We were at the Visit USA media launch in Sydney and I turned to Craig and whispered,”I really shouldn’t have come here.”
The knot began to twist a little tighter and that deep longing for home arrived.
“I can’t sit here and listen to that warm, familiar accent, and see slide show photos of the Real America. It makes me want to go back more than ever.”
A Hawaiian lady sat next to me fueling my angst even more with her talk of endless sunshine, waves, pina coladas and cheap shopping.
America is not Hollywood and bad Reality TV
“The USA is not what you see in Hollywood and bad reality TV; it’s more than Las Vegas and LA,” the representative from Brand USA spoke.”
We don’t know how many times we’ve said the same thing.
Australians usually head to the most well-known places, and we are often asked for our New York City travel tips, our Los Angeles travel tips, what to see and do in San Francisco and what it’s like to visit the Grand Canyon.
Other popular destinations include going to Orlando or LA to see Mickey, with a side trip to Las Vegas.
By all means, visit these places, but try to explore a little further and deeper. The rest of America offers so much heart and soul.
The second thing we are always reassuring future visitors to the States about is that the people are so beautiful.
Most people who have not been to America have the wrong impressions of Americans. They are actually warm, hospitable and so interested in you and your life.
We certainly have not been everywhere in the States, but after living in North Carolina for four years and taking lots of road trips, we feel there are many places we can recommend that will give you an insight into the real America beyond the typical destinations.
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is by far one of our favourite destinations in America. It was where we would take visiting family members and often go for long weekends away whilst living in Raleigh, NC.
Charleston is an old American town with lots of Civil War history. There is so much to see and do from plantation tours, horse and carriage rides along the cobblestones streets of the city, historic home tours, and nearby islands and beaches.
Our friend and local expert Caroline Eubanks wrote this great city guide for Charleston.
Beaufort, South Carolina
My Mum phoned me the other day all excited about Beaufort, South Carolina once again. She saw it in yet another movie. We often reminisce about the town with my parents who visited with us in 2010.
You’d recognize the beaches and waterways if you are a fan of Forest Gump. It’s where most of the Vietnam scenes were filmed.
The South Carolina scenery is spectacular and the pace of life quiet and laid back. It also has a rich African American history. It’s perfect for outdoor adventure, beach living, seafood feasting and camping.
I think you can guess that we loved Savannah – our daughter has the same name. Like Charleston, Savannah is a place we often visited.
We love walking up and down the riverfront precinct, watching live buskers, doing a bit of market shopping, enjoying a frozen cocktail while wandering, ducking into stores to try samples of peanuts and candy, and then stopping for lunch on the verandah of One Eyed Lizzy’s…with a $1 frozen Margarita!
That’s not all you’ll find in Savannah, wandering around the squares and discovering gorgeous Southern homes, beautiful gardens and cute cafes and restaurants.
The streets with their overhanging oak trees draped in Spanish moss are ghostly in appearance adding to the Savannah charm. We LOVE this city. We suggest starting your exploration with a trolley tour for a historical insight and overview before delving more into those places that most grabbed your attention.
Be sure yo head out to Tybee Island to experience Georgian beach living, It was one of our favourite Southern beach towns – very laid back and unspoilt.
We did not know anything about North Carolina before moving there. It is now one of our favourite states and we soon learned how loved it is by so many Americans.
It was incredible how many people we would meet across America who would gush about this state when we said we lived there.
There are a lot of Americans from the colder Northern states who migrate here because of the low cost of living, the high employment opportunities, the mild climate and the outdoor lifestyle, and the Universities. It has a little bit of everything, which is why we love it so.
The Smoky Mountains
We so love the Smoky Mountains. There are so many places to camp and hiking trails as well as rivers to slowly meander down from a rubber tube. There are many mountain tops you can climb for outstanding views and of course the Appalachian trail, for the fit and adventurous.
We loved horse riding in the Smokies and exploring the old historical towns on bicycles. It’s also a good spot for a winter log cabin with a spa on deck.
A little hippy enclave at the base of the Appalachian mountains, Asheville is where you want to come for organic, healthy food, alternative therapies and lifestyles, and a vibrant music scene.
With the nearby mountains, there are pretty drives to go on including the Blue Ridge Parkway, hikes to enjoy and nearby ski fields. It is where we skied for the first time–on fake snow though.
The Hollywood of the East. Wilmington is where a lot of films and TV shows are filmed: Dawson’s Creek, One Tree Hill, Sleeping with the Enemy anyone? Oh, and some guy named Michael Jordan grew up here!
At only a two hour drive from Raleigh, it was a favourite weekend getaway for us. As soon as the warmth of spring hit the air we were racing down for beach time.
Outer Banks, NC
Another favourite filming location, the Outer Banks are pretty wild and untouched with only a few small towns here and there. IT is also the place where Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew a plane.
The coastline is rugged and great for outdoor exploration, It is dotted with lighthouses and pirate history and barrier islands that are home to wild ponies.
Beaufort is a lovely little Pirate town where Captain Blackbeard is said to have lived for a short time. You can see his pretty little home and perhaps sniff around with a shovel for that buried treasure of his that has not yet been found.
Chapel Hill, NC
Definitely our favourite American college town and one we would love to live in.
Why would you want to come here? It is the home of the BEST college basketball University in America. YES. Believe me and not those horrible Dukie fans in the next suburb who wear the completely wrong coloured blue.
Why are we the best? Well, when we lived there (i.e in four years) They won two National Championships. And Michael Jordan played basketball for the UNC Tar Heels. That’s right the BEST basketball player in history, if not one of the worlds’ best ever athletes.
It’s also a really pretty college to walk through, and the bars on Franklin Street are seriously pumping when basketball season is on. You have not been to America, or dare I say lived, until you have jumped over a bonfire on Franklin Street and crashed a Frat house party.
New Orleans is hedoism at its best.
If you want a wild party then head to Bourbon street. Go with your eyes open, or better yet you might want to close them, especially when you pass by another strip club.
I much preferred wandering the streets of the French Quarter listening and dancing to the wide variety of buskers on the street playing folk, blues, country, rock or their own mixed up version of each.
Hire a bike and head outside the tourist areas to explore old Southern neighborhoods like the Gardens District.
How to save money on New Orleans attractions
Oh the windy city sure is pretty. We LOVED Chicago and I am itching to return to experience the summer vibrancy in Chicago, a city known for its arts, culture, music, sports, and deep dish pizza!
There’s also a fair amount of underbelly history to discover in Chicago with its shady Mafia past, but don’t talk about this too much when there. Locals like to ignore that it was ever a part of their history. I think it makes it even more interesting.
We visited during Thanskgiving and froze our Aussie butts off. I think summer is where it’s at where you can attend festivals, eat in cafes outdoors, play in the parks and enjoy the beautiful Lake Michigan.
Don’t forget to take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and views from atop the John Hancock building or Sears Tower.
Check out a local’s tips on what to do in Chicago.
I can’t say I had ever dreamt of going to America and visiting Utah on a road trip. Big mistake if you are thinking the same.
Utah became one of my favourite states with the first orange pinnacle I saw rising from the desert. Yes, the first. That means there were plenty more to come, and in a wide variety of colours: reds, pinks, whites, oranges, even black and grey.
Southern Utah and all its incredible National Parks will BLOW your mind.
I think travelling through the South West Region was when I knew my heart forever had a home in the US. there was simply no turning back.
Outdoor adventures, skiiing off world-class peaks, canyons and gorges, electric thunderstorms and magnificent sunsets. Utah is God’s art studio.
Places we loved:
- Bryce Canyon-– go horse riding along the fairy trail with a cowboy as a guide, one of the best things we’ve ever done.
- Zion National Park: climb up Angels Landing, wade through the The Narrows or float down the river on a tube after a hard day’s hiking.
- Dead Horse Point State Park – spectacular sunset and stunning vista of Canyonlands.
- Canyonlands– a smaller and less popular version of the Grand Canyon.
- Arches National Park– a popular place to see many naturally formed arches
- Monument Valley– a deeply sacred and spiritual place. A MUST see.
We loved this mile high city. It has plenty of outdoor adventures to offer with the Rocky Mountains at its doorstep and the college towns of Golden and Boulder. Check out the Coors factory in Golden for a few free pints of beer.
For tips check out our city guide on Denver and our visit to Denver
Rocky Mountain National Park
We loved camping and explore the Rockies.
Hiking trails took us to glacier lakes, through snow, pine forests, and bare mountain tops during electrical storms. Not only did we enjoy hiking, but bike riding, exploring by vehicle, and swimming in natural spring waters at Glenworth Springs.
And we even had a marauding bear outside our tent one freezing summer’s evening.
You can also visit the source of the Colorado River, a small trickle of water. It was amazing to follow the river and watch it grow as we drove south through the states to the Grand Canyon and see what that trickle of water ended up creating.
The North Rim, Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is often visited by many tourists to America and it should be, it is stunning. But, most people stay for only 15 minutes at the South Rim.
Noooo. Don’t do this.
Have a more unique experience by hitting the North Rim. It is just as beautiful and offers a different, quieter perspective. You can camp quite close to the rim, hike down to the bottom and catch a pretty gorgeous sunset.
We thought it was going to be sprawling fields of dusty farmland with the odd tumbleweed blowing past a steakhouse. Total misconception of Texas.
We fell in love with Austin, even though we only visited for a day. It has the college town vibe and live music scene that we love.
The San Antonio Riverwalk was charming and filled with cool restaurants and cafes.
Magnolia Silos and Magnolia Table, Waco Texas
Santa Fe, New Mexico
We had the pleasure of staying here for a couple of weeks with our friends.
Santa Fe is an artistic town with a lot of Spanish and Native American history. The vibrant red and orange, pueblo style architecture is a reason to come here, if the food is not.
Enjoy a sunset with wine and picnic at the Opera, explore artistic Canyon Road, and take day trips out to the nearby mountains or historic Taos, where you will see gorgeous pueblo buildings.
Read our city guide by our friend Billie Frank on things to do in Santa Fe.
Memphis is of course the home of blues, rock and jazz and of course the great king himself.
I was worried about going to Graceland, I thought it would be a real kitschy tour and a let down. I actually really enjoyed it. I felt like I had missed out growing up as a child. Elvis died the year I was born.
My Mum and I would watch his movies on TV almost every week, it was one of our favourite things to do. I really lamented that I never “knew” him in person. Graceland helped me find that little connection I had always craved.
Now I just have to get my Mum over there.
I was ready to trade the Doc Marten mosh pit stompers for cowboy boots after a visit to Nashville.
I had country fever for weeks after, which Craig was not too happy about. Hours on the road listening to whines about dead dogs and empty whiskey bottles is not his sort of thing.
Nashville is cracking fun though. It’s all about country music. Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I was fascinated by the stories and the evolution of music which began way back with folk and country roots. You can do tours of Elvis’ recording studios and hear tales of other famous artists like Johnny Cash and modern heroes like Keith Urban!
Take in a show at the Grand Ole Opry, or just let loose in the bars of downtown Nashville. Country artists will be jiving and line tapping in each one. It’s great fun.
Want to Get a Taste of the Real America?
Then add these to your bucket list:
- Attend a college football game and tailgate before it.
- Attend a college basketball match.
- Do the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game with a hotdog and beer.
- Attend a Halloween party, dressed up.
- Crash a frat party (One of the most exciting things I did. And they drink from red plastic cups).
- Learn how to play beer pong and corn throwing
- Spend thanksgiving with an American family.
- Experience a White Christmas.
- Ride a horse at a ranch in Montana or Wyoming or through an iconic place like Bryce Canyon.
- Wildlife viewing in the Fall in Montana
- Experience Native American culture in Montana
Okay, so we are thinking a massive road trip across America is exactly what we need to do. North to South and East to West. Who’s coming with us?
Plan Your Trip in the United States
We’ve been traveling consistently for 17 years and have come to rely on a few trusted websites that save us money and time when booking accommodation, flights and car rental. Below are our preferred partners:
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What do you think? Where should people go to get a taste of the REAL America?