Best places to visit in North America and South America: Travel guide to the Americas

Big and bold, the Americas are endlessly enticing. From Canada's icy north all the way down to Mexico's sun-drenched beaches, North America is a place of spectacular landscapes and buzzing cities. The skyscrapers of Chicago, the ruin-studded wildernesses of the Yucatan Peninsula, the grandeur of the Rockies: North America has a remarkable array of enchanting destinations.

But then, so does South America. From the picturesque Caribbean coastline to Patagonia's vast icefields, the samba rhythms of Brazil or Argentina's tempestuous tango, the countries of the southern continent are every bit as fascinating as their northern neighbours.

With two continents so packed with delights, it can be hard to know where to begin. So we decided to let them fight it out in a series of duels across different categories. From ski resorts to wine regions, national parks to big cities, read on to discover which continent is the real heavyweight.

BEST GOURMET GETAWAY

NORTH LOS ANGELES, US

J4774Y People standing in line to order take-away lunch a mobile food truck, Venice, Los Angeles County, California, USA satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Take-away lunch at a mobile food truck, Venice, Los Angeles. Photo: Alamy

Forget the star-spotting, the theme parks, the beaches: the best reason to visit LA is the food. Drawing on global culinary influences and superb local produce, LA has dining experiences to suit every taste and every budget. Keeping it cheap? Head for the tasty stalls at the Original Farmers Market or one of the city's fleet of food trucks. Want a real LA vibe? Try Venice Beach's Gjelina or Sqirl in Silver Lake, where the rice bowls draw long queues. For south-east Asian, head for Cassia or Lukshon; for sushi, try Sushi Tsujita; if you are after some degustation dining, try to nab a table at Trois Mec or Providence. Bon appetit.

See also: Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Los Angeles

SOUTH LIMA, PERU

Peru is a culinary wonderland, where shoppers can choose between hundreds of varieties of potato, where guinea pig is a popular meat, and where a melting pot of cultures have created a remarkable cuisine. The country's signature dishes include both ceviche, seafood marinated in citrus, and lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry which contains tomatoes and potatoes. Peru also has its own hybrid versions of Japanese cuisine (known as Nikkei) and Chinese cuisine (called chifa). The city's top restaurants harness that hybrid approach: at Maido, you may be served soba noodles made of cassava, while at Astrid y Gaston, guinea pig is prepared Peking duck style, complete with blue corn pancakes.

THE VERDICT We are giving this one to Peru, for the sheer delight of discovering so many new flavours.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Treat your tastebuds in Mexico City, where the street food is as exciting as the fine dining; in the Brazilian city Salvador de Bahia, with its African-influenced cuisine; and Montreal, with its bistros, its food markets, and bagels that are better than New York's.

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MORE discoverlosangeles.com peru.travel

See also: Three-minute guide to Lima, Peru

BEST NATIONAL PARK

NORTH YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, UNITED STATES

CN3PJ6 Bison, Yellowstone National park, Wyoming satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Bison in Yellowstone National park, Wyoming. Photo: Alamy

The oldest national park in the United States is jam-packed with natural wonders, from its geothermal hotspots – about half of the world's total – to its canyons, mountains and forests. You will need several days just to tick off the park's main highlights. Marvel at the technicolour Grand Prismatic Spring, the intricate natural terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, and of course the ever-reliable Old Faithful geyser. Other must-sees include the park's own awe-inspiring Grand Canyon, as well as the wildlife-filled Hayden and Lamar Valleys, where you can spot bison, coyote, elk, wolves and grizzlies.

SOUTH TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, CHILE

B51MY0 Guanacos in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Guanacos in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Photo: Alamy

So you like a touch of drama? Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park delivers in spades. With its soaring peaks and turquoise-lakes, roaring glacier-fed rivers and drifting icebergs, this national park is made for exploring. As you go hiking or mountain biking, riding or sailing, keep an eye out for the local wildlife: foxes, condors, flamingos, herds of endearing guanaco, and even the elusive puma. Highlights include the magnificent French Valley, the turquoise-hued Lake Nordenskjold and the mighty Grey Glacier, part of the Patagonian Ice Field.

THE VERDICT Yellowstone's superb wildlife viewing gives it the edge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Try Canada's Banff National Park, with the jewel-like Lake Louise; the incredible sand dune lagoons of Brazil's Lencois Maranhenses National Park; or Costa Rica's Corcovado National Park, home to an incredible selection of wildlife.

MORE nps.gov parquetorresdelpaine.cl/en

See also: The 50 highlights of America, state by state

MOST PHOTOGENIC CITY

NORTH SAN FRANCISCO, US

C9AX0W Painted Ladies, San Francisco satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Painted Ladies, San Francisco. Photo: Alamy

Ask half a dozen people to pick San Francisco's most scenic feature and you will get half a dozen different answers So where to start? You might want to snap some selfies in front of the city's famous pastel-painted row houses – the largest collection of Victorian houses in the US – or use the Beaux Arts buildings of the Civic Centre as a backdrop. Perhaps savour a slow cappuccino in one of North Beach's scenic sidewalk cafes before trying to capture the colourful murals of the Mission District. Then of course there are those cheery trams, as picturesque as they are useful for getting up hills.

SOUTH VALPARAISO, CHILE

satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Shutterstock REUSE PERMITTED Colorful buildings on the hills of the UNESCO World Heritage city of Valparaiso, Chile

The UNESCO World Heritage city of Valparaiso, Chile. Photo: Shutterstock

If there were an award for most colourful city, the seaside city of Valparaiso, where sinuous streets wiggle their way up and down steep hillsides, would romp it in. Houses are painted in riotous colour combinations, each storey splashed with a different colour powder blue and hot pink, say, or three different shades of green. Then there is the extraordinary street art, as bright as the buildings that surround it. With plenty of artists' studios lining the cobblestone streets and gorgeous sea views at the end of almost every alley, Valparaiso is one of those cities where getting lost is a delight.

THE VERDICT We're siding with Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, who made his home in Valparaiso – this city is irresistible.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Brighten up your Instagram feed in the colourful Nicaraguan city of Leon, or throw yourself into the old-school elegance of Charleston, Savannah or Chicago's astonishing skyscrapers.

MORE sftravel.com chile.travel

See also: Best cities to visit in the world

BEST WINE REGION

NORTH SONOMA

F2FR46 California Sonoma Valley vineyard in late afternoon sunlight satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Sonoma Valley vineyard. Photo: Alamy

Neighbouring Napa Valley may have the name recognition but for serious wine lovers, Sonoma Valley – stretching across 400,000 square hectares, with 17 different wine regions – is the place to go. Head to Russian River for cool climate varietals including chardonnay, to Dry Creek Valley for zinfandel and Bordeaux-style wines, or to Green Valley for pinot noir. Throw in plenty of acclaimed restaurants, from Dry Creek Kitchen to Willie's Seafood & Raw Bar, some luxurious lodgings and the odd craft brewery, and you have the perfect destination for indulging your appetites.

SOUTH MENDOZA, ARGENTINA

FF2AD9 Vineyards in the Uco VaRMRMey (VaRMRMe de Uco), a wine region in Mendoza Province, Argentina, South America satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Vineyards in the Uco VaRMRMey, a wine region in Mendoza Province, Argentina. Photo: Alamy

Mendoza's most famous wine regions, including Lujan de Cuyo and Valle de Uco, are located between 700 and 1500 metres in the foothills of the Andes, which allows for some spectacular hikes in between winery visits. Malbec is the region's most famous wine, but other highlights include wines made with the local torrontes grape as well as some Bordeaux varietals. There is also plenty of choice when it comes to sleeping and eating, with dining options ranging between upscale eateries all the way to rustic family-run diners.

THE VERDICT The combination of magnificent mountain scenery and world-class wineries puts Mendoza out in front.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Still thirsty? Then head for Oregon's Willamette Valley or the wine valleys near Santiago de Chile, particularly Maipo Valley and Cachapoal Valley.

MORE sonomacounty.com mendoza.travel

See also: Travel guide to Australia's best wineries

BEST VANISHED CIVILISATION

NORTH THE MAYA

CMPGEB A group of tourists visiting the Temple of Kukulkan (El Castillo) at Chichen Itza Archeological Zone, ruins of a major Maya civilization city in the heart of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

The Temple of Kukulkan (El Castillo) at Chichen Itza Archeological Zone, ruins of a major Maya civilization city in the heart of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Photo: Alamy

Whichever way you look at it, the Maya were pretty major. Dominating their region for close to 700 years, they built about 40 major cities, some home to as many as 50,000 people. Even today, these ruined cities are entrancing, thanks to their soaring pyramids and grand plazas. Chichen Itza, not far from Cancun, is among the most accessible, but many of the others are also worth a visit, from the mighty Tikal in Guatemala to Bonampak in Mexico, home to some remarkably lovely frescoes and murals.

SOUTH THE INCA

It is hard not to be impressed by the Inca, the people who created the magnificent mountain citadel of Machu Picchu. Even the invading conquistadors, who had a serious superiority complex, admired their large cities and well-kept road network. Apart from the big draws of Machu Picchu and the former Incan capital, Cusco, other fascinating sites include Sacsuahana, built using stones that weigh up to 270 tonnes, to the baths and fountains of Tipon, fed by still-functioning irrigation channels.

THE VERDICT Machu Picchu may be one of the wonders of the world, but the sheer number and scale of the Mayan cities gives them the lead.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other remarkable remnants include the 1000-year-old Pueblo village at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and the ruins of pre-Incan cultures such as the Chimu, who built the city of Chan Chan in northern Peru, and the Tiawanaku, whose capital lies outside La Paz in Bolivia.

MORE Mexico visitmexico.com visitperu.com

See also: Mexico's tropical island paradise that's a well-guarded secret​

BEST MUSIC CITY

NORTH NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE

BHBF93 Singer Molly Sue Gonzalez & Jimmy Snyder, Tootsies Orchid Lounge - Honky Tonk Bar, Broadway, Nashville, USA satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Singer Molly Sue Gonzalez and Jimmy Snyder at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Honky Tonk Bar, Nashville. Photo: Alamy

Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton all started their careers here; today, Ke$ha, Robert Plant, and Sheryl Crow call Nashville home. Apart from the hundreds of music venues, you will find music in every corner of town, from the local pizza joint to Nashville International Airport. Legendary venues worth checking out include the Basement East, the Bluebird Cafe and Douglas Corner Cafe – come on Tuesday for open mic night and you might just catch the next big thing – and the Schermerhorn Symphony Centre is the place to catch a classical performance.

SOUTH RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL

KFC69R BRAZIL, Rio de Janiero, individuals gather and play music in Morro da Conceic?a?o, Lapa satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Locals gather to play music in Rio de Janiero. Photo: Alamy

Is that the strains of The Girl from Ipanema we hear? Rio is famous as the birthplace of bossa nova, but this is not a one-note city. Rio is also the city of samba and during the annual Carneval celebrations, samba beats rule the streets for days (and nights) at a time. During the rest of the year, feel the rhythm at some of Lapa's samba clubs, or sample some of the city's other favourite beats, from Brazilian favourites forro and axe to the local take on hip-hop, known as Rio Funk. Rio also has a healthy jazz scene and hosts one of the biggest rock festivals in the world, Rock in Rio.

THE VERDICT Nashville's music scene is second to none.

HONOUROUBLE MENTIONS Head to Buenos Aires to take in some tango; to Austin, Texas, for festivals such as South by Southwest; or to New Orleans – hometown of Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino and the Neville Brothers – for jazz, blues and zydeco.

MORE visitmusiccity.com/visitors riodejaneiro.com

See also: The 20 must-do highlights of Rio de Janeiro

BEST CRUISING

NORTH ALASKA, US

Say "Alaska" and for most of us, images of majestic icebergs drifting through scenic channels spring to mind. However, that is not all that is on offer. Prepare to explore landscapes ranging from verdant forests and salmon-filled streams to waterfall-studded fiords and tranquil meadows. Of course, what really draws people is the wildlife spotting. Sailing close to shore, keep an eye out for brown bears; in the water, you may spot whales,  porpoises, seals and sea lions. Don't forget to look up in the sky: local bird species range from mighty bald eagles to cute-as puffins.

SOUTH THE AMAZON, PERU

It is the world's longest river, surrounded by the world's largest rainforest, so one thing is certain: as you head down the Amazon, there are plenty of adventures in store. Whether you are on a kayaking excursion down the river or hiking through the rainforest, you can expect to see some magnificent wildlife including sloths and tamarin monkeys, darting hummingbirds, colourful macaws and perhaps even the rare pink dolphins. Other highlights include meeting the local ribereno communities, and the Amazon's astonishing giant lily pads.

THE VERDICT Glaciers, grizzlies and gushing waterfalls: Alaska takes the prize.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS For more icy beauty, you can head south to the Patagonian Lakes, or north to Canada's Northwest Territories. Want to add some sensational cities to the itinerary? Then try a cruise from Argentina to Brazil.

MORE travelalaska.com visitperu.com

BEST COLONIAL CITY

NORTH QUEBEC CITY, CANADA

A word of warning: what appears to be a fairytale castle on this hill, perched high above the rest of Quebec City, is actually a grand hotel. In all other respects, however, Quebec City is exactly what it appears to be: a little slice of Europe transported to the New World. From the protective walls that still surround the city to the narrow streets lined with stone buildings, North America's oldest city – 400 years and counting – is as romantic as it gets. Wander till your feet get sore, then restore yourself with a meal in one of the inviting bistros.

See also: Six of the best boutique hotels in Canada

SOUTH CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

MY9APE Plaza de los Coches, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Plaza de los Coches, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Photo: Alamy

Those grand cathedrals, arched colonnades and cobblestone streets are Spanish imperial splendour at its best, but Colombia's loveliest city leavens that old-world grandeur with a Latin flair. It's not hard to see why Cartagena de Indias sweeps people off their feet: who can resist a city where buildings are painted pretty shades of dusty rose or deep blues and where purple bougainvillea and flame-coloured heliconia are planted in brightly painted flower pots? From sunset on the northern ramparts to the twilight promenades through the city's leafy squares, Cartagena is simply magical.

THE VERDICT Quebec City scores big for its seasonal charm, but Cartagena's tropical beauty gives it the edge.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS For more colonial charm, try Ecuador's underrated capital, Quito; the Peruvian city of Cusco; or Antigua in Guatemala, surrounded by volcanic peaks.

MORE quebecregion.com/en colombia.travel/en

BEST SKI RESORT

NORTH WHISTLER-BLACKCOMB, CANADA

CFD2G6 Skier on the upper slopes of Whistler Mountain, Whistler Blackcomb, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

The upper slopes of Whistler Mountain, Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Alamy

Canada's premier ski resort, Whistler-Blackcomb, boasts not only an extraordinarily long season, from November to May, but also an average snowfall of almost 12 metres a season. It also scores big on variety: its two peaks, linked by a cable car, have more than 200 marked trails ranging from beginners' to blue runs. Don't like crowds? That's not a problem either; heli-skiiers can get access to more than 160,000 hectares of pristine back country. Add in accommodation choices ranging from five-star to budget-friendly, and some serious apres-ski action, and Whistler ticks all the boxes.

See also: Twenty reasons to visit Whistler in summer

SOUTH CERRO CATEDRAL, ARGENTINA

HT7J2X Three Skiers Hike Up A Cat Track To Get Fresh Powder Turns On A Cloudy Day At Cerro Catedral In Argentina satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Cerro Catedral in Argentina. Photo: Alamy

Located just outside the pretty alpine town of Bariloche – Argentina's most popular tourist town, and a place packed with apres-ski options – Cerro Catedral's 39 lifts can transport up to 35,000 skiers an hour. There are well-tended areas for beginners, but it is advanced skiiers who will really love these slopes. Catedral is known for its challenging off-piste options, and for the plentiful tree skiing on the mountain's lower slopes. And if you need to fuel up between runs, there are no fewer than 16 restaurants on the mountain.

THE VERDICT Whistler takes the crown.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS For more powder action, consider Jackson Hole and Vail in the US, or Portillo and La Parva in Chile.

MORE whistlerblackcomb.com barilocheturismo.gob.ar

BEST WATERFALL

NORTH NIAGARA FALLS, US/CANADA

EA3FEW The American Falls with two tour boats at it's base as seen from Niagara Falls Canada. satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

The American Falls as seen from Niagara Falls Canada. Photo: Alamy

Niagara Falls has been a popular tourist attraction for so long that it is no wonder that a clutch of tourist traps have sprung up around the waterfall (including, believe it or not, Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum). Still, the main attraction here is the falls, a cascade of 2800 tonnes s of water pouring over a cliff every second. Feel the power of the falls by taking a stroll across Rainbow Bridge connecting Canada and New York; admiring the falls from the waterline on The Maid of the Mist cruise; or taking in the view from dry land on the Journey Behind the Falls. Be aware – the latter two will get you soaked.

SOUTH IGUAZU FALLS, BRAZIL/ARGENTINA

EGDBH2 Brazil, Parana, Iguassu Falls National Park (Cataratas do Iguacu) (UNESCO Site), Devil's Throat (Garganta do Diabo) satjun16coverUS BATTLE OF THE GIANTS North and South America ; text by Ute Junker credit: Alamy *** SINGLE USE ONLY *** *** FEE APPLIES ***

Devil's Throat, Iguassu Falls National Park. Photo: Alamy

You hear the jungle-shrouded Iguazu Falls – all three kilometres of them – long before you see them, but when they do come into a view, what a sight they are. Make the most of your visit by trying out the vistas on both sides of the border. Enjoy the view from the top at Devil's Throat on the Argentine side, reached via a lengthy boardwalk, then try the suspended platform on the Brazilian side that offers 360 degree views (and plenty of spray). Other popular options include a speedboat trip the bottom of the falls, or a helicopter trip – the best way to come to grips with the immensity of these cascades.

THE VERDICT We have a winner: and it is the mighty Iguazu Falls.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS Other spectacular cascades include Venezuela's Angel Falls, Peru's Yumbilla Falls, and the United State's Yosemite Falls,

MORE

visitbrasil.com niagrafallstourism.com niagrafallsstatepark.com

See also: Iguassu Falls travel guide  - by private tour

SLICKER CITIES

It is hard to define what makes a great city, but these American metropolises stand out from the crowd.

MOST ELEGANT: BUENOS AIRES

From its grand cafes to its elegant theatres, Argentina's Big Apple drips glamour. Even its best-known cemetery, Recoleta Cemetery, is a dazzler.

GREENEST: VANCOUVER

The trees aren't the only green things in this Canadian city; Vancouver has the smallest carbon footprint of any North American city, and aims to be the greenest city in the world by 2020.

BEST LOCATION: SANTIAGO

When we say that leaving town is the best thing about visiting Chile's capital, we are not being mean. With superb ski fields and wonderful wineries a short drive away, the locals are spoiled for choice.

MOST SURPRISING: LA PAZ

Whatever you expect from Bolivia's chaotic capital, you will find something that surprises you, from the irresistible street food to the ancient ruins to the dried lama fetuses for sale in the local markets.

MOST ADDICTIVE: NEW YORK CITY

From the Chrysler Building to Central Park, the groove of Greenwich Village to the grandeur of Grand Central Station – not to mention its museums and its cocktail bars – New York never disappoints.

BATTLE OF THE BEACHES

Ready to hit the beach? These strips of sand are some of the most inviting around.

BEST SURF: WAIMEA BEACH, HAWAII

Head to this legendary beach on Oahu's North Shore during the winter for world-class waves. During the summer, when the waves flatten out, this is a family-friendly option.

BEST TROPICAL GETAWAY: ISLA HOLBOX, MEXICO

The Yucatan Peninsula has plenty of seductive stretches of sand, but if you're after the trifecta – clear water, white sand, and a get-away-from-it-all vibe – the beaches of this tranquil island deliver in spades.

BEST SUNSET: MALLORY BEACH, FLORIDA

How good is the sunset here? So good that every night, they host a Key West Sunset Celebration, with food, music, jugglers and more.

BEST MONUMENTS: ANAKENA BEACH, RAPA NUI

Along with white sand and calm waters, Anakena Beach on the far-flung Chilean island of Rapa Nui, also known Easter Island, has something truly special: a clutch of ancient moai statues.

BEST TREES: WICKANNISH BEACH, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Don't worry: there is plenty of sand on Wickannish Beach. Like most beaches on Canada's idyllic Vancouver Island, however, Wickannish Beach is also fringed by verdant forest, which just adds to its wild beauty.

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