By Jim McLauchlin
We’ve become a society that’s hipper-than-thou, trendier-than-thee, and cooler-than-them. The more artisanal your cheese, the more fair-trade your coffee, and the more beardy your beard, somehow the “better” you are.
And this has spilled over into travel. It’s like you don’t count unless you can Instagram a place so hopelessly obscure that no one else could ever find it, or even understand it.
To which we say tish-tosh.
The broad mainstream is broad and mainstream for a reason — because it means something to lots and lots of people year after year. Some travel destinations are just plain great, and that’s why they’re popular – not because they’re so lowbrow that they appeal to everyone’s basest desires for salt-water taffy and free ice water. (Yes, we’re talking to you, Wall Drug and Wisconsin Dells.) So please, don’t be afraid to hit these amazingly cool yet seemingly clichéd travel destinations. They’re really your Travel Have-Tos.
New York: Nothing says “America” like the Lady with the Lamp, and for that reason alone the Statue of Liberty is a must-see. It’s dripping with history, so wear a hat. Word to the wise: If you want to go all the way up to the crown, you have to get reservations six months in advance! The grounds and the pedestal are much easier, and you must hit Ellis Island and its amazing museum at the same time. You can catch a ferry from either the New York or New Jersey side, which is a trip and a half, as the older folks say. And remember: anything that gets you away from Times Square for a couple of hours has value in and of itself.
Los Angeles: L.A. is the place for all things beach, Hollywood, and Disney, but the real gem is the Academy of Magical Arts, commonly known as “The Magic Castle.” It’s a legit members-only club for magicians and their enthusiasts, but everyone has a friend-of-a-friend who can get you a “dinner pass,” a totally-worth-the-price hours-long experience with fine dining plus scheduled stage shows and impromptu magic pop-ups. Be advised: The dress code is strictly enforced, and since no magician wants his secrets revealed, no photography is allowed in the Castle.
San Antonio: Texas is a fiercely proud state, and nowhere does that pride resonate as strongly as at The Alamo. This iconic pile of near-rubble in the heart of San Antonio is a lot smaller than people think, and not a national park (though it is part of the San Antonio Missions UNESCO World Heritage Site). Regardless, it has serious spiritual mojo, and its position in American history is unshakable. Admission is absolutely free, but remember to follow the Alamo’s “Rules of Reverence”: Gentlemen remove your hats, and please speak in hushed tones. It’s the way Sam Houston would have wanted it.
Chicago: Some bars spend lots of money trying to look like an authentic dive, but it comes naturally at the Billy Goat Tavern. For comedy fans of a certain age, it’s the “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” place from Saturday Night Live, and if you’re looking for more than that, sorry. There’s no pretense here. The original location at 430 N. Michigan Ave. is such a dive, it’s actually located beneath street level. If you want authentic Chicago, this is where you get your shot and a beer. And a cheeseburger. No fries — cheeps.
St. Louis: The Gateway Arch is the one place to hit in St. Louis, but be patient: the Arch is closed for renovations through March. Look on the bright side; you’ll miss the floods, and you’ll have more time to plan and book your trip. A journey to the top of the Arch with its majestic view is a mere $13, and in the meantime, you can still take sightseeing cruises down the mighty Mississippi. The crossroads of America looks a whole lot different from the water, but the Arch always looks good.
Boston: Venerable Fenway Park is a baseball Mecca, and the heart of the Red Sox nation. But a visit to Fenway is so much more: It’s the grilled Italian sausages on Lansdowne Street, the pedestrian plaza and memorabilia shops on Yawkey Way, and of course the legendary watering holes, Boston Beer Works and Cask ’n’ Flagon. You can pre-game, game, and post-game in the very walkable Fenway neighborhood, and you don’t even need a ticket. Just enjoy the beer and sausages.
Philadelphia: Did we say “walkable”? Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th is your entry point to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. But it’s also the epicenter of a bevy of amazing historical sites, including the Benjamin Franklin Museum, the Philadelphia History Museum, the Liberty Bell, and Washington Square Park, all within a mere three blocks. Wear out just a tiny bit of shoe leather, and you can catch multiple great sites, almost all of which are absolutely free.
New Orleans: We did say “walkable.” New Orleans’ French Quarter is a tight two-thirds of a square mile where the many, many bars serve up alcoholic slushies and beers with a six-pack minimum. But it’s not all beads and free-flowing rum. The Quarter is one of the oldest continuously settled areas in America, and a melting pot of French, Spanish, Creole, and Caribbean culture. Voodoo priests and jazz musicians walk hand-in-hand on streets named in multiple languages. Come for the rum, but stay for Preservation Hall, the nation’s top jazz hall.
Las Vegas: Okay, no one thinks “walkable” in connection with Las Vegas, but you should (provided, of course, it’s less than 105 degrees). Obviously there are casinos aplenty to suck your money, but the people-watching is free, and the Strip gives you a cross-section of Americana you’ll see nowhere else: Sunburned snowbirds, bleary-eyed gamblers seeing daylight for the first time in 36 hours, and frat bros with yard-long margaritas. And credit where credit is due: The city has done a nice job with downtown’s Fremont Street Experience as well, with its massive lightshow and free concerts.
Washington, D.C.: It just keeps getting bigger! The Smithsonian Institution is not a mere museum, but a campus of 18 (!) museums and a zoo that spreads out over D.C. Start at the Museum of Natural History on the National Mall. It puts you within seven blocks of 12 other Smithsonian attractions, plus the Washington Monument and the Capitol building.
And you can, should you so desire, “follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter,” as the kids say. It’s @McLauchlin.
Editor’s Note: All these iconic travel experiences deserve to be covered with insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel protection. Get it here.