Top 30 U.S. cities

Take a tour of the USA's urban hotspots with our guide to the boldest and best-loved, the weirdest and most wonderful city destinations — beach hubs, desert oases, music meccas and more

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 13 Feb 2013, 15:40 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 12:28 BST

01 Beach: San Diego

We hear it before we see it. Ninety minutes out into the Pacific, and the ocean is surprisingly still, our boat rocking gently to the swell. And then it happens — a deep sigh, followed by a noise like a power hose exploding. To the right, a column of water shoots up, like a geyser erupting mid-Pacific. Underneath it comes a dark, lithe shape, arching out of the water. Just like that, I've seen my first blue whale.

Mention California, and your thoughts tend to rush either to the beaches of LA or the cliffs of San Francisco. As the state's southernmost city, San Diego is often an afterthought. Which is a tragedy, because there's no other place like it — you can track whales in the morning, hike canyon-like clifftops in the afternoon, and finish with a nightcap of tequila brewed 20 miles away across the Mexican border.

San Diego has the weather of LA and the soul of San Francisco. What at first seems like a sprawling city is actually a collection of beachside enclaves, all fronting onto the Pacific. Each, though, is a world away from its neighbour, from retro Coronado to Mission Beach — California's take on Coney Island — hip Pacific Beach to hippy Ocean Beach. The nightlife here is legendary — the Gaslamp Quarter is one of America's must-do pub crawls, a 16-block-square patch of wall-to-wall bars — but it's the unparalleled coastline that keeps me coming back for more.

The morning before our whale-watching, I'd gone kayaking at La Jolla Cove through water as still as a millpond, skates and leopard sharks swimming beneath me, sea lions beside me, and a nearby beach a writhing mass of grey, as a colony of seals basked in the sun.

Then it was up the coast to Torrey Pines, a beach so perfect — all tumbling surf and buttery sand — it's been declared a State Park. I followed the road to the clifftop hiking trails to find canyons, and dramatic cliff formations that wouldn't be out of place in the Grand Canyon.

But it's the blue whale trekking — in a tiny inflatable boat, used by US Navy Seals — that blows the rest out of the water. Our whale is swimming alongside us so quickly that our motor can barely keep up. Then, with a flick of its gigantic tail, it's gone as suddenly as it appeared. California may have 840 miles of coastline to its name, but it's definitely saved the best till last. 

Words by Julia Buckley

02 Political capital: Washington, DC

From the Capitol Building to the White House, DC's architecture is startling in its scale and political buzz. Go in spring, when pink cherry blossom offsets the gleaming white of the monuments. This year, Washington commemorates 50 years since the assassination of President Kennedy with a series of events.  

03 Gateway to the lakes: Minneapolis

The 'city of lakes' — there are no fewer than 22 within its boundaries — is all about the outdoors, whether it's boating and cycling in summer, or ice-skating and cross-country skiing in winter. For the budget-conscious, start a trip with a cycle tour, usingthe city's bike sharing scheme, Nice Ride.

04 Gangsters: Chicago

Al Capone wasn't exactly a stand-up guy, and the Windy City isn't exactly proud of the Tommy-gun thuggery dished out during the Prohibition (1920-33) but tourists continue to crave stories of the original gangster era. Nowhere satisfies their appetite like Chicago, home to the Valentine's Day Massacre site and several infamous Prohibition bars. It's worth forking out $30 for a wise-cracking, fedora-flaunting jaunt with Untouchable Gangster Tours

05 Country music: Nashville

Honky tonk bars, boot shops, and line dancing classes — Nashville's main drag, Broadway, has everything a cowboy needs. This is a country music mecca — everyone from Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton to Keith Urban and Taylor Swift have passed through these hallowed halls.

Read more in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved