I’m taking a CELTA course in Krakow, Poland right now, and I’ve been struck by the strange travel plans or travel histories to the USA from the Polish folks I’ve met. In each conversation I’ve had about travel to the USA, the first thing at the top of their lists seems to be, “to go to New York City in November to shop for the holidays.” This strikes me as totally bizarre, so I wanted to give a tiny bit of friendly advice about travel in the USA. First, I’ll respond to this particular desire – shopping in the USA – and then I’ll offer up my Top 5 places to visit for a European, and why.
Why go shopping in New York City?
I understand the reasons: NY has gained mythological status around the world. So has NY shopping!
Yet, the very idea of someone from Poland, Czech, or Ukraine wanting to come to the USA in November for a shopping trip strikes me as ridiculous. Why?
- Prices: Given the exchange rate between Eastern European currencies and the dollar, the prices in New York, and the general quality of goods in E. Europe, it just does not make any mathematical sense. Goods in New York, I have found, are either of the same or worse (Chinese) levels of quality when compared to goods you find in the markets in E. Europe. I can buy a wardrobe full of clothes in E. Europe that will last longer, look better on me, and cost the price of one good suit purchased in New York City. Add to the cost of your excursion about $700-$1200 in airfare. WTF are you thinking!?
- New York Realities: Why are you choosing to go to one of the dirtiest, rudest, most crowded, noisy, stinking cities on the continent? I call NY “the right armpit of America.” The left one is Los Angeles, where I’m most recently from. Why anybody would choose either of the two biggest suck-holes in North America as their destination, I will never understand. Yuck. If I never see either LA or NY again, I can rejoice!
- The Alternatives: The United States are literally overflowing with amazing, beautiful locations, incredible cultural attractions, and rich historical backgrounds. A traveler can pick from some of the most incredible outdoor experiences in the world, or see some of the best modern artwork gathered in one place, or catch a performance of some of the most incredible entertainers on the planet. Why go shopping? You can shop at home.
Top 5 Travel Recommendations for an Eastern European Coming to the USA
Before I tell you my choices for places to visit in the United States of America, allow me to give a tiny bit of personal travel background. I have only traveled off of the North American continent twice: in 2002, I went to Kyiv, Ukraine, and right now I am in Krakow, Poland. I have traveled very extensively in the USA. If you take a look at that map on the right, you’ll see which states I have visited. Of the states on that map marked in red, I have spent a fair amount of time in about half of them, and simply driven through the others, stopping at the occasional hotel or bed and breakfast on my way to another state. Most of my travel has been by auto, rather than by plane. In addition to the US States marked on the map, I have also been to Ontario and British Columbia in Canada, and to Mexico. I have seen some of the best sights on the continent, and returned to some of them time and again, because they’re so incredible. Neither New York City nor Los Angeles would appear in my top 25 recommended destinations. So which locations do appear in my favorites list?
5: Chicago in Spring or Autumn
So, you want to go to a big city in the USA, do you? I have a much better place for you than New York City. The people in the middle of the USA (Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, St. Louis, etc) tend to be more friendly, warm and inviting than those in either NY or LA. You will probably have to be the one to approach them, as most Americans won’t just come up to foreigners and introduce ourselves – it’s a cultural thing. Don’t be afraid to say hello to an American in Chicago. Some might be a bit rude, but most will probably be glad to give you tips, directions, or have a brief chat.
Chicago is one of the more beautiful cities in the USA, and also one of the most “American” places you’ll find. It is completely different than Europe, and will appear quite alien to most Eastern Europeans. If you want to know what American people, culture, architecture, fine art, performance art and food are like, you could not choose a finer destination.
You should seriously consider planning your trip for spring or autumn. In the springtime the natural environment has just come to life after the dead cold of winter, and everyone emerges from their homes ready to enjoy the warmth. Granted, it can be quite windy any time of year (Chicago’s nickname is “the windy city”), so always prepare to be cool, no matter when you come, but in the late spring or early autumn, you will get the best chances of good weather. In the summer, it can be quite hot and humid, and in the winter it can be colder than anyone would ever want to experience.
Need more reasons: do a web search for museums in Chicago. It has some of the finest in North America. It also has some great performance art, from popular music, to the theatre, to orchestras and street performances.
4: San Juan Islands, Washington State
This is a place that’s fun to travel to any time of the year. My parents retired here, so I have visited a few times. I also studied here for a few weeks when I was receiving my training as a Master Practitioner of NLP. The weather is temperate and pleasant most of the year, though it does vary a bit. It rarely gets truly hot here, and it might snow a few days in the winter. While nearby Seattle and Vancouver are buried under rain, the San Juans often manage to stay dry and sunny.
The islands themselves are quite lovely, but so are the surrounding areas. Just a short ferry ride from here are Seattle, Vancouver, and Vancouver Island. Seattle and Vancouver are both among the nicer, cleaner, and more beautiful cities on the continent. They’re both filled with charming parks and natural environments. They’re both surrounded by some of the most thrilling nature preserves and national parks on the continent.
I’d recommend that your trip include a few days in a Bed and Breakfast on the San Juan Islands, a few days in another Bed and Breakfast on Vancouver Island, 2 days in either Vancouver or Seattle to check out cultural events or just explore the city, and 5 days out in the wilderness somewhere hiking, camping, snowboarding, skiing, mountain climbing, or something of the like.
3: Colonial Williamsburg and Washington DC in the Spring
Consider paying a visit to some of the richest culturally significant locations in the United States. Colonial Williamsburg is a fully restored town dating from 1699 to 1780, the colonial period before the formation of the United States. It gives a great perspective on what it was like for early European settlers to come to the New World and create a new life for themselves.
Because of it’s date, it does have a bit of a European flavor to it, but is nonetheless distinctly American, as seen in the photo. For those interested in history, older architecture, and the origins of American culture, there are few better places to visit.
Among those few places is nearby Washington DC, which contains America’s greatest history museum, the Smithsonian. The city itself, of course, is the seat of American power. I am personally less interested in the politics than in the architecture and history of the city, so I am actually touting this town for it’s rich cultural history rather than because it is the US capital city, or an example of a democratic republic in action.
If possible, come in the spring. The blooming flowers will make both these cities a much more memorable experience. In the winter, the weather can be far too cold, and in the summer, far too hot. The autumn is nice, too, with the changing colors of the leaves.
2: Havasu Canyon and the Grand Canyon in the Spring
I’m going to underline spring on this one, because in the winter Havasu is closed, in autumn you’ll get more storms, and in the summer it is hot enough to melt lead. The best time of year for a visit is between late April 15 and June 1. Any other time, and you may find the weather punishing.
This one is for the hikers, the campers, and the explorers. I recommend going straight to Havasupai Village, which is the home of the Havasupai Native Americans. “Havasupai” means “people of the blue-green water,” and obviously fits. This strange little canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon National Monument, is their ancestral home, and still belongs to them to this day.
You’ll park your car at the top of a large canyon, and have the choice of three ways down into the canyon. You can choose to hike down into the canyon, carrying everything you need in a backpack. You might also choose to have a burro (donkey) carry your things down into the canyon, and either walk or ride a burro yourself. You might also spring for the helicopter flight. Either way, you’ll take about a 21 kilometer trip into the heart of the Havasupai Reservation.
The canyon is beautifully colored stone, but practically barren of life for the first 15 kilometers. Then, you turn a corner and suddenly there is a small forest of green trees. As you approach, you find blue-green water bubbling out of the ground, and forming a tiny stream. As you hike the next 6 kilometers, the stream gains strength and size as more water bubbles up from the ground and into it.
Then you arrive at the home of the Havasupai. It is a small village with a passable hotel, and a large campground. Many of the campsites have views such as the one in the photograph. The hotel is about a kilometer from such vistas. There are 4 areas with large cascading waterfalls such as shown in the photo. Two of these are directly adjacent to the campground, and visible from your tent.
1: San Francisco Bay Area to Monterey Bay Area
This is far and away my number one recommended travel destination in the USA for both foreigners and US citizens. Try to time your visit between May and September to get the best weather. Be warned that Mark Twain once wrote of this city, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Bring warm clothes that can be easily removed and carried with you. It is quite common in the summer to have thick fog and wind in the evening and morning, and sun in the mid-day. You’ll get up to go exploring, and require a jacket or sweater (jumper or pullover for you Europeans). By noon, all you’ll want is a short-sleeved shirt, and around sunset, you’ll want that jacket again. If you visit between September and May, you’ll want a raincoat, lots of layers to keep warm, and a sturdy umbrella.
The city of San Francisco is probably the most “European” feeling city in the USA. The narrow streets, the Market District, the cable cars, subways, and trolleys all recall Europe. The people are quite friendly if you’re willing to approach them. Some of the best dining in the USA is found here. In San Francisco, there is so much great food that any restaurant that serves something less than four-star dining flavor tends to go out of business within a year. There are incredible shopping opportunities for handmade American craft goods. Several of the better museums in the USA are found right here. Some of the best city parks on the continent are also found here.
Journeying to the surrounding areas, one will find great opportunities for either relaxing vacation time, or for exploring the wilderness of the West Coast. There are numerous nature preserves, State and Federal Parks, and opportunities for day hikes or longer trips into the outback. Most of these lie in the region from Bodega Bay to the north (where Hitchock’s film “The Birds” was shot), to Carmel by the Sea to the south (where the infamous scene from Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo” was shot). If you’d like to see what that line in “America The Beautiful” is all about, you’ll find plenty of majestic purple mountains here, with fog gently rolling over them each evening.
If you’d prefer to spend your time relaxing, then consider spending a few days at a Bed and Breakfast in any of the following towns: Sausalito (just North of the Golden Gate), Half Moon Bay (just South of San Francisco), Santa Cruz, Monterey or Carmel (all on Monterey Bay). Each of these smaller towns is a beautiful beach community with lots of uniquely “Californian” features, such as charming little shops with handmade goods, natural healers such as massage therapists, and fusion-style restaurants. If you’re a vegetarian, in particular, you’ll find this one of the most heavenly locations on Earth. Excellent opportunities for vegetarian dining abound.
Most Romantic Hotspot: Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in Pescadero, California – reserve your spot in a private room far in advance of your trip, as it is small, and often booked a year or more in advance. The hostel is in the outbuildings surrounding the lighthouse, as shown in the photo. The rooms are small and quaint. The sounds of the ocean surf can be heard relentlessly pounding the shore just below your window. The moonlight and sunset stream right into your room each evening. There is a hot tub overlooking the ocean.
Be sure to go to Duarte’s Tavern in nearby Pescadero, and order their cream of artichoke soup. It is the best I have ever tried, and can’t be beat. I make a special stop in this town every time I’m in the Bay Area just to get some of that soup!