There's 50 states to explore and so many things to see. The US West Coast and East Coast are so different - California is easy to navigate and full of attractions while New York City is a cultural immersion. Discover the best spots to savour the flavours of America's favourite foods. Be inspired to go on a classic road trip through Colorado, Texas, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming - we've plotted your ideal self-drive journey. No two places are the same, which is why the USA makes for an exciting adventure for all travellers!
It’s Comfort food – American-style – but each state makes it their own. Sample a new take on the classic combo. American food has been subject to myriad flavour influences and decades of diasporic experience from immigrants adapting to a new land and its ingredients. The result is a culinary landscape that’s as varied as the country is large. And yet, casual fare such as burgers, barbecue and their perfect pairing, beer, still reign supreme.
Innovation abounds, though, as some of the country’s best and brightest play with old techniques, new ingredients, champion regionality and sustainability and celebrate the rich cultural history of the States using the medium of food.
Between tales of a 13th-century Mongolian version to its more likely German pedigree there’s no consensus on the origins of one of America’s most popular foods, the burger. Irrespective of its unknown history, the burger’s popularity shows no signs of losing ground since it became a fast-food staple in the 19th or 20th century. It’s seen countless makeovers and iterations – upsized, monster, high-end, vegan, fusion, hybrids and classic – but wherever you go, you’ll find a burger worth eating.
Where to get your fix!
The OG Chains
In-N-Out Burger is home to classic, no-frills burgers with all the obligatory sides. Known for their ‘secret menu’ (ironically, available on their website), White Castle is a still family-owned chain known for small square burgers and references in movies such as Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Head to the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Garden for the Shackburger and crinkle-cut fries and a shake customised with local flavours.
Named the number-one vegan burger to eat before you die by ultimate #veganlife authority VegNews, the Double Beyond Impossible Chile Relleno Burger at Anthem Vegan in San Diego is a must-try.
The Social Media Sweetheart
Once a backyard operation that drew lines of diners to owner Shawn Nee’s home, smash burger specialist Burgers Never Say Die now has permanent digs in Silver Lake, LA, thanks to the social-media hype.
Most Expensive Burger
High-roller in Las Vegas? The Fleurburger at Fleur in Mandalay Bay is stacked with foie gras, truffle and wagyu beef but it’s the accompanying 1995 Chateau Petrus that gives this burger its whopping US$5,000 price tag.
After years languishing in the dregs of insipid, tasteless beers, the American beer scene is having a welcome craft renaissance. Mass-produced lagers are being replaced by carefully crafted microbrews inspired by centuries-old brewing heritage. The result is an impressive class of quality craft beers championed by a new generation of passionate brewers. “We’re a melting pot – inspired by great beer cultures around the world, yet willing to experiment and make products that are uniquely our own,” says Drew Gillespie, president of Seattle’s Pike Brewing Co. And if beer is on your US bucket list, then Seattle is a no-brainer, where “IPAs [India pale ales] rule the roost,” according to Drew, thanks to the city’s enviable proximity to the world’s best hop-producing region, a few hours west. And though the West Coast craft beer scene is more well-known – through the efforts of pioneers such as Sierra Nevada and the thousands of microbreweries throughout Oregon, Washington and California – almost every state in the US is home to craft breweries of its own. While IPA is the beer of the moment, Drew at Pike Brewing suggests that beer-drinking travellers opt for the freshest brew. “Drink the beer made where you are. When travelling I always seek out a brewery and try as many styles as possible,” he says.
Where to get your fix!
The Beer Library
With more than 50 ever-changing beers on tap, Beer Revolution in Oakland, California showcases a huge range of great American (and international) beers of all styles, on tap and in bottles.
The Big One
Not technically a craft brewery anymore, Founders Brewing Co in Grand Rapids, Michigan still produces craft-quality beer in the heartland of America. A producer of cult beers, its KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout) is the stuff of legend.
The Hidden Gem
Brewing wildcard Hawaii is home to Maui Brewing Company, which has been winning awards, and palates, with its tropical-inspired ales and porters, all the while focusing on sustainable operations.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And when it comes to American barbecue there has to be both. Distinct from the American practice of grilling, true barbecue is typified by melt-in-the mouth, marinated-for-hours meat cooked low ‘n’ slow over wood or coals. What was once, according to famous pit master and owner of Franklin’s BBQ in Austin Aaron Franklin, “a poor, rural cuisine” born out of “a culture of thrift” has now become a revered cuisine style in its own right.
Pitmasters are as dedicated to their craft as trained chefs, many of them using secret family recipes and meticulously honed skills. In fact, the ‘Oscars’ of the food world, the James Beard Awards, has even recognised barbecue and its purveyors with numerous pit masters awarded in the ‘Best Chef’ category. But far from being a homogeneous cuisine type, barbecue, which is steeped in a rich socio-political history, is surprisingly nuanced.
From smoking whole hogs doused in sauce in the Carolinas and dry rubs and pork ribs in Memphis to sticky hickory-smoked brisket in Kansas City and Alabama’s pulled pork or chicken sandwiches with coleslaw, there’s no shortage of regional variations. Meat is the main event, but sides are important too: mac ’n’ cheese, collard greens, baked beans, coleslaw and cornbread, to name a few.
Then there’s Texas. Regarded by some as the spiritual home of barbecue, there are four distinct styles here: east, west, south and central. It all comes down to different cuts and sauce styles, many of which owe their existence to cultural influences. For example, the influx of German and Czech immigrants to parts of Texas is largely credited with the state’s preference for European meat-smoking techniques and use of sausages. While it pays to make your way to the flagship states for a taste of traditional barbecue, you’ll find good barbecue wherever there’s smoke and a big line. There are even vegan options such as Homegrown Smoker in Portland, Oregon.
Where to get your fix!
The Texas Joint
Serving up exclusive recipes inspired by a rich family heritage – owner LeAnne Mueller is the daughter of Central Texas barbecue legend Bobby Meuller – la Barbecue is one of Austin’s best. Low ’n’ slow meat and sausages with a range of salty and savoury rubs is the standard here, with plenty of twists as well as moreish sides available.
The Family Operation
Rodney Scott moved on from his family roadside barbecue joint, Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, but the barbecue at his new Charleston digs hasn’t lost any of its heritage. Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ specialises in low ’n’ slow over wood, with chicken and Southern-fried catfish to round out the plethora of pork.
The City Slicker
The Big Apple is no stranger to casual eats and when barbecue made its debut in the city circa 1994, NYC fell in love. Most pay homage to the traditional barbecue states but there’s plenty of interpretation, too. For OG New York barbecue, go to Blue Smoke in Flatiron, Dinosaur in Harlem and Mighty Quinns in the East Village.
Boston hits it outta the park
One thing no one tells you about Boston is just how cool this Massachusetts city is – and I don’t mean the winters.
Its status as the oldest city in the US can be seen in the historic cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill or on the Freedom Trail – a three-hour DIY walking tour of American Revolution sites from stately Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, site of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Fenway neighbourhood pays homage to another local institution, 2018 World Series Champions the Boston Red Sox, established as the Boston American Red Sox in 1901. Fenway Park is America’s oldest ballpark with heritage-listed stands dating back to 1912.
But Boston’s not all buttoned-up historic sights, it’s a college town, too – more than 100 higher learning institutions including Harvard University and MIT are in and around the city – and one third of the population are students. Boston is also a nascent tech hub to rival Silicon Valley so there’s an air of youthful exuberance for the start of the fall school year.
The ‘Big Dig’, a three-decade-long project that involved a major overhead highway buried below ground, has been covered by Rose Kennedy Greenway, a beautifully landscaped 2.4km strip of parks by the revitalised waterfront. Stroll the open-air wine garden, sample the food trucks and take a spin on a native Boston animal on the Greenway Carousel – lobster or skunk, anyone?
Another rejuvenated area is South Boston aka ‘Southie’. The traditionally gritty Irish-American neighbourhood has evolved into a characterful precinct of 19th-century New England triple-deckers, old-school diners, beer, seafood and sea breezes by the beach.
Providence is the biggest city in America’s smallest state that you’ve probably never heard of. Until now.
Providence is kind of under the radar. It’s the capital city of Rhode Island state, which is not actually an island, and despite its proximity to Boston (just 75 minutes’ drive away), Providence is often overlooked on a New England itinerary. And that’s a shame as this city is a hub of the arts – both design and culinary.
Within its compact confines, Providence houses the Ivy League Brown University, the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Johnson & Wales University’s College of the Culinary Arts and balances its heritage with a pumping student scene.
It’s the only US city to have its entire downtown area listed as a Historic Place, which is the perfect starting point for a self-guided walking tour.
If design is revered here, whether that’s beautifully preserved 18th-century architecture on the East Side, America’s oldest indoor shopping mall – known simply as The Arcade, or trawling the city’s many vintage outlets, food is a close second.
Brunch is an institution at hotspots such as Grange and Julian’s, two of many hip local eateries, while a hot tip led me to Knead Doughnuts. Housed in a former bank building, there’s a delicious array of freshly made gourmet donuts with classic and specialty flavours.
All these elements come together in WaterFire, an annual installation of 100 wood-burning braziers along the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers with street performers and food, craft and art tents along the waterfront. And like the phoenix from the ashes, the event, which started in 1994 and runs from May to November, is said to be a symbol of Providence’s urban revitalisation. Under the radar no more, Providence is now deservedly on the tourist map.
Who's got the blues in Chicago?
In summer, you’d think Chicago was on the seaside. Locals sail, swim, kiteboard and play beach volleyball at one of America’s unlikeliest summer hotspots (there’s 26 beaches here). Then winter comes and its population hunkers down in the famous blues (and jazz) bars on the fringes of the CBD, and you’d need an icebreaker to get around Lake Michigan.
Chicago’s like that, it’s famous for its split personality. This is one of the world’s most prominent sports towns – home of the Bulls, the Cubs, the Bears, the Black Hawks and White Sox – but it’s an arty place too, where you’ll find the US’s second-biggest art gallery; and it’s where Frank Lloyd Wright – arguably the greatest architect who ever lived – came from and left his finest legacies. And while you might know it for the Chicago deep-dish pizza – and hotdogs (with mustard, never ketchup), it’s now America’s top culinary city.
I knew it as America’s Second City (to New York), but I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in Chicago and it’s no longer the bridesmaid. It’s easy to navigate and there’s jazz clubs, blues bars and live music across its 77 neighbourhoods. But then, if you like live music, this is the city, there’s (free) blues festivals in the parks (there’s 580 of those), and it's where Lollapalooza began – arguably the event that started the music festival scene in the modern era.
I take boat tours and like to stare up at the Chicago streetscape, or go where Al Capone went before me, to Prohibition-era speakeasies such as Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Visitors tend to blend into the streetscape – they don’t stick out like they do in New York – probably because it’s easy to go beyond the CBD, into neighbourhoods as diverse as those in LA. It’s not hard to get here (there’s two international airports) – but it’s sure getting harder to leave.
More from Miami
The world’s busiest cruise port, Miami is known for its glamorous beaches and glitzy restaurants. But before you jump on your ship, soak up some of the city’s coolest cultural charms.
It’s hard to imagine a neighbourhood prettier than Miami’s South Beach, a fantastical union of candy-coloured streets and palms, home to the world’s largest collection of Art Deco buildings. I could linger for weeks, watching the beautiful people strut between beachside bars where the margaritas are as large as the personalities sipping them. Yet it’s in Miami’s atmospheric neighbourhoods that I find myself developing a lasting crush on this southern US city.
The gateway to North America for Hispanic immigrants, Miami is officially bilingual. The lilt of Spanish is loudest in Little Havana, a vibrant Cuban precinct where I (clumsily) take a salsa class at 1930s-era nightclub Ball & Chain before (expertly) ordering a mojito at Old Havana Cuban Bar & Cocina. Along the ’hood’s main street I photograph bold art, watch torcedores roll cigars and linger in parks where wizened men play dominoes over heated political debates.
The murals are just as colourful and cultural in Little Haiti, an enclave home to the many immigrants from the Caribbean. The weekend market here excites all the senses: there’s music, cafes selling tasty Creole bites, stalls stocked with handicrafts and the aroma of strong, sweet coffee made using Haitian beans.
In contrast is the Wynwood Art District, where world-leading galleries and museums shine during the annual Art Basel festivities. But, the real allure is outside, where streets are lined with one of the largest open-air installations in the world. As I gaze up at warehouse walls decorated in eye-popping hues, I’m reminded why, exactly, Miami is regarded as America’s most colourful city.
Samantha Baxter - Flight Centre West City, Auckland
One of my most memorable and majestic travel experiences I had whilst traveling America, was staying overnight in the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Park in Utah. We stayed in a traditional Hogan which is of similar structure to an igloo but made up of juniper trees, bark and dirt.
Early bird really does catch the worm! Make sure to rise before the sun so you don’t miss the amazing picture opportunities that are priceless, especially at the Seven Sisters. Be sure to immerse yourself in their native culture and traditions, as there is so much to learn from their precious heritage.
I was able to experience the truly magical surroundings; sitting around a campfire under the beautiful stars was just incredible. Staying overnight made me feel like we were the only ones there; almost as if we were back in time. The landscape was so untouched, and it was an experience I will never forget!
David Bieleski - Flight Centre Riccarton Mall, Christchurch
Las Vegas. Sin City. What happens there, is supposed to stay there (which seems increasingly hypocritical in the modern day and age of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat). Having gained the reputation as THE place to go and defile your moral compass with whatever debaucherous acts your heart desires, this article may surprise you. I go to Vegas to relax. That’s right. RELAX. Now, hear me out. There is a whole other side to Vegas that you don’t necessarily see in the movies.
See, for me Vegas is the ultimate holiday destination. I want perfect weather, lots of things to do, all whilst staying in comfort and not blowing my credit card statement to some sort of jackpot total. Vegas ticks every one of those boxes in spades (excuse the puns here please). Temperatures year round are warm, and rain is virtually non-existent. April to June and September to October provide the perfect season of not too hot and not too cold. July and August are hot, but it is tolerable outside in the middle of the day as it is a dry rather than a humid heat.
If you can travel during those shoulder seasons, you will not only experience Vegas at its most comfortable weather but also save on your accommodation. Another tip to save in Vegas is to visit mid-week. Being just a 4-hour drive from LA, many California residents drive here on the weekend and the hotels charge weekend rates accordingly. But in general, Vegas is an affordable place to visit. Why? The same reason this city exists in the first place: gambling.
Every hotel wants your business for the simple fact that staying there you may be tempted to slide a few notes through one of their brightly lit machines downstairs. Here you can stay in beautiful, opulent and glamorous resorts for a mere fraction of what you would pay anywhere else in the world. My favourite hotel in Vegas, and perhaps the world, is The Cosmopolitan. Modern, luxurious, fun, edgy and just cheeky enough for the destination it represents. The staff here are personable and the service is superior to the many other properties I have experienced in the city. For a large resort to create a feeling of personal connection is nothing short of impressive.
Centrally located on The Strip right next to the Bellagio, you will actually have a better view staying next door and looking directly across those famous fountains. It is honestly hard to leave the room! A Fountain View room is a must here, but if you do want to splash out then a Wraparound Terrace suite occupying an entire corner of the building will do the trick. Again, you would be surprised how affordable these rooms are for the 1,200sq ft of space and the 410sq ft balcony you receive.
When you do manage to pull yourself away from the view, Vegas offers a host of different activities and sights. I get bored sitting by the pool for more than a day, and Vegas provides the perfect mix of chill time with some incredible experiences when you require something more stimulating. The shows here simply do attract the best performers in the world. Cirque du Soleil have 8 resident shows in the city, my favourites being KA at the MGM Grand, O at the Bellagio and LOVE if you are a Beatles fan. Absinthe at Caesars Palace will have you in a combination of cry-laughing, awe, shock and amazement. And Elton John, Rod Stewart, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga have all held recent residences in the city.
Fremont Street is another must-visit. This is old town Las Vegas, where it all started when the cowboys of yesteryear would ride through to get their gambling fix in Nevada. This is the best place in the city for people watching; head down here on a Saturday evening and you will certainly see some sights! You can even zipline down the street, flying just beneath the World’s longest video screen roof on which they play video concerts every hour.
Shopaholics have a wide variety of shops to choose from. The South Outlet mall offers the widest range of stores with absolute bargain prices. You will be struggling to close your suitcase following your visit. The Miracle Mile shops are also worth a visit, although you won’t receive quite as good a deal as at the outlet malls given their location in the heart of The Strip.
For the nature lovers, there are plenty of walks and scenic areas within easy reach of the city. Hire a car for the day and drive to Zion National Park. At 3 hours’ drive each way; it is a full day as you cross from Nevada through Arizona to Utah. You will be blown away by the size and beauty of Zion Canyon, featuring some of the best hikes in the USA. Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire offer great alternatives if you are looking for something closer to home.
Of course, Vegas is also the gateway to the Grand Canyon and going via helicopter is the only way to visit one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Go for the Wind Dancer Sunset helicopter, which sees you land next to the Colorado River and allows a full perspective of the sheer magnitude of this incredible feat of nature. Having sipped some champagne whilst watching the sunset slowly meander its way down the canyon walls, you then fly back over the Hoover Dam and along the Vegas strip at night-time to see the bright, twinkling lights in all their glory.
So, if you are planning a trip to Vegas and thinking two nights is all you can handle; I’d encourage you to reconsider. I challenge you to extend your stay, take a few more days to relax, unwind and really get to experience the other side of Sin City!