I spent the last few years traveling around North America quite extensively. I quickly noticed that the travel style and the interesting sites are significantly different than those in Europe. Europe is full of various cultures, languages, historical sites, unique cities, and events. Although USA and Canada are much more homogenous, not all is lost! Here are the key differences and suggestions on how to make the most of visiting the other side of the pond.
Distances in America are, generally, vast. Let’s say you have 4h and a car. In Europe, you easily find several big cities that are within the 4h distance. In America you’re quite lucky if you can find one. Similarly, cities in Europe are walkable and accessible by public transit. In America, walking is hardly an option. Public transit is good in few cities.
Advice: America is meant to be explored on wheels! Initially, I didn’t quite like that idea, but now I’m all for road-trips and the freedom that the car offers. Some of the roads are very scenic and absolutely pleasant to drive on. Whereas Europe offers many cool attractions in the cities, in America you’ll find cool attractions on the way.
European cities offer historical old towns, casual traditional performances, beauty and ugliness, and a variety of architectural styles. Most of American cities, on the other hand, are very consistent, compartmentalized, and self-similar; predictable; there is downtown, high-rise financial district, some nightlife area, cultural districts, and humongous suburbs where families live in cardboard houses. Having seen few of these cities, you can easily imagine how the next city will look like. Whereas some cities deserve the time to visit and appreciate them (e.g., New York City, San Francisco, Montreal, Las Vegas, Boston), most can be explored within a day. On the positive note, American cities compensate for the lack of historical landmarks by offering fantastic museums.
Advice: my suggestion is to shift focus from exploring cities to performing activities, doing road-trips, and appreciating the natural beauty of national parks. If you enjoy museums, you won’t be disappointed either.
People and Social Life
If you traveled around Europe, you know you can easily meet people there, hang out with total strangers, and form long-lasting friendships. I believe that the small distance, high population density, and limited work obsession are the key reasons here. Furthermore, dense, green, and interesting cities encourage to spend time in them.
In America things look very different. Typically, people work a lot, live in the spread out suburbs, and mind their own business. Whereas it’s very easy and common to chit-chat with the strangers, it’s just a form of pleasantry. The other person will be gone as soon as the chit-chat ends. Also, although some cities offer urban parks, forget about chilling on the grass with a bottle of wine. The law here perceives public consumption of alcohol as one of the greatest evils (there are some exceptions, e.g., Las Vegas).
Advice: before visiting an American city, make sure you know someone in that city! It is best if you can know someone directly or through a common friend. Other options include Couchsurfing and national/cultural clubs. I wouldn’t count on hostels. Unlike in Europe, American hostels are not great in terms of the social aspect (or any other aspect, really). When Americans travel, they prefer to stay in hotels or through Airbnb.
If you are into parties and nightlife, here is the thing. In much of Europe you can party all night long and be spontaneous about it. Parties are plentiful and finish organically, i.e., when people are tired or go to another party. In America people prefer to stick to the schedule and go home early (or go to frat parties if they are in college). Typically, they show up at the club around 11pm, party for 3 hours and go home 2-3am. Even if they wanted to stay up longer, they cannot, because clubs close very early. Short nightlife can keep Americans productive the next day :-)
Advice: if you find parties important, you can either go to well-organized festivals (e.g., the Burning man, Ultra festival, Tomorrowland), or visit cities that understand the importance of nightlife, e.g., Miami, New York City, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Montreal.
Entertainment And Activities
As the cities are not so captivating, and the nightlife is short, America offers lots of entertainment options. People here absolutely love sports. You can find some sport games any time of the year. Take your pick: basketball, american football, baseball, hockey, or even soccer. There is also a multitude of entertainment parks (e.g., Disney, Logoland, Universal studios), and some of the worlds best theme parks. Furthermore, cool activities are easy to find and are plentiful, e.g., within one day you can go skydiving, rafting, race a Ferrari, shoot a serious gun, fly a helicopter… pretty much anything you can imagine. It’s just a matter of how much $$$ you are willing to spend.
Advice: if you are into that kind of stuff, you will absolutely love visiting North America! Also, as liability is a very important concept here, the attractions are very safe and well maintained.
Nature and Man-made attractions
And here is the best one: the nature, outdoorsy activities, and man-made attractions. America offers fascinating sites created by the nature, e.g., the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Salt Flats. The national parks, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, are second to none. Similarly, man-made attractions, such as the Hoover Dam and Mount Rushmore are also world-renowned.
Advice: get a car, set off for a road-trip, and appreciate these stunning spots all over the continent!