Blake Snow

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For great U.S. architecture, focus on these three big cities

Courtesy Chicago Tourism

As the third largest country in the world, the United States is roughly 2,600 miles wide by 1,500 miles tall. And unlike larger or comparably-sized countries such as Russia, Canada, China, and Brazil, the U.S. is known for being more culturally and geographically diverse.

While that size and variety result in a top-rated place to see and experience a lot of new things, there is a downside—particularly when it comes to seeing and visiting the nation’s greatest buildings and architectural feats. With so much to see on such a large canvas, it might seem overwhelming.

For those interested in skyscrapers, big monuments, and remarkable structures, however, I’ve got good news. A large portion of America’s most iconic buildings can be found in three of its greatest cities. To see many of the best in as little time as possible, take the following approach. 

Start with “wow” in Washington, D.C.

Although New York is understably home to a lot more architectural accomplishments, D.C. is home to noticeably more iconic and well-rated buildings in a hyper-condensed area.

For example, you can find the following five monuments on the western side of the Mall, all within walking distance of each other: The Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, The White House, Washington Monument, and Jefferson Memorial. Two miles to the east on the other side of the Mall, you’ll find the highly-rated Capitol Building, Supreme Court Building, and Library of Congress.

While in town, be sure to drive 20 minutes north to take in Washington National Cathedral, the second largest church in the country.

See the world’s “capital buildings” in Manhattan

If New York City is indeed the “world’s capital,” then there’s no better place to see some of the world’s most important buildings.

In Midtown alone, you’ll find the most architectural standouts, including the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, New York Public Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Grand Central Terminal, Waldorf Astoria, St. Regis, and Carnegie Hall.

In the Upper East side, you’ll find The Metropolitan Museum of Art; in the Upper West Side, the Rose Center for Earth and Space. And on the southern part of the island, you’ll encounter the famous Flatiron Building and historic Brooklyn Bridge.

In New York City, it’s quantity and quality.

Make Chicago a “floating” priority

With just as many top-rated structures as Washington, D.C. and dozens more skyscraping ones, Chicago is world-renowned for its architecture. And the most stunning way to see much of it is by floating the Chicago River on a 90-minute guided river cruise, which TripAdvisor dubs, “the most popular tour in America.”

That’s for good reason. For around $50 per ticket, riders get up close and personal while trisecting more than 50 buildings of note, including the Willis (aka Sears) Tower, Tribune Tower, Montgomery Ward Complex, The Old Post Office, Lake Point Tower, Sofitel Water Tower, and the John Hancock Center among others. In short, there’s no better way to see it all in one fell swoop.

After your cruise, make your way to The Art Institute of Chicago for the masterpiece building and the greatest display of art in the country, as well as the popular Cloud Gate sculpture (aka “The Bean”) in nearby Millennium Park.

Consider other iconic outposts

While the above three cities are enough to justify a week’s worth of admiring world-class buildings, the rest of America’s best architecture is scattered elsewhere in smaller quantities.

Notable exceptions include San Francisco and its timeless Golden Gate Bridge, triumphant City Hall, triangular Transamerica Pyramid, and decadent Fairmont Hotel. In St. Louis, visitors can appreciate the well-known Gateway Arch and acclaimed Union Station. In Los Angeles, both its Union Station and the Getty Center stand supreme.

Last but not least, building-goers would do well to add The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina to their bucket list. At more than 135,000 total square feet, the former Vanderbilt residence is the largest and most impressive privately-owned home in all of America. Like the country it finds itself in, the mansion is big, bold, and beautiful. 

Blake Snow writes for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a seasoned writer-for-hire and energetic travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his loving family and loyal dog.