Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Viator Travel Awards, an annual awards competition where we – along with our readers, travelers, and fans – select the top things to do and see in each of the major regions we serve, the top things to do in our most popular tour categories, and more.
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Welcome to the 2012 Viator Travel Awards: North America Edition! Rather than make this a list of specific tours, as we’ve done in the past, we decided this year to make a list of 25 of the most fun and interesting places to visit in North America – with a few specific tours as options in each destination.
The tours and activities listed have been chosen based on traveler reviews, data from the millions of people who check out Viator.com during the year, and information on which North America tours travelers book most often. Reading through this list, you’ll get a sense of the top things to do in each place – it’s a great virtual vacation from work, or the perfect way to start planning a trip anywhere in North America in 2013.
You’ll find all kinds of activities listed below, including historic exploration in Cancun and Washington DC, enjoying the great outdoors in British Columbia and Miami, and acting like a kid again in Orlando and San Diego. Join us for this tour of the Top 25 Things to Do in North America!
1. Be a high roller in Vegas
Las Vegas isn’t meant to be sipped slowly. Sin City is like drinking from a firehose. Everything about this city is meant to be over the top, right? So what better way to go over the top than to actually see the city from high above it? You can take a 90-minute Las Vegas Night Strip Helicopter Tour for the best views of the famous street, or take a one-hour Las Vegas Sunrise Hot Air Balloon Ride for views of the city and surrounding gorgeous landscapes, followed by a champagne breakfast. If you’d rather keep your feet on the ground, pick up a Las Vegas Power Pass or Ultimate Las Vegas Nightclub Hopping Package to get the most out of your experience. After all, you can (as the saying goes) sleep when you’re dead.
2. See the highlights of the Big Apple
New York is a city that never sleeps or even slows down very much, so planning a vacation when you only have limited time can be a challenge. How can you check off all those major sights without wasting precious time? Cover a bunch of them with a guided tour and you’ve got a great head-start on completing your must-see list. Sign up for a 5.5-hour New York in One Day Sightseeing Tour and you’ll see more than 20 landmarks. On a New York Dinner Cruise you can see the city all lit up and from the water, always fun for a different perspective. Get an even more interesting perspective with a Big Apple Helicopter Tour of New York, or get the royal treatment with a VIP Tour of Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and 9/11 Memorial.
3. Enjoy the beauty of the Bay Area
San Francisco is such an exciting city to explore that it can be easy to forget how close nature’s grandeur is to the city center. The number of day trips you can take into stunning countryside is staggering, especially when you consider that some of those day trips are to world-famous locations. Consider a day trip to Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoias, a visit to the Muir Woods, Giant Redwoods and Sausalito in a Half-Day Trip, a delicious tour through Napa and Sonoma Wine Country or a ride on the Napa Valley wine train. And on that same trip, you can enjoy city-based sights on a tour of Alcatraz and San Francisco. There really is something for everyone here.
4. Soak up the sun (and see celebrities) in Southern California
There are two awesome reasons to hang out in and around Los Angeles – to enjoy the pretty much year-round gorgeous weather and to get a peek at how (and sometimes where) the other half lives. Either one is reason enough on its own, and when you combine the two you have the makings of a very LA vacation. Get your lay of the land in a semi-DIY fashion with a Los Angeles Hop-on Hop-off Double Decker Bus Tour (especially nice when it’s sunny, so you can work on your tan on the upper deck while you see the sights) or get a guided Grand Tour of Los Angeles. Then keep your eyes peeled during a TMZ Hollywood Celebrity Hot Spot Tour in Los Angeles, or see where some of the magic is made during a VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood.
5. Go island hopping in Hawaii
When we get to visit multiple places during one trip, we feel like we’ve won some kind of vacation lottery. It’s a good thing, then, that island-hopping is not only easy but encouraged in Hawaii. You can base yourself on any island to explore it for a few days before moving on, or you can pick one base for your whole trip and take day trips to other islands. Visit Volcanoes National Park on a Big Island Day Trip from Oahu, tour the USS Missouri, Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl, or greet the day with a Spectacular Haleakala Maui Sunrise Tour, watching the sun come up over the volcano’s crater. And don’t miss out on going to a luau, either. There are plenty of options no matter what island you’re on, including the Paradise Cove Luau in Waikiki and the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui.
6. Explore the great outdoors in British Columbia
Vancouver is routinely listed as one of the most liveable cities in North America, and it’s an excellent vacation destination for those who love cosmopolitan cities. But Vancouver is also the ideal spot for nature lovers. The city is surrounded by mountains, there’s a huge park in the city center, and it’s a perfect base for day trips into British Columbia to see just how great the “great outdoors” can be. Watch the world roll slowly by on a Vancouver to Whistler by Train Rail Tour. Get your adrenaline going on the Vancouver North Shore Day Trip with Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain. Or simply bask in the beauty of a Vancouver to Victoria and Butchart Gardens Tour by Bus.
7. Learn about the history and government of the US in DC
Washington DC may conjure up images of gridlock or the latest political jokes for many, but tourists in the US capital can ignore what’s going on in present-day governmental negotiations. Focusing on the history of the United States through Washington DC’s glorious monuments and the staggering array of (mostly free) museums is a fantastic way to spend your time in the city. You can take a Washington DC Guided Day Tour to get the lay of the land when you arrive (always a good idea), or you can wait until after dark for a Washington DC Night Tour – it’s pretty spectacular to see the monuments all lit up. And for more of a DIY tour where you can take in DC at your own speed, a Washington DC Hop-on Hop-off Trolley Tour will get you where you need to go.
8. Feel like a kid again in Orlando
Let’s face it – some places are more likely than others to bring out our inner child, and Orlando ranks pretty highly on that list. After all, this is the city that’s home to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld. But beyond the obvious, there are activities that are fun for kids of all ages. You can be awed by the magic of space travel on a Kennedy Space Center Day Trip with Transport from Orlando, including the Shuttle Launch Experience and a tour of NASA’s launch headquarters. If you’re more interested in taking the controls yourself, then you can opt for a Race Car Drive-Along: Rookie Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway Orlando or even Fly a Plane in Orlando – No Experience or License Required. Yes, really. We dare you to not be giddy like a six-year-old after that.
9. See the best of the Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest cities of Seattle and Portland have long been known for the laid-back attitude of residents, the proximity to spectacular natural attractions, and a heavy focus on great food and wine. The cities have similarities, but to get a real taste of the whole region you’d be smart to visit both and take lots of day trips into the surrounding area, too. Let Mother Nature’s mountains impress you with a Mt Rainier Day Tour from Seattle or Small-Group Full-Day Tour of Mount St Helens Volcano from Seattle. Get acquainted with the watery sights on a Friday Harbor Day Trip & Whale Watching from Seattle or Portland Sightseeing Tour Including Columbia Gorge Waterfalls. And quench your thirst with a Small-Group Willamette Valley Wine-Tasting Tour from Portland or Snoqualmie Falls and Seattle Winery Tour. You may need a rain jacket – even in June – but the Pacific Northwest will grow on you.
10. Explore old and new in Montreal and Quebec
Do you have a hankering for a trip to Europe but can’t quite justify the cost? No worries – head for Quebec. The whole province gives visitors a chance to hone their French skills, and Montreal is one of the most charming European cities not actually in Europe. There are a few ways to get acquainted with Montreal – you can take a Walking Tour of Old Montreal, a Montreal City Guided Sightseeing Tour on a dedicated tram, or a Montreal City Hop-on Hop-off Tour. Dig a little deeper into how modern Montreal keeps its culinary traditions on a Flavors of Old Montreal Walking Tour. And if you’d like to explore Quebec a bit more, you could take a Quebec City and Montmorency Falls Day Trip from Montreal, a Full-Day Whale Watching Cruise from Quebec, or a Small-Group Quebec Wine Tour from Montreal with Optional Gourmet Lunch and Cheese Tasting.
11. Let the good times roll in New Orleans
New Orleans may be synonymous with drunken debauchery for many people, but the famous “let the good times roll” attitude of the city and its residents isn’t just about enjoying a night out at the bar. In fact, if you visit New Orleans and don’t get beyond Bourbon Street you’re missing out on the array of fantastic activities and sights the city and region have to offer. Get out of the city and explore some of the nearby natural wonders on a Swamp and Bayou Sightseeing Tour from New Orleans or a Small-Group Airboat Ride and Plantation Tour from New Orleans. Dip your toe into the city’s darker history on a New Orleans Cemetery and Voodoo Walking Tour. Bring some of the city’s unique flavors home with you by taking a New Orleans Cooking Class. Just be sure you spend plenty of time away from Bourbon Street.
12. Go wild in Miami
It’s hard to read that title without thinking of Miami’s famous party scene – and, of course, dancing the night away in the city’s clubs after a day spent lounging on its gorgeous beaches is certainly a tempting way to spend a vacation. If you’re craving a little variety to your itinerary, however, you may be pleased to know that you can explore an entirely different “wild” side of the area by getting out of the city. Take a Miami Everglades Airboat Adventure with Biscayne Bay Cruise or a Key West Day Trip to see the beautiful Florida Keys. Get your blood pumping with Miami Tandem Skydiving. Or try your hand at catching some of what swims in the waters just offshore on a Miami Party Fishing Cruise. And don’t forget your Go Miami Card, good for discounts on shopping and dining around the city.
13. Be awed by the architecture of the Windy City
You may not know it, given the prevalence of skyscrapers in cities around the world today, but Chicago is considered to be the birth of the skyscraper. Sure, there are plenty of great reasons to visit the Windy City, but to skip the chance to learn more about its trend-setting architecture would be a shame. Many tours will cover some aspects of Chicago architecture, but to get a fuller picture sign up for a Chicago Architecture River Cruise. You can also do a Chicago City Hop-on Hop-off Tour for a more DIY tour experience, or get above it all in a Chicago by Night Helicopter Tour. Back on solid ground, you can work off some of the city’s famously fattening foods while you’re sampling them with a Tastes of Chicago Bike Tour that includes Chicago-Style Pizza, Beer, Cupcakes and Hot Dogs.
14. Get acquainted with quintessential New England
New England has many faces, and one way to get a feel for more than one aspect of what makes this region so special is to make one city your home base and explore the surrounding area from there. Boston is a great candidate, given its historical significance, plethora of great places to shop and dine, and proximity to other fun places to visit in New England. Start off with a Boston Hop-on Hop-off Trolley Tour to get to know the city, and then begin expanding your reach with a Boston Whale Watching Cruise or (if it’s the right time of year) a Fall Foliage Spectacular Tour from Boston. You can even get a flavor of the best of New England from a base in New York City, with a 2-Day Best of New England Tour from New York: Newport Mansions, Cape Cod and Boston.
15. Explore the Mayan ruins around Cancun
Sure, you could spend your whole trip to Cancun lying on the beach or playing in the water – and you’d have a find time doing so. But did you know that there are famous Mayan ruins near Cancun? You can visit a few of them during your stay so that you’ll bring home plenty of Vitamin D and newfound historic knowledge. See one of Mexico’s most famous ruins on a Chichen Itza Day Trip from Cancun. Combine history and water sports on a Tulum and Xel-Ha All Inclusive Day Trip from Cancun. Climb the Yucatan peninsula’s tallest pyramid on a Coba Ruins Day Trip from Cancun. Or simply splash around in the archaeological water park that used to be the site of Mayan ceremonies on a Xcaret Day Trip from Cancun.
16. Feel the power of Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls is an impressive sight to behold no matter whether you’re on the American or Canadian side, although the views are quite different. Luckily, you can visit both sides during one trip if you want to. If you’ll be spending at least a few days in the area, getting a Niagara Falls Adventure Pass gives you access to many sights as well as transportation. From May-October, spend the morning on a Niagara Falls Canadian Side Tour and Maid of the Mist Boat Ride for an unforgettable view of the falls. For an over-the-top viewpoint, book a Niagara Falls Grand Helicopter Tour. And if you’re visiting New York, don’t forget you can still see the famous falls on a Niagara Falls Day Trip from New York by Air.
17. Have fun with the whole family in San Diego
San Diego is an excellent option for a family vacation, given its year-round gorgeous weather, plethora of outdoor activities, and nearby theme parks. It’s a great recipe for family-friendly fun – and with a little advance planning it doesn’t have to break the bank, either. Sure, adding up admission fees and dinner plates when you travel with the whole family can feel overwhelming, but San Diego helps ease the pain with things like the San Diego 3-for-1 Pass, good at SeaWorld, San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, or the Go San Diego Card, good for discounts at almost 50 attractions and activities. If you won’t be hitting that many attractions, consider a SeaWorld San Diego Ticket with Transport (which means you don’t have to deal with parking or wait in long lines). And for family fun on the water, you can book a San Diego Whale Watching Cruise or sign up for one of the exciting San Diego Seal Tours.
18. See the sights of the Old Wild West
The “wild west” of long ago may not exist in many places anymore, but some of the grandest landscapes in the United States are still there to be enjoyed. The Grand Canyon has been one of the most popular US National Parks for decades, and a popular draw for foreign visitors as well as Americans on summer vacation. There are several ways to see the Grand Canyon, depending on where you’re coming from and how long you have. With a limited amount of time, you can opt for a Grand Canyon All American Helicopter Tour from Las Vegas, or you can spend a whole day on a Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam Day Trip from Las Vegas. Coming from Phoenix with a bit more time to spare, arriving at the Grand Canyon via Sedona and Navajo Reservation gives you a more complete picture of the area, and a Red Rock Canyon Tour reminds you that there’s more than one canyon around here.
19. See Alaska by cruise
One of the most popular ways to see Alaska is from a ship cruising up the Inside Passage. The sights you can see just by looking out the ship’s windows as it passes the shore are incredible, and in each port you’ve got multiple options for exploring Alaska’s natural beauty in greater depth. Take a Juneau Shore Excursion to look for Bears, Whales and Glaciers by Land, Sea and Air, a Small-Group Sitka Shore Excursion Wildlife Cruise, or a Lighthouses, Totems and Eagles Ketchikan Shore Excursion Cruise. From Anchorage alone, you can book a Helicopter Tour and Dogsledding Adventure from Anchorage or a Day Trip to Denali National Park from Anchorage Including Scenic Flights, among other things. Your biggest challenge will be choosing which tours you want to do most.
20. Make Mexico City your base
For a Mexico vacation that’s more about the culture than the beaches, consider making Mexico City your home base. It’s an enormous city that would take years to fully explore, but focusing on one small part and getting to know its historic neighborhoods is a great way to make an overwhelming city more easy to digest. Plus, there are fabulous day trips from Mexico City if you find you need a break from the city and want to see what’s in the area. Get your bearings with a Mexico City Sightseeing Tour. Consider a day trip to Taxco and Cuernavaca from Mexico City or a Puebla and Cholula Day Trip from Mexico City. Want to have your whole trip planned in one click? Check out this 8-Day Best of Mexico Tour: Mexico City to Cancun. You’ll get to see the sights all along the way, and finish up with some time on the Caribbean beaches.
21. Visit the country music capital of the world
Nashville’s nickname is the “country music capital of the world,” but the truth is that both Nashville and Memphis are hotbeds for musicians of all genres. Yes, there’s a distinct country and western bent to most of what you’ll hear, but all kinds of serious songwriters and performers flock to Tennessee and trying to make it in the music industry. In other words, make it a point to head out every night to hear some live music! Book a Memphis Mojo Music Bus Tour and real local musicians actually give the tour. Get an overview of the city on a Discover Nashville bus tour or a Nashville Trolley Tour. And with a Memphis Music Attraction Discount Pass or Nashville Music Attraction Discount Pass you’ll pay a reduced fee at each city’s most popular attractions, including Graceland, Sun Studios, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
22. Explore the great outdoors in the Canadian Rockies
There are vast stretches of wilderness in Canada that are so untouched and unpopulated that they put the “wild” back in wilderness. The Canadian Rockies are a spectacularly beautiful example of this, and no matter what time of year you visit there’s plenty to see and do. From a base in Calgary you could take a Beautiful Banff Day Trip from Calgary or Columbia Icefield Tour from Calgary, and if you’re there at the right time don’t miss the famous Calgary Stampede. If you’re making Banff your base, there’s a Athabasca Glacier Snow Trip from Banff or you can go on a day trip to Discover Grizzly Bears from Banff. Just remember to bring the right gear – even in the summer, the mountains can be chilly at night.
23. Get some “we” time with your sweetie in Cabo
There’s something about a beach vacation in Mexico that just screams “romantic getaway,” right? If that’s what you’re looking for, then Los Cabos is waiting for you. In between spa treatments and lying on the beach, you and your sweetheart can get your hearts racing with a Los Cabos ATV Adventure, or move a bit more slowly with Los Cabos Horseback Riding on the beach, or frolic in (and under) the water on a Los Cabos Sailing and Snorkel Cruise. You can marvel at nature’s beauty on a Majestic Whale Watching Adventure from Los Cabos, too, but what could be more romantic than a Los Cabos Sunset Dinner Cruise?
24. See why everything is bigger in Texas
You’ve no doubt heard about how “everything is bigger in Texas,” but other than the size of the state itself, it might be hard to understand what that phrase means unless you visit. Cities like Dallas and Houston may be enormous, but you can find that larger-than-life attitude even in smaller cities like San Antonio and Austin (the capital city). Take in the sights of picturesque San Antonio during a San Antonio Grand Sightseeing Tour, including a riverboat cruise and a stop at the Alamo. Get acquainted with Texas’ wine industry with a Winery Day Trip to Texas Hill Country from San Antonio, including opportunities to go antique shopping in the German town of Fredericksburg. Explore the capital and gorgeous surrounding area on a Small-Group Tour of Austin and Texas Hill Country, including more than 40 attractions.
25. Visit the birthplace of the USA
Though the US capital is now in Washington DC, the history surrounding the birth of the United States as an independent country began in Philadelphia. In this, the “City of Brotherly Love,” you can see the room where the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were written and signed, as well as the homes of people like President George Washington an Betsy Ross, who created the first American flag. Soak in all this history on a 75-minute Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia or a 2-hour Founding Fathers Tour of Philadelphia, or explore the sights at your own pace with The Philadelphia Pass, which gives you discounts or free admission to many city attractions. For a bit more of an exciting city tour, check out the Philadelphia Duck Tour. And if you’re in nearby New York you could always plan a Philadelphia and Amish Country Day Trip from New York to get a taste of the area.
- Viator Travel Team