The Top Ten States for tourists to the United States

May 12, 2010

The Bottom Line This is my selection and rank of the top ten states in the United States with respect to how interesting the state is to a tourist (primarily overseas).

The United States is not just a powerful and wealthy country. It is a big country comprising 50 states as big as European countries. This is something Europeans often forget (I am speaking as a European/Swede when I say that). You cannot cross the country in a car, train or bus in a few days or even a few weeks and see most of it. You can see 20-30 highly interesting destinations around the country in six to eight weeks by car. That is a hectic schedule so using more time is still advisable. However, you can also focus on one state of your choice (or a few neighboring states). This is my list of the ten most interesting states on the continental United States. I have pre-excluded Alaska and the North West because I have not been there, and I have excluded Hawaii even though I've been there. Hawaii might be the most interesting and fun state to visit. However, I excluded it because I've only seen part of Hawaii and it is quite far from the main land which makes a separate destination in my mind.

My top ten states for tourism in the Continental United States

1. Florida

I've been to Florida many times. I've been five times to Orlando, Disney World and Universal Studios, with and without my family. I visited the beaches on the east side and the west side, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bush Garden, Cape Canaveral and more. It is without question a great tourist state with one amazing tourist destination next to another.

The top attraction in Florida is probably the beaches. There are 100's of miles of wide and flat beaches with soft sand and comfortable weather almost all year around. In my opinion the Florida beaches are better than, for example, the beaches in the French Riviera. The Florida beaches often have hotels, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment venues of all kinds. There are more secluded beaches and there are more crowded and upbeat beaches. However, in general, they are less crowded and less expensive than the beaches in southern California and Hawaii. The water in Florida is also warm and the ocean is warm enough to swim in most of the year (at least on the west coast).

In the middle of Florida, not far from the beaches around St. Petersburg and Tampa (west), and Daytona Beach (east), is the city of Orlando. Orlando features the world's largest theme park resort, Disney World, as well as its main competitor Universal Studios, and many other theme parks, water parks, amusement parks, Sea-World, and Zoo's.

Disney World is an incredible place for children, but it is also lots of fun for adults. Disney World encompasses four themes parks (Magic Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios MGM, Epcot Center, and Disney's Animal Kingdom), two water parks, and twenty three themed hotels. You could easily spend a few days at each of the theme parks, watching shows, meeting Disney characters, going on rides, visiting interesting places like spaceship earth, Cinderella's Castle, the nations showcase, and much more. Universal Studios features two theme parks, Adventure Island and Universal Studios which features a large amount of movie inspired shows as well as various rides.

However, that is far from all that Florida has to offer. You can tour Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, swim with the Manatees (Sea Cows) in Crystal River, you can visit the Everglades, the Florida Keys, and there are festivals, gardens, aquariums, haunted houses, Dinosaur World, the Holy Land Experience, museums, sports fishing, scuba diving, Lion Safari, cruises, 160 state parks, and you can watch mermaid shows. There are 100's of fun attractions in Florida that could keep you busy for months and years if that is what you want. One caveat is that Florida sometimes gets hit by a powerful hurricane and if that happens on your vacation you might as well forget about your vacation.

I decided to put Florida on my list because of its endless supply of high quality family fun and also because of the beaches.

2. California

I've been to California six times. A few times I stayed a few days or a week and only saw part of the state. On another occasion I stayed longer and toured most of the state. Just like Florida California have many beautiful beaches as well as many tourist attractions, natural beauty, and large cities (Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco).

California's beaches are also fantastic but they are not as many and they are typically more crowded. The family attractions in California are not as impressive as those in Florida, for example, Disney land is significantly smaller than Disney World. On the other hand California has some beautiful national parks and mountains and it has better weather than Florida. It is not as hot in summer (along the coast) and unlike Florida it does not get pummeled by hurricanes every now and then. The water in California is colder than the water in Florida and might be too cold for many people during much of the year.

In California you have Disneyland (Los Angeles), Universal Studios, Hollywood, Lego land (this one is big), Sea World in San Diego, an enormous Zoo in San Diego, and many amusement parks. However, as mentioned, it does not top Florida in this regard. Driving on highway-1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles is an amazing nature experience and there are also many national parks including Sequoia national park with its giant trees (the oldest and largest trees in the world), Yosemite national park, Death Valley national park, etc. San Francisco is also a beautiful picturesque city which is especially interesting because of its very hilly city center. Deciding whether Florida or California should have the first place on this list was a little bit difficult. However, the amazing family oriented attractions in Florida as well as the beaches and the warm water tipped the scales towards Florida (in my mind).

3. New Mexico

I've lived in Albuquerque New Mexico for three months when I was a guest researcher at Sandia National Laboratories. I have also visited New Mexico on a number of occasions for conferences as well as for tourism. New Mexico does not receive a lot of foreign tourists but it is one of the more interesting tourist states in the United States. The state features many unusual natural wonders, vast open prairie land, desserts and mountains, Native American culture as well as modern technology.

One of New Mexico's natural wonder is Carlsbad Caverns. It is not known how big this cave system is but the main cavern is more than 30 miles long. It is probably not the largest cave system in the world. That title goes to Mammoth Caverns in Kentucky (I've been to both places). However, Carlsbad Caverns is more interesting than Mammoth Caverns primarily because of the enormous and exceedingly beautiful "Big Room" in Carlsbad Caverns. The Big Room is 357,469 square feet or 33,210 square meters (about 700 acres) and the ceiling height is about 330 feet (100 meters) and there are about one million stalagmites, stalactites, columns and soda straws in the Big Room. Next to the Big Room there is a cave room with facilities and restaurants. There are also a number of spectacular tours through the cave system. Every sunset there are about half a million bats emerging from one of the cave openings and watching this happening was one of the most breath taking moments in my life.

Another interesting destination in New Mexico is White Sands National Monument White Sands is a desert that consists of snow white sand. The sand consists of fine gypsum sand. There are large dunes and unique wild life in this desert. You can rent sleds and sled down the sand dunes as if they were made of snow. Last time we visited White Sands my kids pretended they were on the snow planet Hoth from Star Wars. Nearby White Sands you have White Sands Missile Range and Trinity point which is where the first Atomic bomb exploded. Other interesting destinations are Bandalier National Monument which features ancient Native American cliff dwellings and ruins, the Atomic museum in Albuquerque, UFO museum in Roswell, Native American entertainment and Native American operated hotels, and the picturesque but perhaps somewhat eerie scenery.

Santa Fe in New Mexico is the oldest state capital in the United States (15th century) and one of the most picturesque cities that I have ever seen. It is an "artist" city with Native American markets and interesting looking adobe buildings. Albuquerque is also an interesting city with a lot of old Spanish buildings and a lot to see and do.

4. Wyoming

I've been to Wyoming three times and each time I've visited Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park (one week on each visit). There are other interesting things to see in Wyoming, for example, Devils Tower. Devils Tower is a very tall and narrow mesa which forms a mountain that looks like a tall tree stump. This is indeed a curious natural phenomenon. Wyoming also features a lot of beautiful scenery, natural wonders, and wild life watching.

However, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park blew me away and is the main reasons I am putting Wyoming on this list. Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a so called super volcano. The Yellowstone Caldera is the largest known center of active volcanism in the world (30 by 45 miles). For this reason Yellowstone has the largest concentration of geysers and other hydrothermal features in the world. For example, it has 12 times more active geysers than Iceland, and more than a third of all active geysers in the world are located at this single spot. There are a total of at least 10,000 hydrothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. The most popular Geyser is "Old Faithful" in the in Upper Geyser Basin. "Old Faithful" is a large geyser that erupts about every 90 minutes and shoots boiling hot water into the air to a height of between 105 to 185 feet (32 meters to 56 meters).

Grand Teton National Park features one of the most beautiful mountains in the world and there are plenty of hiking, fishing, and rafting opportunities in the park. Both park feature quite amazing wild life. There are thousands of Bison and Elk roaming area as well as Grizzly Bear, Brown Bear, wolves, coyote, pronghorn antelope, and bald eagles. In Yellowstone I have seen Wolf fighting Grizzly Bear over a Bison carcass. In Grand Teton National Park I have seen Grizzly Bears up and close to the car and even had a Grizzly Bear running towards me at less then 50 meters.

5. Arizona the Grand Canyon State

Arizona has one major tourist attraction which defines tourism to the state and that is the Grand Canyon. Naturally that is not all there is to see in Arizona but the Grand Canyon is arguably the most astounding Natural Wonder in the United States and perhaps in the world. The Grand Canyon is a deep and steep-sided gorge created by the Colorado River over a six million year period. The Canyon is 446 kilometers long (277 miles long), 6.4 to 29 kilometers wide (4 to 18 miles wide) and 1.83 kilometers deep (over a mile deep) at its deepest point. I cannot think of any place that I have ever seen that is more awe inspiring than the Grand Canyon. Looking down a gorge that is more than kilometer deep is simply astounding (and frightening).

You can hike down into the Canyon, take helicopters rides into the Canyon, fly over it, and travel by boat on the Colorado River (in the Canyon). One of the most beautiful things you can see is the Grand Canyon at sun rise. The huge Canyon will emerge out of the darkness, at first red, and then yellow brown with green dots. Two popular places at the Grand Canyon are the South Rim and the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon West. The Skywalk at the Grand Canyon West is a glass walk way that goes out above the Canyon. When you look down between your feet you see the ground thousands of feet below your feet.

6. Utah

Utah is a beautiful state which is dominated by the amazing Rocky Mountains as well as several quite astounding national parks and national wonders. Some of the visually stunning national parks with national wonders in Utah, that I have visited, are Zion National Park, Monument Valley, and Arches National Park. Other parks renowned for their natural beauty and natural wonders are Bryce Canyon, Dinosaur Valley National Monument (Utah + Colorado), Capitol Reef, Canyon Lands as well as parts of the enormous Grand Canyon. Other interesting natural wonders are the Great Salt Lake and the great salt dessert and let's not forget about the great skiing.

The capital of Utah, Salt Lake City, is a quite remarkable city for a variety of reasons. First of all it is a big city surrounded by large snow capped mountains (as well as good skiing). Secondly the city is the center of and dominated by its own religion the latter day saints (Mormons) which makes an interesting tourist destination. The temple square in Salt Lake City is an area with several impressive buildings featuring interesting architecture. In the middle of the Temple Square is the Salt Lake Temple. The Temple is a big and nicely decorated building that looks like a large church. It looks like a cross between Notre Dame and Cinderella's castle (in my opinion). Unfortunately you are not allowed in the building unless you are a Mormon. However, you are allowed into basically every other building including the Conference Center, the Tabernacle, the visitor centers, Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the church office building, and the museum of church history. The Conference Center features a conference room seating 21,000 people as well as an enormous podium and a huge organ. The organ in the tabernacle is also big. Allegedly it is the largest organ in the world. The staff of the Temple Square is very friendly and is happy to offer free tours of the facilities especially the visitor center.

7. Colorado

The Rocky Mountains might be the most astounding in the state of Colorado. I've been to Colorado about half a dozen times to ski or to see the natural beauty and the natural wonders of this state. Colorado is famous for its many top class ski resorts including Vail, Aspen, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Snowmass, Telluride, Wolf Creek, Winter Park, Copper Mountain, Durango, Monarch Mountain, Eldora and Crested Butte. Many of these ski resorts are enormous and feature multiple large slopes as well as a lot of other kinds of entertainment. They are typically more orderly than and not as crowded as the ski resorts in the Alps. I have come to prefer the Colorado ski resorts of the ski resorts I've been to in the Alps.

However, Colorado also has other attractions to offer. There are a number natural wonders and astounding national parks and monuments in Colorado including the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado (230 meters / 750 feet), Dinosaur Valley National Monument, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park which feature the ruins of large cliff dwellings from the 12th century.

8. New York

Like Arizona, New York State has one tourist attraction that defines tourism to the state and that is New York City. I've been to New York City several times and I have also been to many other major American cities multiple times (Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Atlanta, San Diego, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, etc) and New York City is in my opinion the most impressive and interesting city in the United States.

New York City has more than eight million people in the city center and more than 20 million people in the metropolitan area. This is considerably more than any European city (London, Paris, or Moscow). New York consists of five boroughs Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and State Island. Manhattan features a forest of several thousand sky scrapers as well as many famous museums and entertainment venues, the Metropolitan Museum, Broadway, Empire State building, Central Park, Harlem, and much more. There is an endless amount of things to see in New York City. However, what makes New York special is the mix of all the ethnic groups and all the ethnic neighborhoods they form (little Italy, Little China, little Spain, etc).

Another interesting tourist destination in New York State is Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls on the New York side are 320 meters (1,060 feet) wide and 70-100 feet tall, and the on the Canadian side they are 790 meters wide (2,600 feet) and 173 feet (53 meters) tall. You can between the sides, walk under the falls, and take a boat ride up to the falls. The Victoria Falls in Africa are larger but the Niagara Falls is still pretty impressive and a fun destination.

9. Nevada

I've been to Nevada on a number of occasions including visits to Las Vegas which arguably is Las Vegas main tourist attraction. Las Vegas is a rapidly growing boomtown with enormous and elaborate hotels build according to all kinds of interesting architectural themes. Many of the hotels have their own Zoo's, rides, theaters, observation towers, and shows. Las Vegas features casinos, and entertainment venues of all kinds. There are things to do in Las Vegas for both children and adults. Las Vegas is also a strange city. I was once offered a diamond the size of a chandelier crystal for only $20.00 in a casino bathroom (I did not buy it).

However, Nevada also has other tourist attractions to offer. The Hoover Dam (I thought it was pretty impressive), national parks (Lake Tahoe State Park, Great Basin National Park, Red Rock Canyon, and Death Valley National Park), good skiing, Casinos, the cities of Reno and Carson City, hot springs, old mining towns, and ghost towns.

10. Texas

I live in Texas so I know Texas pretty well. Unlike Arizona, New York, and Nevada, Texas does not have one tourist destination that stands out as the chief tourist destination. However, Texas has several large cities which feature many interesting attractions, including San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Galveston, and Fort Worth. In my opinion San Antonio is the most interesting of these cities but many favor Austin or Houston over San Antonio.

The River Walk is probably what gives San Antonio its special ambiance. Around the San Antonio River there are lots of pubs, clubs, restaurants, dance places, and other entertainment venues. You can walk along the river, there are several bridges across the river, and you can take boat tours on the river and listen to the Mexican music played around the river. San Antonio is also famous for the Alamo, the missions and the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico, El Mercado. One of our favorite places in San Antonio is Sea World. On my profile I have a picture of my daughter getting a kiss from a Beluga whale at Sea World in San Antonio.

The largest water park in the world is located in New Braunsfels north of San Antonio. This is a truly astounding, enormous, and family friendly water park. It is among the best theme parks in the United States. Other things to see in Texas is NASA Johnson Space Center, the Galveston harbor and the beach (and Mardi gras), Dinosaur Valley State Park, Renaissance Festivals (Scarborough Faire), Rodeo, cowboy towns, hunting lodges, and the many National Parks and state parks in Texas (Texas is very big so there are many of them).


The United States has a lot to offer and you can't see it all in a limited time. This is my list of the top ten states for tourist to the United States. It is based on my experience as a visitor (from Sweden) and a resident. I have excluded states I have not visited so take it for what it is. However, I hope it will be of help to you when you plan a vacation to the United States.

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