Top Ten U.S. To Dos

In honor of the birthday of our great nation, we thought we’d pay tribute to its many fine sights. As we peruse guidebooks looking for the best each country has to offer and as we beg friends, family, and even strangers for their top suggestions of what to do in the countries they’ve visited or lived in, we’ve stopped a few times to wonder how would we answer that question ourselves. If someone was coming to the U.S. for the first time and they wanted to know the top ten things they should do (without regard to time or money restraints), what would we suggest?

Here’s where we’d suggest a visitor to our country start.

10. Vermont. An odd choice to begin with but surely one of America’s best kept “secrets.” As they say, Vermont is what New England used to be. Visit the only kingdom in America (the region known as the Northeastern Kingdom), which is further claimed as what Vermont used to be. The pioneering American spirit remains strong here. Marvel at Lake Willoughby nestled in mountains, head to the Lake Champlain (the “sixth” great lake) and its many islands, and for laughs, tour the iconic Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory (free sample included).

9. Attend a solidly American sporting event. Catch a game of baseball at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. Brave the cold and the cheeseheads in Green Bay. Join the drunken herds in the infield of the Indy 500. Or don your best hat and bet your bucks at the Kentucky Derby.


8. Hawaii. The last state is also one of the most fascinating. It’s obviously well known for its gorgeous beaches, great golf courses, rainforests and waterfalls, and overall relaxing atmosphere, so enjoy those to the fullest. But also venture to the island of Kauai to immerse yourself in the native Hawaiian culture. Head to the Big Island and hike out to mere feet from an active lava flow, or climb to the top of Mauna Kea and gaze at one of the clearest views of the heaven’s available on earth.

7. Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. Home to world class skiing. Not winter? Make that world class mountain climbing. Gorgeous scenery abounds at every turn, but especially at Red Rocks, Garden of the Gods, and in southwestern Colorado, the cliffside Native American ruins at Mesa Verde. Throw in river rafting, rock climbing, snowmobiling, and so on, and the area holds many more outdoor experiences than any one trip (or less than a lifetime) can handle.

6. Go a state fair, preferably in the midwest. There’s something quintessentially American about a state fair. Livestock shows and rodeos. Sculptures made of butter or cheese or other perishable products. Quilts and homemade pies and the state’s largest watermelon. Funnel cakes and midway rides, country music stars, and racing pigs. What’s not to love?

5. Alaska. Now, this is one we ourselves haven’t yet been to, but it’s at the top of our list, and it just seems too amazing to leave off. Sail among glaciers, watch grizzlies gorge themselves on salmon, see the Northern Lights dance across the sky, spot whales surfacing in the icy water, scale the nation’s tallest peak. It’s a fantastic landscape, completely different from that found in the rest of the U.S.

4. Washington, D.C. No city has more monuments per square foot than DC. Steep yourself in all the political history you can handle, visit the Capitol, the National Archives, the White House. Throw in a fantastic array of free museums catering to every taste (and plenty more cool ones you can pay for) and you’re easily entertained for days.

3. The Grand Canyon. It’s the classic American vacation, the veritable pilgrimage every American makes, peering over the South Rim at the vast landscape. But go beyond that, make the effort to head down to the Colorado River, you know, the thing that carved that giant hole. Hike up side canyons to waterfalls. Examine the layers of rock you pass as you climb back out. It’s a marvel for good reason.

2. Drive Highway 1. Explore the best of the Golden State from this famed roadway, passing some of the most magnificent stretch of coastline in America. See movie stars and elephant seals, towering redwoods and the cliffs of Big Sur. Take some time out to explore Los Angeles, and then hop on a street car to check out the city of San Francisco.

1. New York City. There isn’t another place like it in the world. Stroll through Central park, shop in SoHo, write in your journal in Greenwich Village, eat in one of the many ethnic neighborhoods, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at night, take a ferry ride out and around the Statue of Liberty, peer out at it all from the Empire State Building, tour the Met or the MoMA, and just walk, walk, walk until you can’t go another step.

That would be our top ten recommendations. What are yours?


15 Replies to “Top Ten U.S. To Dos”

  1. I don’t know what it is about Denver, but I have no desire to go there. None. Zip. Nada. I won’t purposely avoid it, but I don’t see myself planning a trip there anytime in the near future. I don’t think you’re alone, but it seems as though the American South is often left off lists like this. I think I’d throw New Orleans (even though its still recovering from Katrina) on the list because the culture of the Deep South is unmatched, not only in America, but anywhere in the world. It may be my infatuation with the city, but I think Chicago is quintessential America. Maybe more so than New York. I view New York as a world city, more than an American city. San Francisco for sure. Washington D.C. I hate the city for everything it is, but Las Vegas oozes everything that is wrong with America and would therefore be on my list. I think Dubai is going to be the world’s Las Vegas. Thats a fair start.

  2. You put the Grand Canyon and the outdoors of Denver, but I would be hardpressed to find a more entertaining, fascinating, and one-of-kind experience than the one you can get at Yellowstone. Amazing wildlife, geysers, hotsprings, camping, hiking, climbing…all in one place. I’m sure there is nothing else like it in the world.

    That would be near the top of my list.

    And there is something uniquely American about a true college town. Not many countries are so consumed by college life as America is. Show up to a college town on a game day and that is something you truly can’t find in another country. Say a Colombus, Ohio on a football Saturday. I hate OSU football, but I think soccer fanatics from around the world would finally see a correlation to their rabidness of fandom.

    And I’m shocked you all didn’t put something like the CWS, or the Little League world series on there. Little League Baseball is almost as American as you can get. And the world loves it now too. So to see it in Williamsport is the real deal.

  3. that’s a pretty fair list. Driving up the coast of california is stunning. Instead of dever (which i love!!), i might have picked a better cultural city like savannah or san francisco or chicago…. but it’s your list not mine! 🙂

    and it is a good list. And for anyone who goes to the grand canyon, hiking down is a must!! You miss so much but just peering over the edge for your photo! all the good stuff is below!

  4. I don’t disagree with any of the additions so far. Picking ten was really hard! Chicago and Yellowstone were right at the top and could easily have been substituted out for others on the list. I actually suggested substituting out D.C., but Jeff insisted that it stay! As for Yellowstone, Jeff has never been there, so (besides Alaska) we were trying for places we were both familiar with. I hadn’t thought of a college town on a game day, but that’s a good idea. We thought hard to try for a Deep South location because I agree that it’s very American, but I couldn’t come up with a place that I loved…really, really loved…a place that I would want to go if I only got to go to ten places in America. New Orleans was the closest we came and it just barely got cut. I have to admit that both of us have really very limited experience there. We also thought about Texas, because come on, Texas is very American, but neither of us could bring ourselves to do it. You’d think that people who went to school there would have some affection for the state but there’s no love lost here. Austin would be the only exception. As for Denver (Jeff’s addition)…I think it’s the surrounding area more than the city (which is way too sprawling). It’s just an outdoor lover’s dream. And there’s no way Las Vegas would ever make a list of mine…to me, it’s hell on earth, but I see your point.

    What else? What are we missing? Where do we ourselves need to go?

  5. Of course I’m biased, because this is home, but the rain forest in Washington State hold a beauty unparalleled to any place in America.

    We’ve lived here for years and have done hikes that have lasted for days, with out ever seeing everything there is to see in the Olympic National forest. It never gets old….

  6. The sporting event has to be baseball. True auto racing is F1, while the roots of horse racing are in Europe(and Africa/Asia before that). I’m sure Greg could argue for football – and the season of travel obviously affects the choice – but I’d tell people to see baseball if they could only see one sporting event.

    I think the list needs to include Chicago. Something on this list — beyond the state fair – has to speak to western expansion, to the Plains, to Manifest Destiny. Too bad Route 66, although revived in some places, is not an official U.S. highway anymore.

    They keys to NYC to me are the Brooklyn Bridge (one of the 5 best places I have ever been) and Ellis Island. Ellis Island is a big connection between the United States and everywhere else.

    I’d also have to argue for New Orleans and also Austin or Nashville. New Orleans is a quintessential American city that speaks to historical and/or cultural elements: French influence, slavery, government ineptness, etc. Austin or Nashville also highlights a certain segment of American life that should be experienced.

    My list is beginning take on a historical, political angle, but I think that’s how I like to travel, so I’m OK with that.

    I think the best way to see America is by bicycle. I also think the cross-country bike ride is the most epic trip possible. And in seeing America in this way, I think you see more of America and less of the “highlights.” I see the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, and Alaska as great highlights, but I’d be more interested in seeing America. The bike is also the best way to see the Plains. There’s not much to see there, but those dern Plains — that’s alot of American history right there.

    [I’m accepting of the criticism that I perverted the prompt. I don’t follow rules well.]

  7. My list disappeared!
    Chicago
    Newport Rhode Island
    Key West
    Definitely somewhere in the Deep South – like Mississippi or Alabama hopefully near a beach. The people are so nice. Greenville, South Carolina is great too!
    New Orleans
    Mt. St. Helens
    And I agree with Mark, a college town with a team in some kind of world series/NCAA game

    Not anywhere in Ca – ever – will you see on my list.

    Mark, email me that fllyer. I think I have another buyer for you. Do I get commission?

  8. That’s a tough one… I agree with your choices (especially Colorado!) I would also add Yellowstone and the Pacific Northwest (particularly Seattle and the surrounding area). I would recommend a long road trip from New England, down south, across the country and ending on the west coast (or maybe even looping back through the Dakotas and the midwest) with stops at national parks and small towns along the way to get a feel for how big and varied this country is. And I know you all trashed Vegas, but I think it can be a lot of fun sometimes so I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going for a couple days 🙂

  9. my family hosted a german exchange student years ago, and this was something we often talked about. our nation is so spread out and full of diversity, it’s tough to pick highlights and narrow them down to 10!
    i think your list is great. i also agree with everyone above considering the college football atmosphere in a ‘real’ college town like Columbus, Athens Georgia, or Austin.
    if i had to add anything, i think savannah/charleston are wonderful…some of our oldest cities (we don’t have many!), boston , and although it might have its drawbacks, you cant completely overlook the entire state of florida.

    hey lisa…im from greenville!!!

  10. Hi Theresa, as a “non-north-american” here goes my opinion:
    Colorado is really amazing!
    I would never take Denver out of your list! It’s been a long time I was there, but I can still remember the feeling of seeing the Rocky Mountains and the Red Rocks for the first time!
    Another place I loved and no one’s mentioned here was St Louis.
    I had a great time there… the Gateway Arch, the river, people singing… it’s great. =)

  11. Theresa,

    I’m a co-worker of Jeff (I’m actually a summer student). I work with him @ NIH. I like your list when Jeff showed me this website. It’s very interesting. Hawaii is a very great vacationing place. I went to it when I was a young boys. The Sun, the beach, and all the nice stuff. Anyway, please reply when you read this.

  12. Greg,

    I considered St. Louis as part of my “the plains” argument, but I could just not get that enamored by it. It is overrated as a baseball town (there, I said it) and as a beer town. I’m not sure if I have found anything redeeming about the city in my numerous trips there. The arch is cool, but the river view would be better without the gambling boats.

    I am probably not as down on the Lou as it sounds like I am. It’s Nelly’s city after all, so that’s worth a 1/2 point. I just think it’s too big to be a small city, but lacks the identity of other major cities(cough:like Cincy:cough). It has 3 major sports teams, one major landmark, and a number of major corporations. It’s hard to make a case built on that info. Plus, you can see the Mississippi (the main Lou attraction) in many places, including New Orleans, which makes my list.

    It does have the Bowling Hall of Fame, IIRC. another 1/2 point.

    You would think the grand total is 1 point, but I first have to deduct 1,000,000 points as it is the hometown(but not birthplace) of Joe Buck. That’s a serious, but deserved, deduction.

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