The Top Places To Go In America That Aren't NY, LA And Las Vegas
There's so much more to take a bite out of other than The Big Apple.
So you’ve booked a trip to America. Let me guess -- you're going to New York. You’ve got your tickets to Cats or Les Mis, maybe you’ll take in a Yankees game or a gridiron match (or maybe not, too many stoppages.) You might stroll around Central Park, scarf down a slice of New York pizza, whistle for a cab (‘hey, I’m walkin’ here!’) pose in front of the Statue of Liberty, snap a few selfies in Times Square and one in front of Trump Tower sporting a scowl and a MAGA hat.
But first a stop in LA, and a quick jaunt to Vegas. Pokies! Fountains! Celine Dion! Then maybe a hop down to Orlando to check out Harry Potter World and Epcot.
USA: done and dusted.
Based on dozens of conversations during my six years Down Under, this is by and large the Aussie experience of America: the lights, the glitz, the restaurant portions generous enough to feed livestock, the shopping, the excess. And don’t forget the Cheesecake Factory.
And look, whether or not there’s anything wrong with all that is another topic entirely. No matter where you stand, one thing’s for sure: America is a spectacle. But I’ll give it to you, a few of those things are actually fun to do. I’ve done most of them myself, once or twice. I have a selfie in front of the Seinfeld 'Restaurant' sign to prove it. (And a personally autographed headshot of David Copperfield post-dazzling illusion show. Jealous?)
But I recently overheard a colleague trying to defend her upcoming trip to the States, when her workmates insisted she should have booked Europe.
“America has culture!” she argued.
“What culture? McDonalds?” someone else shot back.
As an American, it’s hard not to take exception to this sentiment, but I usually hold my tongue – there’s nothing I hate more than reinforcing the stereotype of a loud, brash, argumentative, arrogant Yank. Even when my own relatives come for a visit, I bristle at their accents, their volume, their tendency to interrupt and interject.
And certainly America does have the market cornered on commercialism and excess. No argument there. Those aspects of its culture are deeply ingrained and impossible to escape, no matter what corner of the country you travel to. I’m surprised Bear Grylls didn’t stumble across a Starbucks on his trek through the Sierra Nevadas.
But the truth is America is a complex tapestry of cultures, with no two spots exactly alike. A trip to rural Texas couldn’t be further from a trip to downtown Boston, New Orleans or Alaska. And it’s big – there’s a hell of a lot to see. The people, the landscapes and cityscapes, the food, the politics, the music – it runs the full spectrum.
While yes, New York, LA and Las Vegas (mostly New York) should probably be part of your American itinerary, they certainly shouldn’t be the only part. And they probably won’t even be the best part.
While the Cheesecake Factory does make a mean (and massive) pastry, here are a few alternate suggestions for those keen to see what they’ve been missing out on.
Ok, full disclosure. I’m from Oregon. I may be slightly biased. But you should still go. Its largest city, Portland, is arguably the most bizarre and progressive place in America, with a semi-official slogan of “keep Portland weird.”
The cult hit show Portlandia has done a wonderful job of simultaneously chronicling and skewering its hipster ethos, and here you will find the largest independent bookstore on the planet (Powell’s, spanning an entire city block), more breweries and independent microbreweries than any city in the world, great food, strange characters, and quirky attractions including a museum dedicated to vacuum cleaners, a voodoo doughnut shop that performs weddings, the world’s smallest city park (measuring two feet across) and a vegan strip club. Plus recreational marijuana is legal.
But Oregon’s natural beauty is something else. About a 30-minute drive from Portland is the Columbia River Gorge, with hundreds of kilometres of some of the most stunning bushwalking you’re likely to do anywhere, against the backdrop of waterfalls, forests, rivers and snow-capped Mt Hood. Top off the day in Hood River, with world-class windsurfing and an IPA from Full Sail Ale brewery.
That’s really just scratching the surface. You’ve got Crater Lake, the Oregon Coast, Timberline Lodge, the Painted Hills, Oregon wine country, the McKenzie River mountain biking trails, and my partner’s all-time favourite, the Old World Deli in Corvallis, Oregon, which makes a mean sandwich and hosts ‘Science Pub’ lectures – informal chats led by Oregon State University professors over a pint or two of local brew.
The American South is brimming with history and culture, and New Orleans (pronounced ‘New Or-lins’ or ‘Naw-lins’) should top your list of must-see places. Its French, Spanish, indigenous and African roots, along with its influx of immigration from western Europe, the Mediterranean and Haiti defines its unique ‘Creole’ character. In parts of the city you might think you’re actually in Havana, Barcelona or Morocco.
Live jazz music pours out of hole-in-the wall taverns at all hours of the day and night, Cajun, Creole and soul food is always cooking, bourbon is always flowing, there are street performers and parades and po-boys, sprawling cemeteries called ‘Cities of the Dead’, Louisiana voodoo and French beignet pastries. It is a lively, vibrant, memorable place.
Also part of the city’s makeup is the massive gap between rich and poor, worsened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city in 2005 – and its crime rate, which is among the highest in the US. There are a lot of cool things to do and see, but know which areas to steer clear from. Bottom line: New Orleans is a place like no other, and definitely worth a visit.
Ok, so I’ve never actually been to Austin, but it’s definitely on my travel wish list. I had a college roommate who was born and raised there, and absolutely raved about it. The only Democrat stronghold in very conservative Texas, Austin is known for its live music (ranging from rockabilly to soul, garage, psych, punk, electronic, hiphop and country), its endless number of BBQ joints and its film festivals, art and counter-culture scene.
If you’ve got the time, driving the nearly 4000km historic Route 66 from Chicago to LA (just like the song) is an exercise in 20th century nostalgia, kitsch and Americana, and a great way to see much of the American heartland.
Winding through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, the once major cross-country thoroughfare will take you past the major Midwestern cities of Chicago and St Louis, the plains and cornfields synonymous with Trump country, the Ozark mountains, the Grand Canyon, and American Indian communities in the southwest, before you hit the beachside LA suburb of Santa Monica. Quirky motels, diners, giant statues and roadside attractions still litter the route, though their numbers are dwindling.
My grandfather drove the route to see the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles – I’ve driven sections in New Mexico, but have yet to conquer the whole thing.
There are so many other places to go – Boston, Yosemite, Denali, Hawaii, Nashville, Glacier National Park, Savannah, Miami, Yellowstone – and a thousand spots in between. You could spend a lifetime in America and never really see it all.
But hopefully, you’ll see more than just New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.