Have you been to America? Or have you BEEN to America? Most of us have travelled to New York City, ticked off the Empire State Building (don’t bother, go up the Rockerfeller instead, better Instas), and you’ve done Florida, now hating your 10-year-old-self for enjoying Seaworld, and finally you’ve checked out LA, ridden a celebrity tourbus and gotten the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt. You’ve not been to America.
America is vast, and most Americans themselves won’t ever scratch below the surface. But once you’ve done all the obvious places, where do you go next? How do you get under the skin of the place? Start to understand the US? At worst it’ll be a fascinating adventure, at best you might even start to understand the people, why they voted Trump, how they eat such a bizarrely unhealthy diet and this obsession with guns. Either way, it means getting away from the tried-and-tested, and getting into the real America. Here’s some places to add to your list.
Another place you may have been is Chicago. The windy city, the place that gave us mobsters and Obama. Galena, the city just outside, you won’t have visited. And you’re missing out. An interesting through-thread of America’s ‘second-tier’ cities (and I mean this touristically), is that they tend to have come to tourism late, usually as a result of dis-industrialisation. Galena Illinois used to be the steamboat capital of the US. Then the population dwindled before resurrecting itself as a tourist centre. So what is there? Great architecture, the former home of nine Civil War generals is seeped in history, has fantastic Victorian architecture. There’s also the matter of the Galena Country Fair, which draws in Chicagoans and others.
Baltimore: you’re probably thinking The Wire, grittiness and civil rights unrest. In the main this is an outdated picture. Sure, they’re not there yet, the 2015 riots over police brutality were a reminder that this is a city still in flux, but the bigger picture is a country battling the same problems. But the city presented to the world in The Wire is changing fast. It’s coming-of-age as a foodie destination and has a thriving beer scene. Restaurants to try include Ida B’s Table and Connie’s Chicken & Waffles for a true taste of the city. The LGBT neighbourhood Mount Vernon has a notable foodie walking tour.
I met someone the other day who had just been to Richmond, Virginia, and he raved about the place. Suffice it to say, it’s almost certainly not on your average list of cities to visit. But the place is yet another city on the up. Sat on the edge of the James River and close to Virginia’s ‘Historic Triangle’ (next year marks the 400th birthday of the United States (depending how you cut it) nearby in Jamestown Virginia, by the way! Expect them to make a LOT of this). and Richmond has built itself up as among the top craft beer destinations in the world, and with hotels opening at a rate of knots (try Graduate, Quirk and the soon-to-open Moxy Hotel) you’ve plenty of places to base yourself as you discover why Richmond is increasingly a food Mecca too.
Pittsburgh ain’t the pits. Formerly the leading light of industrialisation and the home of the steel industry Donald Trump is always going on about, globalisation has forced Pittsburgh to become something different. And what a difference it’s made! Transforming itself into an artsy and foodie centre, Pittsburgh has become the sort of city you visit and credibly want to start think about moving to! With green spaces, an excellent and diverse food scene (and the obligatory craft beer craze) it’s well worth putting on your road trip list.
Away from the Rust Belt and we’re on the West Coast. Yes, San Francisco and LA get a very heavy tourist footfall, but its hard to get them to venture further afield. And it’s not much further afield to head to Santa Cruz. Renowned for the filming of cult teen horror, The Lost Boys (I’ve never seen this), Santa Cruz has two beaches, open cinema shown on the beach and their iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, including their ‘world-famous’ Giant Dipper (Americans bandy around ‘world famous’ waaay too much, but I actually did recognise it!). Check it out. Maybe ride the dipper, definitely catch a film on the beach.
Philadelphia, famous for the film (does the cheese come from there too?*), and marketing itself as ‘the birthplace of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ (sounds like a reach), but well worth checking out for its vibrance, a city of culture and while it’s on most people’s general radars, it’s probably not somewhere you’d be rushing to visit. But you probably should. The sixth-most populous U.S. city its iconic skyline (view from the rooftop lounge at the Kimpton Monaco Hotel.
*apparently not, we’ve just been informed that the cheese comes from New York. Gutted!
Can I recommend a now-complete TV series: Boardwalk Empire? Set in the heyday of Atlantic City during prohibition, the show is excellent. Less so Atlantic City’s fortunes since, with the East Coast resort falling into general disrepair since it’s highpoint in the first half of the twentieth century when Sinatra was a fixture and the boardwalk teamed with holidaymakers. Reinventing itself as a sort of East Coast vegas, casinos ruled the city for many years (Trump made his name here) but everyone else’s fortunes declined and then the casinos disappeared. But now Atlantic City is on the up again, with a more sustainable approach. Visit, walk the boardwalk, maybe try your luck in a casino. You won’t regret it.
The US, like Britain, is fighting to reinvent itself for an age of globalism. Trends that have helped truly global cities like New York and London, but that have often gutted these smaller cities and destinations. As heavy industry heads to China or mining is replaced by tech these places have to fight to remain relevant. But, with innovation, many are now setting themselves up as tourist resorts, reinventing themselves and attracting a new type of visitor, and in the process realising that they have something different to offer and something special to put forward to the word. And that is reason enough to go, enjoy and discover what makes America really tick.