Rounding up the best cultural travel destinations in the USA that show both ancient traditions and contemporary lifestyle.
The Best Cultural Trips to Take in the USA
Why do we choose one travel destination over the other? Are we excited by a new resort on the outskirts of a large city that transports us from the hustling urban life into a peaceful island-inspired gem in less than one hour? Possibly. Are we ready to refine our taste with exclusive dishes from one cuisine or another? Always.
For me, a place with rich cultural heritage has always had the greatest allure. Some destinations in the USA draw me with remains of their ancient towns and mountain caves covered with petroglyphs. Intangible relics, expressed in traditional dances and rituals that may or may not have relevance to modern life, grab my interest and inspire me to book a flight to far and near locations.
What Makes a Place a Culturally Enticing Travel Destination?
We often associate cultural travel with places that present highly sophisticated arts or hold precious masterpieces that were created by the greatest artists centuries ago. The Louvre with its massive collections of iconic artworks and unfading frescos inside the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City are the epitome of a trip that focuses on culture and art.
Historic centers in Morocco and all over Europe open peculiar doors into the histories and cultures that connect the past and present. Every region in Asia boasts unique traditions, rendered in majestic temples and authentic rituals.
American culture seems to wane in comparison with them. The country is simply not that old. It’s still in its “toddler” age, compared to the rest of the word. Yet despite an obvious lack of pompous architecture and customs that date back thousands of years, the United States entices with its modern culture and, ironically, traditions old enough to defy the widely accepted cultural norms.
One closer look, and you’ll find dozens of cultural travel destinations in the USA you didn’t know existed.
THE BEST CULTURAL TRAVEL DESTINATIONS IN THE USA
1. Hawaii for Polynesian Culture, Hula, and Ukulele
Tropical weather, glorious beaches, and surfing opportunities all year round allure adventurers to the Hawaiian Islands in the first place. Little do these first-time visitors know that rich Hawaiian culture will soon diminish the appeal of the tropical islands activities and surpass any expectations the travelers may have.
One of the best cultural destinations in the USA, the Hawaiian Islands offer a mix of authentic Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures. Their presence is especially evident in traditional dances.
Needless to say, the Hawaiians do like to dance. You can stumble upon a cultural “show” on a beach during a sunset or at a local mall where students master their hula skills every week.
Bigger presentations are offered at lūʻau, a Hawaiian traditional feast that ends with singing and dancing to the sound of drums and the soothing melody of ukulele. The cultures intertwine here. The differences between Hawaiian and Polynesian traditions become undetectable to the untrained eye. But the love for the islands, their cultures and customs is undeniable.
Hawaii is one of the most enticing cultural spots in the USA for a variety of other reasons. With roughly 45% of the population being Asians or of Asian descent, the islands are hugely influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino cultures. The Asian traditions have oozed into food, architecture, art, and even Hawaiian attitude.
2. California for Wineries and Petroglyphs
Spanning nearly half of the Pacific coastline, California is one of the largest states of the United States. With the size also comes a huge responsibility of including and mixing different cultures.
Each section of the Golden State is a separate cultural hot spot. In the north, California’s culture is defined by expansive vineyards and premier wineries and wine tasting rooms in the Napa Valley.
Drive a little bit over an hour south, and San Francisco claims the title of the architectural and cultural center of the northern part of the state. Adorned with classic Victorian houses, the city, however, is most famous for the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, a former federal penitentiary featured in many Hollywood movies.
The south of the state revolves around the Greater Los Angeles Area, one of the most famous cultural travel destinations both in the USA and the world. We’ll discuss the city in greater details a little bit later.
As for now and before we move to the next location, we need to explore a lesser-known region. A part of the state that, like a zealous keeper, preserves remains of ancient Native American cultures.
In California, these artifacts are revealed mostly in petroglyphs, prehistoric carvings on the walls. The best places to find them are Joshua Tree National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, and Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park.
3. Alaska for Dog Sledding and Aurora Lights Viewing
The culture of the 49th state of the United States is one of the most underrated. Long winter that holds Alaska in its freezing fist for nearly seven months is the culprit. But it’s also one of the defining cultural aspects of the state.
The land, isolated from the rest of the continental USA, has preserved its unique culture and traditions almost effortlessly. Rooted in the vast valleys and dense forests, Alaska’s customs instills a sense of admiration and aspiration. They revive connection with nature through numerous outdoor activities, including dog sledding and aurora lights viewing.
Using a sled pulled by a pack of huskies gained in popularity during the Alaskan gold rush of 1896. The discovery of gold brought new prospectors. But getting into the Alaskan wilderness was still difficult. Often it was only possible by dog sled. In 1908 dog sledding became a national sport. Today you can enjoy this activity in Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Girdwood.
When it comes to the northern lights, you better head to Fairbanks. The dancing ribbons of lights illuminate the night sky above the city from late August through late April.
4. Los Angeles for Beach Culture and Hollywood
An unofficial capital of California, Los Angeles is also one of the most popular cultural travel destinations in the United States. The city is known for its mix of cultures, traditions, and cuisines that combined create a unique beach culture with elements of hipster and posh subcultures.
It’s a place where you can find a maze of South American, African, and Asian restaurants which menus are adapted to the American taste and cultural preferences. Spread between the eateries are authentic shops where Indian clothes, Italian leather, and Japanese pottery are as good as in their countries of origin.
But above all these is the powerful culture of Hollywood presented in pink stars with golden letters on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, theme rides inspired by the biggest blockbusters at Universal Studios, and Rodeo Drive where Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman struggled to buy a proper attire.
5. Arizona for Ancient Dwellings
Home to the world’s most popular canyon, Arizona offers a plethora of reasons to roam across its desert landscapes. Nature more than people has shaped the surface and culture of the sixth largest state of the USA. Endless abysses, breathtaking slot canyons, elusive waterfalls protected by both desert and the Navajo people have guided and molded local customs and traditions.
Most of the largest cities in the state are located near sacred lands or imposing natural attractions. While such a close proximity takes on a more practical approach today – to boost tourism – ancient tribes intuitively followed nature’s cues to survive. Entire cities, such as the ones that remain at Walnut Canyon National Monument and Navajo National Monument, were built inside cliffs that shielded people from elements and enemies.
Compared to the ancient cliff dwelling, ruins that now form Wupatki National Monument are rather unusual. The settlement emerged in an open area that was suitable for agriculture and trade. As the weather changed, the fertile land around the ancient town slowly turned into a desert. The tribe had to leave its old home to the mercy of nature and move to a new place.
It’s hard to say how many similar cultural spots perished over the centuries. Severely destroyed, only a few of them survived to tell the story of the past. Yet the importance of Arizona as home to some of the first cultural hubs in the United States is embedded in each of these ruins.
6. South Dakota for Perplexed History and Cultural Heritage Expressed in Mountain Sculptures
Two sites firmly put South Dakota on the list of the most important cultural travel destinations in the USA. Both of these landmarks are bigger than life, both physically and metaphorically. Each of them is carved into a mountain that towers over sacred lands of the Lakota people. And you can’t find more controversial cultural monuments in the United States than these two mountain sculptures.
Not the largest of them, but certainly the most popular, Mount Rushmore National Memorial symbolizes the ideas of freedom and democracy. The monument pays tribute to four American presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, and their invaluable contribution to the country. Bigger than life size, the heads of the former leaders overlook the Black Hills in southwestern South Dakota.
For the Lakota people, however, the colossal sculpture stays as a permanent reminder of how brutally their sacred land was stolen from them. Their true hero is the Lakota war leader Crazy Horse.
The legacy of the courageous warrior along with the unyielding spirit of all Lakota people is memorialized in another mountain sculpture. Designed by eminent architect Korczak Ziolkowski, Crazy Horse Memorial is still under construction. Once completed, it will be the largest sculpture of its kind, standing 641 feet long and 563 feet high.
7. Nashville, Tennessee, for Country Music
American culture is multifaceted. It’s driven by the hipster movement and movie industry in the west. Country music with its capital in Nashville, Tennessee, influences cultural preferences in the east.
Hillbilly guitar tunes spill on the streets of the city from every pub. Almost every store in downtown Nashville sells cowboy hats, boots, and everything to transform its residents and visitors into country girls and boys.
The city hosts the largest country music events. And the most prominent country music contributors are honored with terrazzo stars embedded in the sidewalk on the Music City Walk of Fame in downtown Nashville.
8. Washington, D.C., for Some of the Most Important Buildings in the Country
The capital of the USA, Washington, D.C., is the ultimate cultural travel destination for history and architecture buffs. Home to some of the most important American structures and institutions, the city is the living testament to the ideas of freedom, independence, and democracy.
The highest values of the country are memorialized in grand monuments and exquisite buildings where policies and laws have been made and justice has been preserved.
For many, a cultural trip to the most influential city in the United States starts at the National Mall. Spanning more than two miles, this landscaped park contains some of the most iconic memorials, cultural institutions, galleries, museums, and sculptures. Here you can find the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, U.S. Capitol, Library of Congress, Smithsonian Castle, and the White House.
9. New York City for Cultural Diversity and Broadway Shows
New York City, often called the “Melting Pot” of America, is the most culturally diverse city in the world. More than 8 million people that speak more than 800 languages reside here. Their contributions and artistic expressions, along with works of some of the world’s greatest artists, find homes in more than 170 museums and over 1,000 art galleries.
New York is a city built by immigrants. It’s a place where different cultures melt to produce one unique super culture. A city where different traditions and customs co-exist and are preserved in individual neighborhoods. New York is a travel destination where you find some of the world’s most recognizable attractions, such as the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and Ellis Island.
And Broadway show… Well, a cultural trip to the most famous city in the USA is never complete without a musical in a Broadway theater.