The 20 greatest cities to visit in the USA

Nowhere does thrills like the cities USA. From uptown NYC to beachside LA, we know the hottest joints in town

San Francisco

Why go? More than 50 years after the Summer of Love, San Francisco is still America’s non-conformist city par excellence, where beatniks and hippies coexist with start-up millionaires. It’s also the gateway to the Californian wilderness. 

Start with the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s most famous site — best appreciated on a bike. Hire an electric one from Blazing Saddles on Fisherman’s Wharf (blazing saddles.com), then trundle along Crissy Field Beach and up through Presidio Park to the icon. Cross over and wind down to chi-chi Sausalito, where the ferry will return you back across the Bay.

Back near the bridge city-side, Golden Gate Park is home to the San Francisco Botanical Garden, a California-in-miniature set of wildflowers and redwoods, with plants from around the world. Nearby is the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, where the Summer of Love lives on in vintage shops.After dark, you want the hip, grungy Mission district — specifically, cult restaurant Mission Chinese, known for its peppery mapo tofu. Move on to Foreign Cinema nearby, which screens movies in the courtyard as you drink.

Day two starts with avocado toast at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market, where locals gather every weekend to buy organic veg. Just up the waterfront is Pier 33, where Alcatraz Cruises will whisk you to the infamous island — former inmates narrate the jail audio tour. Be warned, however, that tours get booked up months in advance.

Finish in North Beach, home of the Beat Generation. Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded bookshop City Lights, which published the Beats’ works; now aged 100, he still pops in. Cross the road for dinner at Tosca, a dive bar-turned fancy Italian; order the off-menu meatballs. Spend a day at Muir Woods, a redwood grove in nearby Marin County, with a beach where locals paddle in tidal pools by day and light bonfires
at night.

(Image credit: Photo: Getty Images)

Miami 

Why go? Miami is the American beach city, with pale sands, postcard palms and Art Deco cool — plus a Latino pulse to keep you buzzing late.

Pink, baby-blue, canary-yellow — the Art Deco style you came for doesn’t disappoint. Find the highlights along Ocean Drive, where the island of Miami Beach tapers to SoBe (South Beach). Beside the blue Atlantic, neon-toned lifeguard stations line the shore. Take a walking tour (mdpl.org)for the boom-and-bust story, via ’20s excess, the Great Depression and ’80s vice to 21st-century dynamo.

For lunch, grab a seat on the terrace of the Betsy — Ocean Drive at its most elegant, with towering burgers.

As the day fades, take an Uber to Wynwood in mainland Miami. Once a forlorn grid of streets, it now has a millennial edge, with graffiti art on old warehouses. Northwest 25th is the street to wander along, and it’s where you’ll find Kyu, an Asian-minimalist concrete box, where friends sip creative cocktails and share soft shell crab buns on high stools.

Next day, explore Coconut Grove, a rich, but real-feeling community of palm trees and sea breezes. Drop by the Mayfair Hotel, inspired by Gaudí, for coconut-crusted French toast at Greenstreet Cafè.

Your afternoon idyll is around the corner: sprawl on the lawns of Barnacle Historic State Park, with its views of Biscayne Bay. After dark, the streets of Little Havana, a 10-minute taxi ride north, beckon. Join salsa fans at Ball & Chain, then walk east to hear songs by Cuban minstrels at Cafe La Trova. 

Spend another few days on the beach. Or, if that’s too chilled for your tastes, explore. Downtown is on the up, with Mama Tried bar bound to waylay you. But come by day, too, for an intriguing tour of the birth of Miami with Dr Paul George (historymiami.org). He’ll show you the ornate skyscrapers and gilt lobbies that put the city on the map. 

Washington

Why go? It’s not just politicos who’ll love the American capital. There’s fiery food, old-school bars, galleries and gossip. The 17 Smithsonian museums could fill a week alone, covering everything from African Art to the daily mail — the Postal Museum even displays mail-delivering Amelia Earhart’s flight suit. Prioritise the National Air and Space Museum, where you’ll see the Apollo 11 command module and the world’s first aeroplane. Next best is the National Museum of the American Indian, which explores the cultures and practices of indigenous groups across the Americas.

Also free, the memorials lining the National Mall are easy enough to walk around in half a day: the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials are more like temples, while those honouring the Korean War and Martin Luther King Jr are more symbolic, yet incredibly moving. Finish with a tour of the US Capitol building.

But Washington’s not all highbrow. The interactive International Spy Museum lets you into the world of disguises, hidden weapons and double agents. Then there’s the social scene. Capitol Hill’s the spot to overhear juicy gossip, while U Street Corridor, to the north, is an important African-American cultural hub. Marvin bar-resto sums it up best with a loose Marvin Gaye theme, southern-meets-Belgian cuisine, live music and a rooftop terrace.

Under the radar: Detroit 

Long an automotive powerhouse, Detroit went into decline after the ’50s. But in recent years, the city has seen the rejuvenation of its art deco skyscrapers, the opening of some of the country’s hippest shops and restaurants, and meteoric property- price rises. Explore Corktown, with its rainbow, Federal- style architecture; wander around Belle isle park; or dive into Motown Museum — after all, Detroit is the hometown of Aretha and
Diana Ross. 

Under the radar: Pittsburgh

It has long lived in Philadelphia’s shadow, but Pittsburgh has lots to tempt you. The Andy Warhol Museum has the world’s largest collection by the artist (a city native), while the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is old-school. Sports fans won’t be disappointed — local teams the Penguins (ice hockey) and Steelers (American football) are worshipped and witnessing a game is a truly electric experience.

A traditional Philly cheesesteak sandwich
A traditional Philly cheesesteak sandwich. Photo: Getty Images

Philadelphia

Why go? Philly is hugely historical — it’s where the US was born, in fact — but has plenty of blue-collar friendliness to complement its heritage attractions.The Independence National Historical Park is the big draw. It includes big-hitter buildings — arrive early for tours of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were signed. Another standout is the Museum of the American Revolution, with a 3D, timeline-style approach to how the US broke free from colonial control.

Philly also hosts one of the world’s greatest art collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Snap a selfie by the Rocky sculpture (yes, that Rocky), then take in the French Impressionists and Chinese porcelain exhibitions, before moving on to see politically charged murals in the city — the best concentration is on South Street. Next, visit Philly’s most impressive sight: the 1829-built Eastern State Penitentiary, the model for hundreds of prisons around the world. Walking its abandoned wings is thoroughly chilling.

Philadelphia is also a brilliant sit-at-a-bar-and-get-pally city, and hip East Passyunk Avenue is heaving with sociable joints, including Manatawny Still Works. The central Reading Terminal Market has a similar vibe, but with food stalls. Hop on a stool and dig into a world-famous Philly cheesesteak sandwich, full of tangy, waistline-expanding provolone cheese and beef.

Under the radar: San José

The heart of Silicon Valley has a lot more going for it than the headquarters of Google, Apple and Facebook. This anything-is-possible burgeoning city has an exciting global food scene, art museums and top-drawer shopping that ranges from makers market to fashionable Santana Row. And if you’re a tech nerd, you won’t be disappointed — the sprawling Tech Museum of Innovation is
mind-blowing. 

A New Orleans jazz band in the city's French Quarter
A New Orleans jazz band in the city’s French Quarter. Photo: Getty Images

New Orleans

Why go? Jazz… Fried oysters… Funerals that are also street parties… Street parties that are also ground-quaking 14-day festivals of decadence… New Orleans literally invented these things. And the city’s still a place where they let les bon temps roule with a unique swagger. 

Ease yourself into the city with a drink at Longway Tavern, just metres from rowdy Bourbon Street in the prettily historic central French Quarter, to enjoy its sultry plant-strewn courtyard.

Brunch at Brennan’s is an elegant institution, and you’ll never understand this city if you don’t embrace its bring-it-on attitude to food and drink. Come evening, catch trad jazz in its purest form at winsomely dilapidated Preservation Hall — no need to reserve seats, as the sociable queue and alfresco tippling make the line part of the fun. Dine at Justine, with street art on the walls, Frenchy stuff on the menu, and some light burlesque between tables.

Next day, see a cemetery: NOLA entombs her deceased above ground in atmospheric stone cities of the dead. Saint Louise No. 1 has some famous graves, but a tour is compulsory (try twochickswalkingtours.com). Lafayette No. 1 cemetery is free and in the Garden District, where the city’s wealthy live in leafy, porticoed, plantation-era splendour: wander, ogle, envy. You’re not far now from the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, but the real draw here is its soul-satisfyingly good restaurant, Toups South. Next, cruise out of town on the charming St Louis streetcar, then walk back up Magazine Street for its quirky boutiques and hip evening options. Best is Cavan. End your evening (and begin your night) in the Marigny district. On Frenchmen Street, every other building is a stomping jazz bar, and the standard is astonishingly high. Even at 4am…

Over the next couple of days get out into the bayou by kayak (you’ll get a feel for the swamp that you won’t with a motorised boat trip; neworleanskayakswamptours.)

Portland

Why go? Portland’s transformation from backwater lumber town to ultra-cool craft capital has been remarkable. Surrounded by mountains and wine regions, the city itself is surprisingly flat and easy to explore, on foot or by bike.

For the backstory, the Underground Portland Tour from Portland Walking Tours (portlandwalkingtours.com) combines historic tales of crooked cops and kidnapped sailors. But otherwise, forget the somewhat mediocre attractions — you’re here to eat and drink. Portland is booming with microbreweries, artisan distilleries, and food trucks.

Unlike other cities, these don’t converge in one particular hip neighbourhood — they’re spread across the centre. So take a tour for an introduction. Forktown (forktown.com) sorts the restaurant-hopping.

Otherwise, an amble through East Portland can thread together much of what makes the city great. Cartopia at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne is one of the original food-cart pods, with vegan burritos, grilled chicken or wood-oven pizza for less than $10.  

Finally, Portland also benefits from Oregon’s lack of a sales tax, making it a cheap place to shop, especially in the flagship Nike store.

Under the radar: Austin

Some Texan stereotypes (BBQs and cowboy-boot shops) persist, but these days Austin is a hipster oasis. The live-music scene is superb — the Red River District is geared towards serious music-lovers — downtown Sixth Street is more raucous. For quirky shops, head to South Congress Avenue. The massive, natural Barton Springs Pool and the nightly bat migration from the Congress Avenue Bridge show off
the city’s outdoorsy side.

Disney's Concert Hall in Downtown LA
Disney’s Concert Hall in Downtown LA. Photo: Getty Images

Los Angeles

Why go? LA is changing, and fast. Steer clear of Hollywood, they used to say — it’s grimy, touristy and has nothing going for it outside the Walk of Fame. But today, what used to be grim now gleams with rooftop bars, starlet-filled restaurants and only-in-LA nightlife. Take, for instance, Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, a ’70s-themed speakeasy with a secret entrance through a fridge, or Black Rabbit Rose, where you sip drinks to a live magic show.

Then there’s downtown’s major transformation from architectural ghost town to the heart of the city. The Beaux-Arts and Art Deco buildings are coming back to life, thanks to the likes of the Last Bookstore, where second-hand tomes double as sculptures, and Grand Central Market. Here, foodies descend to eat fried chicken at Lucky Bird and egg-and-cheese brioche buns at cult breakfast spot Eggslut.

Don’t forget to check out the Valley. Movie stars have always called this place home, but its so-so food scene meant they often crossed the Hollywood Hills to eat. Not any more: chef Michael Cardenas opened Mister O’s last year to great acclaim, hitting LA’s veg trend hard, with the likes of fusilli with mushrooms, beans and greens. And, right at the other end of the taste spectrum, Ricardo Zarate has opened Los Balcones with a daring menu that includes BBQ beef hearts.

Under the radar: Atlanta

Atlanta’s the logical place to start a deep South road trip. But hang around a while first – the vast city greedily hoards top drawer attractions. The CNN Studio Tour and World of Coca-Cola are at the fun end of the scale, while th brilliant National Center for Civil and Human rights, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site are powerful and hugely evocative.

Historic Acorn Street on Beacon Hill in Downtown Boston, Massachusetts
Historic Acorn Street on Beacon Hill in Downtown Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Getty Images.

Boston

Why go? Home of Harvard and JFK; clam chowder capital; tinderbox of the Revolution… Boston blends preppiness and coastal delights with historic sites. And you can do it all in two or three days. 

Kick off at leafy Boston Common, starting point of the Freedom Trail, a 4km walk connecting Revolution hotspots, including the grave of John Hancock and Paul Revere’s home. The trail ends in the North End, an Italian neighbourhood dotted with cannoli bakeries and old-school pasta joints, including Bricco. But, for a first lunch, there’s no beating honey-butter-soaked Johnnycake (cornmeal flatbread) with smoked bluefish at Neptune Oyster Bar.

Later, try a whale-watching cruise from nearby Long Wharf (bostonharborcruises.com). Or hop in a cab west and wander past vibrant John Singleton Copley portraits and Tiffany stained-glass windows at the Museum of Fine Arts. As evening falls, wind up with a hot dog and game at vintage baseball stadium Fenway Park.

Next morning, head to a Boston icon: Harvard, where a free, student-led tour whisks you through the grand buildings and tree-shaded grounds. Now hop on the subway to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Exhibits explore the late president’s life — worth it even if you’re not a real politics geek.

Later, see Seaport, Boston’s refurbed industrial district, and the residential South End. On Sundays, SoWa market fuses art, street food and lawn games, but every day of the week you can enjoy the edgy Institute of Contemporary Art and the handsome brownstones by Tremont Street. Nearby are some of the city’s finest restaurants: try Sportello for silky pastas or Row 34 for yummy oysters, clams and buttery lobster rolls.

Beyond the city lie some of Massachusetts’s finest assets, such as scenic Cape Cod, quaint Martha’s Vineyard island and historic Plymouth Rock. Or try Salem, famed for its 17th-century witch trials. Take the train from North Station to its clapboard houses and Peabody Essex Museum.

Chicago 

Why go? Chicago is a proper, muscular American city, with skyscrapers that drip with Art Deco details, world-class museums, and a sophisticated food scene. But a walkable centre makes it surprisingly doable in a few days. 

Focus your sightseeing on the Loop, Chicago’s downtown core. The quickest way to get to know it is with a free tour guide (chicagogreeter.com). Note an interest in architecture and you may find yourself with Nancy Whitlock, who will whisk you to the Marquette Building’s brass reliefs and Tiffany mosaics. Lunch with the 9-5 crowd next door, at Revival Food Hall, home to stall-sized offshoots of hot city restaurants. The house-made charcuterie from Danke is a must.

Next, head north on a river cruise (shorelinesightseeing.com) for a neck-craning view of the most giddying buildings, such as the Champagne-bottle-inspired Carbide and Carbon Building, designed as a two-fingered salute to Prohibition. In the evening, raise a glass to its architects at cosy, wood-panelled Coq d’Or bar in the Drake Hotel, the second in the city to obtain a liquor licence after the repeal.

Day two: arrive early to beat the queue for the Art Institute of Chicago, with its A-list line-up, from Edward Hopper to Vincent Van Gogh. Nearby, Miller’s Pub serves American classics beneath the rattling L-traintracks. Finally, take the green L line to leafy Oak Park to ogle the turreted mansion home of a teenage Ernest Hemingway, who couldn’t wait to leave, and to see where architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his first house.

Take another two days to explore Chicago’s neighbourhoods. Wrigleyville is home to the Chicago Cubs, the 2016 World Series-winning baseball team. You’ll find fans in noisy-but-fun cult sports bar Sluggers, which even has batting cages installed.

To the west, up-and-coming Logan Square is littered with foodie spots such as Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits. Join the queue for sweet pies — think honey and orange blossom.

A girl shows-off her red cowboy boots in Nashville
A girl shows-off her red cowboy boots in Nashville. Photo: Getty Images

Nashville

Why go? The barman in a Stetson, pouring your shot; barbecue chicken thighs so hot they make your teeth hurt; the next Taylor Swift strumming a hard-luck song… That’s what travellers imagine they’ll get in Nashville, the music capital of Tennessee (if not the world). And you know what? That’s exactly what they get. Visit the city and it’s like stepping into a No.1 country album. Take a tour with Songbird to understand how much music truly means to Nashville. On board a customised bus with a small stage, passengers listen to singer-songwriters perform in between stories of big hits and record-label wrangles (songbirdtours.com). 

Next up, duck into the Country Music Hall of Fame before nightfall. Here, Dolly Parton outfits and Elvis’s Cadillac bring the legends back to life. Now hit honky- tonk bars on Broadway (Tootsies is the best and grimiest), where unsigned acts are all good-enough-for-a-Grammy. Then find your spot in the greatest live-music venue of all time: Ryman Auditorium, a temple to acoustics — the audience even sits on wooden pews.

Under the radar: San Diego

Picture classic California beaches, and you’re almost certainly picturing San Diego. Here, there’s one for every taste. Surfers love Ocean Beach, where the waves pound against the shore. Fashionistas join the yoga-pants crowd at Pacific Beach, with its blue-and-white-cottage-lined pier. For palm trees and sea lions, it’s chi-chi La Jolla. For wide white sands backed by Golden age mansions, try Coronado.

Under the radar: Denver

Gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado’s big city provides thrills for those who love the outdoors — in summer, rugged hikes, in winter, some of America’s finest skiing within easy reach. But there’s plenty to do downtown, too. Hop between the RiNo, Ballpark and Five Points districts. Follow up with a concert at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre — the coolest outdoor venue in the US.

The fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel on The Vegas Strip

Las Vegas

Why go? It’s supersized, gaudy, and — if you throw yourself into it — lots and lots of fun. Las Vegas’s scale, bravado and all-out assault on the senses are unmatched anywhere else on Earth. 

The Las Vegas Strip is lined with huge resorts, most with gimmicks — such as the replica Eiffel Tower outside Paris, and the exploding volcano by the Mirage. Spend your first day ambling through them, wide-eyed. Some attractions are worth shelling out for, too, including the Titanic exhibition at the Luxor, and the rollercoaster at New York
New York. 

Top freebies include the Fine Art collection at CityCenter and the fountains outside the Bellagio.

For dinner, obscene buffet-gorging is a quintessentially Vegas experience. Le Village Buffet at Paris is better value and higher quality than most, with individual cooking stations inspired by French regions. Later, hit a show — one of the best reasons to visit Vegas.

Avoid comedy — overpriced and too US-centric — but for everything else, hunt on smartervegas.com, vegas.com or tix4tonight.com for discounts (on the day you’ll get up to 50% off). You can’t go wrong with a Cirque du Soleil show, especially the Beatles-themed LOVE or acrobatics-meets-war Ka.

Head downtown. Here, the Mob Museum delves deep into Vegas’s dodgy gangster origins, while classic neon signs line Fremont Street. Mooch for a block either side and you’ll find large-scale street art. When you’re ready to eat, the Downtown Container Park hosts bars, restaurants and indie shops in shipping containers (a bit like Dubai’s Boxpark).

In the evening, the Fremont Street Experience — a multi-block LED canopy — puts on a light show, often with live bands. You can fly through it on the SlotZilla Zip Line (vegasexperience. com/slotzilla-zip-line) — best done before dinner (try Carson Kitchen for rock meets comfort food).

Vegas is surrounded by awesome desert and mountain scenery — worth a couple more days at least. Take Sundance Helicopters’ Grand Voyager flight into the Grand Canyon, which includes a boat trip down the Colorado River (sundancehelicopters.com). Otherwise, there’s the multicoloured Red Rock Canyon, 21km west of the Strip — Red E Bike (redebike.com) does tours — or the engineering marvel Hoover Dam.

Under the radar: Seattle

Grunge and high tech collide in the coastal, mountain-surrounded home of Nirvana, Microsoft and Amazon. Money from the latter has been pumped into big attractions, including the music and movie-worshipping Frank Gehry-designed museum of Popular Culture. But the sprawling, multi-storey Pike Place Market channels Seattle’s coffee-guzzling, Pacific Northwest happy, slacker character. 

Wrapped breakfast burrito on baking sheet, tied with twine.

New York

Why go? This year, there are new neighbourhoods to explore. Riverside complex Hudson Yards, on Manhattan’s West Side, has sprung up almost from nowhere, in a futuristic explosion of public art, immaculate plazas and gleaming, glassy restaurants. Get in there for coca flatbreads or sizzling paella at its stylish Little Spain food hall, then climb the crisscrossing staircases of the Yards’ centrepiece, a hive-like Thomas Heatherwick sculpture.

Next, potter down the High Line public walkway to Chelsea. This once-grungy neighbourhood is now a hotbed of cool. As well as new gallery collective the High Line Nine, in a building designed by Zaha Hadid, there’s the lavish Restoration Hardware interiors store, with a leafy bar-restaurant on the roof, and the minimalist-chic new Moxy Hotel Downtown. Smartly designed affordable hotels are a general trend: the Moxy is rivalled by brand-new stay Sister City, in the rejuvenated Bowery area of town.

Meanwhile, vegan comfort food dominates the city’s hip restaurants: try the bizarrely ‘meaty’ Impossible Burger at Saxon and Parole in the Bowery; vegan dim sum at the East Village’s Fire & Water; or meatless breakfast burritos at Brooklyn’s Hartbreakers. Lastly, one of the biggest sightseeing changes to New York’s iconic line-up in years has recently reopened: a dazzling new museum beside the Statue of Liberty.

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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing