So you’ve always dreamed of visiting the United States, and you were finally able to take off work and save enough to go! You begin your planning and start to realize crap, the U.S. is massive. How will you possibly fit it all in a just a few weeks?
Over the past few years, I’ve visited more than half of the U.S. states and almost every major city. Some of those places blew me away, and others left me disappointed. So to help you make the most of your first time in the Land of the Free, here is my Guide To Your First U.S. Trip!
Spend a few days in New York City
New York City is typically the first place that comes to mind when planning your trip to the States, and with good reason. It’s the largest city in the U.S. and the second largest city in the world. There’s no other place in the country that will give you the same “big city feel”, and it is truly amazing to experience firsthand.
Why do I say “just a few” days then? Although New York is definitely a must-see, most people can’t stand being here for more than a few days. The people aren’t the friendliest, it’s probably dirtier than you pictured, and the fast pace of the city will probably leave you exhausted. But if you’re all about the city life, you might just get hooked (8 million people choose to stay here for some reason, after all).
Head Down to Nashville
You haven’t experienced the United States until you’ve been in the South. Southern hospitality, country music, cowboy boots, and good barbecue are just a few things that make up this part of the country. Best of all, Nashville is said to have the best music scene in the country and you’ll hear live music coming out of the local bars every night of the week. Spend a night on Broadway and check out the classic “honky-tonks” (but be forewarned: everyone around you will probably be drunk).
Road Trip through California
Out of the 25+ states I’ve visited, California is by far my favorite. It has it all: vibrant cities, amazing beaches, mountains, forests, and deserts… you could easily spend you entire trip exploring this state! Here’s the trip I suggest:
Three days in LA
LA is the second largest city after New York, and famous for being the home of Hollywood. Warm weather, palm trees, an awesome food scene, potential celebrity sightings… even just a few days here will hold plenty of excitement! If ya wanna be extra touristy, make sure to hike the Hollywood Sign to get an awesome view of the city (and a great workout in).
Drive from LA to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway
Highway 1 (also called the PCH) is probably my favorite drive in the U.S. This stretch of coastline is the longer route between the two California cities, but it’s a detour totally worth taking. Spend time stopping in Big Sur, where you’ll drive hundreds of feet above the coastline and see incredible seaside cliffs all along the way as you wind through this part of California’s coast.
Two Days in San Francisco
San Francisco is another one of the U.S.’s most impressive cities and is home to some of the largest tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Uber, Pinterest, and more. It’s a change of pace from LA with its foggier weather and steep hills, and is known as one of the most liberal and progressive cities in the U.S. Make sure to see the San Francisco Bridge from Baker Beach and Marin Headlands!
Yellowstone National Park
One of the highlights of the United States is its National Parks, and Yosemite is that you can’t afford to miss! I was 13 when I first visited the park, and my trip here was what made me first fall in love with the outdoors and sparked my desire to see the world. I suggest renting a cabin for one night and watching the sunset at Taft Point and the sunrise at Glacier Point – I guarantee it will be unforgettable.
Experience the Pacific Northwest
After California, my second favorite part of the continental states is the Pacific Northwest (aka the PNW). Because of their mild and rainy climate, Oregon and Washington are covered in lush green forests and an abundance of waterfalls. For a good mix of city and nature, I recommend these places:
2 Days in Portland
I often argue that Portland is the best city in the U.S. It’s small enough to feel homey, yet big enough to always having something to do. It’s one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited, and also one of the most beautiful! I recommend exploring downtown and walking along the Willamette River, getting lost in Powell’s (the world’s largest independent bookstore), and grabbing a donut at the famous Voodoo Doughnut – but get ready to wait in line for an hour!
Columbia River Gorge outside Portland
The start of the Columbia River Gorge is just 20 minutes outside Portland, and is an incredible day trip if you are a nature lover! I recommend hiking Oneonta Gorge (pictured above), which is a short hike through the gorge with a waterfall at the end. Note: You have to swim through chest-deep water to get to the end, so bring a change of clothes if you plan on going to the end!
The Oregon Coast
A trip to the PNW is not complete without seeing the Oregon Coast. It’s an easy drive from Portland, and there are a few key beaches such as Cannon Beach and Cape Kiwanda (pictured above) that will surely make you fall in love with this rugged stretch of coastline.
Mt. Rainier National Park
This national park is one of Washington’s greatest highlights. Driving through the park, you’ll get views of the 14,000ft Mt. Rainier all along the way, and you’ll even get to see some snow if you drive high enough! It’s less than two hours outside of Seattle, and one of my favorite parks I’ve visited in the U.S.
3 days in Seattle
I suggest ending your U.S. adventure in Seattle, another popular city that is hipster paradise. Home to Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle is also a major tech hub and therefore draws in many young people for work. Like Portland, Seattle is also famous for its coffee scene so make sure to try a new shop every day. Head to the famous Pike Place Market and see the world’s first Starbucks and the famous fish market, where the employees playfully throw the fish to one another. And if you’re feeling touristy, head to the top of the Space Needle for a panoramic view of the city.
What To Skip
It’s tempting to want to experience Las Vegas when it’s featured in so many movies for having “the wildest nightlife”, but for most, it’s just a disappointment. If you’re into nightlife, New York and LA will have plenty of options and you won’t risk spending all your money at the slots. However, it might be worth it to fly here and book a tour to see the Grand Canyon!
Texas is the largest U.S. state after Alaska, but the majority of it is a whole lot of nothing. Austin is a popular city to visit, but I think of it as a lesser version of Portland and is therefore not a must-see on my list.
Anywhere in in the middle
Although the U.S. has some of the largest cities in the world, a lot of the country is empty farmland and cornfields. It might be tempting to do a road trip across the country to “see it all”, but I recommend sticking to the edges where the landscapes are better and there’s a lot more going on.
Prefer nature instead of the city life? Check out my post on Top 10 U.S. National Parks to see the best of America’s landscapes.
What other places do you think should make the “must-see” list for a first-timer’s first visit to the U.S.? Let me know your favorite places in the comments below!