1 San Francisco Bay Area, California

Here’s the bad news: the big reason to get really excited about the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016 has already happened – Super Bowl 50, held in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, is done, dusted and consigned to the history books. And the good news? Once the Super Bowl train’s left town (for Houston, Texas in 2017), you’ll have the run of an area that’s evolving at a furious pace.

From May onwards you’ll be able to check out the biggest contemporary art museum in the US, when San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art reopens after three years of expansion. Foodies and hipsters should head to Oakland – San Fran’s sister city has been riding on a wave of justified hype for a couple of years now, so catch it while it’s still hot.

How: Norwegian’s new route from Gatwick to Oakland launches in May 2016, with flights from £199 each way, norwegian.com; San Francisco’s Hotel Zeppelin, which promises to celebrate the city’s countercultural history, opens in March. Rooms from £209, viceroyhotelsandresorts.com

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

2 National Parks, Utah

There are more than 400 national parks in the US, and this year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday – which sounds like a good excuse for a knees-up if you ask us. Utah is home to some of the most breathtaking national parks in the country, or the ‘Big Five’ as they like to call them. In southern Utah’s 73,234-acre Arches Park (among others) you’ll find otherworldly rust-coloured sandstone cut by erosion into arches, bridges and faults and peppered with rivers and trees. It’s spectacular during the daytime, and, conveniently, at night, too. Come darkness, in Utah you’ll find yourself in the home state of three newly recognised International Dark Sky Parks – an honour reserved for the world’s most stunning starscapes, with this state now housing five of them (the most out of any of the other states in the US). Telescopes at the ready.

How: Delta has launched new flights from London to Salt Lake City from May, return fares from £805.55; see visitutah.com and visittheusa.com for more information. Try airbnb.com for a variety of cool homestays.

Arches National Park, Utah

3 Charleston to New Orleans, the Deep South

America’s Deep South is famous for its rich music culture, but what if you just can’t decide where to go? This nine-night trip with G Adventures will have you jiggling in the region’s most charming and quirky cities – that’s Charleston with its jazz and blues scene, and its beach (yep, there’s one of those); Atlanta, capital of Georgia state and home of Coca-Cola; Savanna, where you can bar-hop around the dive bars; then the Elvis mecca of Memphis. Finally, you’ll round-off the trip in New Orleans, home to creole cuisine, beignets (similar to doughnuts) and of course, jazz. If you’re looking for an insight into the real Deep South, this is as deep as it gets.

How: G Adventures offers the nine-night trip from £1,200 including transport, accommodation and some tours, excluding international flights, gadventures.co.uk. Virgin Atlantic offers return flights to Charleston from £582, virgin-atlantic.com

Philadelphia makes an easy, and cultural, city break destination

4 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

If, like us, you’ve spent hours poring over UNESCO’s website, you’ll know that late last year the organisation granted Philadelphia World Heritage City status, making it the first and only city in the US to have been given the honour. The title was granted to recognise the city’s notable contributions to the world. No, we don’t mean the cheesy, meaty Philly cheesesteak sandwich, although that is important. Instead, the city matched a load of rigorous criteria that Spain and Italy are famous for (from architecture to the ability to “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius”). We don’t really know what that means, but we’re with UNESCO on this one. Along with human creative genius, this is a city stocked with music bars, and is also home to the world’s largest collection of public outdoor art, thanks to the Mural Arts Program that’s been running since 1984. Take a wander down the Mural Mile and see it for yourself.

How: British Airways offers return flights to Philadelphia from £480, ba.com; the Kimpton Hotel Monaco is stylish yet well-priced, with nightly rates from £150 per room, kimptonhotels.com

The Halemaumau crater in the Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

5 Hawaii’s islands, Hawaii

New for 2016 is TrekAmerica’s Big Island tour of Hawaii, an eight-day trip that means you don’t have to fret about which islands to include on your 2016 holiday itinerary (you have one of those, right?). The tour includes oceanside camping under the stars,
snorkelling and visiting one of the most active volcanoes in the world at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as exploring the dark caves of the Thurston Lava Tube – equally thrilling for geographers and geographyhaters, trust us. The trip includes all camp equipment and you’ll be travelling around with like-minded 18-35 year olds. Aloha!

How: The eight-day tour starts from £859 including equipment and transport, trekamerica.com. Delta offers return flights from £1,000, delta.com, or use kayak.com to find the best deal.

Staten Island is just 25 minutes from Manhattan and offers seaside vibes and rides

6 Staten island, New York City

It only takes 25 minutes to get from Manhattan to Staten Island on the famous (and free) ferry, but there are more and more reasons to make your stay in New York City’s southernmost borough a long one. For starters (if you can wait until 2017), there’s the building of the 192m-high New York Wheel, with $7m of LED lights and staggering views of the city. It’s part of a wider project to revitalise the historic area around the St George’s ferry terminal. For now, soak up the old-school seaside vibe at South Beach, visit historic streets that gaze across at Manhattan and wander the 12,300 acres of parkland (it’s the greenest of the five boroughs). There’s good food to be had, too, from pizza (try Denino’s on Port Richmond Avenue) to Creole food and New Orleans spirit at Bayou on Bay Street.

How: British Airways offers return flights to New York’s JFK from £400, ba.com; find an apartment on Airbnb and live like a real Staten Islander, airbnb.com

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

7 Custer State Park, South Dakota

When London Zoo just won’t cut it, we suggest you head into South Dakota’s big outdoors, more specifically Custer State Park. For one day every September it’s the site of a 1,300-strong bison round-up – an event that includes watching cowboys and cowgirls herding the bisons to be checked, sorted and branded – essential work for maintaining a healthy herd, and one that’ll give you an insight into the traditions of this community. Get 30 September in your diary, in pen.

How: Audley Travel offers a 10-night Real America trip covering the best of South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming from £2,875pp. Includes international flights, accommodation and car hire, audleytravel.com

8 Louisville, Kentucky

Bourbon drinker? You’ll want to check out Louisville at some point this year before everyone cottons on. Kentucky’s biggest and most important city has a thriving food and drink scene, a likely result of its location next to the rolling hills and historic whiskey distilleries of bourbon country. Most are within an hour’s drive of Louisville, and they love to show off, so expect a warm, whiskey-laden welcome. Closer to the centre, there are some exquisite cocktail bars, a fun and eclectic pub and club scene, restaurants that serve up artful, impressive and creative dishes from the surrounding area’s natural larder, and some great hotels. If you’re road tripping or making a long weekend of it, three or four days should be enough to discover most of the things to see and do in the beating heart of the Bluegrass State.

How: American Airlines offers return flights to Louisville via Charlotte from £542, aa.com; the Hilton Garden Inn Louisville Downtown has an unmissable rooftop bar and double rooms from £82, hilton.com

9 Asbury Park, New Jersey

Forget everything you think you know about the Jersey Shore. Forget the TV programme, forget the insults from too-cool New Yorkers, and instead go and check it out yourself. Asbury Park is an old-school seaside town that’s just an hour’s train ride from Manhattan. The boardwalk is lined with food trucks, pinball machines and a fortune teller – look the other way and there’s golden, sun-glazed sand backed by waves.

Asbury Park inspired much of Bruce Springsteen's early output in the 1970s

The town, which inspired much of Bruce Springsteen’s early output in the 1970s, is undergoing an epic revival – the first new hotel in the town in 50 years opens this year, while retro music venues continue to thrive; check out Asbury Lanes, where local bands play on a small stage set in the middle of bowling alleys. Escape Manhattan for a day on the beach before everyone else hears about it.

How: Norwegian Air offers return flights to NYC from £310, norwegeianair.com, then take the train from Penn station to Asbury Park. Book accommodation via airbnb.com

10 Northwest Parks and Seattle, Washington

We’ve been banging the drum for Seattle for years – not only is this city in the Pacific Northwest the birthplace of grunge, Starbucks and Amazon, but it’s got an off-the-chart food and drink scene and jaw-dropping natural beauty on its doorstep. If you’ve got the time, hop on one of Grand American Adventures’ tours of the Northwest parks, which uses Seattle as a jumping-off point for a 13-day who’s-who of the region’s blockbuster sights. That means the wilderness of Olympic
National Park, Mount Rainier and its glaciers, the 55 lakes of Coeur D’Alene, plus Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. This is a big year for US national parks (the National Park Service turns 100 in August), and these are some of the biggest and best.

How: The Grand American Adventures Northwest Parks and Lodges tour costs from £2,619 per person, including transport and accommodation, grandamericanadventures.com. British Airways offers return flights to Seattle from £571, britishairways.com 

11 Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Longing to see the big American sights but without the loud crowds of tourists? Try the Havasu Canyon, one of 600 side gorges forming the Grand Canyon. The trip will have you hiking vertiginous mule-trodden paths (the mules are carrying your gear, no worries), and taking in stonking scenery consisting of layers of sun-scorched rock and turquoise waterfalls (Havasupai translates to ‘the land of the blue-green waters’). Forget hotels, because it’s streamside camping only, but don’t fret – after your epic hike you can return to laid-back Scottsdale, Arizona’s answer to Miami’s South Beach (albeit in the desert).

How: Arizona Outback Adventures offers five-day Havasupai Adventure trips from £987 including permits, gear, and camps; head to aoa-adventures.com, visitarizona.com and experiencescottsdale.com; British Airways offers return flights to Phoenix from £736, ba.com 

Houston art

12 Houston, Texas

If art, galleries and museums are at the forefront of your holiday-making decisions, prep yourself for these next few sentences, because Houston’s visual arts scene is exploding. Our favourites include Inman Gallery, which was originally designed as a space for the city’s emerging artists in the up-and-coming Midtown district, while the artist-owned Archway Gallery showcases sculptures, pottery and mixed media paintings. Then there’s the entire Museum District. This year also sees the opening of Independence Plaza, where you can enter a replica of the shuttle Independence, mounted on top of an original NASA 905 aircraft. Along with that, you’ll find dazzling exhibitions offering a glimpse into the shuttle era.

How: British Airways offers return flights from £800, ba.com; Hotel Zaza is a glammed-up, bold Texan hotel with nightly rates from £300 per room, hotelzaza.com

13 Duluth, Minnesota

You may not have heard of Duluth (it’s a port city on the banks of Lake Superior, where Bob Dylan was born 75 years ago), but it’s kind of a big deal if you’re into the outdoors, and mountain biking in particular. The city is in the middle of a huge project to create a 100-mile connected network of off-road bike trails – all within the city’s limits – spearheaded by local group the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores.

Duluth is a port city on the banks of Lake Superior, where Bob Dylan was born 75 years ago

“Our vision is to become the premier in-city mountain-bike system in the world,” Duluth’s mayor, Don Ness, told Bike magazine last year. And if cycling’s not your thing, head here for snow sports in winter, watersports on Lake Superior and the near 300-mile hiking trail that leads from Duluth to the Canadian border.

How: Delta offers return flights to Duluth via Minneapolis from £570, delta.com; Dodge’s Log Lodges has lakeside cabins just outside the city. From £104 per night, dodgeslog.com

14 Portland, Maine

No, not that Portland (in Oregon) – the other one, where it’s more about lobsters than hipsters. Maine’s coast is a mixture of tall pines and cold, windy waters, conditions that make the big and tasty crustaceans so abundant that they’re available to buy for around a fiver straight off a boat – no kidding. Here, you’ll get your fill of lobster rolls and deep-fried belly clams, but there are plenty of other incredible dishes too, from pizza to breakfast sandwiches. Check out fromaway.com for in-depth reviews of the city’s best dishes with plenty of personality. And don’t get us started on the craft beer, or that lighthouse.

How: Norwegian Air is launching budget return flights to Boston (around 90 minutes away) from £270, norwegian.com. Base yourself at the charming Pomegranate Inn, where nightly rates start at £100 per room, pomegranateinn.com

Detroit, Michigan

15 Corktown, Detroit, Michigan

A few years back, Detroit’s future was looking bleak – so much so that with $18m of debt, the city filed for bankruptcy. But for the first time in 56 years, after decades of residents abandoning the city, the population is rising again, and Corktown is the incubator of new startups run by young, hopeful residents, including Beard Balm (“Good for your face, and your marriage,” they claim), and Astro Coffee, a hipster coffee bar with killer macchiatos. It’s not all shiny new stuff though – across the road is the shell of the formerly elegant Michigan Central Station, a sign of what once was. If you’re fascinated by urban regeneration, underdog cities, Motown (the city’s home to surely the best museum in the world), craft beer and art (of the graffiti and museum variety), get your ass to D-town.

How: Virgin Atlantic offers return flights from £489, virgin-atlantic.com; embrace the city’s history as a factory town and stay in a converted warehouse with airbnb.com

St Petersburg/Clearwater

16 St Petersburg/Clearwater, Florida

HOLD. UP. White-sand beaches, turquoise sea and 20 independent breweries to try? Count us in. Designate a non-drinking driver (unlucky) and explore the beer trail between St Pete and Clearwater in Florida. Along the way you can try a couple of beer flights at Green Bench Brewing Co, an earthy-looking bar, while the fifth-generation Austrian brewer at Lagerhaus Brewery also offers a 22% brew for the brave. When you’re not sampling the nectar of the oldest craft breweries in the Sunshine State, you can check out St Pete’s psychedelic murals. And that beach.

How: British Airways offers return flights to Tampa (a 30-minute drive) from £550, ba.com; base yourself by the beach at the very chilled, very cool Postcard Inn, with nightly rates from £90 per room, postcardinn.com. See visitstpeteclearwater.com

17 Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the US, but an injection of cash and love from an unlikely double act is giving it a fresh new face. First, local resident George RR Martin (yes, that one) felt there should be more to do at night in the city, so in 2013 he bought an abandoned cinema and gave it a new lease of life. And next month, an old bowling lane purchased by the Game of Thrones author in 2008 will reopen as a trippy arts-space-come-multi-use-venue called the House of Eternal Return, created by freewheeling local arts collective Meow Wolf. As Martin himself says: “One thing’s for sure, it will be much more exciting than bowling.” This, added to the chilled-out city’s existing status as a hub for artists and art fans, makes it a destination that’s rising, fast.

How: American Airlines offers return flights to Santa Fe via Dallas from £555, aa.com. The Silver Saddle motel is kitsch, fun and great value, with doubles from £33 a night, santafesilversaddlemotel.com

18 Route 66, Illinois to California

You’ll most likely have heard of Route 66, but how many towns along the 2,448-mile road can you actually name? OK there are the big ones, like Chicago and Las Vegas, but Gallup (New Mexico) or Chandler (Oklahoma) may need some introduction to even the biggest Americophile. You’d need your entire year’s annual leave to cover the eight-state, three-timezone route, so how about taking a leisurely, week-long trip from St Louis (Missouri) to Amarillo (Texas), via Tulsa (Oklahoma) instead? This part will have you experiencing the real middle-America – quirky motels, sticky diners and small-town bars. It’s the route’s 90th anniversary this year (the highway was given its Route 66 designation in April 1926) – so when better to cruise this epic stretch of tarmac?

How: Virgin Atlantic partners with Delta to offer the best flight routes in and out of the route, with return flights from £645, landing in St Louis. Use visittheusa.com to help plan your trip.

19 Fairbanks, Alaska

If seeing the Northern Lights has been on your life to-do list for a while, cross it off this year with a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska – one of the best places on earth to catch them, with around 200 spectacles per year.

If seeing the Northern Lights has been on your life to-do list for a while, cross it off this year with a trip to Fairbanks, Alaska

During the day you can try traditional winter pursuits such as snowmobiling, dog mushing, skiing or slopping around the warm water of the Chena Hot Springs, and at night, cross your fingers and hope to see the colourful bands of light shimmering in the sky.

How: Tour operator Discover the World offers an eight-night trip combining the northern lights (hopefully), springs and other activities from £1,352pp, excluding international flights, discover-the-world.co.uk

20 Chicago, Illinois

You’ve probably seen cult movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which a trio of students bunk off school and hit Chicago. If not, why not? Though stats geeks have revealed the ‘day off’ in the film to be 5 June 1985 (they used the date of a baseball game featured to work it out), this year marks 30 years since Ferris arrived in cinemas – and that’s as good a reason as any to visit Chi-Town. There are plenty of others, too – the architecture (it has some of the most important buildings in the US), the food (the deep-dish pizza pie was invented here) and the music (it birthed house music in the 1980s, and played a huge role in the growth of jazz and blues). It also has more than 580 public parks, and the city has 26 public beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan. As Ferris himself says: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.”

How: Virgin Atlantic offers return flights from £575, virgin-atlantic.com. The Freehand hostel and hotel opened last year. Bunks from £27, rooms from £111, thefreehand.com