15 Best Places to Experience American Culture

“American culture” is one of those phrases that has a different meaning for nearly everyone. After all, this is a country that stretches from sea to shining sea, with more art, music, cuisine, and celebrations in between than one article could cover. From storied towns that started musical revolutions to culinary destinations more American than apple pie, choosing our top 15 was no easy task. Some of our selections may be more familiar than others, but make no mistake: Interesting culture almost always lies just around the corner in a place as diverse and unique as America. Is your favorite city on the list?

We’ll start with an easy one: It’s nearly impossible to argue with Washington, D.C. as one of the cities with culture that most encapsulates America. The museums alone can occupy you for days: You have to see the world-famous Hope Diamond at the Museum of Natural History and visit the outer limits at the National Air and Space Museum. Then there are the memorials, such as the majestic WWII memorial, and the can’t-miss Arlington National Cemetery. When you’ve worked up an appetite, visit Ben’s Chili Bowl, where you’re likely to see a celebrity—or even Barack Obama. Order the signature dish, the half-smoke sausage.

Did you know?... It isn’t all work and no play in the nation’s capital. The city blooms each spring during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, taking place in 2017 from March 25 to April 15. The trees were a gift from Tokyo back in 1912, creating a tradition that will last for years to come.

New Haven is presidential in its own right. Yale University is one of America’s most prestigious and oldest universities, founded in 1901, and has seen presidents from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush through its doors. Take a campus tour and you just may see the next president on campus. Then, attend a game at the historic Yale Bowl, known to have crowds of up to 70,000. Hey, smart people still like to have fun!

Did you know?... New Haven has some hefty culinary heritage supplying all that brain food. Louis’ Lunch has a claim to fame as the birthplace of the burger, while hotspot Frank Pepe Pizzeria invented its own kind of pizza, called “apizza.” Traditional pie lovers, be advised: This thin-crust, charcoal-cooked deliciousness comes with minimal cheese.

In Baltimore, it’s crustaceans on the menu—blue crab, to be exact. If you’re looking for authentic, L.P. Steamers is your spot. It’s all about the mallet and butter knife in this family-owned restaurant, and if you don’t know what that means, they’re happy to teach you the Maryland crab pickin’ way. Wash it down with a Natty Boh, the state’s iconic beer.

Did you know?... Baltimore has three thriving Arts Districts. Take your pick from Station North’s street art, Highlandtown’s galleries and retail shops, and the Bromo Seltzer Tower’s studio spaces, whose artists open their doors weekly. Your Instagram has never looked better.

If it’s classic Americana—and fried foods—you seek, Des Moines is your spot. Hit the State Fair in August, grab a gunny sack, and bounce down the Giant Slide. Dance along to famous acts like Meghan Trainor and Dierks Bentley. And of course, you have to see the butter cow, a tradition since 1911, and try one of the 200 food stands, including more than 80 options on a stick. And though possibly playing to stereotype, what says “culture of America” more than food on a stick?

Did you know?... The East Village is Des Moines’ most vibrant and diverse district, with some of the finest shopping, dining, and nightlife in Iowa. Start at the intersection of 5th Street and Locust for a night to remember.

It’s obvious why the former American capital and “Birthplace of America” made the list. There is, quite frankly, tons to see here. The Cradle of American Culture Tour does the hard part for you—taking you to historic sites and art museums all over town. Sure, you’ve heard of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but we bet you didn’t know Philly is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Rodin sculptures. You might come for the art and history, but you should stay for the 4th of July. Philly does it right: a week-long celebration with a huge fireworks show and one of the nation’s largest free concerts.

Did you know?... Philly is a true melting pot, and we don’t just mean the cheese on its famous steak sandwich. Stop by the Lorenzo Homar Gallery at Taller Puertorriqueno, which showcases Puerto Rican and Latin American art. Or visit in mid-June for the vibrant Odunde Festival, which brings a taste of Africa to the streets with its colorful parade and authentic marketplace.

Los Angeles is deservedly a cultural mecca, and strongly represents the richly diverse culture of America today. The California African American Museum showcases art from the late nineteenth century to the modern day—and it also represents LA’s show biz culture, including items from the estate of legendary jazz performer Ella Fitzgerald. Next, get out of the museum and into the streets—literally. Olvera Street, “the birthplace of Los Angeles,” is a block-long Mexican market featuring street vendors and restaurants.

Did you know?... There are also vibrant Asian communities. Visit Park’s in Koreatown for traditional Korean barbecue, then partake of another age-old tradition: karaoke of course! The basement-level Shrine is the place to get down.

If your favorite movie is a western and you’ve always fantasized about being a cowboy, this is the place for you. The gold-domed capitol building and the Union Pacific Depot in the historic district aren’t the only things that will bring you back in time. You’re likely to see real live buckaroos—or at least a lot of Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats.

Did you know?... If you can dream it, you can live it in Cheyenne. At Bit-O-Wyo Ranch, you can take a trail ride, attend a dinner show with plenty of horses, cowboys, and photo ops, plus eat dinner out of a chuckwagon. Pretty authentic!

If your motto is “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day,” Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awaits. From rotating exhibitions to special events like book signings and performances, there’s always something going on. Plus, the permanent collection has all sorts of cool stuff. Bet you never thought you’d see so much Beatles memorabilia all in one place—and the Elvis collection is pretty impressive, too.

Did you know?... Cleveland has another awesome hall of fame: The Pro Football Hall of Fame, in nearby Canton. The bronze busts of inductees make for some fun photo ops, plus you can design a Super Bowl ring or just peruse the memorabilia and imagine it in your man cave back home.

Cleveland may have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Memphis is the birthplace of the style. Take a stroll along the Beale Street Walk of Fame and you’ll see plaques for everyone from BB King to Johnny Cash, and even gangsta rap group Three 6 Mafia. Be sure to visit Sun Studio, a National Historic Landmark where Elvis first sang “That’s All Right” and Johnny Cash introduced himself to the world—by singing on the stoop.

Did you know?... Memphis is a hotbed of American street art. Go to the Memphis Art Project website to discover art near you. Our suggestion: Find the ever-changing mural at Wiseacre Brewing Company—and find some beer in the process.

Macon has a different sort of music vibe: It’s “Where Soul Lives.” Be it food or music, this motto is correct. “Stick-to-ya-ribs” soul food is ubiquitous, and Otis Redding, the “King of Soul,” grew up here. Take a lesson at the Otis Redding Center for Creative Arts and find your own voice, then chow down at H&H Soul Food. Founder Mama Louise was close friends with the legendary Allman Brothers Band, and the restaurant has too many awards to count.

Did you know?... The Allman Brothers got their start here when they rented a house in 1970. It’s now the Big House Museum, and the kitchen even has an original vintage table from the famous H&H Restaurant. It all comes full circle in Macon.

This town is home to stars of a different sort: the sort that race really fast cars. Grounds tours of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway include a bus ride with a photo stop at the Yard of Bricks and a hosted visit to the Hall of Fame. Got a need for speed? Take part in the Indy Racing Experience and feel the G-forces for yourself. If you prefer to stay at a walking pace, just check out the museum’s impressive collection of record-breaking motorcycles, dragsters, and more.

Did you know?... The vibrant Mass Ave Arts District is the city’s cultural center; by night, the theatres, funky shops, and bars come alive with energy. If you like history with your nightlife, check out the Madame Walker Theatre Center, whose original architecture earned it a spot on the National Historic Register.

Louisville is home to another race, but trade engines for horses. The Kentucky Derby takes place every May. Even if you miss your chance to buy tickets, you should definitely still make the trip—the atmosphere is electric. Can’t manage it? Relive the experience at the Kentucky Derby Museum, or tour the “backside” of Churchill Downs Racetrack for the behind-the-scenes look.

Did you know?... Louisville is also famous for bourbon, baseball bats, and the hot brown sandwich. Pick up a passport for the Urban Bourbon Trail and you’ll soon be sipping like a pro. Take a photo with the World's Biggest Bat at the Louisville Slugger Museum, then soak up some of that bourbon with a hot brown at the Brown Hotel, where it was invented.

If you prefer caffeine as your drink of choice, the city that changed coffee culture will change your life. The line at the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market has seen marriage proposals and family reunions—but even ordinary visitors can snap a pic. Be sure to visit Lighthouse Roasters, one of Seattle’s original roaster cafes. It’s also an art gallery for local artists, so use that caffeine high to browse for a souvenir!

Did you know?... Seattle holds all sorts of amazing festivals that help it rank among the most cultured cities in America. Emerald City ComicCon, with appearances from the likes of Stan Lee, invigorates the city every March. The Jewish Film Festival follows shortly after, featuring dessert parties, galas, brunches, concerts, and of course, films!

Tahlequah has been the capital of Cherokee Nation since before Oklahoma was even a state, so it definitely knows how to masterfully combine history and culture. At the Cherokee Heritage Center, observe a traditional game of marbles, and you just might notice something different—this version is played with billiard-size balls on a 100-foot field.

Did you know?... A Cherokee authored the classic book "Where the Red Fern Grows," and the annual festival that takes place in April includes a chili cook-off, old-fashioned games, and of course, a screening of the movie. Outside of April, you can still honor iconic American characters. Mr. Ed, the nation’s favorite talking horse, is buried on a farm just north of Tahlequah.

Anchorage is another perfect place to explore native culture and historic activities. Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center to participate in traditional games, learn a song, and see awesome art. And if you think winter isn’t a good time to visit Alaska, think again. The Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, aka “Fur Rondy,” takes place beginning in late February each year. With a sled dog race, snowshoe softball, and outhouse races, it’s part historic, part quirky, and all American fun.

Did you know?... Anchorage is the “home base” of Alaska’s Jewish population, home to about 80 percent. Pay a visit to Esformes Jewish Campus to check out the fascinating exhibits of the Alaska Jewish Museum, dine on a pre-booked Shabbat meal, drop by the mikveh bath, or take a tour. Culture in the United States is many things and can be found in many surprising areas, if you just know where to look. Some are well-known, and some are off the beaten tourist track, but one thing is always certain: America’s cultural destinations are complex and fascinating in a way few places on earth can match.

Image Sources

Des Moines: Flickr/Phil Roeder
Los Angeles: Flickr/Ken Lund
Memphis: Flickr/Heath Cajandig
Indianapolis: Flickr/Sicnag
Louisville: Flickr/Bill Brine
Seattle: Flickr/Michael Righi
Tahlequah: Flickr/Literacy Three