How to travel in the U.S.

Seth, a loyal MR reader, writes:

I thoroughly enjoyed your 'Discover Your Inner Economist Book' and I was particularly interested in your advice related to restaurants, and on how to read menus.

Perhaps it's a stretch, but I was wondering whether you have similar advice for traveling in the US?  If someone who has never previously visited the US asked you for five places they should visit in the US, what would be your advice?  Or perhaps more generally, what should  they look for in their destinations?  Assume they're driving, and budget isn't an issue, and that it's not a requirement to see the most popular tourist spots.  What's the best advice to properly see and experience the US, in all its diversity?

Most of all, drive as much as possible and do not shy away from a few days in the "boring" (yet wondrous) suburbs.  After that, here is my list of five:

1. Manhattan

2. Detroit and the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn

3. Memphis and the Mississippi Delta

4. San Francisco

5. Grand Canyon and southern Utah

I feel bad about missing so much of "the new South," but how many stellar sights does it have?  Miami and New Orleans would make a top ten but each is too unique and insufficiently representative to make a top five.  Maybe Chicago should replace Detroit but the latter has greater shock value and isn't that half of what travel is about?  Los Angeles is too hard for most outsiders to grasp.  At least one of the Dakotas should make a top ten list.  Boston would please a European but not in a truly instructive way.  It is criminal to leave off Texas, which I love, but which single place can sum up the state?


What we foreigners find hard to take in is the sheer variety of the USA. Yes, drive; but don't plan destinations, plan a route. You will find that half the route is worthwhile destinations you never heard of.

you probably don't mean "drive in manhattan".
wear walking shoes.
nb i enjoy driving in manhattan. and biking in manhattan. but it's not for everyone.
and queens. but how to explain queens?

I use to work for a British firm and when the executives would come over they would go to New York, Boston (US HQ) and Toronto (Canadian HQ).

I would tell them that Toronto would be the most American city they would visit.

i would posit that loudoun county is a better example of american failure than detroit.

at least detroit was productive once--won us a war.

the modern suburb you love is a waste of energy, time, and gas.

Vegas and Niagara Falls. Both tourists traps, both very American.

I'd also drop Detroit, but in favor of the Pacific Coast Highway in Oregon. As for the Mississippi Delta, there's no substitute for New Orleans or a hidden gem like Baton Rouge.

I wholeheartedly agree with Detroit. It is an experience that you won't have anywhere else. It is not just the urban decay, but the horribly failed attempt at a "renaissance". Where else do you see abandoned skyscrappers with their top windows smashed in next to brand new buildings?

I have also found that the food was much better in Detroit than in any comparable city.

I recommend if you can driving across from Windsor. Some friends and I once went across for the weekend, just for some sightseeing. The border guard tried to convince us that it wasn't a very good idea!

How could you skip the metro DC area? Lots of history, lots of sights, and even some "new south" within a short drive.

Many first-time visitors to the US don't realize that they can spend literally days driving while seeing nothing

That's kind of the point. In western Europe and China it is difficult to travel more than a few minutes seeing "nothing".

Many visitors, heck, many people who live in the US, have no conception of the size and beauty of this land. Personally, I like driving cross country every few years to be reminded how large and varied the US is, in geography and culture.

I suggest Route 50 for a coast to coast trip.

I also like driving through the midwest, allegedly the "boring" part. Mile after mile of corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers, and small towns if you stay off the Interstates. The US is an amazing place, and the midwest prairie is spectacular, especially in winter at night with a full moon. Amazing.

Houston doesn't have the Big Texan Steak Ranch. But it is near Snook, and Sodolak's Original Country Inn, so that could suffice.

I would tell them that Toronto would be the most American city they would visit.

It's as if a million Canadian nationalist voices cried out in horror...

Not that you're necessarily wrong...

Seth, don't listen to anyone who actually wants to travel to Texas.

Best possible routes are always a recipe for argument but here, truly, is the best way to see the US. Start in Canada, oddly enough, in the park by the water at Victoria, BC, and head south and east to Helena Montana. It's 12 hours of amazing driving, sights, and ok road food. Helena to Gillette, Wyoming, is 6 and a half hours of terrain that (IMHO) is more beautiful than Yellowstone. Gillette to Chicago is 12 hours with four food stops of heart-stoppingly great bad food (like a stop in Madison for some Capitol Amber and fried cheese). A full two days in Chicago with one evening at the Kingston Mines (skip Buddy Guy's). Chicago to South Haven, Michigan, (2 hours) but you have to get out to the lighthouse and walk around the beach. From there head south to Lexington, Kentucky (six hour drive) try several versions of a mint julep. Lexington to Harpers Ferry, MD (7 hours) where you have to eat at the place up above the railroad gap near Stonewall Jackson's headquarters. From Harpers Ferry it's a wonderful 9 hours (actually more if you go the Shenandoah route) down to Charleston, South Carolina.

That's 8 days full out travel, or 14 days of doing it the right way.

to properly see and experience the US, in all its diversity?

5 places won't cut it.

So, diversity as to what elements; economic, social, physical?

For populaces, consider selecting those indicated by native migration patterns.

For economics designate 3: Most dynamic in change; most stable; most deadly in decline.

For physical, some time in flight.

This one's easy: Start in Manhattan, get on I-80, and drive all the way to San Franscisco. The only thing you miss is the South. You get the East, the MidWest, the Great Plains, the Rockies, and the West, all on one Interstate. If you want to hit the South, go back on I-10. You hit the Southwest, Texas, the South, and Florida. Go back to Manhattan on I-95. Bingo.

No love for LA?

No Rocky Mountains? Seems criminal to me. The frontier (I don't mean California) is, to me, the most defining part of America.

@Paul Gowder: What's there to love? Apart from the swanky mansions in Bel Air, perhaps.

I wonder if any of the Europeans who go to Vegas ever venture off the strip? Probably not, I'd guess. It took me several trips before I went to local areas. Certainly the strip is an experience, but even more interesting is to see the actual city after you have seen the strip. See the run-down adobe desert slums just off the strip, the tent city outside the salvation army, the lush upscale suburbs (reminding me of Northern Virginia) with green grass plopped in the middle of a desert.

As a European who travelled 25 of your lovely states last year I agree with Tyler about 4 of the 5. As I haven't been to Detroit I neither agree nor disagree about that one. But as all indications point at New Orleans becoming a historic, sunken city before too long, I'd definitely include that. It's a bit like Venice here in Europe. And it's so different from any other American city we've visited.
Texas - I only really like Austin. And the REAL Texans will tell you that Austin isn't really Texas... And Las Vegas? No. Unless you're rich and a foodie. I also agree with the comment suggesting adding Yosemite to the SF visit. A mindblowingly beautiful place!

Anyone suggesting Detroit doesn't belong on that list doesn't get it. Look harder. Detroit is not physically beautiful, nor does it boast significant attractions. The buildings, people, and attitude are the attraction. A region that hit the highest of all high watermarks with the automotive revolution only to succumb to six decades of decline. For those people who find this interesting, Detroit is no match. The evidence of the 1930 peak is everywhere, existing in a state of underutilization or complete abandonment. But for those seeking to look even harder, past the rugged facade, broken buildings, and boarded up homes, you will find a burgeoning artist/music community and people who despite every headwind and indicator pushing them in the opposite direction battle and move forward to promote their city and make it a great place to live.

For Texas, I absolutely love Austin. Its one of my favorite cities in the US, but much different from the rest of Texas (minus the shared state wide devotion to the true religion of Texas, college football). But if you go, you can drive 40 minutes outside of the city to the small towns of the Texas Hill Country. There you'll see plenty of horses and cows and some of that other "Texan" stuff and eat the best slow cook Texas BBQ anywhere in the state. Plus, if you're a cult movie fan, you can visit all the places where they filmed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

If you do end up in Austin, I highly recommend going to Curras Grill if not just for the avocado margaritas. They are a revelation.

In short, Texas is huge, with different regions having their own distinct cultures, but by going to Austin and the surrounding hill country, you can experience two of them, and two very distinct ones at that.

I'd also add that if you're going to go see the Grand Canyon and southern Utah, take the drive to Las Vegas as well. Its not very far away. Although I'm not a fan of the city, it is a spectacle that everyone should see at least once in their life.

I agree completely with Chicago needing to be on the list, especially if you were there in the 90's and want to see, as a contrast to Detroit, what Urban renewal done right looks like. When I was a kid, I would go visit my Grandpa who lives in Old Town and the entire ride to his condo down North Ave. was abandoned factories, prostitutes, drug dealers, and just south, Cabrini Green. Now, I live on Wells and my Gym is on North Ave. The entire area is unrecognizable to my memories as a kid, but to remind me of what it was like 15 years ago, I look out my bedroom window and see the barbed wire lining the rooftops of stores on Wells Street from when this area was basically a war zone.

Also, if one were traveling here in the winter, I think it would be a shame to miss Salt Lake City. I would have a hard time replacing anything on this list with it because it's not a world class city by any means, but it's unique in that it's the only major city I know of that has World Class skiing 25-30 minutes from downtown. Maybe more importantly, you can see the headquarters of a major and sometimes controversial religion that is really the only "American" religion.

Full disclosure: Yes, I am from Chicago. No, I am not Mormon.

the chicago that you want to see is chronicled here very well:

especially the isolated building studies

i am not in any way affiliated -- i am just a big fan

As a multi-generational native Californian I would advise staying away from San Francisco. It would be on everyone's list and while it has some charm - it is way over-rated and very full of itself. Better would be to go to either Lake Tahoe or Yosemite - understand the natural beauty of the country. I agree with Richard Schweitzer about not going to five places only.But five venues is too narrow - the country is just too diverse.

If you wanted to go to a place where few others visit - try the Eastern Sierra - try a drive up 395 and see a range of things from Manzanar, to Yosemite, to Bode (a ghost town) , to the finest restaurant in the country which also doubles as a gas station (in Lee Vining).

One other somewhat radical suggestion. Why not visit Los Angeles (only)? LA has something of everything that the rest of the country has - fine cultural institutions (many not well known outside of the city), splendid scenery (mountains, ocean and desert), entertainment (Disneyland, cultural venues, and fine museums of all types), restaurants of immeasurable variety, and a population that mirrors the rich diversity of the rest of the country. Sports of all types abound. All of that is wrapped up in a pretty good climate. Unlike Manhattan or San Francisco - it does not take itself very seriously.

Memphis is nonsense. Go to New Orleans.

Drive for the beauty of the scenery and the freeways. Be sure to take the drive on I - 80 near Glenwood Springs CO. The twelve hours from Salt Lake City, Utah to Denver is some of the most amazing scenery combined with freeways in the whole world, but the Glenwood Springs portion is perfection.

A fascinating American place is Los Alamos, NM. Go to the science museum there. Realize the breadth and scope of what the Manhattan project wrought. It's truly American. And the town--a high end suburb, with more golf courses, tennis courts and other rec facilities than any town in america almost. More churches, too. a little slice of perfect suburbia. Think about the reasons why that's true--to keep people there. And the town? Where else are the townies at the local Sonic grandkids of Russian theoretical physicists?

My favorite anecdote about Europeans visiting America comes from when I was a grad student spending the summer at Los Alamos Natl Lab. There were several European grad students there, and they kept talking about the tv show the X Files. They had thought the X files was so stupid for so long--how could anyone hide an alien spaceship somewhere and not have people find it? You could barely hide a vw bug in Europe, so dense was the population.

But then they'd visited New Mexico, and now they BELIEVED! Just imagine all of the places you could put a spaceship and NO ONE WOULD EVER FIND IT!


Excepting Scientology, all the religions you mention are different interpretations of Christianity and Judaism. While all interesting and having significance in American History, I think Mormonism stands out. It's the only one that has it's own scripture, scripture that takes place in Central America. It's Prophet is an American citizen who was revealed the Book of Mormon in New York.

Outside of it's origins, the history of Mormons is rather tragic. They were kicked out of almost every state, and Missouri issued an order allowing the extermination of Mormons who didn't leave Missouri that makes a mockery of the first amendment and of the idea of America being a country tolerant of religion. Even Salt Lake City has a compelling history. It was chosen because it was so desolate and undesirable that Brigham Young thought living there was their only chance of survival.

Hmmm. Many things to respond to. Tyler's answer was a good one. I have traveled the US all my life, literally. When I was a child, we moved pretty much every 2 years - corporate ladder. So, to see US? Two cities are enough, three are better. Pick one major for a region. Manhattan is better than DC. Detroit is better than Chi. LA or SF for the west. NVM Seattle. Nice city, but doesn't show enuff variety. New Orleans is too distinct, Miami, also. They represent pockets, not trends. Advice to drive a route is also good, but if the driver stays on the interstate, they will miss the point of driving it. Might better take the train. However, we are missing the south. Since the south is in itself a graduate thesis, I'm not sure what to pick there. Atlanta is not representative, nor Miami. Not Memphis, for sure, and not any city in VA or NC. Maybe Birmingham, but what is learned there is stuff for the advanced course, not the 5-stop overview.

Five stops. That is the problem. So, either you have 3 cities, and 2 non-urban locations, or maybe you do 2 cities and 3 country locations. If 3 cities, I vote NYC, Chicago, and SF or LA, take ur pick. Then 2 small towns, <100K pop, one southern, NC, SC, GA, MS, or AL, and one midwest. Now, if u drop a west coast city, and I think you can, then take a western small town, but pick TX, MT, NM, or ID. Proper mix of western history, farming, ranching, and modern tourism.

I would replace SF with LA. LA is quintessentially American. The outsider view was nicely summed up at the start of Earth Girls Are Easy, "Look", says one of the aliens, "the ruins of a great city." That fact is that LA is a great city. It just parses differently from anything a European, or likely an east coaster, has ever seen. It isn't just the automobile, though LA set the pattern for the modern suburb. There is the city's relation to nature, with its wild canyons and mountains jutting into the metropolis. There's the sheer contrast, the enclaves and the boulevards.

It is just too easy to say, just drive around the suburbs, but don't visit the archetype.

Detroit is arguably the most significant city of the 20th century. It deserves its place on the list.

If some body is driving on US tour, there is no shortage of destinations attracting tourits from all over the world. The listing of five or six most favorite destinations of everyone will differ from others because everybody has different preferences, likings and purpose of touring. All the places you listed are famous tourist destination but personally I like San Francisco more.

Melpomene: The beaches! The palm trees! Santa Monica! Zankou Chicken! (And Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, for that matter.) Sunset! (And the sunset, over the fog-free ocean, for that matter.) Extreme diversity! Hollywood! Pasadena! The fact that it'll be 70 in the winter! Beautiful people! The Getty Center! etc. etc. etc. Don't diss my LA.

I agree, replace Detroit with Chicago...I like Detroit for it's shock value, as you said, but I think Chicago has a lot more to offer to tourists in terms of sights and adventures (and pizza).

Also, what about Savannah, Georgia? I don't know that many would consider it a must-see city, but the history is fascinating and the city itself is undeniably gorgeous. I went there on vacation 3 years ago and have considered moving there ever since.

Finally, Peterman's Eye Travel is hosting a travel photo contest and J. Peterman will be judging the entries...thought I'd share!


Los Angeles is too hard for most outsiders to grasp

I agree - lots of good stuff in L.A., but you have to know what to see. Hollywood & Vine is "interesting", the mountain trails (like Runyon Canyon) are awesome, dinner on the Sunset Strip (outside of course), and a Hollywood night club that you need to be on the guest list for.

But I'd replace one of your five with Las Vegas. Las Vegas is a pretty unique place on the planet.

As for Detroit.. if you want to see an urban area in decline, just watch The Wire. I don't know that you really get a ton by "seeing it with your own eyes." Now on to Texas, which I agree it is criminal to leave out.. pick Austin.

Thanks for taking the time to explain this in a way thats so easy to understand.

I just moved from Detroit after about five years, and while I'll say the area does have its charm, fetishizing its decline seems like the travel equivalent to yelling at your wife to come look in the toilet after a particularly strenuous bowel movement. I would certainly agree that Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and several other rust belt cities demonstrate both decline and renewal, which seems a far more compelling narrative.

Speaking of MS Delta, did you ever watch "M for Mississippi"? It's a recent blues documentary that sums up the MS Delta and blues very well.

I think that if I manage to land on American soil, I would like to see the "Statue of Liberty", the Chrysler Building and the White House. There are other things to see of course, but these are on my top list. Gold Coast Hotels

It is a bit unlikely that someone would be willing to drive all across the US instead of getting on a jet charter to visit the five destinations you've suggested. But I must admit that your choices are great and I couldn't have picked better ones.

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