America is RuPaul and baseball.
America is Mickey Mouse and Soul Food. It’s a tapestry of experiences, comprising sports, food, culture, music, and history. It’s tradition and diversity and the all-encompassing embrace of differences. It is who we are, together, as a whole, and what we stand for. Here are 20 iconic experiences that make America remarkable.
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
Watching a game while eating hot dogs and Cracker Jacks is American-style happiness in its purest form. To some, it’s more than a national pastime; it’s a religion. We can thank Abner Doubleday for writing down the rules of a game that may have derived from English cricket and/or rounders. (Though others claim it was volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright who codified the game.) Whatever the case, Wrigley Field, opened in 1914 and the current home of the World-Series-champions Chicago Cubs, is the classic place to watch this classic sport, with its open roof, green seats, exposed brick, and ivy-covered outfield walls. And, by the way, perhaps there is some religion to the matter—the ballpark is situated on the former site of the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Like many things American, bourbon was created out of necessity. Early colonists loathed government regulation—especially the part that taxed their liquor. So they combined their distilling know-how (many were from Scotland and Ireland) with the abundant local crops of corn and rye and—voilà—New World whiskey (aka bourbon, generally speaking). Anyone with a still (or a neighbor who had one) could make it at home. The backwoods Virginians especially became experts—and, as you probably know, that part of western Virginia is now known as Kentucky. Bourbon has gone on to become the most American of drinks, associated with the Kentucky Derby, Mad Men, and sultry afternoons on the porch. In 1964, bourbon became America’s native spirit, as officially declared by Congress. Go to the source to experience this all-American drink: The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a route that takes in 10 distilleries for touring and sampling. Or simply head to a bar near you, where you’re bound to find a tempting selection.
WHERE: New Orleans, Louisiana
Set to wailing horns and tinkling piano keys, jazz is all about making even the most common song into something personal and fresh. It’s Miles Davis reworking “Round About Midnight,” by Thelonious Monk, making it all his own. It’s Ella Fitzgerald taking George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” changing the way that Porgy and Bess song will ever be remembered. The tradition is rooted in New Orleans in the early 20th century, where French, Caribbean, African, Italian, German, Native American, and English influences blended together, melding marches, blues, ragtime, and other music, giving rise to an all-American sound that’s at its best when it’s being improvised. Preservation Hall is one of New Orleans’—nay, the world’s—most famous jazz venues; though you’ll find some of the best jazz simply played on street corners, at funerals, and during festivals.
WHERE: Brooklyn, New York
The first American boardwalk may have been built at Atlantic City in 1870, for the very practical purpose of keeping sand away from hotel doorways. But it was Coney Island, the “poor man’s paradise,” that put the fun into boardwalks. In the early days, crowds of Manhattanites flocked there for the amusements—Luna Park, Dreamland, the very un-PC Lilliputian Village; as well as the Riegelmann Boardwalk, dubbed Coney Island’s Fifth Avenue. And while it continues to sell NYC tchotchkes and Nathan’s hot dogs, what Coney Island really is about is nostalgia, a place where thrill rides and carousel horses and the mingling aromas of popcorn, deep-fried knishes, and sea air never cease to bring us back to a seemingly simpler time.
Watch a Drive-In Movie
WHERE: Milford, New Hampshire
A natural combo if ever there was one, America’s car and movie crazes gave rise to this novel idea—watching an outdoor movie in your own private car. The concept especially appealed to families with screaming kids and young lovers out for the night in their parents’ automobile. Richard Hollingshead, Jr., actually filed a patent for this concept, opening the first drive-in in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933. The drive-ins basically went by the wayside in modern times, until Johnny Rocket’s stepped onto the scene. This retro food chain has plans to open 200 drive-in theaters. In the meantime, check out Milford Drive-in in New Hampshire for some good old-fashioned entertainment.
Celebrate Gay Pride
WHERE: New York City, New York
In the month of June, in cities across the nation (and the world), millions of people march, party, parade, and commemorate those who have died from hate crimes and HIV/AIDS. It’s a celebration lasting a day—or all month—full of glitter and bold color and endless music. It’s about the LGBTQ community being visible, and the hope that things are getting better. And what better place to take part than New York City, the birthplace of the modern gay-rights movement. In June 1969, riots and protests followed a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, providing the tipping point for action. While events take place throughout the five boroughs, the main day is the last Sunday in June, when the Pride March draws two million spectators to a float-filled parade that ends at the iconic Stonewall Inn.
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
You can’t go to a Mexican restaurant worth its margarita salt without being serenaded by a group of charro-suit-wearing musicians singing romping, moody songs about love, life, and/or loss. Mariachi music’s roots tangle far back into Mexican history, evolving as a musical stew of Spanish, Mexican, and African folk traditions. Mexican immigrants brought it to the U.S. by the 1940s, where it remains a deeply embedded tradition, even taking on its own unique characteristics that have influenced its Mexican counterpart in return. One of the best places to enjoy is Olvera Street, a block-long, Mexican-style market that’s considered the birthplace of Los Angeles. Sit at an outdoor café and listen to the mariachi musicians roving by. Margarita required.
Stuff Your Face With Pizza at Di Fara’s
WHERE: New York City, New York
There are approximately 61,269 pizzerias in the United States and every American eats on average 46 pizza slices a year. No matter how you slice it, Americans love their pizza. You can find it virtually anywhere, but why not return to its source? Italian immigrants brought pizza to New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis in the late 19th century, and NYC remains its cultural heart. Try Di Fara, opened more than 50 years ago by immigrant Domenico DeMarco in the Midwood section of Brooklyn; as Anthony Bourdain once claimed: “It’s the best of the best.”
Sing Amen at Gospel Service
WHERE: Memphis, Tennessee
Gospel music derives from the South: Joyful, euphoric, spiritual songs that pound and thump a church’s walls, accompanied by soaring vocals and rhythmic hand clapping and foot stomping. Singers like Aretha Franklin introduced gospel to the mainstream, with Beyoncé and John Legend bringing it to music videos and the VMAs. But the best place to enjoy gospel music’s depth has always been at church. And Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis is one of the best places around. It’s headed by Bishop A.L. Green, a gospel star who tours and performs around the globe. Even when he’s not here, the music soars.
Marvel at Monument Valley’s Wild West Landscapes
WHERE: Utah & Arizona
The daring, devil-may-care attitude rooted in revolutionary America exploded as settlers headed west to explore the frontier. Even today, the American dream is romanticized by the Southwest’s larger-than-life landscape, with its vast, sagebrush-spangled plains and red sandstone spires piercing the blue sky. Monument Valley, in the heart of the Navajo Nation, showcases it best. Drive the 17-mile Valley Drive loop past Three Sisters, Mittens, Elephant Butte, John Ford’s Point (named for the film director who located many of his westerns here), and other striking landforms, and you’ll be wowed and inspired by the majesty of these incredible landscapes.
Eat Soul Food at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room
WHERE: Savannah, Georgia
Eating soul food is more than eating deliciously greasy, unapologetically unhealthy cuisine. It’s about capturing the struggles and triumphs of African Americans to overcome centuries of oppression. We’re talking fried chicken, black-eyed peas, peach cobbler, cornbread … dishes that were invented and finessed by enslaved people by preparing whatever local foods were available with a fusion of African, European, and American techniques. Of course, the best places to try it remain in the South. For starters, stop by Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room in Savannah, family owned since 1943. There’s no menu here, and the dishes change every day. You’ll heap your plate in the dining room then join neighbors and strangers at a communal table. On most days you’ll have to stand in line, maybe for hours (wear comfortable shoes)—but that’s all part of the experience.
Tailgate at a College Football Game
WHERE: Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Home to the Alabama Crimson Tide, reigning champs of the college football world, this is the place to experience the cult of college football. It all kicks off with tailgating before the game, when you mingle with strangers, drink excessively, and grill hot dogs and hamburgers. Then, put on your best tackle and find your seat—you’re in for four quarters of hooting and screaming and cheering your team to victory. And while the University of Alabama may have the country’s largest tailgating party, any local college football game will suffice to capture the experience.
INSIDER TIPUniversity of Alabama’s Quad is a scenic place for a tailgate. To claim your spot, you need to arrive early. The Quad opens at 6 p.m.—on the Friday night before game day
Attend a Native American Powwow
WHERE: Albuquerque, New Mexico
It all starts with the drums, then the procession of members outfitted to the max in colorful regalia. Feathers fly, drums beat, tribe members sing in a feverish competition that combines tradition with modern techniques. It’s also a time to meet, socialize, and honor the Native American culture. Watching it all, you have a first-hand look at an evolving culture deeply embedded in the history of America. While Gathering of Nations is the world’s largest powwow, with participants representing some 700 different tribes, there are many others where visitors are invited. Learn more here.
Eat Deep Fried Everything at the Texas State Fair
WHERE: Dallas, Texas
It’s all about food, really. The best, biggest, most delicious, most eye-catching gourds, apple pies, and cattle have long drawn visitors to state fairs. The first gathering of locals showcasing the production and enjoyment of food (including rodeos, livestock exhibitions, horse pulls, and more) dates back to 1841 Syracuse, though credit for the first state fair is given to Elkanah Watson, who first showed off his Merino sheep in Pittsfield, Massachusett’s central square in 1807. Along the way, recipe judging, technological wonders, carnival rides, butter sculptures (introduced by the dairy industry), and wacky foods (deep-fried candy bars, deep-fried butter, even fried Coca-Cola) were added to the mix. You’ll find people from all walks of life at the state fair, enjoying the sticky, zany, fun ambiance. And no one does it like Texas, the country’s biggest fair, with 75 amusement rides, 10 entertainment stages, 8,000 livestock entries, 7,000 creative arts entries, an auto show, and funnel cake and Fletcher’s brand corny dogs galore.
Party at Drag Queen Brunch
WHERE: South Beach, Florida
Glitter, heels, and lots of hair abound at Drag Queen Brunches, as extravagantly dressed drag queens sing and entertain people from all different backgrounds. The reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race has catapulted drag into mainstream success, though drag brunches have been around for decades. One of the most renowned is the brunch at South Beach’s renowned Palace Bar, where queens dance on your table, do splits and flips onto the sidewalk, and stop traffic on Ocean Drive.
Attend Mass at Mission San José
WHERE: San Antonio, Texas
In the early days of U.S. history, for better or worse, Spanish priests set up cultural and religious missions in Texas and California for local residents. Some missions still celebrate mass in their historic settings, bringing to life another place and time. At Mission San José, the largest mission along the historic San Antonio Missions trail, you’ll sit on wooden pews, taking in the white-walled adobe church as mariachi music fills the air. After service, the worshipers spill into the flower-filled courtyard, where the band plays more songs. It’s welcoming and energetic and fun (at least as much as church can be).
WHERE: Nashville, Tennessee
Southern Appalachian fiddlers went about their musical business, playing tunes based on British songs that accompanied colonists to the New World in the 1700s. Then one day, Ralph Peer of Victor Records came to Bristol, Tennessee, to record local musicians. He signed up the Carter Family from Virginia and Jimmie Rodgers of North Carolina. The rest, as they say, is musical history. While Bristol is the official birthplace of country music, there is no more iconic place to listen to it than the Grand Ole Opry, founded in 1925 and country’s most famous stage.
Hop on a Paddle-wheeler Cruise Aboard American Queen
WHERE: Mississippi River
Originally powered by steam and maneuvered by enormous side wheels, paddle-wheelers were developed to negotiate the shallow, often treacherous waters of the South’s bayous, rivers, and streams. They entered the American psyche thanks largely to author Mark Twain, the creator of Huckleberry Finn, who wrote about these “floating palaces” that were “as beautiful as a wedding cake but without the complications.” Few survived to modern day, though the American Queen, rechristened in 2012, has resurrected the tradition of overnight cruising on the Big Muddy. Highlights include teatime in the ladies’ parlor, musical shows in the Grand Saloon, talks about river history, and four-course meals.
Unleash Your Creativity at Burning Man
WHERE: Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Woodstock’s three days changed history, as 400,000 people came together to celebrate creativity, individualism, and sticking it to the Man. In many ways, Burning Man is Woodstock’s descendant, for art. For one week every year, in the Black Rock desert in northern Nevada, thousands of creative spirits make art, live communally and sustainably, wear bizarre clothes (or nothing at all), and celebrate individualism, freedom, and inclusivity. Burners express themselves however they want, without the fear of being judged. It is a movement that, no matter how far out you think it is, is pushing contemporary American art and culture to the limit, redefining them in the process.
Even if you don’t attend Burning Man, there are other opportunities to partake. The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., for example, is currently exhibiting “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” featuring room-size installations, costumes, and jewelry that transport you to the Nevada desert and invite you to become part of the experience.
Immerse Yourself in Mickey Mouse Everything at Disneyland
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
Disneyland’s Main Street USA says it all. This immaculately manicured thoroughfare, with its bustling shops, happy people, and nary a piece of garbage in sight, has fed generations of visitors the notion of small-town values, innovation, optimism, and innocence. And the star of the show, Mickey Mouse, encapsulates it all: the small guy who’s always up against something, who works hard, and defeats his foes. That’s the American Way, right?