If you’re proud to be an American, then we don’t have to tell you that there are things that make these 50 states pretty special.
Whether it’s national landmarks, moments of natural beauty, tastes of the states, or some quirky little nuances, the U.S. boasts a list of things that simply can’t be done, seen, or eaten pretty much anywhere else in the world — no matter where you travel.
From sea to shining sea (and some Samoa cookies and spray cheese here and there), here are 29 things that really make America great — over and over again.
See “stoned” presidents
Where: Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
The stone carvings of four U.S. presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln — may be smaller than you expected in your mind. But, they’re still surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills — and, really, where else can you see faces in the side of a mountain like this.
Walk through a land of giants
Where: Sequoia National Park, California
Forest bathing takes on new meaning at this park that’s home to giant sequoia trees that soar into the sky, including the General Sherman Tree which is one of the largest in the world at 275 feet tall. Among this land of giants, you’ll feel very small — in the best way possible.
Eat a Philly cheesesteak
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Although the iconic sandwich is often imitated, you really can only have the original, authentic version — thinly sliced, sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese on a long, flaky roll — in its birthplace of Philadelphia. According to Visit Philly, the cheesesteak was invented in 1930 when Pat Olivieri, a hot dog vendor and namesake to Pat’s King of Steaks, threw beef on his grill to make a sandwich. A passing cab driver asked for one, and the rest is history. The hot beef and melty cheese creation comes in many forms now. But, you can be assured of its legitimacy by getting one 24 hours a day at Pat’s King of Steaks, which is still owned and operated by the Olivieri family.
Be in four places at one time
Where: Four Corners Monument
Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all meet at the Four Corners Monument, which means you can literally have your body in four places simultaneously — especially if you want to engage in a few Twister-inspired moves or yoga poses.
See the most famous canyon in the world
Where: Grand Canyon, Arizona
One of the Seven Natural Wonders, the Grand Canyon is estimated to receive more than five million visitors each year. At 6,000 feet deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide, it’s not the world’s deepest or longest gorge in the earth, but the views from the popular South Rim and the solitary North Rim are thought to be the most visually captivating in the world.
Consume spray cheese — happily
Where: Grocery and convenience stores
While spray cheese is anathema to cheese snobs (and most foodies), not to mention the gourmet cheesemongers of France and Italy, some people actually like the “aerosol” cheese packed in a spray can. It’s American convenience food through and through, and you’ll be most apt to find the spray cans in the aisles of an American supermarket where multiple brands of the faux cheese compete for your affection. Because: Options.
Explore the world’s first national park
Where: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
From colorful hot springs, to mud pots, geysers, mountains, forests, and lakes, there’s so much natural drama to see at Yellowstone.
Take food home in a “doggie bag”
America’s large-and-in-charge food portions have made the doggie bag a common thing at many restaurants (mostly chains), where “more” and “bigger” is always seen as better. The concept of these modern takeaway containers actually came about in the 1940s during World War II when food shortages where common and pet owners were encouraged to feed leftover table scraps to their pets. All that to say, in other parts of the world where portion sizes are more moderate, doggie bags really have no place.
Ride a cable car
Where: San Francisco, California
The world’s last remaining, manually operated cable car system is in San Fran — and there are only a few left standing in the city. You can hop on one from Union Station to Fisherman’s Wharf and along California Street for a ride you can’t have anywhere else.
Where: Los Angeles, California
The quintessential ode to Hollywood, the iconic white-lettered sign, is in only one place in the world: the City of Angels. However, it has become a universal metaphor for ambition, fame, dreaming, and all that H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D glamour.
Cheer on an (American) football team
Where: From sofa to stadium
It’s probably the most popular sport in America and has a whole industry built around it — from college teams to the national league, the Super Bowl, cheerleaders, mascots, and more. And, while other countries have football (soccer) and rugby, there’s only one NFL.
Have Buffalo wings
Where: Bars and restaurants
Speaking of football, wings might just be the country’s fave gameday food — and you can find them at almost any American bar or restaurant along with those countless “wings” eateries. The iconic, snack-ready dish was born in Buffalo, New York at the family-owned Anchor Bar, when Teressa Bellissimo covered chicken wings in her special sauce and served them with blue cheese and celery because that’s what she had on hand.
Walk through a National Mall — without shopping
Where: Washington, D.C.
It’s not actually a mall as in a shopping destination. But, DC’s world-famous National Mall is the most visited national park, where the past, present, and future collide. Monuments and memorials honor America’s forefathers and heroes; world-class museums beckon; and tree-lined boulevards create an impressive destination — not to mention the White House is here. No wonder it’s known as America’s front yard.
Remember The Alamo
Where: San Antonio, Texas
While The Alamo is far more legendary for the southern part of the United States, the battle at this Roman Catholic mission in 1839 is a big part of Texas — and American — history. It’s not the huge fortress you might imagine, but its mythical status still remains.
Attend the Kentucky Derby
Where: Louisville, Kentucky
Grab your fascinator — and break out the seersucker. The dress code at the annual horse race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is almost as impressive as the thoroughbreds on the track. Of course, mint juleps are pretty much mandatory, too.
Visit the birthplace of the king of rock ‘n’ roll
Where: Memphis, Tennessee
Elvis Presley was here. And, you can visit the home of this music king — dubbed Graceland — and tour the world’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll residence, which is now so much more with an entertainment complex of museums, restaurants, and gift shops. Of course, you can definitely find a peanut butter and banana sandwich, too. It was Elvis’s favorite, after all.
Attend a state fair
Where: Multiple states
The name “state fair” should clue you in that this something you can only find in the United States. But, these beacons of Ferris wheels, family fun, deep-fried everything, and Fletcher’s corny dogs — plus tons of other food on a stick — are definitely worth the price of admission.
Go underground to the most beautiful cave in the world
Where: Caverns of Sonora, Texas
A subterranean crystal kingdom awaits at this natural landmark that was called the “most indescribably beautiful cave in the world” by the founder of the National Speleological Society, which promotes the exploration and conservation of caves. The enchanting calcite crystal formations are located 155 feet below the ground, where the Texas Hill Country meets the Chihuahuan Desert — about halfway between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park.
Watch racecars whiz by at the Indy 500
Where: Indianapolis, Indiana
Sure, there’s the Formula 1 Grand Prix across the world — but the greatest car race in America is the Indy 500 and can only be spectated at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Vroom vroom.
Drink out of a red plastic cup
Red Solo cups are pretty much an iconic American “thing” — from picnics to lawn parties and, most especially, college frat life. And, don’t forget beer pong, where the cups are the quintessential (and necessary) prop.
Watch an all-natural light show
Where: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Talk about flashing lights! The Great Smoky Mountains are surreally beautiful as it is, but it is the synchronous fireflies that truly take the scenery to the next level with their bioluminescence. They are the only species in America — and actually the world — whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns in a distinct wave-like effect; it’s all part of their mating display. But, mating season only lasts for about two weeks each year from late May to mid-June and you have to register by a parking pass lottery application for entrance into this magical showing.
Tip 20 percent
Where: Restaurants, spas, and other services
Well, technically, you can tip in other countries. However, tipping is a sure sign of tourist behavior in many parts of Europe and beyond. Really, it’s only in the United States where that 20-percent standard tip is seen as acceptable — and expected.
See where Jurassic Park was filmed
Where: Kauai, Hawaii
The mega-popular Jurassic Park movie — and many of its sequels — found most of its filming locations on Kauai, the smallest and arguably the most picturesque of the four major Hawaiian islands.
Make a sandwich out of “white” bread
Those white, squishy Wonder Bread-type slices — you know the ones — are something you’ll only find in the U.S. Who cares that the bread is devoid of nutrition and you can pretty much roll it into a doughy ball, it’s a signature lunchbox go-to. Plus, where else but America can you have a PB&J — no crusts, naturally — where the bread sticks to the roof of your mouth just as much as the peanut butter.
Spread on the peanut butter
On the topic of PB&Js, they are pretty all-American, too. In fact, it’s pretty difficult to spread on the peanut-y good stuff outside of the U.S. It’s a rarity in many countries; they simply don’t understand our obsession with it here. So, peanut butter is pretty much the Marmite of America.
Say hello to Lady Liberty
Where: Statue of Liberty, New York
Recognized as a universal symbol of freedom and democracy, you can only see this copper lady in the Big Apple. Take a ferry there, and climb to the top!
Buy Girl Scout Cookies
Where: Cookie booths
If you’re obsessed with Thin Mints, give thanks you’re in America. The cookies are a signature thing for the Girl Scouts of America, and it’s one of the major fundraisers for the local units. Just make sure to buy extra and stash them in the freezer, so you don’t run out before cookie season comes back.
Take yourself out to the ballgame
Where: Baseball fields
There’s a reason it’s called America’s pastime; the game of baseball is about as American as that sliced Wonder bread. It’s a home run — especially if you’re spectating from somewhere like the famous Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Swim in really big lakes
Where: Multiple locations
The chain of deep, freshwater Great Lakes in east-central North America includes Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and they’re one of the great natural features of the continent and of the Earth. Plus, swimming in fresh water — not saltwater — is pretty spectacular.
Hike the longest hiking-only footpath in the world
Where: Appalachian Trail
The trail runs from Maine to Georgia — across 14 states — taking you on an epic 2,190-mile-long journey and a real walk remember.