Since Columbus arrived just over 500 years ago, the US has attracted visitors in their millions, and not without reason.
Bordering Canada in the north and Mexico in the south with coasts on the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and with an area of over three and a half million square miles, it is clear that the one thing the US has to offer the visitor is variety. Of course, everyone that selects it as their destination has their own preconceived idea of what lies in store for them when they get there.
Compliments of the thousands of images we see portrayed on TV on a daily basis, it is easy and exciting to form theories on what the country will be like when you get there. And, when you do get there it is even more exciting to recognize all the places you have been watching for as long as you can remember. Now world famous monuments like the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Memorial, the Golden Gate Bridge and Sears Tower are not just images in a book or on a screen, you will find yourself standing right beside them staring in amazement. The same applies to the natural attractions – the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the golden beaches of California and the Great Lakes. This is what makes a trip to the States so special. Unlike visiting an unheard of destination, a visit to the US turns fantasy into reality.
Since Christopher Columbus visited the country just over five hundred years ago, millions of people have visited the States. And, the general consensus among these visitors is that each of the fifty states strongly resembles a ‘mini country’. Each has its own geographical features, its own climate as well as having its own accent and social attitudes. As well as this each state or region has its own history, remnants of which can still be seen in most areas. From New England’s pilgrims and puritans to the influence of the French in Louisiana, the Gold Rush in California to the Civil War in Missisipi, there are a number of attractions which will tell you about the country’s history and make your visit both entertaining and educational.
America is best known for the legacy of ‘Fast Food’ outlets it has introduced to the rest of the world, from Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kuala Lumpur to Pizza Hut in Perth, McDonalds in Melbourne to Wendy’s in Wellington. Even if you ask the average American to name some of the country’s native dishes, hamburgers and hotdogs will probably be on the tip of his tongue. As frightening as all of this sounds, the good news for those of you who appreciate cuisine of a slightly higher quality is that the variety on offer in the States is greater than anything you could ever imagine.
Most regions have their own specific delicacies so here are just a few of the more common localised dishes. If you are in Louisiana, you’re going to be spoilt for choice with the wonderful mix of Cajun and Creole dishes on offer. Especially popular is gumbo, jambalaya, po-boys and crawfish. Further north in the states of New England, you should sample the clam chowder and lobster. Even further north in the isolated state of Alaska, chitons are a favourite edible delicacy. These are oval-shaped marine mollusks whose shells are made up of eight overlapping plates. The Chinese slipper and gumboot chitons are the most popular. And, in New Mexico you should try the spicy tortillas and fajitas as well as much more traditional Mexican cuisine.
All the major cities also have their very own Little Italy, Chinatown or French Quarter too so if you’re missing the culinary delights of your homeland, a visit to one of these will give you the chance to partake in all your favourite ethnic dishes.
Finally, of course a stay in the States would not be complete without trying some of the more traditional food. We don’t want to turn you off it entirely. The ribs, steaks and subs are usually of a much superior quality to those in your home country so it would be a pity not to try them at least once. Although, somehow, I don’t think you will need much persuasion.
The majority of visitors to the States arrive by air using either an international carrier or one of the several US airlines. The main international airports are situated in Boston, New York, Washington DC, Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Seattle, San Francisco, Anchorage, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Orlando and there are connecting flights from these airports to hundreds of other US cities. You can also fly direct to many other cities but the flights are less frequent and usually they are more expensive too. As well as air travel, there are several overland border crossings between the US and Canada and Mexico.
The easiest way to make long journeys in the US is by plane. Of course it is also the most expensive. If you are visiting from outside the country, some airlines offer a discounted pass when you buy your transatlantic or transpacific flight. This pass, often under the name Visit USA, allows one-way travel from one US destination to the other at reduced prices. You must buy them with your international ticket and it is the quickest and easiest way to see the country at low cost. Another option is booking parts of your trip with one of the so-called ‘no frills airlines’. You will need to ask a travel agent for the best deals but they are well known for undercutting the major US carriers.
Most visitors to the States strongly recommend car hire as the most cost-effective and convenient way to see the country’s highlights. And, if you are over a certain age with a full drivers permit, it probably is. If you do decide to avail of this method of transportation you should be aware that rental rates vary greatly. The price depends on the car size, the length of time you have the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off so if you sort all this out at the beginning you could save yourself quite a bit in the long run.
But, the reality for most backpackers, however, is that flying or driving around the country simply is not an option. The only national bus company, Greyhound, provides the cheapest way to get around and you should enquire about the New Americpass which offers unlimited travel to anywhere on its network. Unfortunately, for extremely long distance journeys it is slow and uncomfortable and not to be recommended.
Your final mode of transportation for getting around the US is Amtrak, the long distance train service. Again, it’s not an ideal service and most intercity services are not up to European standards. Limited routes and delays are frequent and a lot of the time the fares are not any lower than discount airfares so consider it carefully before availing of this particular service. Despite all of this they do offer a USA Railpass which offers unlimited travel on Amtrack depending on which region you buy the pass for meaning that if you are finding a journey a little long, you can hop off, refresh yourself for the night and catch another train the next day. It is an excellent service and does help the train system to redeem itself in the eyes of the backpacker.
The easiest way to see the multitude of sights that New York has to offer is by taking a guided tour of the city. Gray Line New York tours offer hop-on, hop-off services for prices ranging from $25 and will take you to all the major tourist attractions. You will get to see the world renowned Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building as well as Time Square, Central park, the World Trade Centre, Greenwich Village and the Rockefeller Centre. The other major tour operators in the city are Circle Line Cruises which offer boat trips around Manhattan Island. While they only give you a glimpse at everything they still offer the best way to the world famous New York skyline.
There are an incredible amount of attractions in Washington DC and the best news is that most of them are free. You can tour the US Capitol Building, the White House, the Supreme Court and the Federal Bureau of Investigations or you can visit the Washington Memorial, the Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt Memorials, the Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial without paying for any of them. As well as the above, you could spend several days touring the numerous parts of the Smithsonian Institute, one of the largest and most impressive collection of museums in the world, also for free. Among the most popular of the fourteen separate museums at the institute are the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, The National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American History.
New Orleans is a unique American city as it is the only one that has preserved its Spanish, French and African heritage and it is also the only one that is built below seal level. The combination of the three original cultures has resulted in a city which is home to great food and music, an exotic nightlife, voodoo practices and a unique cultural blend that was to become the Creole and Cajun people. The attractions which you can’t afford to miss during your stay are plenty in number. You should certainly take a steamboat cruise on the river where you will get to enjoy New Orleans food and music as well as the sights of the city. New Orleans is known all over the world for its Mardi Gras but if you can’t make the festival, you should check out the next best thing – Mardi Gras World – where the festival is made. You will see artists preparing floats for next year’s parade and get some traditional king-cake so keep your camera handy. For shopping you should visit the Riverwalk Marketplace, over one hundred and twenty shops and cafes right alongside the Mississippi and just a couple of blocks away from the fascinating French Quarter which houses all things traditional and sacred in the city. The final attraction which you should visit are the cemeteries of New Orleans or, as they are more commonly known, the cities of the dead. The fact that these tombs are built above ground is what makes them so different and worth checking out.
Situated about four hundred miles north of Los Angeles on the Californian coast, San Francisco is best know for its steep streets, the spectacular views of the bay and the surrounding mountains and the world famous Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge connects San Francisco with the Marin headlands which is famous for its expensive homes. So, if you want to see how the other half live, it is an interesting experience. The famous abandoned Alcatraz prison is located in the middle of San Francisco Bay and is open to the public. To get to ‘The Rock’ you will need to avail of one of the excursion boats which depart from the piers near Fisherman’s Wharf. As well as taking you to the prison you can also take a ferry to get to the USS Hornet Aircraft Carrier Museum or to the shopping havens of Sausalito and Tiburon or you can simply enjoy the myriad of sights around the bay. The other equally impressive way to see the sites is by using the antique cable cars that still shuttle people up and down the city streets.
For all you stargazers out there, the acting as opposed to the astrological variety, Los Angeles will be everything you thought it would and then some. The best way to see Hollywood is on a walking sightseeing tour as most of the main attractions are located within a few blocks of each other. Check out Hollywood Boulevard where you will see the famous handprints and shoeprints of all the celebrities since 1927. There are also several guided tours which will take you by the homes of the movie stars offering a good view of the Hollywood sights. Also worth checking out is the Hollywood Bowl whose grounds are open all year round for free and Griffith Park and Planetarium which offers an excellent view of the famous Hollywood sign. If you’re an adventure park fan then check out Disneyland, Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mountain or Knott’s Berry Farm – America’s first theme park. Finally, if the beach is more your thing Santa Monica situated about 30 minutes from downtown Los Angeles is well worth a visit, if only to confirm that Baywatch is loosely based on real life.
The good news is that most of the major attractions are situated along a ten-mile stretch making it exceptionally easy for you to find your way from one to the other. The Disney Resort Complex is probably the first one that you will want to visit. You should note that it is immense, over one hundred square kilometers in fact, and contains four major theme parks. Therefore you do need to allow yourself plenty of time to explore. The second of the main resorts is Universal Studios which is situated just five miles from downtown Orlando. This particular attraction contains two major theme parks as well as an assortment of restaurants and shopping facilities. Apart from the two I have mentioned you should also visit Sea World, Wet and Wild and some of the dozens of other attractions in the area. These are just the main and best known but some of the smaller ones can be even more enjoyable because the queues are not quite as long.
Situated in the southwest and dominated by the Rocky Mountain range, Colorado is a popular destination among backpackers, hikers and mountain climbers who come to enjoy the breathtaking scenery along the thousands of trails in the state. In winter it is favoured by skiers and snowboarders who visit each year in their thousands. Apart from sporting activities, the other major attractions in the area include Colorado Springs which is home to the Professional Rodeo Hall of Fame, the Garden of the Gods and the US Air Force Academy. It is also one of the best areas in the country to check out the whole ‘Wild West’ experience, it’s still the land of cowboys and Indians. Finally, Denver, the capital of Colorado, situated at the foot of the Rocky Mountains is a thriving city offering a multitude of sporting, entertaining and cultural attractions to its guests.
The attractions in Vegas pretty much talk for themselves. In a city which is specifically dedicated to entertainment, you just know you are in for a good stay. On arrival, you simply can’t miss the city’s skyline consists of huge buildings adorned with neon lights of every colour. And, once you touch down, you can visit Las Vegas’s very own Egypt complete with the Sphinx, New York City with Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty and Paris complete with the Eifel Tower. You really need to visit to comprehend just how crazy it is. The casinos are also home to the main attractions in Las Vegas, from roller coasters to simulated rides, each casino is like a self-contained amusement park, infact the city itself strongly resembles one huge amusement park. The only thing you need to remember when you are here is that it’s not a city for the conservative. You just need to lose, or momentarily forget, your inhibitions and enjoy the experiences that it has to offer.
Widely known as the Windy City, Chicago is usually considered the third biggest metropolis in the US and is home to a host of attractions for its visitors. Thanks to mass immigration from all over the world, there are several cultural distinct neighbourhoods throughout the city and each is an experience in itself. You can visit Greek town, Little Italy, Chinatown or Little Saigon and easily convince yourself that you have been transported to a different city altogether thanks to the mix of sights, sounds and smells which you will encounter in each district. Other attractions in Chicago include the observation deck at the Sears Tower and the famous Lakeshore Drive tour. The city also has over a dozen major museums, two zoos, a huge aquarium and planetarium. And, no visit would be complete without checking out one of the local spectator sports. You have a choice between baseball, the Chicago Cubs and the White Sox; American football, the Chicago Bears; hockey, the Chicago Blachawks; or basketball compliments of the world famous Chicago Bulls. If you do wish to visit one of these games, you should be aware that tickets are difficult to get so you should look into it well in advance.
Situated in the far northwestern corner of the US, Seattle is built on a series of low hills and is almost completely surrounded by water. Its number one tourist attraction is the Seattle Centre which takes up over seventy four acres of the city. The most prominent feature of the entertainment centre is Seattle Space Needle, a six hundred and five feet tall attraction where you can ride an elevator and avail of the breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding area and the revolving restaurants at the top. Also in the centre you will find the Pacific Science Centre, the home of the Seattle Supersonics Basketball Team and the Thunderbirds Hockey Team, and the Seattle Opera. Other attractions in the city include the Pike Place Market (this is the one where the vendors toss salmon back and forth over the customers heads), the Waterfront, where you can catch a ferry and cruise the local waterways and Pioneer Square you sill see the famous Seattle Totem Pole and the statue of chief Sealth.
Mardi Gras, New Orleans
The New Orleans Mardi Gras is the biggest free party on the planet and each year it attracts millions of revellers from all over with something to offer for everyone. Traditionally a religious festival, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the last meat-eating day for Roman Catholics before lent begins, the celebrations usually begin as early as January and continue right up until mid-March. The biggest parades are usually about two weeks before the actual day itself and usually consist of about twenty floats as well as bands, dancers and the like. Floats may only be used once so they are always particularly decorative and colourful to ensure variety. If you decide to take part you will have to wear some type of costume but it is the most enjoyable way to spend the carnival and makes it all the more memorable.
Attracting over two million people a year and with over two hundred events, many of which are free, this is an event well worth catching. On each day of the Harbourfest, there are concerts at the Boston City Hall Plaza, guided walks and tours of civic buildings, opportunities to sail on the tall ships in the harbour and lots more. And, if you’re a fan of clam chowder then you have to visit the Chowderfest where over fifteen thousand experts ply you with their delicious concoctions. A family oriented event, it is a thoroughly enjoyable festival where you will have as much good clean fun as you could possibly want.
Aloha Festivals, Hawaii
This festival is Hawaii’s largest festival and the only state-wide celebration in the US. Originally known as Aloha Week, this is a cultural celebration of the state’s music, dance and history and was designed to help preserved the unique Hawaiian traditions. Little did the original organisers know that the festival itself would become an island tradition. Now, over three hundred events take place on each of the six islands including parades, hula competitions and beach concerts. The setting is second to none and the atmosphere is amazing. So, if you can fit it into your trip, grab your floral necklace and your hula and check out this remarkable event.
Elvis Presley’s Birthday Celebration, Memphis, Tennessee
Although the King’s birthday actually falls on January eighth, this has now become a wacky three-day festival. The main event takes place at the Chrome Grille in Graceland Plaza, complete with city and county officials just in case you take two slices of the birthday cake which is on offer. This is followed by the Elvis Presley Birthday Gala which honours his first bandmates. As well as the birthday celebrations, however, it is a good excuse to visit this landmark attraction. Special tours through the house will lead you on a journey made by the legendary singer every day. Unfortunately the tour ends at the same place he did, his gravesite. The only problem with a trip to Memphis is that you are at considerable risk of becoming totally Elvised out. After you see the hoardes of Elvis tribute gift stores, museums and restaurants you will see just how much of an idol he was for some people.
Village Parade, New York
If you’re looking for a good freak show, Greenwich Village is where you’ll find one. And, if you’re looking for the best freak show, the Village on Halloween night is where you need to go. The ultimate costume party where even the normal people turn into freaks for one night only, this is one you want to see. With over twenty five thousand participants and an audience of over one and a half million, this parade is the most enthusiastic and craziest collection of costumed creatures you are ever likely to witness. It is also the one night of the year where the distinction between the city’s classes are dissolved as the rejects mingle with the social climbers making it a unique experience for all concerned.
An annual eleven-day festival taking place on ninety acres along the shores Lake Michigan, Summerfest is a must if you within a two hundred mile radius of Milwaukee in July. The event is steeped in music history and tradition and came about in the sixties after the city’s mayor had attended the Oktoberfest in Munich. As well as dreaming up the idea of Summerfest, he also very kindly made a point of keeping the cost down so that everyone in the city could afford to go and this incentive still remains. It just gets better and better. In 1999, the festival earned the Guinness Book or Records title as the biggest music festival in the world when performers included Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Lauryn Hill, Shania Twain, Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin and James Taylor graced the stage. So, I think it is pretty clear that this is one serious festival but in order to insure that you are among the million people who attend it every year, get booking your ticket now.
Frontier Days, Cheyenne
The first Frontier Day was held in 1897 and was to become America’s premier celebration of the Wild West. Today, spectators are treated to a multitude of rodeo related events which will leave them mesmerized as they see more cowboy and bull and steer action in one afternoon than they would see during an entire festival elsewhere in the country. As well as the rodeo displays there are spectacular air shows, authentic examples of Native American art and culture, twice daily gunfighter demos, nightly country and western shows and grand parades featuring one of the world’s largest collections of horse-drawn vehicles. If you want something a little different, this is certainly a festival to think about.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, New York
If you are spending Thanksgiving in New York then you cannot afford to miss this parade and if you are European, it is of special significance. The parade has been taking place for over seventy years and actually began when many of Macy’s employees who were first-generation immigrants from Europe wanted to celebrate the American holiday with the type of festival that they had enjoyed in their homeland. In the decades that have passed since the first parade, the event has increased significantly and it now attracts millions of visitors every year who are celebrating one of the country’s most important holidays.
Haunted Happenings, Salem
Widely known as the ‘Witch City’, Salem Massachusetts now dedicates most of the month of October to the celebration of Halloween. Costumed balls, haunted houses, psychic fairs, craft shows, and tours of the city’s historic districts are just a few of the many events commemorating this spooky holiday. Highlights of the festival include the Fright Train from Boston’s North Station to Salem on Halloween night, the annual Salem Haunted Happenings parade, the Beatle Juice concert and head to the Common for the wildest costume party ever.
Hollywood Celebrities Show
Taking place in Hollywood, Chicago and San Francisco a number of times per year, these shows are certainly well worth the $10 entry fee if you happen to be in the vicinity. Over one hundred celebrities sign autographs and offer photo opportunities. As well as this you will have a rare chance to consider buying some Hollywood collectibles and memorabilia. Those attending the event range in celebrity status from the likes of Oscar winner Shirley Jones, to the actress who played Ginger in Gilligan’s Island to Paul Linke from ChiPS. See if you can spot some of your childhood idols and pay them for their autograph. Oh did I forget to mention that all celebrities charge a fee for their signature?
The currency used in USA is the US Dollar (US$) which is divided into 100 cents (¢). Notes come in denominations of $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. There are larger denominations but they are rarely used. Coins used are 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), ¢25 (quarter), ¢50 and $1, although the final two aren’t seen regularly.
Because of its vast size, the US experiences considerable climate differences. In general late spring and early autumn are the two best times of year to visit. This is principally due to the fact that most of the natives go on holiday in summer and quite a few take their break in their homeland. So, as well as a huge influx of visitors from outside America, certain areas are also taken over by the Americans themselves. The other reason that spring and autumn are favoured is that destinations which are generally hot all year round, the central states for example, tend to get unbearably hot in summer. Similarily, in areas which are renowned for being particularly cold, temperatures rarely reach above freezing point during the winter months. Of course, there are areas which are perfect locations all year round from a weather point of view. Ideally, you need to check each region before travelling to see what its predominant weather type is and what the best time of year is to visit.
The US is divided into four time zones – eastern standard time (EST), central standard time (CST), mountain standard time (MST) and Pacific standard time (PST) – but Alaska and Hawaii also have their own time zones. EST is five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, CST is six hours behind, MST is seven behind PST is eight hours behind and Alaska and Hawaii are nine and ten hours respectively. Daylight saving time, when the clock moves one hour ahead of standard time, takes place from 1.00am on the first Sunday in April until 1.00am on the last Sunday in October. It does not apply in Arizona, Hawaii, parts of Indiana and Puerto Rico.
Opening hours for shops, offices and banks vary from city to city and from state to state. In general, stores and shopping malls are usually open from between 10.00am and 9.00pm from Monday to Saturday and on Sundays from midday until 5.00pm. Offices open between 9.00am to 5.00pm from Monday to Friday. Finally, banks are normally open from 9.00am to 3.00pm on weekdays and some open until lunch-time on Saturdays.
The US uses 110 to 120 volts AC, 60 cycles. If you are using a European or an Australian appliance, you will need a 110-volt transformer and a plug adapter with two flat parallel pins. These adapters are difficult to find in the States so you are recommended to bring one with you.
There is no VAT in the US but every state, county and city reserves the right to levy its own local tax on all purchases, including hotel and restaurant bills, airline tickets etc. This sales tax ranges from four to eight percent and to avoid embarrassment when it comes to paying the bill, you should always check that a stated price includes tax.
Since August of last year, visitors to the States from most other countries need a visa of some description – stamp, sticker or insert – in their passport which will inform those checking it as to what exactly what your business in the country is. To obtain such a visa you need to contact the US Embassy in your native country. If you are travelling from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK or Uruguay and are staying for less than ninety days (you will need to be able to prove this), you can waive US visas through the Visa Waiver Pilot Program. If you are staying for more than ninety days, you will need to obtain a visa to allow you to enter the country. Canadians need only proof of citizenship to cross the border.
Bringing foreign currency to the States is not recommended as foreign exchange bureaus are extremely rare and even changing it in banks is inconvenient. If you do need to change foreign cash, however, the best place to do so is in any exchange branch of Thomas Cook. These are usually located in the major cities but once you leave it is difficult to find them in the smaller towns. The situation is the same with traveller’s cheques. While they are widely accepted, this is only the case if they are denominated in US dollars. The three types of cheque which are most widely recognized are Visa, American Express and Thomas Cook. These are also the easiest to change. Most businesses will accept traveller’s cheques but you are better changing them in a bank. You will also need identification to do so.
The other much more convenient alternatives are either credit cards (Visa, Mastercard or American Express) or your regular bankcard from your home country. In the case of the latter, however, you do need to check that it is a member of either the Cirrus or Plus network and that the ATM you are using is too. This information is usually displayed clearly on the machine and chances are if you don’t see it, you can’t use your card there. With both credit and regular bankcards, you should be aware that you pay a minimum charge every time you withdraw cash and this fee can be anything up to $3.
The US phone systems are divided into three digit area codes by city and/or region. In fact, in some cases there are even divisions within the same city. When you are calling an area code which differs from the area code you are calling from, you need to dial 1, followed by the thee digit area code, followed by the local seven digit number. If you are in the same area code you just dial the local number. And, if you are calling the US from outside the country you dial 00, followed by 1, the area code and the local number.
When using public telephones in the US, a calling card is your most convenient and cheapest option. You should also try to get a card which tells you what call and connection fees you are paying. If you do use coins be aware that for long distance and international calls, you will be surprised at how quickly they are used up.
To make calls within the country, prepaid calling cards again are the best method. Phone rates are highest between 7.00am and 11.00pm. To make the cheapest calls, you need to wait until Saturday or Sunday or late at night, as these times offer the best rates.
Because the income tax on tip earning service staff is based on money they should have received in tips, they may well have to pay tax on a tip that they never actually received. So, even if you never tip, you should feel bad enough about taking money out of people’s pockets, to do so while you are in the States.
As a general rule you should tip waiters and waitresses between fifteen and twenty percent of the bill, bartenders should receive between ten and fifteen percent, hairdressers, barbers and taxi drivers between fifteen and twenty percent. When it comes to luggage you should tip $1 dollar per bag and $2 to $3 if you have a lot of luggage. You should also leave $1 per day in your room for the cleaning staff.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In the US they take place on January 1st and 15th, February 19th, May 28th, July 4th, September 3rd, October 8th, November 11th and 29th and December 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.