The USA is a great place to be a backpacker – it’s home to some of the most breathtaking natural scenery, massive portions and friendliest locals you’ll ever see. With a relatively low cost of living (gas and food are pretty cheap) and a high standard of USA hostels across the country, there’s plenty of reasons to check out those 50 states.
The country is so huge, most backpackers make a beeline for the most well-known destinations – New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and maybe Florida for a theme park or two. But there’s so much more to discover when backpacking in the USA – with great transport links across the country – Greyhound buses, Amtrak trains, cheap domestic flights and those huge American highways, it’s easy to go off the tourist trail.
America’s cities show off the country at her very best, with all the culture, shopping and sights you’d ever need. But some cities are more suited to backpackers than others – the sprawling metropolis of LA can be a little overwhelming for backpackers without a car, and Miami might seem a little too chic if you’ve left your designer threads at home.
So whether you plan on hitting the highway and roadtripping around several states, or just want a city break with a difference, here are our top American cities for backpackers.
Why Go? Dubbed the ‘Athens of America’, Boston has rich history, grand architecture and some of the best universities in the world to its name. But this mid-sized city can still let its hair down, with a packed cultural calender, and a cool student scene spawning countless clubs, hip bars, arts and music scenes and bizarrely, Irish pubs! Beautiful in bloom in the Spring, and covered in russet leaves in the Fall, Boston is a gateway to the rest of New England’s glorious scenery, historic towns and bargain shopping.
Cheap Trick: Harvard – one of the best Universities in the world, you don’t have to have a Phd to enjoy wandering around the college’s scenic quads and courtyards – perfect for a free day out. Take a short metro ride from the city center to Cambridge, and mingle with students in the various pubs and bookshops. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is amazing and there are always some free lectures and symposiums open to the public.
We Love: Boston’s Art Scene – hundreds of art spaces are popping up all over the city, showcasing the best of modern and cutting edge art. Check out the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) – a striking glass fronted building on the waterfront.
Where to Stay: HI Boston Downtown is close to some of the best nightlife and shopping in the city, and hosts regular arty film nights, lectures and workshops.
Why Go? Ok, so it may seem like an obvious choice, but the capital city is unmissable, and there’s plenty more to see in Washington than the White House. The National Mall is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in America, and there’s an endless list of museums for culture vultures. Forget stuffy politicians – the city comes alive at night with a legendary clubbing and live music scene, and Georgetown is where the students and cool kids shop and hang out. DC is relatively small, so it’s easy to explore, but Arlington Cemetery and George Washington’s home Mount Vernon make great day trips from the city center.
Cheap Trick: The Smithsonian Institute’s huge collection of world-class museums and art galleries- ranging from the Air and Space Musuem to the National Gallery- are all free to visit.
We Love: Washington in Spring, when the city is covered in flowering Cherry Blossom trees. The trees were a gift from Japan in 1912, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates spring from March-April.
Where to Stay: Lofstel Washington is great for an extended stay, with huge common rooms, well-stocked kitchens and loads of free amenities for its guests.
Why Go? Seattle may be known as America’s wettest city, but the city embodies laid-back cool; this creative powerhouse is the home of Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge music. One of the most scenic cities in the US, Seattle is surrounded by an attractive waterfront, countless parks, forested beaches and open green spaces. Go shopping in Pike Place Market, ride to the top of the Space Needle, and then walk through Discovery Park when you’ve had enough of the city bustle.
Cheap Trick: The ‘ID’ or International District is the home of Seattle’s eclectic Asian community. Packed with Cambodian, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese groceries and restaurants, it’s where you’ll find the cheapest eats in the city.
We Love: So many things! The coffee and bagels at the Elliott Bay Cafe (supposedly the setting for sitcom Frasier), flying kites at GasWorks Park (a park littered with sculptures made from industrial machinary), the underground tour of Seattle in Pioneer Square (half the city sunk below ground level during the 1900s).
Where to Stay: The Hostel Seattle is small and friendly, and has beautiful views of the waterfront.
Why Go? San Fran has long been California’s coolest city – it’s got earthquakes and eccentrics, Beat Poets and belly-flopping sealions on the pier. The city has kept it’s quirky cool since the hippie heydey of the 1960s, and today boasts gourmet restaurants, diverse neighbourhoods to explore and breathtaking views from the Golden Gate Bridge. From the boat trip to Alcatraz to climbing steep hills in a cable car, San Francisco is one thrilling ride. Not forgetting the excellent gay nightlife, and the wild gay pride celebrations every year…
Cheap Trick: One of the largest public parks in the world, Golden Gate Park is packed with sights that are free to explore. It’s one of the most eclectic parks we’ve ever seen, and typically ‘San Fran’. Head to the top of ‘Hippie Hill’, the site for stoned gatherings in the 1960s, wander through the Japenese Tea Garden, discover the Dutch Windmill and Tulip garden, and check out the Buffalo Paddock (yep, buffalos!).
We Love: Experience San Francisco’s restaurant scene at one of its more bizarre eateries- The ‘Stinking Rose’, a ‘garlic restaurant’ in Little Italy. Not one for vampires, the restaurant serves 3,000 pounds of the pungent herb every month, and the quirky dining hall is decorated with the world’s longest garlic braid. Luckily the food – a mix of Italian and American dishes, doesn’t stink (although the garlic ice cream is an acquired taste) and there are non-garlic options available.
Where to Stay: USA Hostels San Francisco is right in the heart of the city, and has its own 50-seat cinema!
Why Go? We couldn’t do a round up of American cities without including somewhere from the southern states, and Austin is the surprisingly eccentric capital of Texas, the ‘Lone Star State’. All the hallmarks of the south are here – cowboys, country music and home-cooking, but Austin has its own quirky take on Texas – the home of the South by Southwest festival, the live music scene here is legendary, with countless bars and venues blasting out anything from jazz-funk to alt country. Austin’s edgy cool has drawn more and more businessmen to move in, but the city should keep its character a little while longer – check out the locals wearing bumper stickers saying ‘Keep Austin Weird’!
Cheap Trick: Austin is a thrift and second hand shopper’s paradise – from records to vintage dresses and antique jewellery, you’ll find it in the city’s eclectic mix of stores.
We Love: The University of Texas’s Galleries and Museums – home to the largest University collection of art in the country. Tex Mex and Barbeque food. Austin’s great outdoors – hiking and biking on Lady Bird Lake, and swimming at Barton Springs.
Where to Stay: HI Austin rests on the shores of Lady Bird Lake.
Fancy seeing more of what America has to offer? Check out our guide to the top US National Parks!