The Best Places to Travel in the U.S. in 2011

Pedestrians enjoy a plaza with Chicago's dramatic city skyline visible in the distance.

Chicago skyline photo © Laura Martone.

Although I hesitate to be presumptuous, I trust that most of you have made “to travel more” a top New Year’s resolution for 2011. Traveling, after all, is incredibly good for the soul. Depending on how and where you go, travel can provide you with some much-needed rest, rejuvenation, adventure, inspiration, and perspective. Even when economic times are tough, travel is still possible—hence the popularity of “staycations,” or travel experiences close to home.

Whether you’re a budget-conscious family, or a couple looking for a romantic getaway, you’re sure to find an ideal vacation spot in the U.S. this year. To help point you in the right direction, I’ve decided to share my top picks for the top U.S. travel destinations in 2011:

Best Art Lovers’ Destination: Nestled amid the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the enchanted town of Santa Fe offers a wealth of art galleries, artists’ studios, cultural museums, and annual markets, many of which feature the handcrafted works of traditional Hispanic and Native American artisans. Given the charming adobe architecture and surrounding desert landscape, it’s easy to see why Santa Fe has long inspired writers, performers, and visual artists alike.

Best City for Night Owls: With 24-hour eateries, late-night music clubs, and bars that almost never close, lively New Orleans is definitely the ideal spot for night owls. On any given day, areas like the Faubourg Marigny, the Riverbend, and, of course, Bourbon Street, are hopping well into the morning. Even the historic streetcar operates until the wee hours.

Best Destination for History Buffs: While America boasts a number of historical sights, from California’s Spanish missions to landmark buildings in Boston and Philadelphia, no city is quite as intriguing as Washington, D.C.—the nation’s capital, a town filled with impressive monuments, memorials, and museums. As a bonus, many of these sights, such as the U.S. Capitol Building, the National Mall, and the Smithsonian museums, are free to visit.

Best Place for Camping: Encompassing parts of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular parks in America—and one of the best places for a camping trip. Outdoor enthusiasts will find an assortment of reasonably priced campgrounds, not to mention an abundance of diversions, including waterfalls, hiking trails, picnic areas, wildlife-viewing opportunities, curious features like the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, as well as family-friendly attractions in the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Best Place for Family Vacations: While many families flock annually to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and other theme parks in the Los Angeles area, this sprawling metropolis features even more family-friendly destinations. You can experience movie studio tours, unique museums, nostalgic diners, and an amusement park on the Santa Monica Pier—not to mention oodles of fun-filled parks and beaches.

Best Place for Roadside Kitsch: For those who enjoy strange roadside attractions, there’s no better trip than the drive along historic Route 66, the spirit of which is still preserved through odd hotels, historic eateries, and other curious attractions. Some of the best can be encountered in and around Amarillo, Texas, home to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, which features a 72-ounce steak challenge and a Texas-shaped swimming pool, and the Cadillac Ranch, essentially a row of paint-splattered, half-buried Cadillacs that’s fascinated onlookers for more than three decades.

Best Shopping Destination: Boasting more than 10,000 shops, boutiques, and art galleries, and catering to pretty much every budget, New York City provides endless opportunities for shopping enthusiasts. Whether searching for souvenirs in Chinatown, trendy furniture in SoHo, gourmet delicacies in Greenwich Village, or high-end fashion on Fifth Avenue, shoppers are guaranteed to find just the right fit in NYC.

Most Romantic Destination: Given its gorgeous beaches, year-round sunshine, picturesque Spanish-style architecture, and first-class resorts, Santa Barbara undoubtedly fits its nickname, the “American Riviera.” Couples in the mood for romance will especially enjoy this beautiful locale, which features a number of fine restaurants, luxurious spas, and nearby wineries.

Top Bargain Destination: For those hoping to keep their vacation costs low, a trip to Branson, Missouri, the self-proclaimed “live entertainment capital of the world,” might be the perfect option. Catering to children as well as senior citizens, Branson boasts cheaper hotel rates and show ticket prices than most of the country’s other entertainment hot spots, including Las Vegas. Besides live music, visitors will find several affordable campgrounds, golf courses, and theme parks, plus a variety of museums, wineries, and outdoor diversions, from biking trails to canoe rentals.

Top Foodie Destination: Featuring some of the country’s best restaurants—from fancy to affordable—San Francisco is a gourmand’s dream. This picturesque city is also home to Ghirardelli Square, and the Ferry Building Marketplace, filled with an array of artisan cheese, wine, pastry, and seafood shops. Wine enthusiasts will also appreciate the city’s proximity to the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.

Ultimate “Big City” Experience: With its incredible skyline alongside Lake Michigan, Chicago is an urban metropolis that exudes down-to-earth Midwestern charm, making it a friendly, yet ideal, destination for those hoping to experience a big city. Here, visitors will encounter innovative architecture, incredible museums, trendy shops, high-end eateries, diverse neighborhoods, and an array of theaters and live music venues. Downtown attractions like the Field Museum, the Art Institute, and Millennium Park are must-see sights, though sports lovers may also embrace fabled places like Wrigley Field.

While I hope this list is helpful when planning your 2011 vacations and getaways, I welcome your suggestions regarding the best U.S. destinations. One of the finest aspects of domestic travel, after all, is the sheer diversity available in this country. With its varied cultures, landscapes, and activities, the United States guarantees a place for every interest and budget, so there’s little excuse to not to plan a trip this year—and of course, no matter where you go, I hope your experience will be safe, thrilling, and memorable.

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