THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is the third largest country in the world population and fourth by land area, and it has by far the largest economy. It dominates global popular culture – its films and music and language permeate every corner of the world. It is also a great place to visit.
The USA rates 5th on the Top 100 Countries index. It is a vast country with no end of things to see and do. You could spend your whole life there – as most Americans do – and not exhaust its possibilities.
It can be expensive in the big cities, but comparatively cheap outside of them. It is let down by its high crime rate, a consequence mostly of massive inequality and a rampant gun culture. It calls itself the Land of the Free but locks up its citizens at a rate more than three times higher than anywhere else in the Western world. It has a jail culture to go with its gun culture.
The American healthcare system is also poor. It’s not the quality, which is excellent, but the lack of access. Universal it ain’t. The USA is not a country in which you want to have an accident or fall sick, unless you are wealthy.
But as a visitor you can ignore these problems, provided you have good travel insurance. America is like a dozen different countries. It is more diverse than Europe in many ways, except for the common language. Americans are very big travelers, within their own country anyway, and there is no shortage of great things to do.
Its cities are exciting places, and it has some of the world’s best outdoor experiences. It is a place you want to go back to again and again, because you can never come close to seeing it all.
Get out of the big cities on the east and west coast. Travel across America and see the small towns and the infinitely variable scenery. Americans are very hospitable and extremely proud of their country – to a fault. Make sure you tip underpaid service staff – they rely on the generosity of strangers to earn enough to live on.
New York and the East Coast
NEW YORK CITY – The Big Apple – considers itself the center of the universe. And in some ways it is. It is the most important city in the world’s largest economy, the home of the United Nations and many corporations. It is one of the world’s most visited cities.
Its theater scene is rivalled only by London’s West End. Its museums are rivalled only by those in Paris. It is the setting of countless movies and TV shows. It is one of the few true world cities, with iconic structures like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. It’s one of those places everybody should visit. There is something in New York for everyone.
To most people New York means Manhattan, the heavily populated island that is the heart of the city. That’s where most of the action is, but the other four boroughs are also worth a visit. OK, maybe not Staten Island, which is very suburban, and Queens and the Bronx are a bit run down. Brooklyn is the pick of them, and is worth spending some time in. It is in many ways the quintessential New York.
Many cheaper flights arrive at Newark airport in nearby New Jersey. It is actually easier to get into town from there than it is from JFK airport, because there is a good train. The other airport, La Guardia, is for domestic flights.
New York is a state as well as a city. Upstate New York is a big place with plenty to see and do, including Niagara Falls and the scenic Adirondack and Catskill mountains. There are even ski resorts there. Rochester and Buffalo, and the state capital of Albany, are all significant cities in New York State.
South of New York are the cities of Philadelphia and the US national capital Washington DC. Philadelphia (‘Philly’) is a great place, location of the Liberty Bell and the first capital of the USA while Washington was being built. It is one of the most attractive large cities in the country.
You get to Philly from New York by driving down a famously ugly piece of road called the New Jersey Turnpike, ten lanes wide in parts and one of the busiest highways in the world.
Washington DC is popular with visitors because of its great public architecture and museums. The Lincoln Memorial and the nearby Vietnam Memorial on The Mall are both very moving. So is the Holocaust Museum. And the massive multi-museum Smithsonian Institute will take you a week to see properly. Almost a suburb of DC nowadays is the historic city of Baltimore.
Start spreadin’ the news! New York is fabulous. It is not America – it is a country in its own right. So much to see. So much to do. And as always, so little time.
Lower Manhattan around Greenwich Village is the best place to hang out. And work out the subway system. It is decrepit, but it’s the best way to get around. Or walk – there’s always lots to see.
Southern California and Los Angeles
ACROSS THE CONTINENT from New York is California, a large and populous state divided into two distinct regions. Southern California is dominated by the sprawling city of Los Angeles, which likes to call itself the entertainment capital of the world.
The whole place is a city of suburbs with no heart, crisscrossed by freeways full of cars driven by people desperate to get somewhere else. We read a guidebook in the 1980s which described it as 'the orgasm of the Great American Wet Dream', an appropriate description. San Diego to the south is a nice place with one of the world’s best zoos, but LA self is very disappointing.
Nevertheless there’s a fair bit to do. Not far south is the original Disneyland, which is always worth a visit. It was showing its age but has been substantially revamped in recent years, most notably with the Star Wars themed Galaxy’s Edge attraction, which cost over $1 billion. Hollywood itself is mostly run down and boring. Universal Studios is OK for movie buffs, and if you’re into that sort of thing you can take a tour of where past and present movies stars live. And there’s always the stars on the sidewalk.
Things get a bit better north of LA. Malibu is pleasant, and home to the fabulous Getty Villa. The palatial complex houses most of the J. Paul Getty Museum, one of the world’s greatest collections of Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
A little further north again is Santa Barbara, where a city ordinance decrees that all building be in the Spanish Mission style. It’s an up-market town that can be lots of fun.
LA has Hollywood and Universal Studios and Rodeo Drive (if you like ridiculously expensive shopping). That’s about it. The place is a dump. Get out of there as soon as you can and take the coast road north to San Francisco, which is a much better place to visit. It’s a great drive, and it’s a far, far better place you go to.
Northern California and the San Francisco Bay area
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S heartland is the San Francisco Bay, which is surrounded by three major and many smaller cities that comprise a vast megalopolis with a population of over 7 million.
The region is commonly called the Bay Area. It encompasses the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. Each has a big airport, with San Francisco used for most international flights.
The Bay Area is famous for its technology companies, its great wines, and its outstanding natural beauty. Silicon Valley, the 50-mile strip between San Francisco and San Jose, has lost a little of its luster, but it still rules the tech world. It is not the El Dorado you might expect – most of it is pretty dull suburbia.
To the north, across the Golden Gate Bridge, are the redwood forests and the Napa Valley wine country. It’s all great, but the jewel in the crown is the sparkling city of San Francisco itself. It is surrounded by water on three sides and is almost square, five miles east to west and about the same north to south.
San Francisco is celebrated in song and popular culture. It is an outstandingly beautiful city, very hilly and big enough to have many distinct neighborhoods. We like the Mission District, which has some great restaurants. The famous Fisherman’s Wharf area has become a tourist rip-off.
There are lots of tourists, from other countries and from within the USA, but they have the effect of making it even more of a party town. Unfortunately, that means also attracts the homeless, and there are more beggars on the streets than in most places. But none of this detracts – it is a truly fabulous place.
We always feel the need to go back to San Francisco, because we left our hearts there. It is one of those truly magic places that you can never tire of. For the best deal in town, get the local bus across the Golden Gate bridge and back. If you’re up to it, walk across.
THE MIDWEST IS a widely used but ill-defined term that describes the USA west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Rockies but not too far south.
Major states like Ohio and Indiana and Illinois and Missouri are in the Midwest. It is heavily populated with many major cities, such as Cleveland and Cincinnati in Ohio and Saint Louis and Kansas City in Missouri (note that Kansas City is not in Kansas).
But the biggest of them all is Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are as big as oceans when you stand beside them. Chicago is a coastal city, despite being in the middle of America. It is a vibrant town with a great cultural scene and one of the world’s most spectacular skylines.
Locals look down on the East Coast and the West Coast – they say this is the real America. And they are right. Its many small towns and cities are the quintessential America, immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s famous paintings. This is the land of strip malls, apple pie, homecoming queens and drive in everything.
The Midwest extends into Minnesota and Wisconsin in the North and Kansas and Iowa in the West. It is warm in summer and cold in winter, with rich and fertile soils that are the breadbasket of the country.
The region is overlooked by many visitors to the USA. This is a shame, because there’s a lot there. But the main reason to go is to understand what the United States of America is really like. You don’t get that in San Francisco or New York.
The MidWest is America’s heartland, both physically and culturally. Go up to the top of the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis - the largest arch in the world. It overlooks the Mississippi River, the artery of America. It symbolizes the expansion of America westward, fulfilling its manifest destiny.
THE AMERICAN SOUTH is often called Dixie, after the Mason Dixon line which more or less defined the border between the two sides in the American Civil War. It includes Texas, which was briefly an independent country before joining the Union in 1845.
The South likes to think of itself as a different country from the rest of the USA, and in many ways it is. It has a distinct accent and a clearly defined identity. It has the largest proportion of Afro-Americans of any region in the country, only natural given that it was where the slaves were.
More than 150 years after it ended, slavery still casts a pall across the South. It took 100 years for the large black population to achieve civil rights, and still today race and disenfranchisement based on it are major issues. Things are much better since the rise of the ‘New South’, but many problems remain. There are still parts of Mississippi that look like the third world.
The South contains Florida, which was mostly swampland during the Civil War. It is little better now, with rising sea levels. It retains a separate identity as a retirement haven and pleasure park. Its largest city Miami has a distinctly Hispanic flavor.
The distinctive flag of the Confederacy which symbolizes the South is well known internationally. What is not so well known is that the flag was not that of the Confederate States of America, and so was not in fact the Confederate flag at all. Rather, it was the battle flag of the Confederate Army. Great design, though.
The best reason to go to the South is the music, and the best music was always in New Orleans. But this fabulous city at the mouth of the Mississippi never fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which flooded the place and killed thousands. The government’s criminal neglect before and after the hurricane will never be forgotten. The best music now is in Austin, Texas.
ONE OF THE most pleasant part of the USA is the New England region, the area that stretches northeast of New York State to the Canadian border. It was the first part of the country to be successfully settled by Europeans. Hundreds of years after the act the US national holiday of Thanksgiving still commemorates the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1621.
The biggest city in New England is Boston, one of the few places in the USA that has at European style Old Town. It oozes history and was also the cradle of the American Revolution that saw the country break from England in the late 18th century. Boston has a great downtown for walking around. It is a funky and vibrant place, home to America’s best baseball stadium, Fenway Park.
Across the Charles River a short distance from downtown Boston is the city of Cambridge, home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The area was a Silicon Valley before the Californian valley had any silicon, and was home to most of the world’s major minicomputer companies in the second half of the 20th century.
New England has many quaint villages and pleasant small cities. The individual states are quite small: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Winters are cold and there is lots of snow. In summer everything is green. The seafood chowder is fabulous. Real estate is expensive.
Make sure and watch a baseball game at Fenway Park – the place is the essence of the sport. The city can lay claim to being the sporting capital of the USA. It is also home to the famous Celtics basketball team and the New England Patriots football franchise. And the Boston Bruins ice hockey team.
Little wonder the sports bar on the TV show ‘Cheers’ was located in Boston. It’s an actual real place and you can have a drink there.
The Rockies and the West
THE ROCKIES ARE only one of many mountain ranges in the American West, stretching across to the Sierra Nevada range which runs down the eastern edge of California.
The region incorporates the states of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, and North and South Dakota. All evocative American names.
It is an area of spectacular mountains, vast plains and hot deserts. We see the American West in cowboy movies, some of which show some great scenery, but until you drive across these vast expanses (and that’s the only way to go, especially on a motorbike) you really have no idea what it’s like.
There are some big cities, like Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona. But they are not the spirit of the place. This is one part of America where you have to be outdoors to know what it’s all about.
There’s plenty to see, but all the good stuff is in the natural landscape. One highlight is Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, with Pueblo Indian houses carved into the cliff face. Or the famous Yellowstone National Park, which straddles the three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and is the oldest national park in the world.
But the granddaddy of them all is the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It is as spectacular as they say, if not more so. And there are many other national parks and great sights worth visiting. There is one unnatural wonder you should visit – Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world. There is nothing like it anywhere. You should spend a few days there. It is over the top.
We were in a supermarket once in a small town in Colorado. A guy said to the woman on the checkout, “You couldn’t live back East, could you?” You go there and you can really see what he means. The big sky, the open spaces, the feeling of freedom.
The Pacific Northwest
THE TWO LARGE STATES of Oregon and Washington, at the top left corner of the bottom 48 states, constitute an important region in their own right. They are wooded on the Pacific coast to the west, bisected north to south by the Cascade Mountains, and almost arid on the eastern side of them. The two states are separated by the majestic Columbia River, celebrated in a Woody Guthrie song.
Oregon is the southernmost of the two states, with California to its south. Its capital Portland is one of the most liberal and progressive in the USA, known for its boutique eateries and craft beers. In western Oregon, where the Columbia River rolls into the sea, is the small town of Astoria, a remarkable place with no fast food or chain stores, which looks like the America of the 1950s.
Seattle in Washington State is home to important companies like Microsoft and Starbucks and Boeing (now relocated to Chicago). It is also Jimi Hendrix’s hometown, and there is a guitar museum inspired by him at the base of the famous Space Needle.
The original Skid Row was in Seattle. It referred to streets downtown where logs were slid downhill to the wharves, and where many homeless lived. It’s not there anymore, and Seattle is an attractive and prosperous city that is well worth a visit.
Between there and the Pacific Ocean is the unspoilt Olympic Peninsula, mostly occupied by a large national park, full of rugged mountains and dense forests.
The Olympic Peninsula is a wonderful part of the world. Notable is the small timber town of Forks, on the Pacific Ocean side, where the ‘Twilight’ novels are set. It is supposedly the wettest town in the USA. We remember it as the home of the lumberburger, the biggest hamburger we have ever seen, with six buns and five meat patties, and heaps of salads and sauces. The lumberjacks who were eating them were not small men.
Alaska and Hawaii
THE USA’S 49TH and 50th states are physically separated from the ‘Bottom 48’. They could not be more different. Hawaii is small and warm, Alaska is big and cold. Hawaii votes Democrat, Alaska votes Republican. Native Hawaiians are Polynesians, native Alaskans are Inuits (Eskimos). But they are both reasonably good places to visit, for different reasons.
Hawaii is a tropical resort kind of place, known for its beaches and relaxed lifestyle (though tourists have made it less so). There are three major islands, Hawaii, Oahu and Maui.
The ‘big island’ Hawaii contains the active volcano of Kilauea, in the news in recent years for its continuing eruptions. Hundreds of houses have been destroyed, many of them built recently by developers who didn’t tell their customers that their lovely new estate was on the slopes of an active volcano. It’s an increasingly popular tourist destination, if you can keep clear of the lava.
Oahu is home to the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu, and its suburbs of Pearl Harbor, where there is still a major naval base, and Waikiki. It is very touristy, though there are some more peaceful spots outside of the city.
Maui used to be the place you went to get away from it all, but now ‘it all’ has gone there and it is almost as touristy as Oahu. And it’s a really expensive place to play golf.
Alaska is like an American version of western Canada, except with lots more guns and without the Mounties. Its crowning glory, the spectacular Inside Passage, is not a part of your body but a sea route that is one of the few places on earth where it makes sense to take a cruise. Some of the ships stop at the state capital of Juneau, which is remarkable for having no road access. You have to get there by boat or plane. And it’s the state capital! That’s the sort of place Alaska is.
Like the Rockies, Alaska is an outdoorsy sort of place. It is also very cold. Best to go in summer.