Posts Tagged With: New York

Mike’s Top 10 Must-See Cities In The United States

Mike's must-see U.S. cities


I have been to most of the 50 states that comprise the United States of America – 49 of them to be exact – with Alaska the only one I’m yet to visit. I missed dozens of chances to visit Alaska when I lived in the state of Oregon, from which there were several daily flights to Alaska. So now Alaska tops my list of places I must visit in the United States. I will get there in due course.

Because of my having been to 49 of the 50 states, I am often asked which is my favorite or which ones are worth a visit. My simple answer is all of them – every state has something unique to offer. Some states, of course, have more to see and do than others and even more important, some welcome tourists and outsiders with open arms. In other words, the people are super friendly and welcoming.

The second question I get asked most is which American cities are the best to visit. Again, every city is different. But I do have my own Top 10 list of favorite U.S. cities and I often suggest they are not to be missed. Since everybody from Lonely Planet to  Conde Nast have been producing lists of places to visit, why not me? 🙂 So here’s my list, of Top 10 U.S. cities to visit, in order of which you should try to visit first. I have spent a great deal of time in all these cities, and so I know them from fairly to very well. (click on the links on the corresponding links for more about each city). So drum roll, the cities in the United States not to be missed are:

New York, New York: So nice, they named it twice

New York, New York: So nice, they named it twice

1.  New York  – New York City is the largest city in the United States – with 8 million people chasing after something. It is my hometown, so you might say I am biased in my assessment of New York being the greatest city on Earth. I have been to cities large and small on every continent (except Australia – getting there!) and I am yet to experience a city like New York. Paris may be the most visited city on Earth but it does not hold a candle to New York and what New York offers. New York is indeed a city that never sleeps. You can do anything you want in New York at any time of day or night: Feel like going to a party at 10 in the morning? There’s one just getting started. Feeling sick from all that alcohol you’ve consumed? There’s a 24-hour drug store. Had a fight with your girlfriend at 2 in the morning and want to buy her flowers at 3 a.m.? There’s the florist selling flowers at that hour. Feel like breakfast at any hour of the day? You got it. Want to see a show? No problem. On and on. The city brims with excitement. And there’s so much free stuff happening in the city, it’s amusing to me that people say New York is expensive. It is to tourists who don’t do their homework – or know a local connected and in-the-know. The excitement from people chasing after something in New York indeed never stops.

2.  Washington, D.C. – The nation’s capital, it’s packed with things to see and do year-round. Washington boasts monuments that are a must-see; cool neighborhoods with lots of shops, restaurants and cafes; and like New York, people from all over the world. It is also the nerve center of politics. Your embassy is highly likely somewhere in Washington. As a teenager, I spent summers  in Washington, staying with an uncle and other relatives who live there. And as an adult, there always seemed a reason to return to Washington, either for work or for pleasure, sometimes both.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial

3.  San Francisco – One of America’s most beautiful cities. Also one of its most progressive and easy-going. It’s home to the famed Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars that roll along its hilly streets.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

This city by the bay is definitely my favorite in terms of the cool, kick back, light ’em up vibe. Not far from the city you can see giant sequoia trees, trees so massive in size they boggle the mind. I always enjoy getting back to San Francisco, but mostly in summer as the city tends to be foggy and damp and cold come winter.

4.  Chicago – I used to go to Chicago only for conferences or other job-related reasons. Then during one of those conventions, I decided to stick around and actually see the city. It was summer and so I rented a bicycle and off I went. That’s when I gained a real appreciation for Chicago. Lots of outdoor activities, the lakefront beaches, the thriving neighborhoods; a bustling center, great restaurants! Once, I even decided to spend a winter in Chicago for the sheer experience. The Windy City lived up to its reputation, with temperatures dropping to below freezing and lots of snow falling and I loved it. Bundle up in winter and you should be fine. There are enough cafes to keep you warm. Take a trip to the top of what until recently was the tallest building in the United States – the Willis Tower – for spectacular views.

My kind of town...Chicago!

My kind of town…Chicago!

5.  Seattle – I will never forget this: I was driving from Vancouver, Canada, back to Portland, Oregon, and when I reached Seattle at a point on Interstate 5, my jaw dropped. Before me was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen: The City of Seattle. It was striking, with snow-blanketed volcanoes looming large, the harbor, the gleaming buildings, the city lights. I felt as if I needed to share this picturesque moment with someone, so I got on the phone and called my friend Teresa to describe what I was seeing. Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, is a great city with lots of indoor and outdoor activities. It’s just a few hours drive to Vancouver, Canada, and a pleasant ferry ride to Victoria, Canada. It’s home to many hi-tech companies, including the behemoth Microsoft. The people of Seattle, as Pacific Northwestern folk tend to be, are among the most friendly and helpful and polite in the United States. Bring your walking shoes and take a trip into the woods or up a mountain. Mount Rainier is mesmerizing – an active volcano so close to the city – is worth seeing.



6.  Portland – Ah, Portland. No, not Portland, Maine, but Portland, Oregon. This city is the most civil I’ve ever lived in in the United States, though some complain it has changed somewhat with the influx of the not-so-civil Californians 🙂 Still, Portland is a well-run city, a mini version of Seattle. Portland is also neighborhoods with shops and cafes.

Downtown Portland

Downtown Portland

Coffee fuels this town (as it does Seattle). And microbreweries. The city has a thriving nightlife, and a healthy rotation of monthly happenings. During the Rose Festival the city is even more alive. Have a stroll along Waterfront Park, or take a drive to Multnomah Falls for  a nice hike. The city blends urban and nature well, with the largest urban forest in the United States, Forrest Park. I love Portland. I spent nearly 10 years living there and will always consider it my second hometown. On clear days, stare at Mount Hood. Everyone does.

7.  Miami – Oh Miami. First of all, let’s get one thing straight: There is Miami and there is Miami Beach. The two are different cities that tend to be lumped together, but they couldn’t  be more different. One – Miami Beach – is on a barrier island where the famed South Beach is located. Miami – the larger – is on the mainland and home to Little Havana and Little Haiti. Together, they are one gigantic thriving metropolis focused on fun, fun, fun. People come here for the weather, the beaches, the parties, the nightlife. You come to Miami/Miami Beach to let the good times roll. Miami/Miami Beach is definitely a playground for grown ups, with exposed hot bods everywhere. Try to connect with a local to find the bargains or learn where the best places are to not overspend. Drinks here are outrageously expensive, if you don’t know where to look. Enjoy the sun! And bring your Spanish to this heavily Latin city. It helps.

8.  New Orleans – Let’s not talk about New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Wow-wee! Suffice to say it’s an anything goes, alcohol-fueled, sexy party. The French Quarter is where it all happens. There’s great music here, including some of the best jazz you’ll ever hear. And the food is uniquely New Orleans. Gumbo, anyone?  I love the architecture in the French Quarter. And the uninhibited nature of things. I think I’ve seen it all here. If The United States had an Amsterdam, New Orleans would be it. Or would that be San Francisco? 🙂

The madness of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter

The madness of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter

9.  San Diego – A quick dash to Tijuana on the Mexican border, San Diego is a nice city with nice weather and perhaps some of the nicest people in California. I’ve made several trips here and I always felt relaxed in the city. It doesn’t have that hustle and bustle that other U.S. cities have. Or at least I’ve never sensed it. Come enjoy its beaches, its restaurants and its chilled nightlife. One of the few places in the United States you can actually swim in the Pacific Ocean and not feel you will freeze to death.

10. Los Angeles – Okay, anybody who knows me knows that I have little love for Los Angeles. It’s my least favorite large cities in the United States. I’ve never been impressed with the city, with its congested highways and smoggy air. Take away Hollywood and L.A. is even less impressive. But one year I saw L.A. with locals and I was more in tune with the city that I had ever been. There were a few cool bars without the pretentiousness that permeates this city. And I actually felt a new appreciation for the city. But it remains low on my list but still worth a visit because, after all, how can you deny Venice Beach? Or Santa Monica? Or several other sites and sounds of the city worth experiencing. Just good luck getting there with the traffic.

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Buenos Aires: Why The Long Face?

The sun on Argentina's flag: Is that a smile?

When I saw Prague several years ago, instantly I knew I liked the city. There was no doubt. I can say the same about Rome, Cape Town and many other places in the world I have been fortunate enough to visit. After  more than a week in Buenos Aires, I’m still not sure what to make of South America’s second most populous city –  only Sao Paolo, Brazil, is larger. 

There’s much to like, even love about Buenos Aires, but cities are about the people in them as much as they are about what’s in them and what they offer. Paris is full of beautiful things but don’t visitors always say that sadly it’s also full of Parisians? The people of Paris get very low marks when it comes to friendliness and helpfulness to outsiders. It’s as if Parisians would rather see all these millions of tourists disappear. Never mind that these visitors from all over the world pump billions of dollars into the French economy and have made Paris the number one tourist destination for decades.

Parisians, rightly or wrongly, get a bad rap. Some of it may be deserved. I did not enjoy my first trip to Paris because of negative experiences with the Parisians I had turned to for help with directions. Most of them were shockingly rude. Amazingly, several of them made their living selling stuff to tourists. Could they even imagine what just a weeklong world boycott of Paris would do to their bottom line?

Urban Gaucho: in the Recoleta neighborhood

And yet, on my last trip to Paris some three years later, just about every Parisian I met couldn’t have been nicer and extremely helpful. I kept asking myself what had changed. Had there been some tourist board campaign to tell Parisians to straighten up and fly right? Had Parisians themselves seen the light? Had they decided to turn a new leaf after much international bashing?

Suddenly Paris was filled not only with nice things but nice people and that made for a nicer experience. This is the rub I’m having with Buenos Aires. I like the city. I’m not too sure about the people.

It’s not that the people of Buenos Aires are rude or unhelpful. Stop anyone on the street and they will help get you on your way. They will even offer a smile afterward, or a no-need-to-thank-me-it’s-my-pleasure. They definitely show themselves to be friendly. My problem with the people of Buenos Aires is how cold and unfriendly they appear en mass. Nobody smiles. Everyone seems to look at each other with suspicion. They don’t seem happy. Ride the buses or the trains and the only long face you don’t see is that of a child at play. Of course, go to a bar or a disco and there are plenty of jubilant people there, mostly under the influence of beer. But I’m not talking about the people celebrating something in the Palermo party district or alcohol-induced giddiness. I’m talking about the regular Joe going about his day. I understand that going to work for some may not be reason enough to smile or even appear to be happy to be alive, but I can’t help but to think “why all the sad faces?”

Then I wonder is it something in this city’s DNA or the country’s troubled political history? The years of ruthless military dictatorships? The scars of the economic collapse and deadly protests a decade ago? Are these otherwise nice folks just simply physically and emotionally exhausted?

Okay, I know, I know. Buenos Aires is a big city – a huge one – and people in big cities with big problems need a reason to smile. Living in a city is challenging. Just getting around on overcrowded trains and buses in the summer heat is enough to make a person want to scream.  Yet, I’ve been to dozens of cities, some as large or larger than Buenos Aires, and the people didn’t  look like downtrodden huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were light, talkative, shared a smile upon eye contact.

In some way, I understand that in a city – one that has its share of petty street crime – you want to wear your don’t-mess-with-me, or leave-me-alone face. Coming from a city like New York, I completely understand. But at the end of the day New Yorkers are at least entertaining and laugh at themselves. Sooner or later, something or someone around you will give you good reason to smile, even laugh.

Now, as I said before, the people of Buenos Aires aren’t necessarily unfriendly. They just seem that way until you engage them in conversation. Then, you sort of like them.

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Santiago, Chile: Ignore The Naysayers

The Titanium: The tallest building in Santiago, Chile, currently under construction. When completed, it will be more than 60 floors of office and retail space.

I thought I was going to the worst city on Earth. To hear Chileans describe Santiago – as dirty, polluted, ugly, traffic-clogged and a lot of other negatives – is to imagine urban hell. Most of them said the city was not worth more than a couple of days. Some struggled to come up with things to do and places to visit in the city other than the Cathedral. And yet, I am loving Santiago.

I think it’s clearly an anti big city thing. People don’t like big cities. At least the people who don’t live in them. Big cities generally have big problems, such as traffic congestion and public transportation choked with people. Some people see city living as Hell on Earth. They prefer smaller towns with lots of green spaces and such. So a place like Santiago, to most Chileans who live in ideal outlying provinces, urban living is the worst thing imaginable.

When I was in Salta in northern Argentina, I had nothing but negatives about Buenos Aires – from Argentinians themselves. They basically described their country’s famed city in much the same way as Chileans described Santiago. I am glad I did not listen. I was determined to visit Santiago. And I am glad I did. It’s a vibrant place with lots going for it. Sure, it’s not Paris or Rome, but the city has great neighborhoods in which to hang out, sit and have a good breakfast or enjoy lunch. Based on what I had heard about Santiago, I had planned to stay only two days.  I’ve extended my stay by two days.

Of course I wasn’t about to have Buenos Aires-bashing Argentinians keep me from visiting the city. I have long wanted to visit Buenos Aires. And I will stay as long as planned, perhaps longer. I guess I am a city person at heart. I love cities. And sure, I like spending time in the great outdoors, in small towns, but I don’t mind urban living and all the insanity that comes along with it.

I grew up hearing all the negatives from Americans about New York, the largest city in the United States. People in other parts of the United States love to hate New York. Even some who have never been there. They’re just not city folks.

So I say to you, dear reader, listen to the criticisms, but take them with a grain of salt and go see for yourself.


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