I’m not psychic, that I know of, and yet whenever I meet someone planning a trip to the US for the first time I can almost always guess their itinerary. New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, with perhaps Orlando mixed in – these are the cities almost all first time visitors to America feel the need to spend time exploring. New York is, of course, well worth the visit, and it is indeed a wonderful city to spend time getting to know. Vegas has very little value to first time visitors, unless you like to gamble or you’re using it as a base to explore other spots in the Southwest. Los Angeles has almost no value to first time visitors whatsoever. Everyone thinks that they’ll see movie stars everywhere or that surely, there must be something to do movie related. However, there’s not and instead international tourists are left trying to figure out what to do in a sprawling city that is poorly designed for tourism. In what may be a futile attempt to help change a few minds, or at least add a couple of spots to their travel itineraries, today I want to share those spots and experiences around the country that I think are fun and important for first time visitors to explore. Anyone who has spent time in my country almost always leaves feeling surprised. They have relied far too long on media accounts that are either skewed or just completely false. I too fell into this trap, and it’s only been through purposeful and active exploration that I have relearned to love my own country and to fully grasp what makes it so special. With all of this in mind, I would encourage visitors to America to get out there and allow themselves to be surprised, create the opportunity to go beyond the stereotype, starting with these ideas.
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.
I personally think that the most exciting places to be in the US right now are our so-called secondary cities. Most, if not all, have gone through a lot of changes in the last decade, creating fun environments full of creative entrepreneurs with new restaurants, cafes, shops, museums and more. They’re fun places to be and you’re also more likely to learn more about America in these spots than in our largest metropolitan expanses. Nashville, Austin, Cleveland and St. Louis come to mind, but so does Detroit to be honest. In recent years, Detroit has become famous around the world as the city that went bankrupt. The city where entire neighborhoods were left in ruin, neglected and teeming with blight. That’s honestly all I knew about the Motor City before my first visit, and that’s part of the problem. Almost everything we see on the news, in magazines or even on travel blogs is obsessed with Detroit’s so-called ruin porn. Sharing the photos of these houses and city blocks that have been left to rot has been all the rage. Because of that, not many people know the real story of Detroit. That no, the city is not a burning pile of rubble. That Detroit is actually a great place to visit and I imagine to live, and that fact more than anything else surprised me the most. Great museums, delicious food and other fun diversions all come together to make Detroit a fun and, I think, an important city to visit.
Learn Our History
If you’re going to be in New York anyway, it couldn’t be easier to hop on a train and head south to learn more about American history. Take the train down to Philadelphia, a fantastic city in its own right, to learn more about the writing of the Declaration of Independence as well as our early days as a colony. Then continue south to Washington, DC where honestly weeks could be spent exploring the many monuments and museums that together share the American story. Most of the major spots are free as well, making this an easy stop. If you’re really passionate about American history, don’t end the journey in Washington. Instead, continue going south to Williamsburg, Virginia, where the great American experiment started. The Historic Triangle towns of Williamsburg/Jamestown/Yorktown have done a masterful job of presenting to visitors what very early life was like in the US, as well as sharing the importance of the area in the formation of the country. It’s impossible to understand a country without knowing their history, and this is the heart of ours.
The Pacific Northwest is one of my personal favorite areas of the country and I think a great spot for visitors to America. Seattle in particular is a fantastic option because there’s so much to see and do both within the city limits and just a short drive beyond. Like any city, just walking around Seattle is part of the fun and a visit to the touristy but enjoyable Pike Place Market rewards folks with fresh fish and the original Starbucks. I love quirky museums and Seattle has plenty of those like the Museum of Pop Culture. Great daytrips include Mount Rainier, San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula and once you’re back in town the food options all around town are plentiful with a little something for everyone. I think of the Pacific Northwest as America’s fun-loving, outdoorsy side and it’s an important aspect to our personality about which everyone should learn more.
US Isn’t Just 48 States
This may not be the most practical advice for first time visitors to the US, but it’s important to keep in mind for future trips perhaps. The US is larger than most people realize, thanks almost entirely to our non-contiguous portions. Alaska is our largest state and one of the most interesting, jutting off of North America. What should probably in all honesty be part of Canada, Alaska was one of the best acquisitions America made, not for the resources but for the inherent value it brings. I first traveled there a few months ago and was instantly impressed by the shocking beauty of the state, as rich in natural wonders as any spot on the planet. Hawaii equally amazes me, and again I’m thrilled it’s part of the country. Imagine flying for ten hours over the Pacific Ocean and still landing on American soil – that’s amazing to me. Other possessions and territories include: Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands; so, you see, we’re a lot more diverse than one might think.
I have always said that popular places are popular for a reason – they’re usually amazing. In recent years, I feel as if travel writers have been shaming travelers into avoiding these spots, which is a pity. Sure, go off the beaten path, get to know locals, etc. But also give yourself time to enjoy those more touristy and decidedly corny spots that made the destination famous for a reason. In the US, we have no shortage of these and if you’re absolutely determined to visit Las Vegas, then this is the category for you. Other options include any of our many theme parks, including one I first visited recently, Disneyland. Disneyland and the related parks that have since emerged have always been places for kids and families, we know that. But they are also wonderful places for adults, traveling solo or as a couple, to get away from stress and anxiety and instead believe in the magic that is Disney. I’ve always been a big Disney fan, as I imagine most of us are, whether it’s watching the movies and shows as kids or appreciating the many other ways they’ve impacted our lives. To live in that universe, even for a short little while is a special experience the likes of which truly is unparalleled.
No matter where visitors to America visit, what I want most is for them to be surprised. I want them to give themselves the opportunity to get out there and really get to know us. What they’ll discover are warm-hearted, gregarious people who are almost always excited to meet visitors and to share their own personal stories in the process. That’s fairly unique around the world and, I think, is one of our best qualities as a nation.