Great road trip destinations that have it all are somewhat limited – you often end up with a fairly boring trip if you go somewhere with just a few things to do or that offers a lot of things that only a part of your group can enjoy.
You know that song “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash? Well, that song really feels like my theme song because I have traveled a lot throughout the United States. This has given me the opportunity to see a lot of popular destinations and experience them firsthand. It also was a chance to see if they lived up to the hype!
Every one of the road trip destinations listed below makes this list of winners because they are:
- One of a kind/truly unique places.
- Have a lot to offer in the way of activities and sights.
- Appeal to almost everyone.
These are counted down from ten to one, saving the best for last. Pick one of these winners for your next road trip and you’ll have a blast!
Number 10 Road Trip Destination: Colorado
It’s no coincidence that Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” while visiting Colorado – a spectacularly beautiful state. If you love the outdoors and outdoor activities, this is one of the best states to get outside. The mountains are lush and green in the summer and the state becomes a sugar-coated wonderland in the winter.
If you go to Colorado in the summer, you can hike, take chair lifts at various ski mountains to see the breathtaking views, swim in lakes, mountain-bike, play a round of golf, go fishing, take a whitewater rafting or kayaking trip, go rock-climbing, catch a concert at the amazing Red Rocks Amphitheater, or spend a day at one of Colorado’s great museums.
In the winter, the state really kicks into gear with every kind of winter sport under the sun – take your pick of downhill or cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, dogsled rides, snowmobiling, kite-boarding, and ice climbing. After all that fun playing in the snow, you can end the day by a warm fire with a mug of hot cocoa while watching the snowfall outside your window.
Number 9 Road Trip Destination: New Orleans, Louisiana
Everyone talks about how New Orleans was ruined by Hurricane Katrina, but I disagree. Yes, there was damage that can never be undone and some areas will never be the same, but it’s still a one-of-a-kind city with a flavor all its own and the people of New Orleans are fighters who love their city and will never abandon it.
One of the oldest cities in the U.S., New Orleans is great because of its architecture, both in the French Quarter as well as the stately antebellum homes that line St. Charles Avenue, its delicious Cajun and Creole cuisine, its music (the birthplace of jazz), its working streetcars in a time when most cities have ceased using this method of public transportation, and its famous and wild Mardi Gras. Whether you go to New Orleans when there’s a festival like Mardi Gras or the annual jazz festival, or if you go there during a quieter time of year, you will have a great time in this city. Make sure to take one of the ghost tours – they’re the best in the U.S.
Number 8 Road Trip Destination: Chicago, Illinois
The “windy city” isn’t actually that windy – the name came from some political wrangling that occurred in 1858 that ended with Chicagoans being called braggarts – talking themselves up too much/”windy” from all their hot air. Boston is actually the windiest city in the U.S. due to its location’s physics.
Chicago has something to brag about, so all they were doing back then was telling the truth! There is a lot to see and do in Chicago including take in a bird’s eye view from either the John Hancock Observatory or the Sears Tower Skydeck, hit a top restaurant (Charlie Trotters is one of my all-time favorite restaurants), walk along the coast of Lake Michigan – a truly Great Lake, catch one of their many Broadway-quality shows, check out either of their two renowned zoos, take in some culture at one of the many outstanding museums the city offers, or hit a Blues club – Chicago is the home of the Blues and there are many clubs to choose from.
Number 7 Road Trip Destination: Boston, Massachusetts
Boston might be a windier city than most, but it’s also a greater city as it offers the visitor tons of historical sights, world-class museums, shows and concerts, Red Sox games, “Harvard Yaad”, and the Freedom Trail. You can ride around in one of the Duck Boat Tours and see it all while switching from the road to the water in this amphibious contraption. Next, hit Faneuil Hall for some great shopping – or just looking.
My favorite thing about Boston is its pubs. There is no city like it outside of Dublin that has so many great hangouts to choose from – you can barhop forever in Boston or just find a favorite and hang out all day. To top it off, most pubs in Boston offer fantastic pub fare, so you’re not stuck eating some dried-out burger and greasy fries.
Number 6 Road Trip Destination: Las Vegas, Nevada
Even if you don’t gamble, there’s so much to see and do in Vegas that you can spend many days here and never get bored. There are many outstanding shows, plus each hotel and casino is worth just visiting and exploring. You’ll definitely want to check out the Bellagio Fountains show and the Venetian.
Another must-do is to try a sleuthing mystery tour with Mystery Adventures where you team up to solve a mystery. The interactive experience involves deciphering secret codes, checking out very realistic crime scenes and find hidden treasures. Most people agree this is one of the coolest non-gambling activities in Vegas.
There are nearby areas to hike like Red Rock Canyon and fun museums like the Neon Museum that is all about one of the things that make Vegas unique: its amazing neon displays. Top that off with a little time checking out the pool scene (and the great nightclub scene if you’re into clubbing) and you’ve got a great road trip destination.
Number 5 Road Trip Destination: Washington, DC
I had the pleasure of living just outside of D.C. for a year and got to sample all this great city has to offer. If you’re passing through D.C. or making it your destination, plan on spending at least two full days here. The monuments (especially the Lincoln Memorial, which is jaw-dropping), the Smithsonian museums, the White House and Capitol, and wonderful Georgetown are all Can’t-miss sights and all are unique to the capital of our country.
If you can time your road trip to arrive in D.C. at the peak bloom period for the cherry blossoms (late March or early April – check online for the year’s expected peak), do so. The massive number of pink-blossom festooned trees on display during their Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the most gorgeous and memorable things I’ve ever seen and something I highly recommend to anyone visiting this great city.
Also, if you have time before or after your visit to D.C., book a room at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, about an hour outside of D.C., and make dinner arrangements at their famous and fabulous restaurant. My experience at this unique and very special inn was wonderful and yours should be just as fantastic. Trust me, it’s worth every penny.
Number 4 Road Trip Destination: California Coast
Take a ride up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco for one of the best road trips of your life. There is so much to see and do on every step of the way and the ride – particularly the portion of Rt. 1 that winds along the coastline between Cambria and Monterey – is the quintessential road trip along the coast most people fantasize about.
For more detailed suggestions about what to do and see on a California coastal trip, see my article outlining a California road trip – just scroll down past the first half of the article to get to the California portion.
Number 3 Road Trip Destination: New York City
New York City is the best city in the U.S. and one of the top cities in the world. I’d put this as the number 1 road trip destination if it wasn’t so expensive and driver-unfriendly, making it a destination where you’ll want to store your car outside the city and travel in via train. Once there, you’ll find it the most pedestrian-friendly city ever with its wide sidewalks, a blind eye to jaywalking, and efficient subway system.
What’s so great about NYC? Everything! You will find an overwhelming number of sights to see and things to do in the City (as we tri-staters call it – I’m originally from Fairfield County, CT). The top must-sees are:
- Empire State Building – this art-deco showstopper of a building is gorgeous inside and out. The views from the top are dizzying and worth seeing because you really get an idea of the scope of Manhattan Island.
- Staten Island Ferry – take a ride and get a great view of lower Manhattan from the water, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.
- Greenwich Village and Soho – Walk around this area to get a feel for the way the city felt when it was new. The streets wind and curve unlike uptown’s grid, and there are lots of interesting buildings, shops, restaurants plus plenty of fun people watching.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art – Go to the Met to see a truly great American art museum. The building itself is beautiful and worth seeing if you’re not into art. Sitting on the steps outside is a pastime unto itself where you can grab a hotdog or some other street food and watch the street performers that frequent the steps.
- The Statue of Liberty – This statue can look small from a distance, so there’s nothing like getting up close and personal with this gift from France to see how large it really is.
- Chinatown and Little Italy – These areas are shrinking unfortunately as the immigrants that populated them are gradually moving to the suburbs where the rents are lower and a good lifestyle is more attainable (New York rents are astronomical). Still, take time to eat in each of these areas and enjoy some real Chinese and Italian food – probably the best you’ll ever have unless you travel to Italy or China.
- Times Square – Go here at night to get the best experience of this light show – millions of moving and static electric signs and advertisements dazzle the eyes. Just make sure to watch your wallet – this area is famous for pickpockets, too.
- Broadway Show – Make sure to see at least one of these renowned productions. There’s something for everyone here.
One list can’t possibly cover it all, but these are some of the highlights. For some insider’s tips to NYC, check out these Insider’s New York City Travel Tips.
Number 2 Road Trip Destination: Disney World, Florida
In National Lampoon’s Vacation they went to WallyWorld, but let’s face it, we all know the writers weren’t allowed to use Disney World. There was even a cartoon character associated with the place, just like Mickey Mouse.
Disney World is so great, it actually has addicts. I’ve met these Disney World addicts myself, people who go every year or even more often, like every month (and they don’t live in Florida – they live somewhere far away like Connecticut or Michigan). They live to go on these trips, think about them every day, decorate their houses and offices with all things Disney. If they had things their way, they would move into Disney World and never leave.
While I’m not suggesting you should become an addict – that’s expensive and a little crazy – but, if you haven’t been to Disney World, stop everything and go. Now. It’s a world unto itself, so magical and pretty and perfect that it’s unreal. It’s a sprawling (Amusement? That word doesn’t start to encompass all that Disney World is.) park that keeps growing and getting better every time you visit it. Unless you’re a really uptight person, I don’t know how you wouldn’t have fun here. If you’re planning a trip to Disney World, check out my Disney travel tips article that’s filled with tips and tricks to get the most out of your vacation.
At last, we come to the number one road trip destination and it is…drum roll, please…
Number 1 Road Trip Destination: Grand Canyon, Arizona
This is the granddaddy of all road trip destinations – the top of the heap due to its stature as one of the greatest natural wonders in the world. Words like awe-inspiring and breathtaking don’t do it justice. Some new word that makes you feel faint should be invented just to describe the Grand Canyon.
You can see the canyon any way you want, but I recommend three ways that you can combine to see this canyon at every angle and really soak in its magic. First, go to one of the rims, the best is the South Rim, and see it at sunrise (or sunset if you don’t mind a crowd – or you can go in the off-season). Pack some good eats or go to one of the restaurants at the park.
Next, hike the canyon and see it at all new angles as you descend. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreens and drink a lot of water – it’s very easy to get dehydrated in the desert. Finish up with a rafting tour – the canyon looks completely different from the water and it’s another great way to experience this amazing place.
This list of great road trip destinations should really give you the itch to hit the road! Want something more off-the-beaten-path? These two resources will really kick your road trip into overdrive! Planning a college road trip? Check out this list of party-oriented college road trip destinations.