My All-American Bucket List

Washington Monument, Washington, D.C.

By the end of my career break trip through the former Soviet Union, I had visited 38 countries. By contrast, I have been to only 22 states in the United States – in many cases, just to a single city for a weekend or less.

So now that I am home, I thought I’d start to focus more on exploring my own amazing country. While I often marvel at natural wonders overseas, I often forget what I have right here at home – places like the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. And while I enjoy the museums and architecture and art fairs in other countries, I often overlook that fact that we have a lot of the same incredible sights and experiences in many cities within the United States.

I picked up a Lonely Planet guide to the USA and it was a shocking reminder at how little I know and appreciate about this country. It also provided a good dose of inspiration to create an “All-American Travel Bucket List” of what I would like to see and do the most. So in no particular order…

New York City

I have been to New York nearly a dozen times, but there is still so much in the city left to see.  I still need to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as Rockefeller Center, the Bronx Zoo and the new Yankee Stadium. I visited the World Trade Center site a year after 9/11 but I want to go back to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum once it opens next year (the memorial site is already open). I also want to check out the High Line, a stretch of parkland created on abandoned train tracks elevated three stories above the city.

Washington, D.C.

This is another city I have visited several times, including as recently as early March. But there is still a lot I want to see, including the National Museum of American History, the Newseum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.


In an attempt to expand my appreciation of American history – and my own family’s history – I would love to spend a week or more in Virginia. I would start with Mount Vernon, followed by the historic triangle of Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. Then, I would head to Halifax and Staunton, the area from which my mom’s side of the family hails, to research a bit more of my family history.

Memphis, Tennessee

When I asked a couple weeks ago about potential weekend destinations, a couple people suggested Memphis. Looking into it more, I found a list of things to see or do there, including the National Civil Rights Museum, the Peabody Ducks March, the Memphis Zoo and, of course, Graceland.

Memphis, Tennessee

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta has a lot that interests me, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site, the Georgia Aquarium (the world’s largest), the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Atlanta Zoo. And of course, a visit wouldn’t be complete without taking a tour of the CNN Center in an attempt to come face to face with Anderson Cooper. I hope my friend Ali can give me some good tips for a visit!

St. Augustine, Florida

I have to confess, until I skimmed through my Lonely Planet guide, all I knew of St. Augustine was a horrible experience travel blogger Angie Orth had at a motel in town. Now that I know it was founded in 1565 and is the oldest city in the United States, I am totally intrigued. I want to check out its historic houses, the Spanish Quarter Museum and the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

South Dakota

Despite living in Minnesota the first half of my life – and despite the fact that my dad briefly went to college in South Dakota, I have never been.  I think I would need at least a week to do the state justice, visiting everything from the likely very cheesy Corn Palace and Wall Drug to the natural wonders of he Badlands and the Black Hills.

Mount Rushmore


Phoenix, Scottsdale and Sedona are all on my list in Arizona. I would love to check out Old Town Scottsdale, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Taliesin West, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Pueblo Grande Museum & Archaeological Park and all of Sedona.

New Mexico

I have never given much thought to New Mexico, although my good friend Laura grew up there. But after reading about Albuquerque and Santa Fe, both are must-sees for me. In Albuquerque, I would like to visit the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the Petroglyph National Monument, as well as ride the Scandia Peak tramway.

I think I would enjoy just wandering around Santa Fe, the second oldest city in the United States, the oldest state capital and the highest state capital. It has a plethora of museums and galleries, different festivals throughout the year and is a jumping off point for the Pecos Wilderness and Santa Fe National Forest.

San Francisco, California

Last, but certainly not least is San Francisco. Yes, I almost took a job there, but I have never really spent much time in the Bay Area. Crazy, right? With several friends in the Bay Area,  I really need to get out there for a visit. My sightseeing list includes riding a cable car, visiting the Asian Art Museum, the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown and Alcatraz.

National Parks

Hiking has been one of my favorite activities while traveling, from Peru’s Inca Trail to the Stolby Nature Reserve in Russia to the Chatkal Mountains in Uzbekistan. But I haven’t really been hiking in the United States. With dozens, if not hundreds, of national parks, great hiking opportunities abound. Tops on my list are some of the most famous – Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, as well as the big one – the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon

I know I’ve left out a lot of great places.

I grew up just outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and currently live in Chicago, so those aren’t on the list. I have also done the tourist thing in Boston, New Orleans, San Diego and Seattle, so while I love those cities, I’ll probably travel elsewhere first. Likewise with Denver, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Antonio.

Have you been to any of the places on my list? What do you recommend I see or do?

Photos: Leo Reynolds,, markusnl,

24 thoughts on “My All-American Bucket List”

  1. oh i love this list (partly because i love seeing my home state of virginia on there!)

    i think new mexico is highly underrated and deserves soooo much attention. it is one of my favorite places in the US. i have been to 45 states so far and wonder how dang long its going to take me to get to the other 5 (SD, ND, MT, ID, AK) now that i live abroad. i hope when you make it to SD you can come back with lots of tips 😉

    i think VA is highly underrated, but perhaps im a little biased. the amount of history in the state is almost impossible to wrap ones head around. im from richmond originally and my parents still live there. i was so embarrassed to take my boyfriend there last summer because i didnt really ever get to know the city myself. im hoping that ill take the time out when i travel back home to explore it like a tourist 😉 virginia is great and i can seriously recommend richmond, hampton roads region, williamsburg, charlottesville, and then the very northwest of the state for some gorgeous scenery.

    good luck conquering all of these great places!

  2. So great to see NYC top the list… 🙂 Also, happy to see South Dakota, it was probably the most pleasant surprise for me when discovering more of the states…

    enjoy America!
    stay adventurous, Craig

  3. I haven’t seen enough of the US either, and you’ve got a lot of great places on your list I’d like to visit someday. I think my Atlanta suggestions might all be restaurants, especially Mexican food! But the aquarium is definitely worth a visit.

  4. Your country is unbelievably stunning, looking forward to reading about your adventures closer to home! Yosemite is probably my favourite park but if you get a chance try to get up to Glacier in Montana, it’s phenomenal.

    We loved South Dakota (I’ve no idea why it gets a bad rep), there was so much to do and it’s really stunning country. Love, love, love New Mexico too, Santa Fe is such a gorgeous town and Carlsbad Caverns Nat Park was a sight to remember.

    In my humble opinion you guys have the best national parks in the world and I wish people would take more time to explore them.

  5. Good for you! It took traveling and living overseas to make me appreciate the US as well. Now that I am back, I don’t look down as harshly on people that don’t have passports when there is so much to see here without one! We are truly lucky in that aspect.

    Good luck on your travels!

  6. We should compare notes since we’re exact opposites! I’ve been to every place you mentioned in the U.S. but have virtually no international experience and am just starting to plan for an eventual RTW trip.

    I went to St. Augustine as a teen and took a historic walking tour but ditched halfway through because I thought it was so boring. I’d surely appreciate it much more now that I’m a bit more cultured.

    1. Haha, definitely! What are your favorite places in the US? And where are you headed on your RTW?

  7. I dream of visiting all 50 states and doing a classic cross country roadtrip someday! So I’m excited to gear about your exploration of all these gorgeous cities! You’re lucky that there is so much beauty in your own backyard!

    It’s not in the US but If you have time, maybe you should hit up Prince Edward Island up in Canada! It has stunning scenery and it’s a great place to retreat / hike / chill out! Plus, if you’re an Anne of Green Gables fan, you’ll obviously love it!

  8. Of all the places you name here, I’ve only been to NYC and San Francisco, but as I’m not from the States, I think that’s already a start:D
    You live in a huge country with so much diversity in cities and nature.
    Darn right you should explore it!:-)

  9. Don’t forget a trip to wine country when you’re in San Francisco! Also, spend more time in Santa Fe than Alburquerque but another amazing place in NM is White Sands National Monument. Yosemite is well worth a week-long trip paired w/Sequoia. Death Valley is one of my favorite national parks, very incredible landscape.

    I’d vote Nashville over Memphis!

    One place you left out was Oregon – great things happening in Portland, the Willamette Valley for wine and places like Bend and Crate Lake National Park.

    Happy travels!

  10. Went to Memphis for the first time last year and am in St. Augustine for the first time as we speak! Holler if you’re ever in Atlanta and we can arrange a tweetup.

  11. Awesome list! I’m with you on being guilty of seeing very little of my own country until quite recently. Now I have a goal of going somewhere new in the US at least once a year! So far this year I’ve done the touristy thing in DC (Newseum is HIGHLY recommended!) and will be doing a short East Coast road trip with my sister in June.

    As for your list, I would also add a visit to Page to your Arizona itinerary. It’s home to Antelope Canyon, as well as Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Go look up photos of Upper Antelope Canyon – it’s AMAZING.

  12. Ray @stingytraveller

    Definitely true that as travelers we always neglect our home country the most! Enjoy your travels around the states, SF is definitely an amazing city!

    1. …and the Royal Gorge in CO. The world’s highest suspension bridge. Ok. I think I’m done for now 🙂

  13. Katie, my trip to Williamsburg was always one of my favorite vacations (Mt. Vernon too). I have heard people give it flack for being kitschy (it was almost like going to a ren fair as they dress in period clothing, etc.) but I refuse to let their opinions taint my memories of it and, therefore, highly recommend it. Have you been to Gettysburg, PA? Definitely worth the trip and of course there’s the Liberty Bell too if you want to do historic sites. Yellowstone is also incredible and the Grand Tetons. The SD sites you mentioned are worth a visit just because of their historical significance but it’s not a very exciting trip (I didn’t think), more just looking at scenery although they do a good job with Rushmore and the information they provide tourists. Memphis is awesome. The Civil Rights museum is one of my favorites. Go to a place called Raifords for a night out too 🙂 Tennessee in general…driving through the Smokey Mountains is amazing and if you haven’t been to Nashville you should go once just to experience it – Utah for the Mormon Tabernacle and Salt Lake – Niagra Falls – Charleston, SC – Savannah, GA – lots to do in Ohio too as Cleveland is fun, Cincinnati looks a bit run down but is pretty artsy and of course all the sports teams, and Canton for the football hall of fame plus the rock and roll hall of fame. Safe to say you’ve been to Vegas? 😉 I’ll keep thinking of more to see and do. I’ve been to about 45 of the 50 states.

    1. Thanks Jill!!

      I have been to Vegas a couple times, which is why it didn’t make the list. Went to Nashville for a friend’s bachelorette party a few years back, so it’s not on the list for now, although I’d like to go back at some point. Have heard great things about Charleston.

  14. The Great American Road Trip / Route 66 would knock out half of this list, and contribute extras as well – especially in the Southwest, where the open highway stretches across endless desert with mesas and mountains all along the horizon!

    1. That does sound cool! For the time being, I only have time for weekend trips, but I’ll definitely keep that in mind for down the road!

  15. I’m going to Memphis next month for the first time ever (may have been me that suggested it) and staying at the Peabody and listening to music on Beale’s Street. I can’t wait to go to the Civil Rights Museum and see the hotel where MLK was shot. It’s my top thing to see.

    I went to South Dakota for the first time last September. It was amazing. The Wall Drug was actually not as cheesy as you would think. For me, it was mostly the size that impressed me and they had pretty darn good donuts. Crazy Horse monument was awesome and I hope it gets finished in my lifetime. When you go to Mt. Rushmore, don’t forget to go down in the Sculptor’s Gallery (or something like that). It’s a side trip down that I got to make (family couldn’t walk down the many steps).

    I would maybe add Austin, TX, to your list. It’s far better in food, activities like (Perdanales Falls and Natural Bridge Caverns), music, etc. than San Antonio. And I always put my hat in for Houston. It has a lot to do like the Art Car Parade in two weeks. It just has a reputation for a boring city.

    And since Florida is on your list, maybe Key West where you can see amazing sunsets, the southern most tip of the U.S., Hemingway tours, hang gliding on the ocean, drag queen shows, and fishing.

    I’m hoping to go to Yosemite this summer. I’m going back to San Fran in Sept to give my boyfriend the experience of the city for the first time. Although, I haven’t done Alcatrez before…so it’s a first for both of us.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions! Memphis is definitely high on the list – will look into Austin and Key West too. I left out most of Florida because I’m not a big beach person (and that’s what I think of mostly when I think of Florida). 🙂

  16. Good for you for wanting to check out the good ol’ USA! I feel like everyone from here always overlooks the amazing places that we do have. I was able to see most of our country on a bike trip from coast to coast and got to see small town America. Pretty sweet, and highly recommended (just like in any country) to hit up the places that are not touristy.

    On a different note I basically grew up in NYC and it is my all time favorite place in this world. Go get lost in Central Park, eat at the Italian restaurants on 46th street (between 9th and 10th), go see a $5 amazing comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade.

  17. Good list!

    I’ve had the same reaction about the USA ever since I moved abroad- that is to say a newfound appreciation for it, particularly how much nature we have and how easy it is to get out into the wilderness. In fact, I started collecting National Parks cancellations in January, which totally makes sense to do for a country you no longer live in!

    One suggestion for your list, if you haven’t been to Utah’s national parks yet I HIGHLY recommend the ones there- I went in January to Arches NP and Canyonlands NP for a few days and it was one of the best mini trips I’ve ever done (one of those ones where the hardest part is leaving when you want to keep pushing on to Zion and Bryce Canyon etc). Just an amazing corner of the world. 🙂

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