The US can seem unfathomably huge. It’s the same distance from New York City to Los Angeles as it is London to Moscow. New England is bigger than England. Texas is bigger than France. We find it easier to think of states or regions almost like countries, distinct in size, attractions and cultures and only loosely united by a common language.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when planning a trip to the USA but, over countless visits, we’ve discovered that some areas come to the fore for certain types of travel. That means you can easily narrow down your destination depending on your interests.
Where to go in the USA for wildlife: The Rockies
Bison, Yellowstone National Park
On a frosty autumn morning in Yellowstone, the stately evergreens and slender aspens on the mountains look like a patchwork of gold and green. The sound of elk bugling echoes around the hills. You have to breathe quietly so your breath doesn’t fog the lens as you peer down a long-sight scope to see a small pack of wolves gambolling in the grass on the far ridge.
Yellowstone is like nowhere else
Vast and rugged, Yellowstone takes time to appreciate properly, so we suggest spending at least four days there. The best way to explore the wild northern reaches of the park is on a day-long outing with a private guide. Experts with advanced degrees and years of experience, these intrepid people can tailor your visit to your interests.
They’re also in touch with all the other guides, staying up to date on the movement of bears and wolves, as well as more common animals like elk, bison and eagles. And, they’ll make sure your visit is tailored to your particular fitness level, all the while providing an endless stream of information about the park’s flora, fauna, geology and history.
There are two excellent times to visit Yellowstone. In September and early October, the trees are turning shades of red and gold, the elk are in rut and the bears are gorging themselves before they hibernate, making them even more visible. Then, June finds the newborns frisking through the grass when it’s blooming with wildflowers.
You can visit Yellowstone on a two-week self-drive tour of the area, including Grand Teton National Park and Glacier National Park. To extend your trip, head west to California, to visit one of the many national parks there.
Where to go in the USA for music: The Deep South
Music on Bourbon Street, New Orleans
From the fluid melodies of jazz and the steel-string soulfulness of blues to the yee-haw twang of country and the driving electric guitar of rock ‘n’ roll — the major genres of American music all have their roots in the Deep South.
You can’t avoid jazz in New Orleans. It’s the soundtrack of any visit, day and night. Buskers play trombone outside Jackson Square, soloists serenade brunch-goers in the French Quarter, and second-line bands snake down Bourbon Street, trailing a line of dancers as they go. But, if you’re seeking out exceptional and intimate performances, we suggest planning an evening at the Preservation Hall. We can arrange tickets to this tiny venue, which seats just 100 people and puts on five shows every night featuring some of the city’s best musicians.
Far upstream on the Mississippi River you’ll find Memphis, home to both Sun Studio and Graceland. The studio bills itself as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll — Elvis Presley recorded his first album here, followed by other luminaries of early rock, like Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and B.B. King. The studio offers hour-long tours that let you see exactly where the blues met country music to create early rock. Nearby, you can visit Elvis’s mansion to explore every facet of the King’s life.
Three hours east of Memphis is Nashville, the heart of country music since the 1920s. Aspiring musicians still arrive daily, hoping for their big break, and you’ll find them performing in honky-tonk bars along Lower Broadway. A plethora of museums will introduce you to the genre, but for a piece of living history, we suggest visiting the Grand Ole Opry. Folksy live shows are broadcast every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night. We can secure you a backstage VIP pass that will get you a guided tour and access to the wings during part of the performance.
Where to go in the USA for culture: Big cities
Central Park, New York City
American cities are much more than a place to sleep off your jetlag. From the bright lights of the Vegas Strip to the world-class museums of Manhattan, they are hubs of culture that make them worthy destinations in their own right. They also make excellent launch pads for visiting wider regions.
New York City
Dense with restaurants, museums, galleries, theatres and major landmarks, New York City has enough to keep you interested for several days. It also acts as a gateway to the state’s more rural charms or to historic New England.
Its glittering marquees have earned Broadway the nickname ‘The Great White Way’. This is the heart of the American theatre district, where aspiring playwrights, singers and actors flock with the dream of one day seeing their names up in lights. It’s also where audiences come to immerse themselves in one of New York City’s most essential experiences. If you’d like to see one of the shows playing here, we can arrange tickets for you.
You can also make an after-hours visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA to New Yorkers). The tour, led by a MoMA expert, takes in works by the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Dalí, Matisse and Pollock. Without the bustle and noise of regular visitors, it’s much easier to admire the skill displayed in the enormous collection.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas has been luring visitors out to the Mojave Desert with its glitz and glamour for decades. We suggest setting aside a few days of your trip here, as part of a grand tour of the American West or stopping over on a drive along Route 66.
During the day, take in the spectacle of the casinos and the theatrically themed hotels. In the evening, you can choose from a panoply of evening shows, headlined by some of the biggest names in the world.
Los Angeles, California
Some four and a half hours to the southwest, Los Angeles casts a similar appeal as Las Vegas. From here you can explore California’s many national parks, including Yosemite, or drive up the coast to San Francisco.
In the city, you can take in the sights from a vintage Cadillac convertible, hike the Hollywood Hills or get a behind-the-scenes guided tour of Universal Studios, perhaps glimpsing some stars along the way. You can also see the settings for some of Hollywood’s most beloved movies, like Griffith Park where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone danced in La La Land.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco’s charms are less flashy than those of Vegas or LA, but no less appealing. The city’s history as a crossroads of the West means it has enough attractions to keep you entertained for days.
This is the home of Lombard Street, which calls itself ‘the most crooked street in the world’, as well as a historic cable car system which you can ride between the main sights of the city. Sample dim sum in the country’s oldest Chinatown, visit Alcatraz, cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge and take in the counterculture vibes of Haight-Ashbury. And, from here, you’re well positioned to explore the rest of California, especially nearby wine country.
Where to go in the USA for wine: Northern California
Vineyards, Napa Valley
The mellow climate and gentle rolling hills of Northern California produce some of the country’s finest wines. This is a land of indulgence — you’ll find Michelin-starred restaurants, elegant hotels and spas, and landscapes gilded in the golden sun that defines the region. But, the wineries are at the heart of any visit.
Whether you’re a lifelong oenophile or simply someone who enjoys a nice glass of red, you’ll be welcomed in the tasting rooms here. There are hundreds of wineries, ranging from global brands to tiny artisanal concerns, and we can suggest the ones that offer the best experience, regardless of your level of expertise (or lack thereof).
Napa Valley is the more refined option, with chateaux-like wineries known for their cabernet sauvignon. A private driving tour means that you can taste as many vintages as you like as you’re chauffeured around the valley.
Closer to the coast, Sonoma County offers a more relaxed experience. The towns here retain their historical character and the countryside is mottled with sections of wildflowers and patches of redwood forest. The gentle hills — along with lighter traffic — make undemanding conditions for you to cycle along small backroads between wineries on a private tour.
Cycling is also a good way to experience the Santa Barbara wineries. Spend a day pedalling between vineyards, visiting historic missions and olive groves along the way.