I recently accomplished my life goal of visiting all 50 states.
People naturally ask, “What was your favorite?”
It’s so tough to pick a favorite. This is an incredible country with diverse cultures, experiences and topographical features.
I decided to rank all 50 states, not only on my opinion but on several other factors related to tourism:
- Affordability (with a higher weight on sales tax)
- Natural Beauty (as judged by Thrillist)
- State and National Park coverage (source)
- Food and drink quality (as ranked by Far & Wide)
- Overall popularity (source)
I averaged all these rankings (along with my personal rank) and below are the results, going from worst to best…
Kansas City is amazing, but unfortunately the lion’s share of it is in Missouri. So, I guess you could visit Wichita?
49. North Dakota
I filmed my first impression of North Dakota and linked it below. Spoiler alert: it was uninspiring. This is the coldest state in the continental US so not much of a surprise to find it near the bottom of the list. Despite the poor ranking, I must admit that the city of Fargo has a cool downtown and Theodore Roosevelt National Park is legit.
I drove across the state and didn’t see much that was exciting. Field of Dreams, John Wayne’s birthplace, world’s largest wooden nickel and a quilt museum. So if you’re interested in seeing any of that, go to Iowa.
I don’t have fond memories of this state (don’t make me spell it). I spent a week in Biloxi and thought Galveston was better. I stopped in Pelahatchie for lunch, the chef wore a crawfish costume and played the handsaw as a musical instrument. Fascinating place.
Why doesn’t Texas float into the Gulf of Mexico? Because Oklahoma sucks.
The rankings seem to confirm this, ranking in the bottom 10 for every category except affordability. So if you’re looking for an affordable but boring vacation, check out Oklahoma!
I had high hopes for visiting Omaha, but when I asked people what to do everyone said the zoo. When the zoo is your top attraction, we’re in trouble. All kidding aside, I enjoyed the Warren Buffett tour — his house, his office, and his favorite steak house.
Unless you’re into car racing or want to coach basketball, you really have no reason to visit Indiana. But if you’re looking for a perfect small town experience, hit up The Friendly Tavern in Zionsville- a true taste of the American Midwest.
43. Rhode Island
My personal ranking of Rhode Island was #22 so I think it’s worth a visit. Newport is a beautiful coastal town rich with history. It’s just that the state is so small that it’s not really worth a special visit. I recommend combining it with Connecticut, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard for a true coastal New England vibes.
If you are looking for a casino, this should be #1 on your list. If you are looking for a live show, this should be high on your list. All other attributes put this state at the bottom of the list. 80% of the state is owned by the federal government and don’t get too jealous, there isn’t much there.
If you do want to visit Nevada, I recommend visiting Las Vegas as part of an L.A. or Grand Canyon trip; or visiting Reno as part of a trip to Lake Tahoe.
Did you know Delaware was the first state admitted to the Union?
And that’s the last time it was first in anything.
I think Arkansas is beautiful, I ranked it as #19 but everyone else apparently hates it. Ouachita National Forest and The Ozarks are some of our nations hidden treasures. Just don’t expect any world-class cuisine while in this state.
39. New Hampshire
This is the state you drive through to get from Boston to Vermont or Maine. While pretty, it doesn’t have enough unique culture to illicit remark.
Similar to Arkansas, I love Idaho but everyone else thinks it’s a dud! I rank Idaho in my top 15 states and definitely the most under-rated state of all!
I recommend Idaho Falls and Ketchum.
Despite its size, Connecticut has an impressive 139 state parks! If you’re going to visit, I recommend hitting up the small towns like Mystic and Chester.
How Alabama made it this far, I have no clue. Must be the football.
35. South Dakota
You might think that South Dakota would be ranked similar to its neighbor North Dakota, but it ranks higher due to Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, and Badlands National Park. It’s definitely worth a visit!
Besides the town of Annapolis, I’m not the biggest fan of Maryland. It ranks well due to food — known for steamed crabs and Old Bay seasoning- but beyond that, it’s not a place you need to spend much time.
I have family from Ohio, so I’m not going to say anything negative here. There’s a decent amount of things to do here — theme parks, museums, parks, sports. I would recommend combining this state with other nearby states for a vacation.
32. New Mexico
New Mexico is a victim of geography. Sandwiched between Arizona, Colorado, and Texas doesn’t help tourism. Looking for mountains? New Mexico has them, but Colorado is better. Looking for desert? New Mexico has them, but Arizona is better. Looking for great food? New Mexico is your place, but Texas is better.
The unique offerings of New Mexico are Pueblo-style adobe architecture, chile peppers, and the Hot Air Balloon Festival.
31. New Jersey
New Jersey is awful, they won’t even let you pump your own gas. I ranked it as #46 but it apparently ranks high in park coverage and food — go figure.
This state is home to two great cities — Kansas City and St. Louis- and a lot of farmland in between. The Branson area is also a well-known tourist area. If you only do two things in the state, I recommend The Gateway Arch and Kansas City barbecue.
If you visit Louisiana, you need to go to New Orleans. Founded by the French in 1718, New Orleans is a city in Louisiana known for its unique blend of cultures. The city is famous for its Mardi Gras celebrations, jazz music, and delicious Creole cuisine.
Known for having 10,000 lakes and the Mall of America, the true gem of Minnesota lies in the Northeast part of the state. Voyageurs National Park, Superior National Forest and Isle Royale National Park are all worth the trip! I also recommend the lake town of Grand Marais.
27. West Virginia
West Virginia isn’t the most popular state, but it’s definitely a hidden gem with beautiful mountains, forests, and scenic drives. It’s also known for its outdoor recreational activities such as hiking at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
I love Vermont! It’s a beautiful place with stunning landscapes, picturesque villages, and a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. The state is famous for its artisanal food and drink scene, with craft breweries, farm-to-table restaurants, and local cheese producers. Vermont is also a popular destination for hiking and skiing (I recommend Stowe).
I think this state is best summed up by the following quote:
“Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, with Alabama in between.” — James Carville
The only reason Illinois is ranked in the top half of states is The Windy City. Chicago is one of the largest cities in the U.S. with a rich industrial history. Known for deep-dish pizza, bean sculpture, and lots of snow. Visiting the city of Chicago is a must for any serious traveller.
Kentucky is known for horse racing, bluegrass music and bourbon. It also has beautiful natural features. For visiting, I recommend coupling it with Tennessee or combining it with Indiana and Ohio.
Virginia has something for everyone — mountains, beaches, history, and culture. My favorite sites are Shenandoah, Old Town Alexandria, Williamsburg and Virginia Beach.
When you visit Massachusetts, you want to hit 2 places — Boston and Cape Cod. In Boston, check out The Freedom Trail — A 2.5-mile walk that passes by 16 historical sites related the beginning of the U.S. In Cape Cod, check out Plymouth, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket — and definitely have incredible seafood.
This state is home to culture, history and natural beauty. Atlanta is the birthplace of MLK, as well as companies like Chick-fil-a, Coca-Cola and CNN. For planning a trip, I recommend Atlanta, Stone Mountain, Athens and Chattahoochee National Forest.
I’m not entirely sure how Wisconsin made it in the top 20. I ranked it #37 but it ranks high for park coverage and food — apparently people really enjoy the cheese curds. The state is also known for Green Bay — home of the Packers (aka Cheese-heads).
Life elevated. Utah is home to Salt Lake City, Park City, and some of the best national parks in the country! This is the first state in the list that I would recommend spending an entire week. Here’s where I would visit:
- Zion National Park
- Arches National Park
- Bryce Canyon
- Park City (ski resort town)
- Logan (quaint small town)
17. South Carolina
I’m glad South Carolina made it to the top 20 states because it tends to be under-rated as a travel destination. The 3 places I recommend are Hilton Head, Greenville and Charleston.
The Rocky Mountains run along the western side of the state creating some extraordinary landscapes — from Glacier National Park to Big Sky. Montana is a go-to travel destination for those who love the great outdoors!
A beautiful mix of western culture and incredible national parks. For western experiences, check out Frontier Days in Cheyenne and a small town rodeo in Cody. For nature, visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
There’s probably no greater joy than visiting South Florida in January and feeling the only sunshine in the country. The state attracts millions of visitors each year who come to enjoy the theme parks and beaches. You could easily do multiple trips to this state and not get bored!
If you are looking for some hidden gems, check out Rosemary Beach, Naples and Dry Tortugas National Park.
As a Texan, it pains me not to have my home state as #1 — but this is an aggregated ranking and it’s specifically for travel not residing. If you have limited time in this great state, visit Austin, San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country.
A classic Texas experience is the Bandera Rodeo, which happens around Memorial Day. But remember, any time May through September is going to be hot! I recommend visiting during bluebonnet season at the end of March or during the fall in October.
Most people know about the Grand Canyon, but there’s a reason that Arizona is one of the fastest growing states. The weather is predictable (full of vitamin D) and the outdoor recreation possibilities are endless. Sedona is absolutely breathtaking, and believe it or not, it snows in Flagstaff.
Unless you live on the West Coast, not many people travel to Oregon and it’s a shame because it’s a beautiful state. The Historic Columbia River Highway from Portland to Hood River is one of the most beautiful drives you can imagine. The small town of Bend is a gem and the coast (Cannon Beach) is phenomenal.
10. New York
Obviously NYC is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. A melting pot of cultures, it is home to some of the best food and culture available. Just recently I discovered how much I love Brooklyn, a bit more low-key than Manhattan.
Apart from the Big Apple, New York State offers several attractions such as Niagara Falls, The Finger Lakes, The Adirondack Mountains and plenty of historical sites.
Known for lighthouses, lobster, blueberry pie and Acadia National Park, Maine has every reason to be a top 10 state. One could easily spend a week here, although try to avoid the winter months. Visitors can explore the rugged coastline, hike in the state’s many parks, or simply unwind in one of Maine’s cozy coastal towns.
I love Alaska. I personally rank it as #2 but it ranks last on food due to it’s bland cuisine. You could easily spend 10–14 days here — during the summer of course. I like to share the following Alaska activities to consider:
- Hike in Denali National Park
- Go salmon fishing near Cooper Landing
- Do a whale watching cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park
- See bears at Katmai National Park
Tennessee has a lot going for it- Appalachians on one side, Memphis on the other and Nashville in the middle. This state has fascinating history, amazing food, unbeatable music and extraordinary hiking. Personally, I was impacted by the National Civil Rights Museum which was built on the site where MLK was assassinated.
I was surprised that Michigan was ranked so well, but it sports over 3,200 miles of Great Lakes coastline and includes the pristine forestland of the Upper Peninsula. Aside from lake life, I recommend visiting the iconic Mackinac Island and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
Washington state is incredible. The coastal area is beautiful and the national parks and forests offer some unreal views. Seattle is a really neat city, known for being a tech hub, having the nation’s best coffee (birthplace of Starbucks) and the famous Space Needle.
4. North Carolina
I’m happy to say that I lived here for five years and loved every minute of it. Beaches on the east, mountains on the west, and two great cities (Raleigh and Charlotte) in the middle. Visitors to the state flock to Asheville for the hipster art culture and Biltmore Estate, but also to the Outer Banks and Research Triangle. There is something for everyone in North Carolina.
When I was younger, we would visit Colorado during the summer and it was so refreshing to escape from the Texas heat. You could easily spend a month exploring all that Colorado has to offer — and you can’t just do it once because it transforms depending on the season.
Despite coming in dead last in affordability, California still manages to be the #2 rated state. There is something for everyone in California — national parks, world class cities, wine tours, theme parks… Each region has its own wonders and places to explore.
I saved the best for last! Yes, this was my last state to visit and it was my favorite and seems to be everyone else’s favorite as well. What’s not to like? It’s a tropical paradise where you don’t need a passport nor worry about the drinking water.
The four most popular islands to visit are The Big Island (pictured below), O’ahu, Maui and Kaua’i. Each island has its own features and charm. My personal favorite was the secluded beaches of the “Leeward” side of O’ahu.