Traveling in the U.S. is a bit different than Europe, Asia – or anywhere else really.
First, there’s the issue of distance. It’s a massive country, so you have to budget considerably more time spent in transit.
Secondly, transportation options are limited. While there are certainly a few train journeys available, it’s not at all like Europe – there’s no high speed rail, and not all major cities are connected (there’s no train from LA to Vegas, for example). If you’re not willing to rough it out on buses, you’ll have to book some flights (and there are no budget airlines here). As any American surely knows, the USA was designed to be traversed by automobile – and driving thousands of miles by yourself isn’t particularly fun (or safe).
Finally, there’s cost. Unless you’re visiting from Scandinavia, you’re in for some sticker shock. Cheap hostels? Forget it. Student discounts? Yeah… maybe for high schoolers. The dollar is strong, and the US is an expensive place to vacation!
With all these factors in mind, we have narrowed it down to 8 destinations (spoiler: they are all big cities) that make for a great solo travel experience in the United States. For each place, we’ll break down our reasons why.
[Note: please read the addendum at the end of this article before you crucify us for not including a place you had in mind.]
#1. New York City
No surprises here – NYC is a must visit, whether you’re coming from Milwaukee or Madagascar. You really, truly don’t need any travel companions for New York – the city has enough in store for you already.
It’s the #1 city on our list for a few reasons:
- The energy. New Yorkers live to “work hard and play hard” – and this mantra affects how everything works in The City. Restaurants are open late, and bars close later than anywhere else in the US (last call is 4 AM). Food delivery services work late into the night, and fleets of taxicabs stand at the ready – everyone’s always going somewhere. Also: is there any other city in the world with a subway system that runs 24/7? (Spoiler: only the #2 city on our list).
- The sheer variety of things to do and see. From world-class museums (The Met, MoMA, Guggenheim), Broadways shows, West Village comedy clubs, legendary cocktail bars, ethnic enclaves and sprawling urban parks, NYC gives you a lot to choose from. You can easily fill up 4-5 days of nonstop exploration, which already justifies the cost of an expensive plane ticket to get here.
- The diversity of its residents (and visitors). Walk around long enough and you’ll hear every major language spoken. Historically, this was the world’s entry point into the U.S. – and many chose to settle here and make NYC their home. While even first-generation immigrants are typically proud to declare themselves American, they still retain elements of their home culture (most notably, the delicious cuisines).
It’s particularly good for solo travelers due to ease of getting around. Lower Manhattan is downright walkable, and the other boroughs are just a subway (metro) ride away. Even when you’re completely out of energy, distances within NYC are short enough that a quick Uber or Lyft ride won’t break the bank.
As cheesy as it is to say, there’s no place like it. If for no other reason, go because it’s the one city that Americans love to hate. It simply exerts too much national (and global) influence to be ignored.
Finally, the city’s air, rail, and bus connections make it a perfect hub to continue your journey. For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our New York city guide.
What to watch on the way there: Woody Allen’s Manhattan
Perpetually in New York’s shadow, Chicago has long been nicknamed the “Second City” – and here it is yet again, at #2 on our list.
Visiting Chicago is key to truly understanding America – it’s an economic and cultural powerhouse, and is arguably the dominant influence in the Midwest.
Take a short cruise (or stroll) down the river and you’ll quickly see what the hype is all about. Chicago’s varied and numerous skyscrapers are a testament to the city’s rapid growth, all the way from the mid 19th century to the late 20th. You’ll see many styles and schools of architecture represented – from Colonial and Queen Anne all the way to Art Deco and Postmodern (and everything in between). The city continues to attract and inspire architects and engineers.
Downtown Chicago is very walkable, and is perfect for exploring solo. In the evenings, catch a comedy show at The Second City – or relax with a cocktail and listen to world-class jazz at The Green Mill.
Finally, don’t be surprised if people strike up a conversation – the Midwest is known for its friendly, down-to-earth folks – and Chicago is no exception.
Pro tip: on a clear day, you owe it to yourself to take the elevator to the Skydeck on the 103rd of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower). You’ll be able to see four different states!
For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our Chicago city guide.
What to watch on the way there: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
#3. Washington D.C.
While the USA may be a young country, it’s still the world’s longest surviving democracy – and D.C. is where the nexus of political power lies. It’s the nation’s capital, and offers plenty to the curious solo traveler.
The centerpieces of the city are its expansive and varied museums: from the Smithsonian (incl. the National Air and Space, Natural History, American History, American Art museums), to the more modern Newseum and International Spy Museum, there’s something for everyone. And with so many great museums to choose from, it’s doubtful that any two people in a group will want to spend the exact amount of time in each one – solo is truly the way to go here!
And we haven’t even gotten to the nation’s democratic institutions – The White House, United States Capitol, and all related monuments and memorials (including the iconic Washington Monument).
What the city lacks in nightlife and pizazz, it more than makes up for in cultural diversity. There’s a plethora of cuisines available all over the city – you might just find yourself sharing an Indian restaurant table with Japanese diplomats!
For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our Washington DC city guide.
What to watch on the way there: House of Cards
#4. Los Angeles
Now, we swing over all the way to the other coast – to the TV and movie capital of the world.
Some may find it surprising that L.A. is even on this list. Known for its notorious traffic jams and commute times, Los Angeles doesn’t seem like a place that a solo traveler should attempt to conquer.
These days, however, it’s entirely possible to have a great time in LA without a car. There’s a lot you can get to with just the Metro light rail and bus (link to system map), and anything else could potentially be reached with an Uber/Lyft ride. Bonus: you won’t have to think about finding parking for the entire trip.
From people-watching in Santa Monica and Venice, to finding your favorite actor’s star on the Walk of Fame (let’s face it, you’re going to go there), all the way to hiking to the Hollywood sign and seeing how the sausage is made at the Universal Studios – don’t be surprised if you can easily fill up a 3-4 day itinerary just in LA alone.
Pro tip: the city’s downtown has undergone a complete revitalization, and is an increasingly popular place to eat, drink, and party. Make sure you swing by Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the Arts District to take full advantage. For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our Los Angeles city guide.
What to watch on the way there: La La Land, Straight Outta Compton, Get Shorty
#5. San Francisco
Ask Europeans what their favorite U.S. city is, and you’ll hear “San Fran” 90% of the time (pro tip: don’t actually call it “San Fran” in front of the locals).
It’s easy to fall in love with SF. It’s a tiny, walkable city – stuffed to the brim with great restaurants, hip bars, and hipper boutiques and cafes. To top it off, the natural setting could hardly be more perfect – the Pacific Ocean and forested Marin Headlands border the city to the west and north, respectively. And don’t worry about missing all the action, either: you’ll have plenty of opportunities to marvel at the city’s surroundings while walking up and down the numerous hills.
It’s hard to find another city in the US where your surroundings can chance so quickly. Walk 5 minutes in any direction from Union Square and you’ll find four very different areas: modern skyscrapers and condos to the South in SOMA, a farmer’s market and Ferry Building to the East (Embarcadero), America’s largest Chinatown to the North, or the eclectic Polk Street to the West. This pattern seems to repeat itself wherever you are in the city. Some of my favorite neighborhoods to explore include North Beach, The Mission, and Hayes Valley.
Note: San Francisco is one of the most expensive places in the world, both to live and visit (more so than even NYC). If your visit coincides with a major tech industry conference, you may be completely out of luck when trying to find hotel rooms or AirBnbs (or even hostels). Book your accommodation as far in advance as you can for this city!
For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our San Francisco city guide.
What to watch on the way there: Silicon Valley (TV show)
Even more so than D.C., Boston is a city that will appeal to all the history buffs out there.
Originally founded in 1630 by Puritan colonists from England, Boston long served as the de facto political, financial, religious, and commercial capital of New England. We’re not going to spoil what happened next – it’s best to go and relive what you can through historic walks in the city’s charming center (an area arguably more suited to carriages than cars).
Today, Boston stands as a hub of cutting edge technology and education (Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, and Tufts are all here). It is also home to a sizable Irish-American community, and is very popular for this reason with visitors from Ireland.
It’s small, charming, and very walkable – perfect for a 2-3 day solo jaunt. Just don’t come back before trying a pint of draught Guinness at a traditional Irish Bar (especially if you’re in town for St. Patrick’s day!) As the home of the Red Sox, it’s probably the place to watch a baseball game if you haven’t experienced one already. For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our Boston city guide.
What to watch on the way there: Good Will Hunting
Next up is none other than Philly, one of the nation’s oldest cities – and one with a tumultuous past.
Much like Boston and D.C., this is a place with considerable historical significance – the city’s Independence Hall was the original signing site of the Declaration of Independence & constitution. The Liberty Bell (and entire National Park surrounding it) is a literal symbol of American freedom.
The best part? All the sights are very closely packed together, making Philly one of the easiest places to visit. Start at Fairmount Park, and you’ll hit all sorts of fascinating venues by walking east: the Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia Zoo, Eastern State Penitentiary, Rodin Museum, Franklin Institute, and more. You’ll be practically surviving on historical facts and cheese steaks!
For a full breakdown of essential solo travel info, check out our Philadelphia city guide.
What to watch on the way there: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
#8. The Pacific Northwest
To round off our list, we’ve got something completely different.
Leave all the hustle and bustle behind and head to America’s introvert mecca – the scenic Pacific Northwest. Defined by its two major population hubs (Portland and Seattle), the region has its own distinct culture – perhaps more closely resembling that of Canada’s British Columbia (to the immediate North).
In Portland, you’ll be hot on the trail of a fascinating persona: the modern American hipster. Don’t quite have your full sleeve tattoos done? No problem: the city’s residents are extremely liberal and generally welcome everyone (except for those pesky Californians, of course). Don’t miss: the Japanese Garden, Rose Test Garden, Powell’s City of Books, and a drink in the hip Pearl District.
Further north in Seattle, you’ll be treated to some of the freshest seafood in the country (and unsurprisingly, world-class sushi to boot). Have a drink in the world’s first ever Starbucks, then use all that energy to hike to the Washington Park Botanic Gardens. If you’re itching to get deeper into the woods, Cougar Mountain and Tiger Mountain are not too far away. Finally: in case you’re wondering about the 420 situation, here’s everything you need to know.
What to watch on the way there: Portlandia
“You must be joking. Why was X not included?”
Look, we hear you. There is much, more to see in the US.
For one, we didn’t even mention any of the amazing National Parks (Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc). Hawaii? Alaska? Not on the list. And what about sunny Florida, or sinful Las Vegas, or soulful New Orleans?
There’s no reason why a solo adventurer can’t see – or enjoy – the rest of the country. It’s just that most people will probably get a bigger kick out of seeing the rest of America in a group. It’s a lot more fun to go with someone else on a long road trip through a National Park, for example (and to split gas money!)
One great approach is to tackle the rest of the sights with the friends you meet along the way.
If you’ve made it this far, congrats and thanks for reading! As always, please feel free to leave your comments below.
PS. Don’t forget to check out our quick guide to packing for solo travel.