-Scottish singer Namvula Rennie, and on Nov. 16, the day that Dr. Livingstone first viewed the falls he named, a grand finale event.

(Photo: Nashville Skyline via Shutterstock)


In 2013, Nashville will throw open its arms in a great big country embrace. A new events center, a museum, a hotel, and multiple restaurants offer plenty of reasons to make the trip to Music City. And as a pick as one of the 10 best budget destinations for 2013, you can do it all for less.

The new Music City Center will open early in the year, serving not just as a massive (and LEED-certified) convention center but also, in true Nashville fashion, as a public space for art and music. 2013 will add two new hotels to the wave of new development in Nashville: The Downtown Hyatt Place, opening late in the year, and the Omni Nashville Hotel, which will host multiple floors of the soon-to-be-dramatically expanded Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Other big debuts for 2013 include the 18,000-square-foot Johnny Cash Museum, set to open next spring, and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, which is set to reopen in its new venue soon.

(Photo: St. Augustine, FL via Shutterstock)


Happy 500th, Florida! In 2013, the state will celebrate a half millennium since Juan Ponce de Leon landed on its shores. Heritage trails and paddling expeditions are among the already announced events, and more will be finalized on the Viva Florida 500 website as the year draws closer.

It's not just anniversaries that are big in 2013; giant things are afoot on Florida's Space Coast. In July, the space shuttle Atlantis will be put on permanent display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The $100 million interactive exhibit complex offers an up-close view of the famed shuttle. Nearby Port Canaveral has just opened a new cruise-terminal complex, making it one of Carnival Cruise Lines' largest home ports.

Next summer, the much-anticipated Transformers: The Ride—3-D will open at Universal StudiosOrlando. And coming in 2014, it will be easier for Orlando-area visitors to explore the region with the new SunRail regional train.

(Photo: Omis, Croatia via Shutterstock)


It's been a long and rocky road for Croatia in its quest to join the European Union, but in July, the Eastern European country will become the 28th member of the EU. What does membership mean for travelers? A large initial influx of EU funds will help Croatia recover from its recent economic woes and strengthen its tourism infrastructure. The last two years have already brought new hotels and improvements to popular tourist attractions, and the country's stated goal is to make travel easier for foreign visitors in the coming years.

Travelers will also benefit from standard EU passenger protections on flights, trains, and ferries, as well as access to the Europe Direct, which helps travelers understand their rights in the event of a cancelled or delayed flight. Croatia won't be adopting the euro immediately, which is good for travelers looking to keep costs low, but it does add an element of inconvenience for anyone coming from a eurozone country.

(Photo: Istanbul at Sunset via Shutterstock)


Turkey is soaring. This gateway between Europe and Asia has long been on the radar of travelers looking for the flavor of both continents, but its rise as a global air hub is set to make it a crossroads to the world. Add a flood of new hotels and off-the-charts tourism growth, and it's easy to see why Turkey is on the rise.

Turkey is already seeing serious growth in tourism from the U.S. And the country is ready for it, having grown its tourism infrastructure by a whopping 67 percent in the last decade. Hotel chains that have recently opened or are soon to debut new properties include Hilton, Marriott, Marti, Starwood, and Wyndham. And Turkish Airlines' recent addition of dozens of new destinations, many in Africa, makes it not only easier to visit, but more likely that travelers connecting through the country will pause to explore its delights.

Increased air service and hotel growth have set the stage, and Istanbul is clearly ready for its time in the spotlight. The New York Times hailed the city as "having a moment of cultural rebirth," and recently named Istanbul the "coolest city in Europe."

(Photo: Colorful Lanterns via Shutterstock)

Capitals of Culture

Capitals of culture, sports, food, music and more are popping up all over the world. A variety of organizations bestow honors on more cities each year, offering new reasons to visit, since the designations inspire plenty of festivities. The pack is impressive and includes Marseille, France, as a European Capital of Culture; Bogota, Colombia, as a UNESCO City of Music; and Jeonju, South Koreaas a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

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