Trying to decide what’s interesting in America is like trying to determine your friend’s favorite wine. Everyone has different tastes, as diverse as history, nature, science, art, and entertainment. Fortunately, America offers iconic locales that have something for everyone.
Here are 10 of the most interesting places in America:
A uniquely American creation, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is lined with perhaps the greatest cultural institutions of our nation. Author Nathan Glazer called it “the most cherished tract of urban public land in the United States … it is the defining center of ceremonial and public Washington.” The original red sandstone Smithsonian Building, completed on the Mall in 1855 and known simply as “The Castle,” can be seen at right.
More than 24 million visitors a year swarm over these two miles from the U.S. Capitol at the east end to the Lincoln Memorial at the west end, almost on the bank of the Potomac River. The busiest section in all of Washington, the Mall is home to a stupendous array of 10 great museums administered by the Smithsonian Institution, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of American History. One can also find there the exquisite National Gallery of Art, government buildings, gardens, monuments, memorials, and parks. Indeed, the Mall itself is a national park, complete with landscaped gardens and lovely open spaces used for public events.
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Most popular time to visit: cherry blossom season and the National Cherry Blossom Festival in March.
A statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella’s Castle welcomes you to Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Fla. Known simply as Disney World, it has usurped the original Disneyland as the iconic American entertainment destination.
You can’t say that you have really experienced America unless you’ve been to the “worlds-within-worlds” of Disney World. It’s certainly the most-visited entertainment resort on Earth, with an annual attendance of about 47 million. It’s also the largest, covering 30,080 acres or 47 square miles, twice the size of Manhattan.
Four theme parks comprise Disney World: The Magic Kingdom, the most visited theme park in the world, with 17 million visitors annually; Epcot, the first big theme park dedicated to education, technological innovation, and international cultures and customs; Disney’s Hollywood Studios, celebrating both the golden age of Hollywood and modern entertainment; and Disney’s Animal Kingdom with its theme of animal conservation.
Founded as “Middle Plantation” in 1632 and renamed Williamsburg in 1699, this town nestled on the Virginia Peninsula between the James and York rivers was Virginia’s second colonial capital after Jamestown.
The Historic Area of Williamsburg is today both a historical landmark and a living-history museum, a recreated 18th Century American town where tourists can visit authentic or recreated colonial homes and government buildings. Animals, horses, and actors go about their business as they did in the era of the American Revolution.
Talk to the “interpreters” (actors) and you’ll hear what the Colonists’ diction and grammar sounded like. Where can you discuss political ideas with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Or savor an 18th century recipe at a colonial tavern? Williamsburg, that’s where.
Williamsburg is one corner of Virginia’s Historic Triangle, which includes Jamestown and Yorktown. They are all linked by the scenic 23-mile Colonial Parkway.
In the late 1800s, America’s wealthiest families made Newport their summer destination. The greatest artisans of the day labored on extraordinary residences there, constructing the world depicted in Edith Wharton’s novel, “The Age of Innocence.”
For the socially and financially preeminent Vanderbilt family, setting the pace in Newport by building opulent palaces for themselves was a passion. You can still see their magnificent, luxurious residences in Newport, such as Marble House, completed in 1892 for William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of the great family patriarch Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
William’s older brother, Cornelius II, built the grandest Newport mansion of them all, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Gilded Age. Called The Breakers (pictured above), it’s a 65,000-square-foot (6,000 square meter), 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo. Completed in 1895 at a cost of more than $12 million (about $335 million in today’s dollars), it is now Newport’s most popular attraction.
The 125-acre estate of publisher William Randolph Hearst was called “La Cuesta Encantada,” or “The Enchanted Hill,” for it sits high above the Pacific Ocean, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Upon this hill is the awesome, sprawling “La Casa Grande,” a 115-room main house (165 rooms including the guest houses), along with pools and eight acres of carefully cultivated gardens.
A fabulous pastiche of architectural styles by architect Julia Morgan and Hearst himself, the huge residence’s design was dictated by whatever treasures Hearst had collected from his travels in Europe — which were many, filling entire warehouses. Construction began in 1919 and took 28 years to complete.
Now known as the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, a variety of special tours are available, but tour reservations are recommended and should be made up to seven or eight weeks in advance.
6. Empire State Building, New York City
The Empire State Building has always been something special. Other skyscrapers are more beautiful, such as its uptown neighbor, the Chrysler Building. And more than 20 other buildings are taller. And yet, the Empire State Building remains the queen — or king if you prefer — of skyscrapers. It is, in short, a grand building, America’s iconic skyscraper.
The 102-story structure, 1,453 feet, 8 and 9⁄16th inches tall, the first structure ever to exceed 100 stories, held the record as the world’s tallest building from 1931 until 1972. It is the honorary lighthouse of New York, lit at night with 3,194,547 interior light bulbs and 208 10,000-watt floodlights with controllable colors on the 72nd and 81st floors, not to mention a few lights in the mooring mast.
Mooring mast? Yes, that’s right. A mooring mast for dirigibles sits atop the building. Ostensibly, giant transatlantic airships of the 1930s such as the Graf Zeppelin and (gasp!) Hindenburg would have docked at the top of the Empire State Building, and passengers would have disembarked down a gangplank from the airship’s nose to the 103rd floor, which today is inaccessible to the public.
7. The Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri
The tallest man-made monument in the U.S. (at 630 feet) is not a fuddy-duddy obelisk, pyramid, tower, or statue. It’s a unique, slender, 43,000-ton stainless steel arch, known as the Gateway Arch, or “Gateway to the West.” Designed by master architect Eero Saarinen and structural engineer Hannskarl Bandelin in 1947, it was not completed until 1965. As the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Arch sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis in honor of those settlers who contributed to the westward expansion of the United States.
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Four million people a year visit the Arch. Some take the four-minute ride to an enclosed observatory at the Arch’s top in an amazing tram transportation system of egg-like capsules that can stay horizontal despite traveling below, to the side of, and above the track and cabling. It’s like riding a Ferris wheel and an elevator at the same time! Once at the top, 16 windows on each side offer 30-mile views of St. Louis, the Mississippi River, and Metro East. With expanded hours from between Memorial Day and Labor Day, some visitors make an additional night trip to the observatory to admire the city lights.
The Gateway Arch is just one part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Museum of Westward Expansion, completely underground beneath the legs of the Gateway Arch, is free and features exhibits on Lewis & Clark and 19th century pioneers who moved America’s borders westward. Considered innovative when it opened in 1976, the museum has no glass or plastic enclosures to prevent visitors from getting close to the displays.
8. The Parthenon, Nashville Tennessee
Nashville is probably the last place you’d expect to see a full-scale replica of the Parthenon of Athens, complete with a 41-foot, 10-inch statue of the Greek goddess Athena wearing eight and a half pounds of gold leaf (worth more than $200,000 today). But there it is in all its glory, an extraordinary architectural achievement that houses a permanent collection of 63 paintings by 19th and 20th century American artists donated by insurance executive James M. Cowan in the late 1920s.
If you visit, be sure to go inside the building, if only to see the magnificent statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, completed in 1990 by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire. Casts of the Elgin Marbles from the original Parthenon are also on display and there’s a gift shop, too.
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9. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Few experiences rival gazing for the first time upon the Grand Canyon, the Earth’s largest gorge. Its sheer magnitude, delicate hues, and quiet dignity are unforgettable. More than 227 miles long and over 6,000 feet deep, it stretches from Lee’s Ferry, Ariz. — about 15 miles from where Glen Canyon Dam backs up the Colorado River to form Lake Powell — all the way down to Lake Mead, Nev., formed by the mighty Hoover Dam.
Though appearing desolate, the Canyon is the home of 1,500 species of plants, 90 species of mammals, 17 species of fish, 45 species of reptiles, nine species of amphibians and 350 species of birds. Nearly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year.
The Canyon’s latest tourist attraction is the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a 65-foot wide, transparent horseshoe-shaped bridge that extends out into midair. Built by the Hualapai Indian tribe, it opened to tourists in 2007.
10. Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
For amusement park aficionados, roller coaster fanatics, and other assorted thrill seekers, the destination of destinations is Cedar Point. The 364-acre park, merrily occupying a peninsula extending out into Lake Erie, has been entertaining visitors since its opening way back in 1870. It attracts about 3.14 million visitors a year.
Cedar Point offers a mind-boggling 72 rides, including 16 roller coasters. As the self-proclaimed “Roller Coaster Capital of the World,” it has the third most roller coasters of any park in the world, and is the world’s only amusement park having four coasters taller than 200 feet. When you think roller coaster, you think Cedar Point. The place is a veritable catalog of amusement park ride technology.
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By Richard Grigonis