USA Road Trip

Brace yourself, this is going to be an extremely long post…

For as long as I remember, I have always had the will to visit the United States of America. I think that for a trip like that you need a lot of time so you can enjoy the places you visit.

Me and my friends decided we needed at least 3 weeks, so we bought the tickets with Norwegian in January when they were doing a promotion (where checked in baggage and food was included on the ticket) and we bought the flights: one way to New York City (JFK) and return from Los Angeles (LAX), from and to London Gatwick.

We all wanted to visit different cities and places, so after many discussions and thoughts, we decided our route:

New York City – Washington D.C. – Buffalo (Niagara Falls) – Toronto – Chicago – Flagstaff (for the Canyons) – Page – Las Vegas – Yosemite National Park – San Francisco – Pismo Beach – Los Angeles

To enter the USA, all you need is a passport valid for more than 6 months and apply for a ESTA Visa. It costs $14 per person and it can take up to 72 hours to be processed. You can do it here.

One very important thing to know is the tipping system in the USA. If you go to a restaurant, you will always need to tip, because usually waitresses live on tips. The minimum acceptable tipping is 15% of the total bill value. If you are paying with card, they will take your card and pay the total amount of the bill value and then they will give you a receipt asking the percentage of the tip and the total value you want to pay including the tip. Don’t be scared if after a couple of days a big amount of tips appear on your credit card… but you may cry!

New York City

We started off in New York City, where we stayed for 4 days. We were travelling in a group of 5, so we decided to rent an airbnb in Brooklyn, just next to the Nostrand Avenue subway station. It had all amenities we needed, especially to cook.

It took us around 25 minutes to get to Manhattan on the subway. We bought the 7-Day Unlimited Pass which cost $32 plus a $1 fee for a new MetroCard. You can buy this card at any ticket machine in the subway stations. It was worth every cent! (without it, it costs $2.75 per ride)

New York is a city where everything happens really fast. If you are into museums and attractions and want to skip some queues, I advise you to buy the City Pass. It costs $101 and it will save you a lot of time and money!

It includes:

  • Two entries in the same day to The Empire State Building
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • Top of the Rock or Guggenheim Museum
  • Ferry Access to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
  • 9/11 Memorial and Museum or Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum

Always allow yourself some time for travelling around, as the city is really big.

The view of the Top of the Rock was the best for me, just because you can actually see the Empire State Building from it. So here is a tip: if you want to watch the sunset and then see the city with the lights on, it’s better if you go there in the morning or on the day before and get the ticket with the time of entry you want, as the sunset hour sells out fast.

The view from the Top of the Rock

Here’s a small guide I made on what to do in New York City by neighbourhood :

Midtown

  • 5th Avenue
  • MoMA – Museum of Modern Art. I just loved it! There you can admire paintings like “The Starry Night” by Van Gogh, “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Mondrian and Picasso. Every Friday from 4-8pm there is free entry but also a big queue. Adult tickets cost $25 but if you have a valid student ID it will cost $14 and you can buy them online here.
  • Rockefeller Center Observatory (Top of the Rock)
  • St. Patrick’s Cathedral
  • Grand Central Terminal
  • Chrysler Building
  • Bryant Park and the New York Public Library
  • Times Square (in my opinion it’s better to visit it at night)
  • Broadway – if you want to watch some show, be sure you book in advance
  • Empire State Building
  • Flatiron Building
  • 230 5th Rooftop Bar (free entry and nice view of the Empire State Building)

Lower Manhattan

  • 9/11 Memorial and Museum
  • Financial District and Wall Street
  • Charging Bull statue
  • One World Trade Centre
  • The Oculus train station 
  • Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (if you don’t want to go to the islands, you can just take the free Staten Island Ferry for the beautiful view)

Soho, Chinatown and Little Italy – walk around the neighbourhoods, really nice and cheap food everywhere!

Greenwich Village and Chelsea

  • The High Line – once a rail trail, it’s now a magnificent 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park with great artwork and views of the city, I really enjoyed it!
  • While at the High Line, stop at Chelsea Market to have lunch

Central Park

  • The Lake
  • Bethesda Fountain
  • Strawberry Fields and The Dakota (John Lennon’s house)
  • Alice in Wonderland statue
  • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

Upper West Side

  • Lincoln Centre
  • Metropolitan Opera House
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • If you like exploring neighbourhoods, be sure you stroll through Greenwich Village, especially Bedford, Commerce, Grove and Barrow Streets, where you can find lovely typical houses, like the Apartment Building from the F.R.I.E.N.D.S TV Show in Bedford Street
  • Live Jazz: Blue Note, Smalls, Village Vanguard

Upper East Side

  • Guggenheim Museum
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • United Nations Visitor Centre

Brooklyn

  • Walk the Brooklyn Bridge and Promenade, it’s an amazing walk, especially at sunset
  • DUMBO (best view on the intersection of Water Street and Washington Street)

If you fancy shopping for some bargains, head to Woodbury Outlet.

Where to eat:

  • Shake Shack 
  • The Halal Guys
  • 2 Bros Pizza ($1 slice pizza – it’s very good!)
  • Russ & Daughters for brunch
  • Katz Delicatessen
  • Bibble and Sip for the cuttest cupcakes and hot drinks
  • Hill County Barbecue Market
  • Chelsea Market
  • Korea and China town for cheap and nice asiatic food
  • Little Italy for nice Italian food 

After 4 intense days in NYC, we headed south to the capital, Washington D.C., for 2 days.

We took the Northeast Regional train (you can book your train tickets here) from Penn Station and it took us 3h25min on a very comfortable train with wi-fi. It cost $49 per person. 

Washington D.C.

We stayed at Homewood Suites by Hilton next to the Convention Centre. Again, we were 5 people so it was always worth to share the room in a nice hotel, plus hotels in the U.S. are really cheap compared to Europe (and there was a kitchen so we could cook our meals). 

One amazing thing we discovered in the U.S. was the electric scooters you can rent on the street. There are many companies that offer this service, but we preferred to use the Bird one (there are also Lime, Skip, Scoot, Spin and Uber). So you just have to download the app, register (you will need your driver’s licence for that) and then pick a scooter and go! The payment process is similar to an Uber ride, where they count the minutes.

Washington D.C. was founded in 1790 to serve the country as capital. The city was amazingly built as it’s very easy to explore, even if huge. I found this city very nice and pleasant to visit. The Capitol was one of my favourite things we visited in Washington.

Things to do:

  • U.S. Capitol – you can plan your free visit on their website. The history of the country is all there and the building is phenomenal.
  • The National Mall, which includes a lot of museums and monuments, such as Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National World War II Memorial, Reflecting Pool, Constitution Gardens, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and so many more. We saw almost all of them in one afternoon.
  • Smithsonian Institution Museums
  • Washington National Cathedral
  • White House – to visit it, you must contact your embassy in Washington D.C. to submit a tour request. To contact the Portuguese Embassy, please e-mail [email protected]
  • When strolling around, you can see the Senate and House Office buildings as well as the Pentagon and other important buildings
  • Georgetown: explore the C&O Canal, Washington Harbour, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, Book Hill Park and tour Tudor Place, where the Washington family used to live
  • If you like space shuttles and the Concorde, you should visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre, which is part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, just next to Washington Dulles Airport

Where to eat:

  • Georgetown Cupcake bakery
  • Baked & Wired
  • Lincoln’s Waffle Shop – amazing cheap American style pancakes made by a very nice chinese team
  • Market Lunch inside Eastern Market
  • CAVA
  • Ben’s Chili Bowl

From Washington D.C. we took a evening flight to Buffalo with United Airlines, which took less than an hour.

Buffalo/ Niagara Falls / Toronto

We decided to stay for two nights in Buffalo at the Hampton Inn & Suites just next to the airport because it was the closest city to Niagara Falls. We rented a car with Alamo and we drove to Niagara Falls the following day, which took us 30 minutes.

We visited both sides of the Falls, American and Canadian side. To be honest if I had known before, I would never make a stop in purpose just for the falls. It was such a disappointment! (maybe because I have been to Iceland before where the waterfalls are surreal)

From the American side all you can see is ugly buildings and casino signs. At the Canadian side it’s all about stupid attractions like a giant amusement park. You can barely listen to the water running. If you forget all that, the falls are beautiful, but all the environment makes it a terrible experience in my opinion. As we saw both sides of the falls in about 2 hours, we decided to drive to Toronto and visit some friends and spend the day there. It takes around 1hr45min from Buffalo to Toronto and you don’t need any kind of visa to enter the country.

Toronto is a massive city, full of skyscrapers! Be sure you visit the CN Tower, once the world’s tallest building. Stroll around the Distillery District for amazing restaurants with nice patios. Visit the amazing Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the Harbor front and the Toronto islands where you get the best view of the city and it’s just a ferry trip away. Unfortunately I don’t have any other tips as we’ve just made a half-day trip to Toronto, but I hope to come back to explore it soon.

We took an early flight to Chicago with United Airlines the following day. We stayed one night at the Motel 6 just next to the airport and explored the city in one day. Unfortunately we got stuck for almost 2 hours on the way from the airport to the city center on the motorway/highway. I didn’t know Chicago had so much traffic!

Chicago

Chicago was a good surprise. I wasn’t expecting anything special but Chicago is a really special city. We spent just one day in the city and I wish we could have had more time… Chicago’s Riverwalk is just amazing, the colour of the river is turquoise blue and it’s really beautiful. Chicago can be really windy and gets cloudy quick.

Our top pics were strolling around downtown, the Skydeck at the Willis Tower, where you walk on glass on top of the city and the view is amazing, the Millennium Park and the Cloud Gate (a.k.a. “The Bean”) and walk the Lake Front from the Millenium Park to the Riverwalk. It was an amazing day! Don’t forget to try the famous Chicago pizza. We didn’t know, but Chicago is famous for its deep dish pizzas. We decided to eat at Giordano’s. If you like pancakes, Wildberry Cafe has the best in town!

After a very intense day in Chicago, we flew with American Airlines to Flagstaff, with one stop at Phoenix. After landing, we could already feel the temperatures going up.

Arizona

We rented a RV with Cruise America after doing big research about the best RV rental company. Customer service is 5 stars! We rented it for a week (6 nights), dropping it off later in San Francisco. Because it was a one way drop off, it cost us $600 more, with a total of $1750. They charge for each night and mile. We opted to buy our own kitchen utensils, towels and sleeping bags because their personal kits were quite expensive. It was still worth every cent!

Everyone is so nice and friendly in Arizona! We bought our camping gear at Sportman’s Warehouse, after a very friendly taxi driver gave us some tips on where to buy what we needed. Our surprise was the gun selling stand in the middle of the shop. In Arizona, you can actually see armed people walking around with their guns. It felt very strange, but it was just like in the movies!

Everything else, including food, we bought from Walmart. Walmart is a very complete supermarket, the food is good and the prices very reasonable. We prepared our meals carefully as we had a very small fridge (which always had space for more Arizona Iced Tea) and we didn’t have many kitchen utensils, but we always had very tasty meals!

After getting everything settled with the RV, we drove past Route 66 into Grand Canyon South Rim, where we explored the canyon and saw the best sunset ever from Hopi Point. It was one of the most special moments of my life. To enter the Grand Canyon National Park you have to pay a $35 fee. We chose the South Rim because it was the one closer to Flagstaff and where we read it was the best place to watch the sunset. You can either walk along the canyon through the trails or park your vehicle in one of many car parks and catch the free buses. We decided to start our visit at the Mather Point, just next to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. The view is amazing! Then, we drove to the Village, where we parked our RV, and walked the Trail up to Hopi Point, where we watched the sunset. We then took the free bus which took us back to the Village.

The view from Mather Point
Sunset view from Hopi Point

We drove 2h30 until we reached our campground in the city of Page. It is always very busy so you must make reservations when sleeping on a campground next to the National Parks. We stayed at Page Lake Powell Campground, which has everything you need and costs $40 per night and it is just 10min away from the incredible Horseshoe Bend, where we saw the sunrise on the morning after to avoid the crowds and tourist buses. From the car park, you have to walk for 20 minutes until you reach the Colorado River. The walk is a bit rough, on sand, so don’t take flip flops or sandals.

Sunrise at the Horseshoe Bend

You can also try to park the RV in the wild but I wouldn’t recommend it in that area, as most of the land is private.

We read a lot about visiting the Antelope Canyon but also heard that it was always very crowded and the tour guides always in a hurry. So after a long research, as we wanted a unique and intimate experience, we booked a tour with Canyon X Tour. Basically it’s the same Canyon but in a different part, with groups of 10 people at a time. It was incredible to see and learn how the canyons were formed through erosion of Navajo sandstone from wind and rain. Our guide David was amazing and explained everything to us about the Canyon X (plus he was a very nice photographer). What an experience!

The curves of Canyon X
Sunbeam at the Canyon X
Detail of the Navajo Sandstone

Las Vegas

From Page we drove 5h until we arrived to our destination, Las Vegas. We stayed at Marriott’s Grand Chateau and we had a kitchen equipped with everything we needed. Unfortunately as we arrived after 8pm, the hotel didn’t have any more free parking spaces, so we had to park at Douglas Parking just off The Strip (RV $15/day). The hotel was very nice and has two swimming pools, which is just what we needed to cool off from the desert’s heat.

Las Vegas is surreal! Start off by watching the famous fountain show at the Bellagio and then try your luck in one of the casinos. Bare in mind bets on The Strip start at $15. If you want to play cheaper, head downtown.

We enjoyed most of the day by the pool as it was impossible to walk around with 43°C. Unless you like casinos a lot or procrastinating at the hotel, 2 days are enough to see Las Vegas. The weather is rough and it’s all very artificial (I’m more into nature), but it was definitely worth the experience.

We also visited the Neon Museum, which is an open air museum with loads of old neon signs. We really liked it! Then we drove past Harley Davidson shop and the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, took the typical photo and started our journey towards Yosemite Valley.

We weren’t sure if we could pass Death Valley, as the RV company told us if the weather was too hot they wouldn’t assist us if we the RV broke down at the Valley. Fortunately the temperatures were mild on that day and we decided to take the risk!

Death Valley

Death Valley is considered to be the hottest, driest and lowest National Park, so be prepared. It is indeed really hot. To enter the park you have to pay a $30 fee. We just had a few hours to explore the park before sunset, so we decided to drive past Furnace Creek into Badwater Road towards Badwater Basin, which is the lowest elevation in North America at -86m below sea level. We walked for 1 km into the salt flat landscape and it is phenomenal. Just be sure you take loads of water with you, as the air is so dry that makes it really hard to breathe and you will feel that you are not sweating until you get back into your vehicle and it seems like you just had a shower. Be careful if you have any heart/asthma conditions. Other roads to visit the peaks are difficult to drive if you have a RV, so we decided to drive the Badwater Road which is quite flat and paved. The scenery is amazing! If you have time (and if you are not driving a RV), visit the Artist Palette while driving through Artist’s Drive (just off Badwater Road). It is a beautiful set of mountains with different colors produced by the oxidation of the metals found in the ground.

Back on the Highway 190 and then Highway 95, we drove towards Tonopah where we rested for free at Miller’s Rest Area. There were toilets available but the dump station was sealed, so we ended up dumping our RV black and grey waters at a RV park nearby (without paying because the reception was closed, we are really sorry!). As we were heading towards Yosemite National Park we really needed to empty our tanks before as there were no dump stations on our campground.

We really wanted to see a ghost town in Nevada, but we had no time to visit. There are the Nelson Ghost Town (El Dorado Canyon) next to Las Vegas and the Rhyolite next to the Death Valley. Fortunately, when driving from Tonopah towards Yosemite, we found Benton Ghost Town just off the Route 6 onto State Route 120. It is so strange to see a Town that just stopped in time!

Yosemite National Park

The view from Yosemite Valley

We spent 2 days at Yosemite. The drive from Tonopah was scenic! We stopped a couple of times to admire the nature! To enter the park you need to pay a $35 fee. Our first stop was the amazing Tunnel View, where you can see the Half Dome. Next, on our way to the Valley, we stopped at Bridalveil Fall. Most of the falls get dry during summertime, so this was one of the only ones with water flow. Then we took some time to explore the Valley and its amazing views, especially to El Capitan. The Valley is just breathtaking! To park in the Valley can be a nightmare in the peak season, so be sure you arrive really early or in the late afternoon.

Just after sunset we drove to Hodgon Meadow Campground, were we stayed the night. There were toilets and barbecue facilities, but some bears and mountain lions were seen at the time on the campground so we locked all our food and toiletries inside the bear proof locker. Our neighbours said they heard a bear trying to open it during the night! Of course we didn’t hear anything… It was amazing to walk in the heart of nature and listen to all its sounds. It was very difficult to get a place to park the RV, so if you plan to go reserve your spot as soon as possible, especially during Summer.

Our lovely home
The bear proof locker

Unfortunately we didn’t drive to the Glacier Point as we read the road was a bit dangerous when driving a RV. We drove to the Mariposa Grove to visit the sequoias, which is the world’s most massive tree and also considered the largest living organism on Earth. The biggest sequoia in the World, General Sherman, lives in the Sequoia National Park, which we couldn’t visit.

Mariposa Grove trails are lovely! Be sure you get there early, as the car park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza can easily get full. From there you can take the free shuttle bus to the Mariposa Grove. We walked the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, which took us roughly 2 hours, where we could see notable trees like the Bachelor and Three Graces, the Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree. Sequoias are very special trees for me and being able to hug them was one of the perks of this whole trip.

After saying goodbye to Yosemite, we drove 5 hours to San Francisco, our next destination. We needed a RV Park so we could use a dump station to empty the waters and clean the RV before dropping it off (unless you prefer to pay a fee), so in the end we found one next to the airport, Candlestick RV Park. It was very expensive ($119.95) but it was our only option. 

San Francisco

After dropping off our home for the last week, we visited Apple Park in Cupertino. The architecture of the Visitor Center is phenomenal!

We stayed in an airbnb next to Union Square, very central.

Here are my “what to do’s” in San Francisco:

  • Visit the Ferry Building Marketplace, a farmers’ market, where on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays until 2pm you can find them selling fresh veggies and flowers. You can also eat at one of its food stalls.
  • Visit the Golden Gate Park and Bridge and walk across it if the weather is good.
  • Visit the Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Enjoy the cute sea lions on K-Dock.
  • Play antique arcade games at Musée Mécanique on Pier 45.
  • Visit Alcatraz Island and prison. It is really interesting. You can book your tour here.
  • Visit the lovely Palace of Fine Arts.
  • Stroll around downtown and Union Square.
  • Visit San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has a collection of artworks from Matisse, Duchamp, Andy Warhol and even Frida Kahlo.
  • Visit also the Museum of Ice Cream of San Francisco, it is very colorful and fun, with pools full of sprinkle!. Tickets are a bit expensive, but I guess they are worth the fun.
  • Walk the Land’s End Trail towards Sutho Baths.
  • Ride the San Francisco Cable Car. It is amazing how fast it goes down the hills! One single trip costs $7. You can get more info here.
  • Drive down Lombard Street, or if you don’t have a car walk down the crookedest street in the world.
  • Climb to the Alamo Square Park and enjoy the view to the Painted Ladies, a row of Victorian houses on Steiner Street.
  • Enjoy the breathtaking views from the Twin Peaks.
  • Visit Haigh-Ashbury, known for being the origin of the hippie counterculture. You can also visit the Castro, Chinatown and Little Italy neighborhoods.
  • Be sure you try the famous bread, the San Francisco sourdough, on Tartine or Boudin Bakeries. 

There are loads of amazing restaurants in San Francisco. We recommend the Pier Market (lovely clams and fresh grilled fish), The Progress and the Italian Homemade Company.

The best restaurant in California for me is In-N-Out Burger. The normal cheeseburger comes with one beef patty, cheese, salad (fresh tomatoes, onion and lettuce) and the secret sauce (it’s similar to thousand island salad dressing) and, obviously, the best fries. But, there is a “secret menu” where you can ask for double meat, 3×3, 4×4, grilled cheese and animal style, which has mustard cooked patty and grilled onions. It is just my favourite burger ever!

3×3 and 4×4 In-N-Out Burgers

After two lovely days in San Francisco, we drove the California Route 1 down to Pismo Beach, where we stayed for the night. Unfortunately the weather was very foggy and rainy so you couldn’t even enjoy the views. We stopped at the Bixby Creek Bridge and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with lovely views of the McWay Falls. We will have to come back next time when there is good weather.

We stayed at the Cottage Inn by the Sea in Pismo Beach. The views were breathtaking and the breakfast was very good. We were very lucky to see a group of dolphins swimming in the ocean while we were at the beach.

The view from Cottage Inn

Our last stop was Los Angeles. On the way from Pismo Beach, we stopped in Malibu. The beaches are very beautiful and the water is warm.

Los Angeles

The traffic in LA is chaotic, so everywhere you go be sure you leave with plenty of time for delays.

We stayed in an airbnb in Hollywood just 5 minutes walk from the Walk of Fame. The location was great and the apartment had everything we needed, including a garage and swimming pool.

We were very lucky that we could get a NBA pre-season ticket to watch Lakers VS Sacramento Kings at Staples Centre. It was really nice to see the legend LeBron James playing.

LA is a huge city, so there are loads of things to do. Here are my top ones:

  • Visit Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach. You can rent a bike or an electric scooter and stroll through the promenade.
  • Drive through Beverly Hills and see all the amazing mansions you only see in the movies. We also drove past Rodeo Drive, the famous shopping street.
  • Visit the Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theatre. You can spot the Hollywood sign from the Hollywood & Highland centre, just take the escalators up and walk to the observation decks.
  • Watch the sunset at the Griffith Observatory.
  • Visit the Broad Museum. It has got an amazing collection plus Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room. Entry is free, just get your ticket from their website. The Infinity Room is a 45 second experience but the wait time can be in hours. So here is my tip: get your ticket for the earliest time and first thing to visit is the Infinity Room.

This is, so far, one of the best trips of my life. I will never forget watching the sunset at the Grand Canyon or hugging the Sequoias. If I could change something on our itinerary, I would definitely skip the Niagara Falls and add one more day at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite.

I hope to come back soon to visit Utah and the Monument Valley and the Yellowstone National Park!

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