Where to Go
The USA is an incredibly diverse place that stretches across hundreds of miles and countless different states. In fact, it’s so large the country has multiple different time zones – which doesn’t make things easy when you’re trying to plan a backpacking road trip.
To make it a little bit easier, we’ve rounded up some must-see spots every USA itinerary needs on its list.
Memphis is like a window into the soul of the USA: a little bit gritty, a bit industrial, but with a vibrant atmosphere, killer jazz music, and a hopeful vibe. It’s here that Elvis Presley’s Graceland can be found, as well as the Museum of Civil Rights – so don’t turn down Memphis based on exterior alone. It’s well worth exploring.
A city with as much soul as history, New Orleans is the home of Creole and Cajun food, live jazz music, street performers, and a number of other things designed to tempt you out of the everyday life bubble. The opposite of New York, New Orleans is known as the “Big Easy” with every number of indulgences easy to get hold of and, well, indulge in.
An off-the-beaten track destination for any budding backpacker to the USA, Asheville is tucked away in Portland, North Carolina, right up near the mountains. It’s here that travellers flock to find some of the best craft beer in the country, as well as a number of incredible scenic mountain hikes – such as the Carolina Mountain Trail.
Nearby, there’s also the Smoky Mountains, as well as the Biltmore estate which is the largest privately-owned home in the entire country – and the closest thing the USA has to Downton Abbey.
One of the best cities in the USA, Chicago is any American lover’s dream/ it’s the home of Chicago deep-dish pizza for one, as well as the fun and tacky Navy Pier, the famous bean-shaped statue in Millennium Park, and the entire city is dotted with iconic architecture. Sure, it’s absolutely freezing during the winter, but the summer months really see the city come alive.
New York City
No backpackers guide to the USA would be complete without mentioned the Big Apple. Known as the city that never sleeps, this old saying couldn’t be more accurate. From the bustling Times Square where stores are open 24/7, to Little Italy where you can find the best pizza in the city – and, surprisingly, the best Thai restaurant – or Washington Square Park with its classically adorable dog park, and the iconic Flatiron building, there is literally something for everyone.
What to Do
With such a diverse country, it’s no wonder there is a myriad of things to do – more than anyone could reasonably accomplish in one single trip. From the iconic Statue of Liberty, to the thrilling Walt Disney World and the famously haunted Alcatraz Island, there’s never a dull moment on a backpacking trip across America.
Visit the Statue of Liberty
Originally designed by a French sculptor during the early 1900s, the Statue of Liberty is a copper statue first presented to the USA as a gift from the people of France. The female figure of the statue represents the Roman goddess Libertas, and the statue has come to serve as a symbol of America’s motto of freedom, and a welcome for immigrants travelling from abroad.
Remember your Childhood at Walt Disney World
First opening its doors to Disney lovers around the globe in 1981, Walt Disney World in Florida has become the most visited resort in the world. Consisting of 27 different themed hotels, four theme parks, two waters parks and more, the park offers entertainment, rides, live shows, tours and more – all themed around the Disney empire.
Visit the Ghosts on Alcatraz Island
The infamous gangster Al Capone was famously imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in cell 181, during the early 1930s. The island was a prison between 1934 and 1963, and now it’s a historical site with landmarks including the Warden’s house, the Main Cellhouse, and the Lighthouse – the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast.
Thanks to the nature of the island, not a single prisoner ever escaped, although a number of prisoners attempted to escape on multiple occasions – including 6 in 1946, which led to the Battle of Alcatraz.
It’s also known as one of the most haunted places in the world, having been used as a Native American burial ground long before Alcatraz prison was built, and the souls of criminals still linger on the island to this day.
Gaze Upon History at Mount Rushmore
Renamed in 1885 after having been known as “The Six Grandfathers”, Mount Rushmore is an impressive sight featuring 60-foot sculptures of the heads of 4 US Presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln – all carved into the side of the mountain.
Marvel at the Grand Canyon
Tucked away in the state of Arizona, the Grand Canyon was carved over thousands of years by the Colorado River, forming a steep canyon roughly 277 miles long and 18 miles wide. For thousands of years it was inhabited by Native Americans, who strongly believed in the site being holy. Today, it’s one of the most popular attractions to see across the USA, and the first Grand Canyon Skydiving company opened in 2016, so now there’s a whole new way to see the spectacular site.
Celebrate Elvis in Graceland
One for all the Elvis fans, Graceland is the second most visited house in the USA following the White House in Washington. Originally Elvis Presley’s estate, Graceland is now a museum dedicated to the life and death of the rock and roll star. Visitors can enjoy one of the many tours that goes through all 23 rooms in the house, including the Jungle Room which was famously converted into the studio where Elvis recorded his final two albums.
Read More About The USA
Best Time to Visit The USA
This will largely depend on what you want to see, and where you want to go. The north of the USA has very defined seasons, with a lot of snowfall and very cold weather during the winter season, and the bad weather can often last until as late in the year as May. However, travel during the summer months of June through to late September and you’ll be treated to glorious sunshine and high temperatures.
The south of the country has less defined seasons, with the weather remaining fairly warm throughout the year – although the traditional summer months tend to get very hot and humid. For a backpacking journey, start in the north during the summer and make your way south as you head into winter to guarantee the best weather the entire time you’re there.
In terms of festivals and events, the biggest one is undeniably the 4th July celebrations that take over the entire country. In celebration of the USA’s Independence Day, 4th July sees giant parties stretching across cities, with fireworks everywhere you look and a BBQ on every corner.
February sees the Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest sporting event of the year with tickets for the game going for as much as $4000! Almost every single bar will be playing the match though, and the atmosphere is incredible. There’s also the Coachella music festival in California in April, as well as Burning Man Festival in Nevada in late August.
How Much Does it Cost
The cost of backpacking around the USA largely depends on where you’re visiting. For instance, the south of the country is typically a lot cheaper than the north, and certain cities can be really expensive if you’re not savvy with your money – like New York and San Francisco, for instance.
A typical daily budget would be between $40-60, provided you’re staying in a hostel, cooking all the meals you can, hunting out free activities, and keeping the drinking to a minimum.
Typical costs while backpacking across the USA:
Keeping the costs down in the USA is all about being savvy and knowing where to go to get cheap deals. One of the best pieces of advice is to stay away from the tourist traps. Take New York for instance: don’t eat in Times Square, just keep your eye out as your sight-seeing and drop into a side street restaurant. It might look a bit shady, but it’ll be the best food you have in the city guaranteed.
Another good tip is to take regional buses where you can, which will take travellers around the different regions of the USA and cost as little as $1 for a ride. You should also try and cook where you can; the USA has some of the cheapest food available in the developed world, which means a weekly grocery shop could cost as little as $60 – and it’s a lot healthier than eating fast food every day.
If you feel up to being a bit more adventurous, you could also try couch surfing or camping. Couchsurfing is pretty common across the country, with free accommodation offered to make up for the lack of cheap hostels – plus your hosts will usually show you around and offer tips and advice.
Not only this, but every single national park in the USA – and there’s a lot – is essentially an inexpensive campsite, which means you can set up camp anywhere you like for around $15 a night for a tent.
What to Pack
The weather across the USA can be temperamental and vary depending on where you visit; Washington and New York, for instance, have a very different climate to, say, Florida. So, you need to make sure you pack for all weather, which includes, jeans, shorts, swimming costume, t-shirts, long sleeve shirt, socks, underwear, flip flops, and trainers. Just to cover all bases.
The hostel and motel scene isn’t fantastic in the USA, so make sure you bring a towel, toothpaste, shampoo, shower gel, and deodorant. A first aid kit is always handy as well, although any 7/11 on a street corner will have things like plasters and hand sanitizer so it’s not an essential.
The number one backpacker accommodation of choice is typically the trusty hostel, but in the USA, these aren’t the easiest to come across. In fact, finding hostel accommodation in most major cities can be quite difficult and the ones you can find are typically not amazing. If you’re visiting Chicago you’ll find a number of decent hostel, including a number that offer free dinner, breakfast, tea, and coffee.
For a very American style trip, try staying in a motel. Essentially the American version of a hostel in terms of cheap accommodation except with your own private room and bathroom, motels are a bit pricier than hostels but can be found all over the country.
For the more adventurous, outdoors loving traveller, try camping in and amongst the various national parks.
Food and Drink
The USA is known for its weird and wacky food dishes – ever head of marshmallows on sweet potato as part of Thanksgiving dinner? What about bacon, pancakes and maple syrup all in one meal? Yeah, it’s weird.
There are some dishes however that, no matter how odd they sound, you need to try while you’re there. One of these is the classic apple pie, a staple of an American diet there’s even a whole town named after it in New Mexico: Pie Town.
Another intriguing dish is clam chowder – a soup made from shellfish, potatoes, salted pork, cream and herbs – or there’s “drop biscuits and sausage gravy”. Don’t be alarmed, biscuits in the USA typically mean a flaky scone made form lard and buttermilk, and in places such as Montana they are eaten covered in a thick white gravy full of sausage as part of the breakfast meal.
The drinking age in the USA is 21, although some states are “dry” states which means they don’t allow the consumption of alcohol at all, and prohibit its sale. Dry states include Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, while Vermont and Oklahoma restrict the alcohol content in beer to 3.2%.
A very western country, the culture of the USA doesn’t differ too much from, say, the UK. However, there are still a number of cultural tips it’s worth living by while you’re travelling around the country.
- Tipping is customary, and typically makes up most of service employees’ salaries. It’s expected to tip between 10 and 20%, with the average being 15%.
- More than 38 states have state-wide smoking bans – so be careful when getting out a cigarette, it’s definitely safer to head outside first.
- Americans take punctuality very seriously, and it’s considered rude to be late
- People don’t wait to be introduced, and will begin speaking with strangers they stand next to in a queue, or sit next to at an event / on public transport
- Don’t wear white after Labor Day if you’re a strict follower of fashion
Although the country is, on the whole, gigantic – the running joke is that you can drive for four hours across Texas and still be in Texas – it’s actually one of the best-connected countries in the world.
If you’re planning on travelling from the west to east coast, or north to south without many stops in the middle then your best bet is probably to fly, but if you’re looking to make this a full-on road trip then there are a number of options.
Pretty much all of the cities have very convenient and easy to use public transport systems, whether your preferred mode of transport be the bus or metro. Fares can be as little as $2 a journey, but there’s also the option to multi-day tickets in many of the cities if you’re planning on staying for longer than a night or two.
Taxis are usually metered with starting prices of around $3, although this is the most expensive way to get around and when the metro runs through the night it’s not recommended.
A lot of backpackers will resort to the very American trend of hitch hiking. Incredibly safe in the USA, it’s also legal, and means you can get across the country for free – although maybe offer to pay towards gas if you have to stop. Americans are really friendly, and they’ll jump at the chance to meet someone new and have a chat on the journey.
There are a few different routes of entry to the USA. For 38 countries around the world – including the UK, much of Europe, Japan and Australia – travellers can enter the country visa-free for up to 90 days, having applied for an ESTA before they travel.
ESTAs are valid for two years, but they don’t necessarily guarantee entry. Each entry is considered on a case by case basis, which means the customs agent has to physically allow you into the country every time you visit.
For countries not valid for an ESTA, there is the general tourist visa application wherein travellers can apply for a regular visa to enter the country. Entry requirements are a lot stricter for this process, and often require in-person interviews and background checks.
Is It Safe?
The USA is one of the safest places in the world to go backpacking – even if you’re travelling on your own. While there are some reports of violent crime, these tend to be in specific areas of cities, and typically relate to drug and gang violence. The Bronx in New York, for instance, wouldn’t be the best place to travel alone at night – but these are isolated areas.
Mass media wants the public to believe that gun violence and mass shootings are a common occurrence that should prevent you from visiting the USA – but that’s not the case. While it’s true that the USA has one of the highest instances of gun crime, the chances of something happening to you as a backpacker and a tourist are incredibly slim.
The sheer size of the USA means that there is a lot of cultural and political variation across the country, and ultimately crime is at a 20-year low – and decreasing every year. Just make sure you trust your gut, and don’t get yourself involved in any situations you would consider unsafe if you were at home.
So, if your taxi driver seems a bit shady then stop the cab and get out, or if your hotel is just a bit too seedy for your liking then go and find another one. Always make sure you have enough in your budget for last minute changes like this, as your safety should be the most important thing on any trip.
A Brief History
The history of America typically starts with the “discovery” of the country by Christopher Columbus in 1493 – although it’s well known that the native Americans had long made their mark on the land.
In fact, it’s thought that these inhabitants had first come across from the continent of Asia as many as 20,000 to 35,000 years prior to Columbus’ discovery, and by the time Columbus got there, there were 1.5 million native Americans living across the entire country.
The first British settlers came over on the Mayflower in 1607 to settle in what became known as Jamestown, Virginia, beginning the English colonisation of North America. This was followed by a number of other charters and settlements created in Maryland, Baltimore, and Massachusetts.
These settlements were controlled by the British royal family until 1770 when the first thirteen colonies won the Revolutionary War against Britain, and in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed, officially releasing the USA from the British Empire.
In 1788 George Washington was declared president, and so began an American expansion westward across the country, claiming land from Native Americans. In 1831 Nat Turney’s slave insurrection began, kickstarting the movement to end the abomination of slavery across the country. This led to a civil war during the 1860s, which ended with the Emancipation Declaration freeing salves, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
Since then, the USA has been crucial to many of the day to day things we now take for granted. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone here in 1876, for example, and the Wright Brother’s flight took place in 1903. In 1917 the country entered WWI, starting the famous prohibition and the roaring twenties, all culminating in the Great Depression in 1929 following the Wall Street Crash.
Then, in 1941, Pearl Harbour was bombed, prompting the USA to enter WWII, and in 1945 they dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as part of the USA’s battle against Communism, took place in 1962, and JFK’s assassination followed shortly after in 1963.
The Cold War battle with the Soviets greatly contributed to the 1969 moon landing, while simultaneously Martin Luther King Jr. was working towards the abolishment of the Jim Crow laws which enforced racial segregation – a feat that was achieved in 1965, just three years before King Jr.’s assassination.
Today, America is reeling from the monumental election of the first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008, and Donald Trump is currently the President of the United States of America.
- Americans consume 3 billion pizzas every year
- The current flag of the USA was designed by a 17-year-old, a high school student named Robert G. Heft
- In 1783 it was the first country to gain independence from a European power
- More than a third of adults in the USA are obese, and obesity costs Americans $147 billion a year
- Mount Rushmore Monument shows the heads of the four former presidents of the United States: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln
- The USA was formed by 13 colonies of Great Britain after defeating Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War
- The USA is the world’s largest consumer of cocaine, which is allegedly shipped over from Columbia
- The USA is the only place in the world where you can get deep fried lemonade
If you really want to make the most of your time in the USA, then check out these useful resources. When you’re backpacking, it’s always better to be safe and prepared than winging it.
- Links incoming