Jayme Moye & Kristy Alpert
From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Grand Canyon, from Times Square to the Hollywood Sign, these are the iconic must-see destinations of the United States you have to see before you die.
Yes, there’s a whole world out there to explore, but think of all the amazing places in our own country you’ve never visited. These are the iconic images ingrained in every American’s mind, the places, signs, and monuments that represent the best of what America is all about. They’re the beacons of democracy in D.C. and Philadelphia, the emblems of excess in New York City and Vegas, and the wonders of nature in our many stunning National Parks. They make up the cultural fabric of the country, and these classic destinations all deserve a spot on your list of places to see in your lifetime.
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Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom
WHERE: Orlando, Florida
If anything encompasses the ethos of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, it’s the “It’s a Small World” ride. That same tune represents a certain kind of American dream: one of a land comprising many cultures, welcoming to all. The Magic Kingdom certainly welcomes everyone into its dream world, where Mickey Mouse and Cinderella roam and whirling rides thrill. The whole scope of the American imagination is represented, from the futuristic Tomorrowland to the classic Fantasyland. It’s a pixie-dusted retreat from reality that can’t be missed, no matter your age.
INSIDER TIPAvoid standing in long lines by purchasing a FastPass+, which allows you to secure arrival times for rides and attractions in advance.
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The French Quarter
WHERE: New Orleans, Louisiana
Like the confluence of cultures that created it, New Orleans’ French Quarter aesthetic is a vibrant collage of textures: cobblestone corridors, lush courtyard gardens, storied wrought-iron balcony railings. The city’s rich history and musical heritage are inextricably linked; jazz, blues, classic rock ‘n roll, and electronic dance music all reverberate from the quarter’s doors. A spirit of resilient jubilance pervades the French Quarter, making it an American icon you must experience.
INSIDER TIPGet a great view of the French Quarter for free by riding the Canal Street Ferry (a.k.a. Algiers Ferry) to historic Algiers Point. It leaves the terminal across from Harrah’s Casino every 30 minutes.
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WHERE: New York, New York
If you want to be thrust headlong into the frantic heart of excess, consumerism, spectacle, and everything unabashedly American, look no further than Times Square. Throngs of wide-eyed, over-stimulated tourists from every corner of the world walk through the blaring ads and kaleidoscopic signs in awe, cameras in hand. This roaring neon hub of humanity truly never sleeps, and it simply must be seen to be believed.
INSIDER TIPDespite the crowds, there are places to sit and relax. Between 42nd and 47th Streets, former traffic lanes on Broadway are now pedestrian-only areas. R
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WHERE: Boston, Massachusetts
The Boston Red Sox have played at Fenway Park, the oldest Major League Baseball ballpark, since 1912. Baseball legends Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Carl Yastrzemski all stepped up to bat here. It’s both a vestige of an American golden age, preserved in all its old-fashioned glory, and a mecca for fans of a quintessentially American sport—and its rabidly supported team.
INSIDER TIPDidn’t manage to nab tickets in advance? Try your luck at Gate E on Lansdowne Street 90 minutes before the game, when a handful of tickets are sold. Or meander the street-fair-esque Yawkey Way near the stadium for a taste of the Red Sox Nation spirit.
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WHERE: Keystone, South Dakota
Not only is Mount Rushmore stunning in terms of its sheer scale as a monumental mountainside edifice, it’s also perhaps the boldest embodiment of American ideals in existence. A shrine to democracy chiseled in the same wild western lands that came to represent the pioneering American spirit, the sculpture features the faces of four iconoclastic U.S. Presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
INSIDER TIPFollow the Presidential Trail through the forest for excellent views of Rushmore, or walk the Avenue of Flags, which represents each U.S. state, commonwealth, district, and territory, for a different perspective.
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WHERE: Taos, New Mexico
These multistory, mud-and-straw adobes have sheltered Tiwa-speaking Native Americans for nearly 1,000 years, making them a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As though frozen in time, the Taos Pueblo today appears much as it did when the first Spanish explorers arrived in New Mexico in 1540, where the legacy of the traditional Native American way of life endures.
INSIDER TIPThe people inside the pueblo are very friendly; strike up a conversation, and be sure to try the popular fry bread, sold around every corner.
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Pike Place Market
WHERE: Seattle, Washington
Once a riotous assembly where vendors hawked produce and haggled with hordes of customers, Pike Place Market today is a food lover’s dream, where affable fishmongers sell their wares alongside many restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops (including the flagship Starbucks), ethnic eateries, and more. The flower market also can’t be missed, with its cheap and generous arrangements, as well as the more crafts-oriented corridors of the market.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss one of Seattle’s weirder hidden gems, the Gum Wall on Post Alley, in Pike Place Market. Thousands of visitors have “left their mark” on the city by sticking their used chewing gum to the wall
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Unending wildflowers, soaring California condors, sea otters reclining in kelp beds, ancient forests—it’s no wonder Big Sur is a storied retreat for artists and writers. Hike the high ridges for spectacular vistas, including the 875,000 acres of wilderness in the Los Padres National Forests, or relax on the idyllic beach, where whales and seals can be seen. Or enjoy it all from the car on coastal Highway 1.
INSIDER TIPIf you plan to camp, book every campground you plan to use, and far in advance—most reserve half their site for “first come, first served” on the day, making planning difficult
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The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is an American icon in that it represents the expansive, larger-than-life ruggedness of the country. Volcanic features and soaring sandstone canyon walls make for awesome vistas, as well as a welcoming venue for year-round adventure. On the floor of this 227-mile natural wonder, the wild Colorado River traces a swift southwestern course.
INSIDER TIPThe best free activity in the canyon is watching the vibrant splashes of color on the canyon walls at sunset or sunrise, but it’s worth the ticket price to venture out to the West Canyon to stroll along the glass-floored walkway of the Grand Canyon Skywalk.
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Miami’s South Beach stretches along the Atlantic like a sandy sculpture garden of bronzed, chiseled bods. Everyone’s on display here, from the motionless models sunbathing on the shore to the impeccably styled patrons posing in café chairs. Muscled cyclists breeze by under soaring palms that sway gentle toward the turquoise water. And at night, the streets are a spectrum of glowing neon. It all makes for quite the aesthetically pleasing tableau of an iconic America’s beach.
INSIDER TIPFamilies should head to Mid- or North Beach—South Beach tends toward the PG-13 (and above).
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Golden Gate Bridge
WHERE: San Francsico, California
If you stand still on the “international orange”-colored, 1.7-mile long, art deco suspension bridge connecting San Francisco and Marin County when it’s windy, you can feel it sway a bit. The majestic Golden Gate Bridge was built to withstand high winds and earthquakes, and its power is palpable as you take in the San Francisco skyline and bay islands from its edge. In afternoons and mornings, the red towers poke out from mystical, thick fog below.
INSIDER TIPIt takes about 45 minutes to an hour to cross the entire bridge, so plan your day accordingly.
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Las Vegas Sign
WHERE: Las Vegas, Nevada
A trip to the Strip can’t end without a picture in front of this kitschy, 50s-style sign. The flashy, diamond-shaped testament to the Vegas spirit is an American icon in primary colors, welcoming all to the city’s hedonistic streets. Expect to feel giddy when it comes into view: That’s when you know your adventure is about to start.
INSIDER TIPPeople will line up to take their picture front and center, but just scoot to the right for an equally good picture from a unique angle.
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Thomas Jefferson Memorial
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. has its fair share of iconic American monuments, but if you’re only going to see one of them during a visit, head to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Its stately domed marble roof and commanding columns are instantly recognizable, while its graceful steps overlooking the Potomac make for a lovely lunch or resting spot. As author of the Declaration of Independence, our third president, and a visionary founding father, Jefferson and his memorial are icons of the American spirit.
INSIDER TIPGo during D.C.’s cherry blossom season in the spring for an extra stunning view.
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WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
Chicago gets hot in the summer. Cool down at Millennium Park, where giant images of Chicagoans’ faces, broadcasted on a 50-foot-high glass tower, emit a cool fountain from their mouths. “The Bean” is another captivating structure (its official name is Cloud Gate), with its gleaming polished steel commanding a photographic fun with reflections. The otherworldly Jay Pritzker Pavilion hosts several can’t-miss music festivals. All in all, Millennium Park is the perfect icon for the truly American city of Chicago.
INSIDER TIPTake a free guided tour of the beautiful five-acre Lurie Garden, an urban oasis designed to pay homage to Chicago’s transformation into a bold and powerful city.R
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WHERE: Los Angeles, California
When you think of Los Angeles, chances are you envision Hollywood: Since the early 1900s, it’s defined the entire Tinseltown mythology of the city. It’d be tough to find an American sign so deeply ingrained in our collective cultural subconscious—the 50-foot, fluorescent white HOLLYWOOD sign has perched on Hollywood Hills since 1923, and it’s been featured in countless films and TV since.
INSIDER TIPCareful if you’re driving up from the residential streets; drivers tend to speed around the blind corners.
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Grand Central Terminal
WHERE: New York, New York
Enter Grand Central Terminal from its ornate, East 42nd Street, Roman-triumphal-arch-inspired façade, and you’ll pass under its Corinthian columns and soaring arched windows to find an elegant clock for rushed commuters that pass in currents all around. Grand Central is one of the world’s largest, busiest, and most beautiful stations: Chandeliers glimmer in the waiting room, while in the cavernous main concourse, sleek marble walls support an arched, robin’s-egg-blue ceiling that twinkles with a fiber-optic map of the constellations.
INSIDER TIPTry out the secret “whispering gallery” by famous Grand Central Oyster Bar downstairs. The acoustics of the arches can cause a whisper from across the entryway to sound like a shout.
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Portland Head Light
WHERE: Portland, Maine
George Washington commissioned the Portland Head Light in 1790 to tower over the keeper’s quarters in Fort Williams Park and beckon ships to land. Also making it an American icon is Edward Hopper’s 1927 Portland Head-light painting, from which many might recognize it. It’s a truly beautiful and classic lighthouse, with its smooth white stone topped by a black spire against the blazing red roof of the keeper’s quarters, all perched on the romantic cliffs of Maine.
INSIDER TIPTry a classic New England lobster roll from A Bite Out of Maine, the quaint food truck that parks here.
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Grand Teton National Park
The rugged, snowcapped peaks of the Grand Tetons jut boldly up from the green fields below, with no foothills to soften the ascent—it’s just 12,605 feet of sheer rock, like the glacier-slick Mt. Moran, with a variety of lakes gleaming along the base. Iconic animals of the American West keep the Tetons as their stomping grounds, like elk, bears, and bald eagles. It all makes for an unforgettable and awe-inspiring landscape you don’t want to miss.
INSIDER TIPLearn the history of homesteading by visiting the 1890s barns and ranch buildings of Mormon Row or Menor’s Ferry.
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Philadelphia City Hall
WHERE: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
A 37-foot-tall bronze statue of William Penn gazes at the patriotic streets of Philadelphia from the top of this stately, imposing building—which was Philly’s tallest until 1987. City Hall stands at the geographic center of what is perhaps the city most steeped in American history, a monolith of democracy and locus of municipal and state government. The largest city hall in the country and tallest masonry-bearing building in the world, this is an icon of American fortitude you can’t miss.
INSIDER TIPAttend one of the frequently heated City Council meetings, held each Thursday at 10 am.
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Grand Prismatic Spring
WHERE: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
From above, the Grand Prismatic Spring looks like a giant aquamarine geode sunk into the earth. It’s the largest hot spring in Yellowstone and the U.S., and the third largest in the world, at 370 feet in diameter and 121 feet deep. The Technicolor-blue spring gets its name and otherworldly colors from bacteria that form its yellow and orange rings. If you’re to see one thing in the American rite of passage that is Yellowstone, make it this.
INSIDER TIPFor an elevated and thus better view of the spring, take the “Fairy Falls” trail just south of the Midway Geyser Basin. It runs behind the spring and has some great platforms for photo ops.
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Zion National Park
WHERE: Springdale, Utah
President Woodrow Wilson first named this desert expanse a national park back in 1919, making it Utah’s first national park. Today more than 4.4 million people make the trek out to Zion National Park to explore this outdoor playground. Natural rock arches jut up from the earth in a stunning display of geological wonder. Kolob Arch and Double Pine are among favorites for many visitors, while Hidden Arch and Jughandle offer amazing photo opportunities.
INSIDER TIPStay close to the canyon floor for a hike through The Narrows, a portion of Zion Canyon that’s only 20 to 30 feet wide in most sections.
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The Grand Ole Opry
WHERE: Nashville, Tennessee
It’s no question why country music fans from around the world flock to this iconic venue. Not only is The Grand Ole Opry “country music’s most famous stage,” but it’s also often frequently referred to as “the birthplace of American music.” The first show began in 1925 at this venue, and the legacy lives on today as guests are able to tour the behind-the-scenes action and even catch a live performance.
INSIDER TIPBook a room at The Fairlane Hotel to stay close to the action, as this art-deco boutique hotel attracts many top names playing at the Opry.
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WHERE: San Antonio, Texas
Originally known as the Mision San Antonio de Valera, this 18th century Roman Catholic mission played a major role in defining the future of the United States. The Battle of the Alamo lasted 13 days, but the legacy of this little fortress lives on in the nation’s history due to the passion and determination of the men that fought within.
INSIDER TIPToday visitors can explore the Alamo Church and grounds for free, but for a small fee the visitor’s center offers a range of interactive tours and audio guides that make this experience really come to live.R
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Diamond Head State Monument
WHERE: Honolulu, Hawaii
A hike to the top of this 300,000-year-old crater will leave you breathless, and that’s not just because of the 560 feet elevation gain within .8 miles. The views at the crater’s peak are arguable the best in Hawaii, so much so in fact, that they were once used as a lookout by the U.S. military to protect the island from attacks. Although they now sit abandoned, bunkers from those military days still remain at the top of Diamond Head State Monument, offering a perfect platform for whale watching during humpback season during winter months.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to start your hike before 4:30 pm so you have enough time to make it to the top and back before the gates close at 6 pm.
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Garden of the Gods
WHERE: Colorado Springs, Colorado
The vibrant, red rock formations that fill this National Natural Landmark defy geology with their monumental size and artistic shapes. It took more than 300 million years for the elements to carve out the main formations of the Garden of the Gods, including the Three Graces, the Siamese Twins, and the Kissing Camels. The park is open to the public every day from 5 am to 9 pm for hiking, biking, climbing, and guided walks with park rangers.