Oh hey, USA! Your alt-travel guide to the American dream

·7-min read
 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

By the time November rolls around, it will have been 20 months since British tourists have been allowed to visit the United States. As a committed America obsessive — my cowboy boot collection stands at a somewhat outrageous 12 pairs and I’m open to more — I’ve spent a significant amount of that time dreaming of the country’s cactus-studded landscapes, cinematic highways and neon-lit diners. Not to mention their delightfully dingy dive bars and over-enthusiastic approach to the size of their food portions. Next month those dreams will be made reality as North America’s borders finally reopen to European travellers after almost two years of Covid-related restrictions. But rather than follow the crowd on well-trodden trips to New York, Los Angeles and Miami — we all know what the Empire State Building looks like by now, guys — here are the alternative cities and spots that should be at the top of your US holiday itinerary.

Joshua Tree, California

With its lunar landscape, high-end hidden restaurants and custom-built UFO-spotting domes that are apparently capable of time travel — that last one will be a Fifties-built oddity called the Integratron, which now hosts sound baths and sonic healing sessions — Joshua Tree is a sprawling, quirky spot in the Mojave Desert. Accommodation is fittingly left of centre with fully kitted-out and kitsch caravans at the Lana Del Rey-

approved Hicksville Trailer Palace, cosmic cowboy rooms at the laid-back Joshua Tree Inn and cute cabins at the Pioneertown Motel, which can be found in the middle of an old Western film set. Look the part by buying second-hand fringe jackets at The End or Hoof and the Horn, then feast on seasonal specialties (think roasted baby beetroots with sweet turkish figs and pistachio pesto) and Desert Lily cocktails at the elegant La Copine. Finish up your evenings dancing at saloon bar Pappy and Harriet’s, which has seen shows by everyone from Paul McCartney to Patti Smith.

California’s Joshua Tree National Park (Alamy Stock Photo)
California’s Joshua Tree National Park (Alamy Stock Photo)

Nashville, Tennessee

You don’t have to love music to enjoy a trip to Nashville, but it helps. From the bars of buzzy Broadway boasting live country artists every night — our favourite is the old school Robert’s Western World — to attractions such as the Country Music Hall of Fame, the recently-opened National Museum of African American Music and The Johnny Cash Museum, the traditional sound of America is the lifeblood of this city. Grab a pew for a concert at the iconic Ryman — Jason Isbell, Anderson East and Courtney Barnett are all playing there over the coming months — and check out Americana newcomers like Sierra Ferrell at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge.

Stay at outrageously Instagram-able Seventies-themed motel The Dive or splash out at the high-class Hermitage, a five-star Beaux Arts building that’s also Nashville’s oldest hotel. East Nashville is where you’ll find the city’s coolest residents. They drink pour-over coffee at the motorcycle-friendly Barista Parlor, eat delicious Mexican fast food at Mas Tacos Por Favor, throw back the beers at late-night boozer Dino’s and go digging through curated vintage clothing at High Class Hillbilly. If your time in Music City USA finds you keen to make some sweet sounds of your own, then exercise your vocal chords at Santa’s Pub — a rowdy but friendly karaoke bar in a trailer where it’s Christmas every day.

Neon signs light up Broadway in Nashville (Alamy Stock Photo)
Neon signs light up Broadway in Nashville (Alamy Stock Photo)

Tucson, Arizona

It might be only an hour’s flight from Los Angeles, but the best way to arrive is in an overnight sleeper carriage on an iconic Amtrak train. Despite being the second biggest city in Arizona, Tucson has the charm of a small town with numerous Spanish “barrio” neighbourhoods and a stunning skyline that sees it overlooked by four different desert mountain ranges. Take a deep dive into the spectacular scenery at the vast Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and its breath-taking botanical garden. You’ll easily spend a whole day gazing at gigantic cactuses, hiking down desert pathways and getting thrilling glimpses of mountain lions, black bears and grey wolves. Stay in the casita-style rooms of The Arizona Inn, a Thirties hotel with pink stucco walls and lush, landscaped grounds and eat vegan tostadas at Barrio Charro. Fans of mezcal will be in spirit-soaked nirvana at El Crisol, which stocks 150 kinds of tequila’s punchy and smoky big sister, serving each with a matching snack. For something a little less boozy, try Exo Roast, a coffee shop which shares the same industrial space. Those of a gothic persuasion might want to embrace the darkness (or maybe just an Old Fashioned) at The Owl’s Club, a classy cocktail bar in a former funeral parlour.

Barton Springs in Austin, Texas (Alamy Stock Photo)
Barton Springs in Austin, Texas (Alamy Stock Photo)

Austin, Texas

Known for its sweltering hot — and often verging on unbearable — summers, autumn is the ideal time of year to make a trip to the Texan capital of all things alt. Known for its thriving food scene as well as its easy-going attitude, any trip to Austin should take in the extremely walkable South Congress neighbourhood.

Base yourself at the chic Hotel San Jose or the rather more rock’n’roll Hotel Saint Cecilia, which has a lending library of vinyl and Gibson guitars. Then you’ll be within stumbling distance of caffeine top-ups at Jo’s Coffee, music at the Continental Club, perfect pizza at Home Slice and fresh seafood at Perla’s. Cross the Colorado river which bisects the city and you’ll find the Shangri-La tiki bar for happy hour cocktails and Hotel Vegas for shows from local punk acts. Incredible food trucks are also dotted across town — miss them at your peril. If the weather’s still a little too steamy for your tastes then cool off at Barton Springs, a glorious outdoor swimming lake that makes Kenwood Ladies’ Pond seem like a puddle.

The New Orleans French Quarter (Alamy Stock Photo)
The New Orleans French Quarter (Alamy Stock Photo)

New Orleans, Louisiana

Beautiful, complex and compelling, New Orleans more than deserves its reputation as America’s most magical city. Like Nashville, there’s music in its bones, with jazz and blues oozing out of the bustling bars on Frenchmen Street like the cosy Spotted Cat. Go back in time at The French Quarter’s atmospheric Preservation Hall and be wowed by their world-famous house band before a stop at the 24-hour Cafe Du Monde, which has been serving chicory coffee and sugar-dusted beignets since 1862. Food is important in New Orleans; the best barbecue brisket can be found at The Joint and you’ll get your fill of classic creole dishes like shrimp clemenceau and crawfish etouffee at Dooky Chase’s.

Try the city’s punchy signature cocktail in the art deco splendour of The Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt Hotel and for something completely different, the divey Bud Rips is great for no-frills beers and making new friends over shots of whiskey. Commune with New Orleans’ spiritual side with a tour of the spooky St Louis Cemetery No1 and a trip to the Historic Voodoo Museum where you can stock up on spells and potions. A dip in the pool at the LGBTQ+ friendly Country Club — which also hosts a banging drag brunch — is a must, while rooms at The Royal Street Inn make for a unique alternative to Airbnb, which has come under fire for pushing poorer residents out of the city.

 (House Of Vintage thrifter’s paradise)
(House Of Vintage thrifter’s paradise)

Portland, Oregon

With a pleasingly familiar climate, grey skies and a liberal seasoning of rain, you don’t go to Portland for lazing on the beach, but rather browsing the shelves at the world’s largest independent bookshop Powell’s, quaffing Bordeaux at rock’n’roll wine bar The Old Portland and ploughing through Persian love cake at Middle-Eastern restaurant Tusk. Lean into the Pacific Northwest’s fondness for all things plaid and pine-related at the Doug Fir Lounge, a log cabin-style bar and music venue that’s straight out of Twin Peaks and boasts upcoming shows by Laura Marling and Martha Wainwright. The Sandy Hut is also great for a beer, especially when followed by a sugary chaser from cult all-night bakery Voodoo Doughnuts, possibly visited while wearing your purchases from thrifter’s paradise House Of Vintage, a treasure trove of used band tees and Sixties mini dresses. Get your head down at the swish Heathman Hotel, which will be familiar to fans of 50 Shades of Grey or The Ace Hotel, which offers a boutique sleepover experience.

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