America’s absolute best tourist destinations

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The United States is a massive country with a vast array of cultures, ecosystems, and historical landmarks. With so much happening in such a large country, it’s hard to decide where to go. The best places to visit in the USA are subjective. Those who travel because they love art may not enjoy the thrills Orlando offers. Foodies might not be interested in the vast network of national parks in the United States.

Although there is a number 1 vacation spot in the US based on ratings, there are a lot of other great destinations. Here are the best places to visit in the US based on what you like to do!

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The No. 1 vacation spot in the USA

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The number one vacation spot in the United States is the Grand Canyon, based on US News and World report’s annual rankings. This epic natural land formation is over a mile deep, runs along over 270 miles of the Colorado River, and is over 18 miles wide at its widest points. The gorgeous land formations, unique hiking experiences, and vast array of wilderness make it a top tourist destination.

Nearly 6 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, making it the second most popular National Park in the United States, bested only by Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee, with over 12 million visitors. A big part of this difference is likely location. Smokey Mountain National Park is within 200 miles of major cities like Atlanta and Charlotte and within 500 miles of Washington DC, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville.

The only major city within 200 miles of the Grand Canyon is Las Vegas, with Phoenix being the next closest at about 250 miles. Los Angeles is the biggest city within 500 miles, but with Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree National Parks all less than 500 miles from it, it’s easy to see why the Grand Canyon wouldn’t have as many visitors.

The Grand Canyon’s seclusion is part of its charm. There’s nothing quite like peering into a vast chasm in the Earth in quiet solitude. The vastness of it all creates an array of feelings, from insignificance to wonder. It’s a truly breathtaking experience.

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Get your travel points ready!

The Grand Canyon deserves its spot as the number one place to visit in the United States, but many other cities, towns, locales, and monuments are worth seeing. This list is categorized based on specific tastes, and although many of these cities and landmarks could fit in numerous categories, each town is only listed where it works best.

The United States’ three largest and most iconic cities will offer a little something for almost everyone. These cities are full of arts and culture, great food and entertainment, and tons of history. They would fit almost anywhere else on this list, but they deserve their spot since they offer the most comprehensive array of activities.

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New York City

With over 66 million annual visitors, New York City is the top US tourist destination for foreign travelers. It’s easy to see why. New York City has it all. Art lovers need to visit theMetropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. While the MET is dedicated to famous painters throughout history and showcases work from the Renaissance through modern times, MoMA is dedicated to artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Foodies can explore the different boroughs and sample Brooklyn-style bagels and New York Pizza. Those with a more refined pallet can head to Manhattan to sample the vast array of available fine dining. Those looking to explore iconic landmarks and history need to check out the Statute of Liberty and the stand atop the Empire State Building.

There is something for everyone in this must-visit US city.

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Chicago

The second city, Chicago, is always living in its big sibling’s shadow. New York may be more prominent and have a more significant tourist draw, but you would be missing out if you decided to skip the smaller, cleaner New York.

Chicago could easily sit atop the list of the best city to visit for arts and culture. With 100 concert venues, event centers, playhouses, and museums, including the iconic Art Institute of Chicago, the Windy City is a leader in preserving and celebrating the arts.

It’s also widely celebrated as a foodie city, locked in a constant battle with New York over who can make the best pizza and hot dogs. But Chicago is also the home of the Italian beef sandwich and the Maxwell Street Polish, two fatty foods that are iconic in their own right, in addition to a vast array of diverse neighborhoods, each with its flair. 

Greek town, Little Mexico, Chinatown, and Little Italy all have local family-owned restaurants that embody the essence of the countries they are named after. You can find authentic foods from all over the world in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

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Los Angeles

Los Angeles is the world’s entertainment capital, but there’s far more to do and see than Hollywood.

Los Angeles is a thriving art city. With museums like the Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Complex, there are plenty of opportunities to see the works of influential artists throughout history. However, LA is not limited to art history. The Broad downtown is dedicated to modern art, and an entire district downtown is labeled gallery row due to the vast array of art galleries there.

It’s also a foodie city, especially for those interested in various Asian cousins. With neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown spread throughout the city. Tourists can experience the different ethnic flavors all over LA.

Nature lovers will enjoy the deep-sea fishing, whale watching, and boating opportunities available off the coast, and thrill-seekers can opt to check out Universal Studios and Six Flags Magic Mountain to the North of the City or take their kids to Disney Land and Knotts Berry Farm in neighboring Anaheim for family-friendly thrills.

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New Orleans

New Orleans is a mecca of culture. The city is the home of the largest Mardi Gras parade in the United States, a yearly Jazz Festival, street performers, and a wide array of museums dedicated to varying cultural phenomena, including a Voodoo Museum.

The city is also renowned for its food, which can be considered a cultural experience in New Orleans more than any other city on the list. A mix between Cajun and Creole, New Orleans cuisine combines the best of Southern, French, and Native cooking into an exceptional culinary experience.

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Seattle

The birthplace of grunge, Seattle is renowned as a music city. However, it also hosts a wide array of museums and other cultural icons. The pop culture museum downtown is an excellent reminder of pop culture’s influence on our daily lives, while the gum wall showcases the gritty side of culture.

Seattle also has a glass museum filled with gorgeous and colorful glass sculptures and a museum dedicated to aviation. The underground tours showcase the cultural history of the city and the westward expansion as a whole.

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Savannah

Home to one of the most prestigious arts and design colleges in the county, it’s no wonder Savannah, GA

https://www.visitsavannah.com/

, would find its home as an arts and cultures icon. Although a small town, it has over 20 museums, a thriving music scene, and a wide array of themed bars.

It’s also an excellent example of Southern charm and culture. The numerous squares throughout the city harken back to a time before cars took over, and a wide variety of restaurants showcase Southern cuisine.

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Portland, Oregon

Portland is a hipster city quickly gaining national attention as one of the best places to live and visit. One of the biggest draws to the city is its food culture.

Portland is home to over 100 craft breweries, a wide variety of food trucks and carts, and the idea that locally sourced sustainable food is far better than overpriced five-star restaurants (Though Portland has a few of those as well). Portland restaurants have perfected the idea of doing one or two things exceptionally well and with price consciousness in mind.

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San Francisco

San Francisco has long hailed the king of food for the United States. With its authentic local sourdoughs and one of the best Chinatowns in the country, the food culture is as diverse as they come. The famed Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the city’s most touristy areas but is filled with delicious seafood restaurants. If you’re tired of seafood, head to the Mission District, which is filled with restaurants showcasing the different ethnic flavors of the city.

A bonus of visiting San Francisco is the wine culture. Only a few hours from Napa Valley, the country’s wine capital (and an up-and-coming food city in its own right), San Francisco is a great place to sample wines from the surrounding valleys.

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Nashville

Nashville offers the best of Southern cuisine paired with fantastic barbeque and a local flair. Traditionally known for its music scene, Nashville has been a tourist destination for years. But recently, the city has expanded from Music City USA into a top foodie destination.

Nashville’s hot chicken and biscuits made such a splash that it’s now an offering at various chicken franchises throughout the country. But Nashville also boasts scores of local eateries and Michelin star restaurants.

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The Washington Mall

Washington DC is home to the most important and iconic monuments representing US history. See the Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument, The Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnam Memorial Wall all at Washington Mall.

While you’re in DC, be sure to check out the Smithsonian Museum complex, with collections on everything from natural history to aviation.

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The Alamo

Remember the Alamo? This iconic fort located just outside San Antonio is often celebrated as a symbol of American exceptionalism. The Battle of the Alamo, fought in Texas’s war from Independence against Mexico, showcased the courage and perseverance of Texans. A group of only 200 volunteer fighters stood firm against a Mexican force thousand strong for 13 days. Although the Texans ultimately lost the battle, the fight became a battle cry. The perseverance of the soldiers who perished became a symbol of Texas’, and ultimately America’s, stand against oppression.

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Mt. Rushmore

Mount Rushmore National Monument is an enormous carving of four of the United States’ most iconic presidents onto the side of a mountain about 30 minutes outside of Rapid City, SD. This sculpture features the likeness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

To say the sculpture is enormous is an understatement. The head of Washington alone stands 60 feet tall. His mouth is 18 feet wide. Viewers can get a great look at the monument from the Lincoln Borglum Visitors center, and those who want to get closer can take the trail to the base—climbing the mountain and getting closer than the trailhead is prohibited.

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The Northern Lights

The United States is such a vast country that there are tropical beaches and places to view the Northern lights. Fairbanks, Alaska, is the Northern-most major city in the country and a great place to visit if you want to see the aurora borealis.

Aurora season in Fairbanks runs from late August to late April, so there is ample time in the year to plan your visit. It’s best to take a tour away from the city’s lights to get the best view.

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Mammoth Caves

Mammoth cave is the longest known cave system in the world. Located about 90 miles south of Louisville, KY, the cave network is the most iconic attraction in Kentucky and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Visitors to the caves can choose between a plethora of tour options. There is an accessible tour that features an elevator entrance, numerous tours showcasing the vast history of the caves, and tours meant to showcase the gorgeous geological formations found in the cave.

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Old Faithful

A staple of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Old Faithful is a geyser that faithfully erupts on an almost regular schedule. Old Faithful generally erupts around 20 times per day, spewing hot water from the springs beneath as high as 180 feet in the air.

The water erupting from Old Faithful is dangerously hot, and the hot springs around it can be treacherous. Be sure to stay on the boardwalk and not wander too close to the springs during your visit.

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Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park in Montana is one of the best places to visit if you want to be at one with nature. Located near the Canadian border and over two hours from Montana’s biggest cities (which aren’t that big), Glacier National Park is as secluded as you can get in the continental united states.

This park is a hiker’s and adventurers’ paradise. It has more than 700 miles of hiking trails, abundant lakes, gorgeous alpine meadows, and spectacular mountain views. As the park is so far from any city, it makes a perfect place for gazing at a clear night sky. Glacier National Park regularly tops the list of most beautiful national parks in the country.

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Yosemite National Park

California has more national parks than any other state in the country, but it’s easy to see why Yosemite would be the best one to visit. Located in central California, this park boasts over 4 million visitors per year.

Yosemite is nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and showcases the beauty of the area. With iconic mountains such as El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite is a climber’s paradise. It also features a variety of trails, waterfalls, and valley views which will astonish visitors of all ages.

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Zion National Park

Utah is a small state that is filled with national parks. It has the third-most in the country and is far smaller than the two states that best it. This state has Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Zion, all of which could easily cease the crown of being the best.

Zion was the first national park established in Utah and is the most visited. It features a scenic drive which makes the views accessible for visitors of all ages. Experienced hikers may want to traverse the Narrows, an aptly named narrow column of water between two giant sandstone mountains that prepared visitors can wade through to experience the narrowest portion of the river. This trek can be treacherous in high waters, so it’s essential to check the visitor’s center for river conditions before embarking on this adventure.

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Orlando

Orlando is the theme park capital of the world. It features Disney World and Disney’s vast array of attractions, including the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and two water parks, in addition to Universal Studios Theme Park Florida.

In addition to these two behemoths of thrills and excitement, Orlando is home to Legoland, SeaWorld, Ripley’s, and Madame Tussauds. Also, it boasts a variety of shows and specialized attractions.

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San Diego

San Diego is also home to a wide variety of theme parks and fun. Although it also has SeaWorld and Legoland, the most iconic attractions are the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Safari Park.  

Visitors can get up close and personal to some of the most important species of Africa and hand-feed giraffes during a visit to these spectacular parks. Roller coaster lovers will enjoy Belmont Park, a small retro theme park near the beach featuring the giant dipper, a wooden roller coaster dating to 1925.

For more thrills, try surfing at Ocean Beach, deep-sea fishing out of Mission Bay, or trying to catch a glimpse of the Navy Seals near Coronado Island.

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Branson, Missouri

If you want a touristy schtick without the cost of big-name theme parks, you need to check out Branson, Missouri is a great budget-friendly family vacation destination featuring theme parks, adventure parks, aquariums, and a plethora of entertainment.

Branson is also home to a museum dedicated to the Titanic, a gorgeous cave complex, and a scenic railway, so there is something for the entire family to enjoy. Similar small US cities filled with entertaining tourist attractions include Gatlinburg, TN, and the Wisconsin Dells, WI.

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The Canyons of the Ancients

The Canyons of the Ancients in the American Southwest is the best place to visit if you are interested in Native American history. Start with Mesa Verde National Monument in southwestern Colorado. After that, you can explore ancient cave dwellings and move on to the Anazi heritage center in Cortez, CO. In Cortez, you will learn the ancients’ history can get a map of the most important sites.

The Canyons of the Ancients aren’t well excavated, in part to preserve the artifacts. Though there are a variety of trails you can hike to see some of the ancient towers, the best place to go is Hovenweep National Monument, which hosts one of the largest still intact towers and offers a variety of hiking opportunities from the accessible to the difficult.

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Philadelphia

If you’re looking for early American history, Philadelphia needs to be on your list. Home to the first constitutional congress, Philadelphia is where the founding fathers met to write and sign the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

The exploration of history in the city doesn’t end with the founding fathers. Philadelphia is also home to Eastern State penitentiary, an old prison-turned museum, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s homes, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where some of America’s earliest and most influential artists are displayed. The wide variety of historical sites to visit make Philadelphia the best place to visit in Pennsylvania.

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Jamestown, Virginia

If you are interested in United States history before the Revolution, Jamestown is the place for you. Widely accepted as the homeplace of the first European settlers to the continent, Jamestown embraces its historical past and offers a wide variety of learning experiences for visitors of all ages.

Settled in 1607, the Jamestown colony predates the Mayflower by nearly 15 years. Its sordid history includes John Smith’s arrest for mutiny, rampant disease, and various skirmishes with the nearby Powhatan tribe, which called the area home.

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Las Vegas

Las Vegas is often referred to as the entertainment capital of the world. Filled with casinos, bars, lounges, and shows, Vegas is the place to go if you want to experience the best nightlife in the country, and since there are no laws on when bars can be open, you can party well into the following day.

Not only is Vegas filled with bars, clubs, and lounges, but it also has a variety of musical shows and Cirque Du Soleil offerings. Visitors can watch acrobats soar to famous music while sipping their favorite cocktails, party at the pool in the scorching summer heat, or hit up any of the numerous themed bars on the strip.

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Austin

Austin, Texas, is a great place to visit if you’re interested in the live music scene. Boasting over 250 venues, there’s a show for everyone in Austin’s bustling nightlife scene.

In addition to music venues, Austin is home to various nightclubs, lounges, comedy clubs, and breweries. Austin is also a growing foodie city, so plenty of restaurants and food trucks are available to help you soak up the booze.

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Miami

Miami often tops the list of best nightlife destinations in the United States, and it’s easy to see why. The warm days turn into hot nights on the beach, and there are many ways to let off steam.

Enjoy Salsa dancing in Little Havana, relax at a posh rooftop bar near South Beach, or hit one of the nation’s best nightclubs in Miami Beach. Be wary, though – Miami beaches’ nightlife is as expensive as it is extravagant, and you may find yourself spending far more than you bargained for.

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Honolulu

You will find the best beaches in the United States in its island state Hawaii. As part of the pacific archipelago, this network of tropical Islands has over 700 miles of combined coastline. Each island has its unique flavor. You can visit the black sand beaches of the big island, the romantic beach resorts on Maui, or the pristine waters of Kauai, but the best place for tourists is Waikiki beach on Oahu.

Waikiki Beach is in Honolulu, and it’s the best option because of all of the things to do and see on the island. Sign up for surf lessons on Waikiki Beach, snorkel in Haumauna Bay, visit Pearl Harbor, and party at a real-life luau. The beach has warm waters and is ideal for swimming or just laying out and enjoying the sun.

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Florida Keys

If you want beach parties, warm waters, and epic scenery, you need to head down to theFlorida Keys. This archipelago features over 1000 islands, though most of them are small and inhabited. The 40+ islands connected by the bridge are all fantastic locations for your beach vacation.

There are over a hundred beaches in the Florida Keys, and each has a unique offering. Check out Dry Tortuga National Park to see pristine beaches and for the chance to spy sea turtles in their natural habitats, or head to the beaches at Key West to explore the vibrant beach nightlife.

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South Padre Island, Texas

South Padre Island is a gorgeous beach getaway on Texas’s gulf coast, right near the border with Mexico. A bridge connects the island to the Texas mainland, and tons of fun things to do on the island itself.

South Padre Island is an excellent place for water sports such as parasailing and jet skiing, and also a fantastic spot to get up close and personal with gulf wildlife such as dolphins. It has beautiful beaches, warm waters, and the biggest outdoor sandcastle in the US.

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Boston

Boston is a fantastic city full of culture and history. As the site of the Boston tea party, the city is often considered the birthplace of the American Revolution, so it’s a must-see for history buffs.

Boston also has a thriving arts community. Home to the Boston Symphony, the Boston Ballet, and the oldest ballpark in the nation, there’s a cultural relic for everyone in this city.

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Denver

Gateway to the Rocky Mountains, Denver has it all. It’s close to nature and boasts a hopping nightlife scene, and is well on its way to becoming a foodie city.

Denver also has a growing arts community. Its museum has a massive collection of 19th-century art, including many works by Van Gogh, and the city has a growing arts district that features monthly art walks.

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Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston, a charming city in the south, is a must-see for anyone interested in Southern culture and history. Visitors can embark upon walking food tours, carriage tours, and sightseeing tours.

History buffs will enjoy a visit to Fort Sumpter, the Civil War’s first battle site, and will enjoy learning about the city’s history during the Antebellum period.

Image Credit: DepositPhotos.com.

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