Americans are starting to take more vacations, but you don’t need to go far or even have a passport to see amazing things. From natural attractions to historic sites, these nine places across the U.S. are so awe-inspiring, they’re perfect for a Great American bucket list trip.
1. Sedona, Arizona
Sedona is famous for its ancient red-rock canyons, which have more than 70 hiking trails, cliffs and forests to trek, including famous Cathedral Rock, known for its towering monoliths, and Devil’s Bridge Trail.
The city is also known for its spirituality. Lore has it that Native Americans used to go there to heal, and that’s helped Sedona become a popular place for yoga retreats and health and wellness trips. (Locals are quick to attest that Sedona is full of strong energy points called “vortexes” and the area has a large population of psychics).
Whether you believe or not, the layered red and orange rock formations unique to Sedona are magical.
Most parks have entrance fees that are no more than $9. Cathedral Rock is $5.
Some visitors do day trips from Phoenix (two hours by car).
2. French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana
Also know as “Vieux Carre,” the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, dates back to the early 1700s and centuries of French, Spanish and Southern culture merge here. The 78-square block area is known for its architecture, food and traditions (like Mardi Gras), and tourists come in droves for the well-preserved buildings, jazz clubs and historic restaurants like Arnaud’s, as well as famous attractions, like Jackson Square, Cafe Du Monde and the haunted Lalaurie Mansion.
The streets are lively during the day with tourists on foot, bikes or in mule-drawn carriages, and musicians play on street corners; by night, revelers crowd the Quarter, including famed Bourbon Street, for late-night partying. Bars are open 24 hours every day and there is an open-container law allowing people to drink alcohol on the streets.
Free Tours By Foot offers two-hour walking tours of the French Quarter, where you can pay whatever you like.
3. Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota
Constructed in 1927, Mount Rushmore National Memorial took 14 years to carve and, since its debut in 1941, has become iconic in America.
The massive, 60-foot high granite faces of past presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, was mostly carved during the Great Depression for nearly $1 million.
Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills, about 30 minutes southwest of Keystone, South Dakota, and about 3 million people visit the sculpture every year. Near Mount Rushmore is Badlands National Park, about 1.5 hours away, known for hiking and camping.
Mount Rushmore is free to visit but there is a $10 parking fee (you can only get to the attraction by car or bus). It’s open every day of the year except Christmas, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
4. Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone is America’s oldest national park, established in 1872, with rocks dating back more than 2 million years. It also sits atop the largest supervolcano in America, which produces more than 500 beautiful geysers (like the famous Old Faithful, shooting water up to 200 feet high), hot springs and steam pools the park is known for.
But don’t miss the nearby Grand Prismatic Spring, just seven miles away from Old Faithful. Hypnotizing and surreal, it’s the largest hot spring in America and the third largest in the world, at 370 feet long and 121 feet deep. The spring is known for radiating vibrant, otherworldly orange- and yellow-colored rings formed around the rainbow-colored waters.
The natural wonder is one of the park’s most photographed sights. It’s free to visit but Yellowstone requires a seven-day park pass that costs $30.
5. Miami and Key West, Florida
Miami is chockablock with luxury hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs, but its Art Deco District has the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in America, with about 800 historically significant structures in a 125-square block area. The classic styles of 1920s to 1930s Art Deco architecture can feel like a time warp with its pastel facades, curved corners, portholes, glass blocks and terrazzo floors. Art Deco also frequently features geometric fountains or statues. Boutique hotels that line famed Ocean Drive in South Beach (known for bright and retro neon signs) are well preserved Art Deco jewels, like The Celino South Beach, Clevelander Hotel and The Betsy.
Miami is also known for cultural neighborhoods, like Little Havana, which feels like a slice of Cuba in America (Miami is home to the largest Cuban population outside Cuba, with more than a million Cuban Americans out of Miami-Fort Lauderdale- West Palm Beach’s 5.6 million population). Little Havana Food and Walking Tour is one of the top global food experiences, according to TripAdvisor.
Go further south for Key West in the Florida Keys, where time stands still. It’s the southernmost point of the continental U.S., and completely isolated, having served as the furthest hideaway retreat for famous authors, like Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. It’s kitschy, retro, campy and bohemian, where locals and visitors alike walk barefoot along the 7-square-mile island that’s full of 19th century built homes in Caribbean colors, open-air restaurants and bars and cheap bed and breakfasts.
6. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
In Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park sprawls 1,900 square miles, known for towering canyons with peaks and cliffs providing immense views, from Mather Point to Yavapai Observation Station, herds of bison and camping under a starry sky. The natural wonder has one of the most recognizable landscapes in America. Nearly 5 million people a year drive in by car or bus tour, or you can take helicopter tours from Las Vegas. Go hiking, river rafting, horseback riding and biking.
Skywalk, a 70-foot glass walkway 4,000 feet above the Colorado River, opened last year.
Grand Canyon is also a popular destination for camping. There are three campgrounds, including the popular Mather Campground on the South Rim open year round. Fees are $18 per night.
Entrance fee to the park is $30 per private vehicle. Admission is for seven days.
7. Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan, New York
New York City is chockfull of renowned attractions, like the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and Empire State Building, all of which you can see in a day. One of the most popular tourist sites is Grand Central Terminal, a stunning, historic landmark and one of the most famous train stations in the world. Opened in 1871 (to the public in 1913), it’s also one of New York’s oldest landmarks (Empire State Building, 1931; Brooklyn Bridge, 1883; Statue of Liberty, 1886).
The terminal is architecturally impressive with soaring ceilings, Roman-triumphal-arch-inspired facades, Corinthian columns, arched windows and the famous clock. It’s cavernous and elegant (chandeliers glimmer in the waiting area), with marble walls and a twinkling, fiber-optic ceiling.
More than 750,000 people pass through Grand Central every day. It’s free to visit.
8. Hollywood sign and the Sunset Strip, Hollywood, California
The iconic Hollywood sign in Hollywood, California, is a symbol of Tinseltown, laying cultural root in Los Angeles and seen in countless movies, TV shows and music videos. There’s no other city in America with a 352-foot long sign perched high in the hills welcoming visitors.
Many tourists get up close and personal. Travelers can hike to the actual Hollywood sign every day of the year through various authorized hiking trails. The sprawling city views from the sign are breathtaking. There is no fee.
While you’re here, cruise down the Sunset Strip, one of America’s most famous streets, known for its countless billboards and entire building walls advertising movies, TV, music and sports. The legendary street since the 1920s is also home to iconic places like Whiskey A Go Go, Sunset Tower and Chateau Marmont.
9. Bioluminescent Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico
There is a handful of known bioluminescent bays in the world (Vietnam, Cayman Islands, Australia), with two right here in the U.S., like San Juan Island in Washington, reachable by ferry. But the bioluminescent bay at Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, is the most well known, and it’s the brightest due to low light pollution.
When travelers go on a dark night with a tour guide (avoid days around and on a full moon), they can get in the water and swim with microscopic sea life called dinoflagellates. These plankton light up when they are disturbed, so running your hands and feet through the water leaves a trail of light. In fact, when you move underwater, it will appear that your body is glowing.
The conditions have to be right for this incredible natural phenomenon to occur, and it’s not easily captured on camera, so don’t expect to take photos. Tours are $54 per person.
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