Many Australian travellers dream of winging their way to the USA, popping the top on a convertible, and cruising across the country on an extended holiday.
However you choose to do it, exploring the US is an epic undertaking. The mainland covers eight million square kilometres and encompasses 48 of the 50 states, and there are endless things to do in each. And even with time on your side, the biggest challenge will be deciding what to include on your to-do list and what to leave off!
The total amount of time you can spend in the States will depend on your documentation. Australian citizens enjoy visa-free travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program, but can only stay in the country for up to 90 days. Non-citizens living in Australia will need to obtain a visa. One popular option is the 10-year Multiple Entry Visit Visa, which allows people to travel for tourism, business, or medical treatment. The B1 business visitor visa is for business-related purposes, while the B2 tourist visitor visa covers those travelling for leisure, visiting friends and relatives, or undergoing medical treatment. You can enter the US multiple times during the validity of either of these visas, with each visit lasting a maximum of six months.
Here are ten unforgettable experiences that should be on your USA travel bucket list.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of USA day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
1. Experience the magic of the movies in Los Angeles
The city of Los Angeles can be anything you want it to be, which is why anyone with a dream in the US often ends up here. But as the home of Hollywood, LA is most closely associated with movie making. And from the world famous sign in the Santa Monica Mountains, to the film-themed rides and attractions at Universal Studios, you’re in for a fine time in what is effectively one giant set. Start your homage to the stars with a visit to the newly opened and very moderately priced Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The Warner Bros. Studio Tour will see you traversing some of the most recognisable streets in popular culture and sitting in some equally well-known couches (from both The Big Bang Theory and Friends). Leave time to take a stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame (and who knows, you may be there during a star ceremony!).
2. Escape to San Francisco’s Alcatraz
Up the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (or significantly faster Highway 101) sits San Francisco — notably progressive, endlessly charming, and packed with ways to spend your time. The city’s most popular attraction lies in the middle of San Francisco Bay — and while most visitors can’t wait to get out there, it was quite the opposite for its infamous residents in the mid 1900s. Originally a military fort, the Island of Alcatraz served as a maximum-security federal prison from the 1930s to 1963, and housed the likes of Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. Today it’s a fascinating step back in time, and as a law abiding citizen you’re likely to breathe a quiet sigh of relief more than once during your visit. The prison tour begins with a walk through the cavernous shower room, where inmates showered as a group under cold water twice a week. From there, you’ll visit the cell blocks, D Block Segregation Unit, the library, dining hall, exercise yard, and more.
3. Court lady luck (or not) in Las Vegas
Over in the neighbouring state of Nevada, Las Vegas rises from the sands of the Mojave Desert like a glittering El Dorado. Split into two main sections, Downtown and the Strip (where most of the top hotels are located), this is the nation’s casino capital — and beyond that, a virtual adult Disneyland. And even if you have no interest in playing the tables or handing over your hard-earned to a one armed bandit, Vegas is worth seeing for its sheer extravagance. Take a quick look inside any of the casinos, then spend the rest of your stay enjoying the many attractions along the Strip. Watch the Bellagio’s mesmerising dancing fountains, ride in a gondola down a faithful recreation of Venice’s Grand Canal at The Venetian Hotel, or roar between replicas of the Big Apple’s most recognisable buildings on the rollercoaster at New York New York Hotel. Many notable performers do lengthy stints in Vegas. Check the Las Vegas Entertainment Guide for a complete rundown of who’s performing where during your stay.
4. Admire the age-old Grand Canyon
From Las Vegas, it’s relatively easy to visit the USA’s most famous natural attraction — the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. Carved by the Colorado River to a depth of close to two thousand metres and covering almost five thousand square kilometers in total, this vast system of valleys and ravines is a phenomenal sight and one of the highlights of any US holiday. The West Rim is doable on a day trip from Vegas (just under three hours’ drive each way, or 35 minutes by helicopter) and is home to the Grand Canyon Skywalk. However, for the most epic canyon views, you’ll want to visit the North or South Rims — both of which are five hours’ drive from Vegas. The South Rim has a wider range of accommodation options and amenities, but the crowds at the North Rim are likely to be significantly smaller.
5. Go wild in Yellowstone National Park
Many of us got our first introduction to a US-style national park from watching The Yogi Bear Show, which featured a smooth-talking grizzly named Yogi, his pint-size sidekick Boo-Boo, and their authoritative nemesis Ranger Smith. Their fictional home of Jellystone was largely based on Yellowstone National Park in the north-west corner of the landlocked state of Wyoming. Generally said to be the oldest national park in the world (followed by Australia’s Royal National Park), Yellowstone is home to a variety of landscapes, intriguing thermal attractions (like the Old Faithful geyser), and plenty of wildlife — including grizzlies and brown bears.
Visiting Yellowstone is a joy, although it’s relatively tricky to get to. There are several regional airports fairly close to the park, but some only operate seasonally and/or have limited schedules. Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport is located just under two hours’ drive from the northern entrance, hosts flights from several major cities, and operates all year round. Pick up a hire care and away you go. Note that technically it’s possible to visit Yellowstone in winter, but many roads and services are closed.
6. Take a big bite of the Big Apple
Heading across to the east coast, New York needs little introduction. From your first spine-tingling sighting of landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and Chrysler Building, to exploring leafy Central Park, visiting arguably the world’s greatest museums and galleries, and even simply riding in a yellow cab or munching a freshly baked pretzel on the street, a head-spinning array of experiences awaits you in the country’s biggest and best loved city. Time management is the name of the game in NYC. Know where you’re going, when you’re going, and exactly how you plan to get there. Otherwise, you’ll waste valuable time wandering about, but getting nowhere.
7. Explore Washington DC’s monuments and museums
Washington DC could well turn out to be the biggest surprise of your stay in the USA. Far from being a bland bureaucratic no man’s land, it’s a leafy, airy, regal place, laden with amazing monuments and rich in tribute to American democracy. Laid out around two axes of green space (one being the National Mall, which stretches from Lincoln Memorial all the way to the US Capitol) and bordered by the Potomac River, there’s a huge amount to do in DC — and most of it is free of charge. Do a tour of the Capitol building, explore all 17 of the Smithsonian museums and galleries, walk the Mall and admire the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, and pay your respects to the nation’s fallen at Arlington National Cemetery. If you have a spare day, it’s well worth heading out to Mount Vernon — the beloved 18th century home of George Washington — the first President of the United States.
8. Cross the welcome mat at Graceland
While the White House in DC is the best known residence in America, Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee comes in a close second. The home of legendary singer/actor Elvis Presley opened to the public five years after his death in 1977 and has continued to draw record numbers of visitors ever since. Elvis is buried in the mansion’s tranquil Meditation Garden, as is his daughter Lisa Marie Presley (who died suddenly in early 2023). While Elvis was one of the biggest stars in the world, Graceland is a relatively modest home. It’s big, but not excessive, and the décor is wonderfully kitsch. Walking from room to room, you get a real sense of the entertainer’s personality — making the tragic side of the Presley story all the more poignant.
9. Lose yourself in New Orleans’ French Quarter
Sitting pretty on the Mississippi River and close to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans is unlike any other city in the USA. Established by the French in 1718, ceded to Spain in 1762, reacquired by Napoleon in 1800, and sold to the US in 1803, Nola, as she is affectionately known, never forgot her roots. Today, the atmospheric French Quarter — which occupies the site of the original French settlement — is one of the country’s most enthralling urban enclaves. Characterful colonial-era buildings (most dating from the Spanish era) line the small streets, the aroma of creole and Cajun cooking fills the air, and visitors party each and every night along brassy Bourbon Street. Any time is a good time to visit New Orleans, but during the annual Mardi Gras festival the atmosphere is electric. With its beginnings dating back to the early French era, this celebration of music, art, and costume runs for most of January and February.
10. Hit the beach in Miami
And finally, what would a holiday be without getting in some rays? Just off the shoreline of mainland Miami, the barrier island of Miami Beach is home to the Florida city’s iconic sun worshipping scene. The island’s South Beach neighbourhood is the most popular with locals and visitors alike, thanks to its colourful Art Deco architecture, buzzing restaurants and cafes, and of course, the beachfront itself — complete with fine white sand, beautiful blue water, and those much-photographed Art Deco-inspired lifeguard stands. Stake your claim on some sand between the bold and the beautiful, and soak it all in.
This post was published thanks to Immigration Advice Service.
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Do you have any suggestions to add to our ultimate USA travel bucket list? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.