USA travel guide and things to do: The 50 highlights of America, state by state

There's one state, usually, to describe them all; one state that on any trip to the United States you're guaranteed to find yourself in, guaranteed to feel deep in your bones. That state is one of excitement.

This is, after all, one of the truly great travel destinations, a world within world, a place of complex history and multiple cultures, of attractions natural and man-made, of huge cities that bustle and hum, of wide-open spaces unblemished or untouched.

There's so much diversity in the US, so many emotions this country will inspire, so many experiences it offers, so many memories with which to depart.

To travel in the US is to experience states both physical and emotional. Yes, there are those invisible boundaries marked down by man, the borders that delineate cultures, beliefs, accents, cuisines. But perhaps more important are the states of being that the US inspires, from adventurous to creative, outlandish to intrepid, aimless to carefree.

The US, this world within a world, caters to all of those emotions, inspiring and nurturing them. It doesn't matter how you're feeling when you visit, or how you want to feel: there's a destination, an attraction or an activity in the United States that will fulfil you. That's something to be excited about.

NATURE 

A DREAMY STATE

Yellowstone National Park

You'll feel like you've entered a dream state in the world's first national park, Yellowstone, where geysers of hot water shoot high into the air, where riotously coloured hotsprings and bubbling mud pits abound, and where moose, elk, bison and grizzlies roam free.

DO IT yellowstonenationalpark.com

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: iStock

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A SOLITARY STATE

Teton Crest Trail, Wyoming

It's surprisingly peaceful on this 72-kilometre hiking trail, given it runs through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery you're likely to witness. The Teton Crest Trail is a four to five-day adventure that allows plenty of opportunity to enjoy time in your own company.

DO IT travelwyoming.com 

A NATURAL STATE

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

This is a step into the past; a look at how the world once was, bubbling cauldrons of volcanic rock, rivers of molten lava oozing towards a hissing, steaming collision with the ocean. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an incredible place of tectonic action on the Big Island.

DO IT gohawaii.com

Lava entering the Pacific Ocean on Kilauea, Big Island, Hawaii.

Lava entering the Pacific Ocean on Kilauea, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo: iStock

A RUGGED STATE

Ranch stay, Montana

Montana is big sky country, a place of rugged hills, wide plains and endless horizons – in other words, the sort of place you want to explore on horseback. There are plenty of ranches that offer the chance to stay, ride, and soak up the lifestyle. 

DO IT visitmt.com

A PEACEFUL STATE

New England's fall colours

New England, that north-eastern pocket of the US that's charming and historic at any time of year, takes on an ethereal beauty in autumn, when billions of leaves change from green to every shade of red, orange, purple and yellow. It's an amazing sight, best appreciated on a road trip. 

DO IT discovernewengland.org

Autumn, often known as fall in the US and Canada is one of the four temperate seasons. Autumn marks the transition from summer into winter, in September (Northern Hemisphere) or March (Southern Hemisphere) when the arrival of night becomes noticeably earlier. Autumn leaf color is a phenomenon that affects the normally green leaves of many deciduous trees and shrubs by which they take on, during a few weeks in the autumn season, various shades of red, yellow, purple, and brown. SatJul29Cover

Spectacular autumn colours in New England.

GOURMET 

A HUNGRY STATE

Fine-dining, New York City

Though you could enjoy sumptuous meal after sumptuous meal in New York City without breaking the bank, there's something to be said for cutting loose and enjoying the city's fine-dining scene. Restaurants such as Le Bernardin, Momofuku Ko, and Eleven Madison Park – recently crowned the world's best – offer something special for those who can afford it.

DO IT le-bernardin.com; momofuku.com; elevenmadisonpark.com

See also: New York's best new hotel restaurants

A THIRSTY STATE

Craft brewery visits, everywhere

Anyone who thinks American beer begins and ends at Budweiser hasn't been to the US in a while. This country is home to a world-leading craft brewery scene, with hotspots in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Denver and San Diego. One of the best brewery tours is run by Anchor Brewing in San Fran.

DO IT anchorbrewing.com

A RAVENOUS STATE

Texas' barbecue joints

The passion that Texans have for basted, dry-rubbed, smoked and charred meat is difficult to understate. Texas loves a barbecue, and whether you're visiting world-famous joints like Louie Mueller Barbecue in the town of Taylor, or calling into any old place for a brisket sandwich, you'll understand why.

DO IT texasbbq.com

Cutting a flank steak.

Texas is the place to enjoy meat. Photo: iStock

AN AFFORDABLE STATE

Maine coast

One of the most affordable and yet still stunningly beautiful destinations to holiday in the US is the state of Maine, in particular the family-friendly small towns that dot the coastline. This is lobster country, but Maine is also known for its craft beer.

DO IT visitmaine.com

Try the lobster, seriously.

Try the lobster, seriously. Photo: iStock

URBAN

A TOURISTY STATE

Statue of Liberty, New York City

There's probably no more famous site in the US than the Statue of Liberty, and no less imaginative a destination for tourists to visit, either. Still, this is bucket list stuff, and worthy of the effort for bragging rights alone.  

DO IT nycgo.com

The Statue of Liberty.

A STYLISH STATE

5th Avenue, New York City

If you're the type of traveller who's in the market for Armani, who won't break the bank at De Beers, who sees Jimmy Choo and thinks, "Bargain!", then there's nowhere else to go but New York's 5th Avenue. Even for window shoppers, it's an experience. 

DO IT nycgo.com

A FRIVOLOUS STATE

Atlantic City, New Jersey

If chucking money away in a hedonistic paradise is your thing, then all the roads that don't lead to Las Vegas go to Atlantic City, the former gangsters' paradise on the Jersey Shore. AC ain't what it used to be, but the beaches are clean, the boardwalks historic, and casinos open.

DO IT atlanticcitynj.com 

A DARING STATE

Boulder, Colorado

Few cities can match the outdoor lifestyle enjoyed by the residents of Boulder, Colorado. Everyone here camps on weekends. They go hiking, or mountain-biking, or rock-climbing. If you're not spending your leisure time doing something outdoorsy or scary, you're not living the Boulder dream. 

DO IT bouldercoloradousa.com

AN OUTLANDISH STATE

Portland, Oregon

The popular slogan "keep Portland weird" tells you all you need to know about this quirky city in the Pacific Northwest, the perfect destination if you feel like dressing outlandishly, eating ethically, and partying heartily with like-minded folk.

DO IT travelportland.com

A CREATIVE STATE

Detroit, Michigan

Once, it was known as "Motor City". Then the car industry collapsed, and Detroit was known for little more than deserted homes and shattered dreams. These days, however, the city is reinventing itself as a hub for artists and creatives, with public artworks, repurposed warehouse spaces, and community gatherings.

DO IT visitdetroit.com 

A SOCIAL STATE 

Atlanta, Georgia

The US has plenty of cities that know how to party – however, one of the surprise hotpots is Atlanta, which has a thriving and friendly nightlife scene thanks to its huge student population, and its residents' love of getting out of the house and socialising.  

DO IT atlanta.net

A WEALTHY STATE

East Hampton, New York State

For a brief brush with New York City royalty, slip on some boat shoes, throw a Ralph Lauren jumper around your shoulders and head to East Hampton, the sunny playground for the city's rich and fabulous. And remember: pack credit cards.

DO IT visitnewyorkstate.com 

ATTRACTIONS 

AN ALTERED STATE

Roswell, New Mexico

Why do aliens always seem to abduct Americans? That's something you can ponder in the US's most UFO-obsessed town, Roswell, New Mexico, the home of a supposed extraterrestrial sighting, and a place where everywhere from the restaurants to the clothing stores has a UFO theme.

DO IT newmexico.org 

AN EMBOLDENED STATE

Miami Beach, Florida

It takes a certain amount of confidence to break out your smalls at Miami Beach, this home of the buff and the beautiful, of year-round tans scribbled with tattoos. Still, this is one great place for a holiday in the sun, and when you tire of the beach there's excellent Cuban food nearby.

DO IT miamiandbeaches.com

Miami: Palm trees and art deco hotels line Ocean Drive by night.

Miami: Palm trees and art deco hotels line Ocean Drive by night. Photo: iStock

A NOSTALGIC STATE

Charleston, South Carolina

There's no shortage of down-home southern charm in Charleston, South Carolina, with its historic civic buildings and old homes, its carriage rides through quiet streets, its restaurants dishing up large servings of southern hospitality, and its easy, friendly attitude.

DO IT charlestoncvb.com

AN INNOVATIVE STATE

Silicon Valley, California

Most of the icons you stare at on your phone day after day come from right here in Mountain View, California – otherwise known as Silicon Valley. Check out the worldwide headquarters of Google, Facebook, Apple, eBay and more.

DO IT mountainviewtourism.com 

Google's sprawling campus in Mountain View, California.

Google's sprawling campus in Mountain View, California. Photo: iStock

A CREEPY STATE

Blackout Haunted House, New York and Los Angeles

It's known as the "world's most hardcore haunted house", an immersive, adults-only horror experience that will scare even the hardiest of participants. Blackout is as much performance art as it is a game, and it takes place sporadically in New York and Los Angeles.

DO IT theblackoutexperience.com 

A SPORTY STATE

Wrigley Field, Chicago, Illinois

Baseball in the US is a spectator experience that's built around cherished rituals, from the national anthem to the beer and the hotdog to the "seventh-inning stretch". Perhaps the most traditional US baseball stadiums is Chicago's Wrigley Field, the 103-year-old home of the Cubs. 

DO IT choosechicago.com   

A PLAYFUL STATE

Orlando, Florida

All kids, big and small, tend to have a whale of a time in Orlando, Florida, the home of theme parks including Disneyworld, the Epcot Centre, Universal Studios, Legoland and SeaWorld. Prepare for plenty of time on rollercoasters and other rides, and in queues.

DO IT visitorlando.com

A HERITAGE STATE

Historical sights of Massachusetts

Those interested in the earliest days of the US should check out the historical areas of Massachusetts, including Plymouth, where the Pilgrim Fathers landed in 1620, and Lexington and Concord, where the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired.

DO IT massvacation.com

USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. She is the world's oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat.

USS Constitution is a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. She is the world's oldest commissioned naval vessel afloat. Photo: iStock

A MELODIOUS STATE

Graceland, Tennessee

Elvis Presley's former home draws tourists from far and wide, who come for the history of the King, but stay for the modern-day charms of nearby Memphis, where Elvis's musical legacy lives on in the rock'n'roll and blues bars that are scattered throughout.

DO IT graceland.com

A WAGERING STATE

Kentucky Derby, Louisville

Feeling lucky? Head on down to the Kentucky Derby, the US's richest horse race, and bet the house on your favourite nag (actually, please don't). Gambling aside, this is a hugely entertaining spectacle, an event steeped in history and soaked in booze. 

DO IT kentuckyderby.com

CULTURE 

A CELEBRATORY STATE

Nashville, Tennessee

There's so much to celebrate on a nightly basis in "Music City", whether you love boot-scootin', country-fried tunes, or you're more into alternative rock, whether you want to visit a classic old music hall or a cutting-edge live venue – if you love music, you'll be celebrating in Nashville every night.

DO IT visitmusiccity.com 

A THEATRICAL STATE

Broadway, New York City

One of the world's most famous theatre districts plays host nightly to star-studded productions of all genres and budgets, from contemporary titles such as Hamilton and Groundhog Day, to classics like Phantom of the Opera and Cats

DO IT nycgo.com

A RESPECTFUL STATE

Martin Luther King Jr Historic Site, Atlanta, Georgia

This memorial, dedicated to one of the most influential figures in American history, is a moving tribute to the man who so famously had a dream, and went so far towards achieving it. This is deservedly Atlanta's No.1 tourist destination.

DO IT thekingcenter.org

AN ARTISTIC STATE 

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

The "Met" in New York City is one of the world's great museums, and indeed the largest art museum in the US – there are more than two million works in the permanent collection, including a complete Egyptian temple, as well as artifacts from ancient Greece and Rome.

DO IT metmuseum.org

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: iStock

A STAR-STUDDED STATE

Hollywood, Los Angeles, California

Yes, Hollywood Boulevard is a little tacky and rundown, but there's still an undeniable buzz you get from visiting this famous pocket of LA, being among sights so recognisable you feel you're on a film set: the Hollywood Hills, the Sunset Strip, the Capitol Records building, and of course the Hollywood sign.

DO IT discoverlosangeles.com

ACTIVE  

A RELAXED STATE

Big Island, Hawaii

The island of Hawaii, known as the "Big Island", is the Hawaii of your dreams, a laidback and stunningly beautiful place in which you'll find eight of the world's 13 climate zones among its mountains, plains and oceans. The pace is slow here, and the people friendly.

DO IT gohawaii.com 

A REVERENTIAL STATE

The Masters, Georgia

Some people make spiritual pilgrimages to churches, or burial sites, or old buildings. Golf fans, meanwhile, make their divine journey each April to Augusta, Georgia, to witness one of the world's great sporting events, the Masters. And what could be more spiritual than Amen Corner?

DO IT masters.com  

AN AIMLESS STATE

Road trip, everywhere

Those with time on their hands and no idea how to fill it – or even those with a limited itinerary who just want to appreciate the US at its best – need only hire a car, fill it with petrol, and drive, baby, drive. The US is made for road-tripping.

DO IT visittheusa.com

A SUN-KISSED STATE

Florida Keys

Where do you go when even the Floridian mainland seems too highly strung? Ever south, to the Florida Keys, a series of sun-kissed islands that attracts all manner of characters looking to check out from mainstream society and enjoy permanent downtime.

DO IT fla-keys.com

Florida's famous Key West.

Florida's famous Key West. Photo: iStock

AN INDEPENDENT STATE

Big Sur Coast Highway, California

The perfect place for independent travellers, the Big Sur Coast Highway offers world-class scenic driving, as well as a host of beaches, national parks and reserves in which to get out and explore, plus charming towns to spend the night.  

DO IT visitbigsurcalifornia.com

A FREEWHEELING STATE

Route 66

One of the world's great road trips, and the perfect itinerary for anyone with permanently itchy feet. Route 66 takes travellers on a 3940-kilometre journey from Chicago to Santa Monica via the American heartland, calling past all the truckstops, diners and motels you can handle.  

DO IT visittheusa.com

ADVENTURE

AN EXERTED STATE

Appalachian Trail

The world's longest hiking-only trail is a beautiful behemoth that stretches 3525 kilometres across 14 states, from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. This is bucket-list stuff, an experience that can be taken in day-hike chunks or as one spectacular adventure.

DO IT appalachiantrail.org 

AN OUTRAGEOUS STATE

Burning Man, Nevada

Every August for the last 31 years, a huge tribe of hippies and artists, drop-outs and drifters, creatives and crafters and plenty of normal people who just want to get away from polite society for a while, has headed out to the Nevada desert for the week-long Burning Man festival. There's nothing in the world like it.

DO IT burningman.org

Two women in typical Burning Man Outfits

Two women in typical Burning Man Outfits Photo: iStock

A FROZEN STATE

Skiing and snowboarding

There are so many great places to ski and snowboard in the US, mountains that stretch from New Hampshire in the east to Lake Tahoe in the west. The best spots, however, can be found in the middle: Jackson Hole in Wyoming, Aspen in Colorado, and Park City in Utah. 

DO IT jacksonhole.com; aspensnowmass.com; parkcitymountain.com

AN INTREPID STATE

Whitewater rafting, Oregon

Oregon's rushing rivers and spectacular mountain scenery are perfect for multi-day whitewater rafting adventures, the sort of journeys that involve white-knuckle rides down rapids during the day, and meals around the campfire by night. 

DO IT oregonrafting.com

A WILD STATE

Cruise the Alaskan coast

It's hard to know where to look on a cruise into the Alaska Inside Passage: at the surrounding ocean, scanning for whales? At the rugged coastline, with its cliffs and glaciers? Or further into the wilderness, with the hope of spotting moose or elk? There's no wrong answer.

DO IT royalcaribbean.com.au

Holgate glacier of Aialik bay in Alaska.

Holgate glacier of Aialik bay in Alaska. Photo: iStock

A WATERY STATE

Surfing in Hawaii

Beginner surfers, fear not: there are places for you to whet your gnarly appetite in Hawaii. While the pros head out to world-famous North Shore breaks such as Sunset Beach and Pipeline, there are always learner-friendly waves lapping the shore at Waikiki.

DO IT gohawaii.com

AN INSPIRED STATE

National parks of Utah

Anyone suffering a mid-life crisis, or a case of writer's block, or simply pondering the meaning of it all, can't fail to be inspired by Utah's "Mighty 5" national parks. These are some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, and those who take the time to discover places such as Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands will be truly moved by the natural magnificence on display.

At Arches you'll find dramatic rock formations, curves and waves that have been sculpted over hundreds of millions of years. Canyonlands, meanwhile, is all about those eponymous gorges, formed by tributaries of the Green and Colorado Rivers. And then there's Bryce Canyon, which rivals the Grand Canyon for jaw-dropping beauty, and Zion, with its emerald pools. At all of these locations you can hike or bike or raft, and spend the night under canvas.

DO IT visitutah.com

The Monument Valley at sunset.

The Monument Valley at sunset. Photo: Getty Images

A MOMENTOUS STATE

Kennedy Space Centre, Florida

There's an undeniable intrigue that goes with space travel, a fascination that grips both starry-eyed children and spellbound adults, and you can't help but be swept up in it when you visit Kennedy Space Centre, the NASA base near Orlando, Florida. This is where the US's most famous space missions have erupted into life, including Apollo 11, the first manned flight to the moon, and it is as much a historical tour as it is a visit to a working launch pad.

Visitors to Kennedy Space Centre get an up-close look at life-size replicas of many of the original spacecraft that have taken American astronauts to infinity and beyond, as well the original space shuttle Atlantis, which still bears the marks of its journeys into the atmosphere. There's also an excellent collection of space suits and other memorabilia, and the chance to take a bus tour through the working NASA facilities.

DO IT kennedyspacecenter.com

A VORACIOUS STATE

San Francisco, California

Of all the US's gastronomic hotspots – the fine-dining of NYC, the food trucks of Portland, Oregon, the barbecue joints of Austin – perhaps none are more exciting right now than San Francisco. This is a city that's obsessed with food, boasting a phenomenal amount of restaurants that are making the best of local produce from land and sea, as well as wines from nearby Napa and Sonoma valleys.

For fresh ingredients, head to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Markets, held Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. For authentic food from Central and South America, call past the Mission District, or visit Chinatown for excellent Asian cuisine. If fine-dining is more your thing, try the likes of the scene-leading Chez Panisse, or the organic-focused Nopa, or Asian fusion at Commis in Berkeley. 

DO IT ferrybuildingmarketplace.com; chepanisse.com; nopasf.com; commisrestaurant.com

A CAREFREE STATE

Las Vegas, Nevada

There's a funny thing that happens when you enter Las Vegas: time becomes irrelevant. The outside world ceases to exist. All of your normal concerns and responsibilities fade away. In this hedonistic paradise, nothing seems to matter but the pursuit of a good time as you surround yourself with the people and the venues that know how to provide it.

Vegas is a 24-hour celebration of a worry-free life, and there's so much more to it than gambling. Vegas is fine-dining restaurants manned by celebrity chefs; it's concerts and musicals featuring the biggest names in the business; it's theme parks, art galleries, golf courses, racing tracks, day spas, nightclubs and more. Essentially, if it sounds fun or interesting or frivolous, there's a good chance you can do it in Las Vegas. The cares of the world can wait.

DO IT visitlasvegas.com

See also: 19 things that will shock first-time visitors to Las Vegas

The Las Vegas strip.

The Las Vegas strip. Photo: iStock

AN ENLIGHTENED STATE

Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

There are some museums that require a few hours to explore; some that will take a day of your time; and then there's Washington DC's Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum, education and research complex, where you could spend weeks and still not have seen everything of interest.

The Smithsonian is a fascinating network of 19 museums and galleries – 17 of which are in DC. Where to start? By far the most popular is the National Museum of Natural History, which houses 126 million specimens, including a stuffed elephant, a dinosaur hall, a giant squid, a collection of moai heads from Easter Island, and a 45-carat diamond. 

Elsewhere in the Smithsonian you'll discover the original Wright brothers' plane, the real Star Spangled Banner, gowns worn by Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama, an Air France concord, the Apollo 11 space command module, and original portraits of America's first five presidents. Happy wandering.

DO IT si.edu

A FESTIVE STATE

New Orleans, Louisiana

There are plenty of organised, official festivals that take place in New Orleans: the Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Wine and Food Experience, the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, the French Quarter Fest, the Carnaval Latino, and of course the legendary Mardi Gras. In fact you would be extremely unlucky to find yourself in New Orleans when there isn't a festival on.

However, there's more to the city's festive charm than these events. New Orleans is a city that always seems to be in party mode, that always has something to celebrate. We're talking about the "second line parades", the spontaneous brass band processions that take over the city streets most Sundays. We're talking about jazz bars where there always seems to be someone playing; drinking dens that are rowdy any time of the day; restaurants that crackle and hum with joy and anticipation. This might just be the most festive place on Earth.

DO IT neworleanscvb.com

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to the USA

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