Where would you take a foreign exchange student on spring break?
February 5, 2023 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Where would you take a 17-year-old European exchange student (to the U.S.) on a 5-day spring break trip? She will be traveling with her adult host parents. She is mildly adventurous, loves taking cool selfies for social media, and really embraces the excitement of being an exchange student in the U.S.

States she has already visited: California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York. For the sake of not limiting answers, assume budget won’t be a significant barrier.

This will be her last trip within the U.S.; also, for various reasons, she believes this will be the only time in her lifetime she’ll be in the States. She has asked her host parents to choose the location of the trip, saying that she has no idea what sounds best.

What initially felt like a fun spring break trip has now morphed into host mom having feelings of stress! and pressure! and fears of screwing up her host child’s Last Big American Experience!

Dear readers, please advise.
posted by WaspEnterprises to Travel & Transportation around United States (41 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Grand Canyon and the 4 corners area— Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde—
posted by Ideefixe at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2023 [25 favorites]

Best answer: One of the great things about America is our diversity of natural environments. If she's at all outdoorsy, the Grand Canyon? Joshua Tree National Park? Zion National Park? the Hoh/Bogachiel Rain Forest (some of the only temperate rain forest in the world)? the Everglades?
posted by kokaku at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

Los Angeles - perfect for selfies everywhere with a lot of iconic American experiences. Suggested selfie spots:

Santa Monica Pier + Venice Beach
Rodeo Drive
Hollywood Blvd
Hollywood Sign
In 'n Out

Other possible spots:
Universal Studios
Griffin Observatory

Highly recommend the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum + LACMA just because.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:53 AM on February 5, 2023 [3 favorites]

I'm a bit biased because I live here, but: Washington, DC! If you're going to have the Last Big American Experience, I feel like this is the quintessential "embrace being an exchange student in the US" place to visit. She can visit world-class museums, see historic sites, wander around the monuments, and take her selfies at Artechouse. We admittedly don't have any stunning outdoors/naturey stuff right here in the city, though Great Falls National Park is easily accessible by car. I'd also recommend a day trip to Old Town Alexandria for more history and art. If you decide to go with DC and have more specific questions, Memail me anytime!
posted by capricorn at 9:09 AM on February 5, 2023 [19 favorites]

Best answer: I think something iconically American. Which, since she's been to California and New York probably means the west, including the Grand Canyon. That would make for great selfies. Another option is LA or SF if she hasn't been to one or the other. I think there are bonus for points for Americana - diners and so on. Other places that might work if they're easier to get to or more affordable: Tennessee (Nashville and/or Memphis + Appalachians), Louisiana (New Orleans + delta or plantation), Seattle and around, Las Vegas (but probably not really old enough to enjoy in full), New Mexico (Santa Fe + pueblo), Yellowstone (if very outdoors-y), SW Utah.
posted by plonkee at 9:10 AM on February 5, 2023

Best answer: The Grand Canyon and the 4 corners area— Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde—

I came to say the same thing. Don’t forget Bryce too.

Not only are those amazing places but the vast distances and open landscape between them drive home the sheer scale of the United States in a way that is unique in my experience.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:11 AM on February 5, 2023 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Another vote for Grand Canyon!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:11 AM on February 5, 2023 [3 favorites]

Well Las Vegas would give you a bunch of options -- all the neon and glitter of the Strip, see some shows, go to Red Rock Canyon and Hoover Dam.

You could do a cruise from Southern California into Baja (if that's not an issue for her, depending on what passport she holds).

If you're already on the west coast (meaning not too long of a flight), then consider Hawaii.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:11 AM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Either Washington DC or a Boston-to-Maine run.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:18 AM on February 5, 2023

Surprised no one has suggested Florida yet. It’s a little crazy, yeah, but it’s pretty unique. Maybe not if your student is from a Mediterranean country, but Miami and Key West are great for selfies, and you could Disney, which is an iconic American experience if nothing else. I’m not saying this is the right answer, but it should probably be under consideration.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:19 AM on February 5, 2023 [3 favorites]

New Orleans - it is a unique and vibrant city with amazing music, and will give her a glimpse into history.
posted by dum spiro spero at 9:22 AM on February 5, 2023 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Absolutely the Grand Canyon. There's nothing else really like it on this planet. If budget really isn't much of a concern:

Friday afternoon -- fly into Flagstaff, get car, drive to the park or Williams or Tusayan or wherever you're staying
Sat+Sun -- canyon
Monday -- get up, drive to Vegas, do something silly in Vegas
Tuesday -- get up early, drive to Zion, do stuff at Zion, get to Bryce at night
Wed -- Bryce
Thurs -- drive to Moab
Fri -- Arches + Canyonlands
Sat -- drive to SLC, do something in SLC
Sun -- fly home from SLC
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:35 AM on February 5, 2023 [7 favorites]

Best answer: If not adverse to driving, you could also turn the Grand Canyon visit into an epic road trip:

Day 1-2: Flagstaff, Grand Canyon
Day 3: Oatman donkeys and Vegas
Day 4-5: Joshua Tree / Palm Springs / LA

I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top.
posted by credulous at 9:52 AM on February 5, 2023 [5 favorites]

Honestly, I would say the quintessential American experience is Washington, D.C. hands down. Maybe some side trips to Philadelphia and Boston.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 10:17 AM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I was camping in Moab, Utah next to a young couple from Germany. They had flown to the east coast, rented a car, and road tripped along a big stretch of the east coast before the drove west. I asked them what their favorite thing so far had been, and they were in unanimous agreement it was Great Sand Dunes National park, in Colorado.

I also vote southwest road trip. The greatest hits for that kind of trip have been mentioned above and are all great options. But maybe consider adding on the dunes.
posted by Rinku at 10:19 AM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Grand Canyon and Bryce are no doubt cool, but depending when Spring Break is, the weather can be iffy - you could get unlucky with a winter storm. If you do that route, I'd consider instead Red Rock Canyon/Death Valley/Mojave Preserve.

And yeah, I think New Orleans or Florida are also two good options. If you rent a car for a day, from New Orleans you can get to some pretty swamp nature as well - Jean Laffite National Park, for example makes a nice day trip. The natural springs in central Florida are very unique, and winter is the time to see manatees. And not all of the beaches are going to be nuts.
posted by coffeecat at 10:19 AM on February 5, 2023

Agreeing about the general Southwest, or New Orleans.

In fact - I'm leaning towards New Orleans because a) she's been to California and South Dakota, so she's got the "rocky rugged natural beauty and cowboys" bucket list sight checked, and New York also ticks "big city scenes you've seen on TV" checked. (California would also have San Francisco and Los Angeles, so that can also have that covered.) The biggest hole I'm seeing in her experiences is the Southeastern US, and New Orleans would have that; especially if you take some of the day trips out to the surrounding countryside.

It is also home to one of America's most unique regional cuisines, is the birth place of one of the United States' biggest cultural contributions to the world (Jazz, which then begat blues and rock and roll), and is just flat-out awesome. Also, since this is a Spring Break trip, you'd likely be visiting AFTER Mardi Gras, which will be a BIG break on the wallet; but also you'd be there before summer, which is a bad idea (humid, SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO humid).

Or, you could do a mini road trip from Nashville to New Orleans and hit up the country music scene as well. Driving direct from Nashville to New Orleans takes only a day, so if you have five days you could really take your time and explore, or do two days one place, a day and a half for transit (exploring as you go), and then two days in New Orleans. This site has a couple of suggested itineraries for that trip.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:35 AM on February 5, 2023 [5 favorites]

+1 for Washington, DC. Also, if you want some nature with your city/culture trip, Shenandoah National Park is beautiful and only 75 miles from DC; some more info..
posted by gudrun at 10:41 AM on February 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

If the weather is suitable, despite my urban proclivities I've got to go with the "Southwest road trip" crowd. I've never been to the Grand Canyon, but just on my one short trip to Sedona, I was awestruck by the landscape. It's something that's part of the American myth, but really doesn't have a rough equivalent elsewhere in the country.

Alternatively, if Student is not from northernmost Europe and especially if she's starting from the western part of the country, an Alaskan trip would be amazing.
posted by praemunire at 10:42 AM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Grand Canyon but I think rather than Utah parks (impressive as they are), I’d recommend an indigenous city like Acomas Sky Pueblo and maybe visit Santa Fe (oldest capital city in the US). There’s fun road-trip stuff in the area, I liked staying in the kitschy Wigwam Motel in Holbrook.
posted by vunder at 11:07 AM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was an 18-year-old European exchange student to the US and my host family took us to Grand Canyon for spring break and it was awesome. It was cool that my host siblings were seeing it for the first time too, so for once I wasn’t the only one in a state of “Oh, wow, this is all new!”-ness because it was overwhelming for all of us.

We also went to places like Arches, Zion, Four Corners. We lived in Utah so this was all kind of doable. But of all the places we went to, Grand Canyon definitely had the feel of The Place that you should see once in your life, and if she won’t be back, this is her chance - what a gift!
posted by penguin pie at 11:14 AM on February 5, 2023 [5 favorites]

European person here - my first trip to the US was a road trip from Seattle > Yellowstone > Grand Teton > Moab > Monument Valley > Zion > Vegas > LA. I have fond memories of all of it but I was so mesmerized by all the desert parts that I have been back to the SW several times. Considering distances and time constraints I'd limit myself to Zion, GC, Vegas and surrounding area.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:34 AM on February 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I say take the Southwest Chief Amtrak from Chicago to LA (sleeper car), and then stop off on the way at the Grand Canyon, which is easy to do. A fabulous trip in every way and so much nicer than a road trip. Man in Seat 61 tells you all about it.
posted by heavenknows at 11:37 AM on February 5, 2023

Best answer: I live in Washington, D.C., (47 years), and I recommend the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley!

There is indeed nothing like the Grand Canyon anywhere else on the planet
posted by jgirl at 11:39 AM on February 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

You say she has been to the state of New York, but I want to confirm that she has been to New York City—if not, that would be the iconic American experience, especially for a young person who likes to post selfies on social media! Also agree that Washington DC would be great, especially if she is into museums.
posted by wisekaren at 12:00 PM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If she hasn't been to a "big US city" yet, then go to New York. I've lived in the DC area and honestly, while it's nice, it's just a bunch of museums, mostly celebrating the US itself, which is younger than almost every other country. Watching Hamilton tells you more about the US than two days on the Mall. LA and SF are nice but harder to "do" in just a few days. New York is concentrated. Alternatively, Las Vegas with some kind of Desert/Canyon experience. There's nothing like Vegas for selfies, and the shows are pretty great. And you can get way out in the desert in just an hour and stand under the enormous big blue sky and feel the planet rotating under your feet, or go on a hike in some of the canyons that are, as have been said, unique in this world.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:25 PM on February 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I mean, I agree the Grand Canyon is spectacular and a good trip, but for the people saying there is nowhere else like it, the Copper Canyon (and the Colca Canyon, and others) would like a word.
posted by vunder at 1:12 PM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If your touring northern Arizona/southern Utah consider Antelope Canyon... its been on my wish list forever.

If you find yourself traveling in remote desert on a clear moonless night: stop, turn out the lights, let your eyes adjust then look at the bazillion of stars. With binoculars it almost looks 3D. (on one summer trip a city dweller said "beautiful too bad it is a little cloudy" having never seen the milky way)
posted by tinker at 1:21 PM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

Without knowing her it’s hard to say, but I know that while her friends back home will probably be aware that the Grand Canyon is amazing, the ease of access to living indigenous American culture, art, history and life you can get in a long-weekend loop from Albuquerque to Taos going up via Santa Fe and back via Bandolier National Monument - as well as the area’s natural beauty, cuisine, and general interest (earthships! Los Alamos!) - make it hard to beat for some very full days she’d be able to really enjoy, while also being close to the kinds of things teenagers probably like (wifi/cell signal) and want (funky shops, cafes, etc).
posted by mdonley at 1:23 PM on February 5, 2023 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Consider checking in more with her on her dreams. All three of our exchange students were really big on things like courtside seats for favorite teams and really good theater seats. For the one who loved baseball, we went to local games from peewee to major league; for the theater kid, we saw 6 different productions of Les Miz one year (within a 5 hr radius) and the European foodie went to every Mexican/Central and South American food truck, and cooking class she could find. Something about these being more affordable/obtainable here vs their home countries. Also, even those who didn't plan on returning to the USA felt nature scenes were likely to be events that could be recreated elsewhere as adults vs how many chances are there to see LeBron in his glory.
posted by beaning at 1:43 PM on February 5, 2023 [8 favorites]

Chuckling at the notion that the area between Santa Fe and Taos is good for phone connections. At Taos ski valley, yes, absolutely. Everywhere else not so much. Source: I live here.
posted by Ardnamurchan at 2:05 PM on February 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

If there are casinos in her home country she can skip Vegas.

Nthing nola or southwest; NM also has its own regional cuisine.
posted by brujita at 2:33 PM on February 5, 2023

Best answer: Grand Canyon is truly unique. I would definitely build the trip around that. I've lived all over the world, and there is very little that is so accessible and shocking and beautiful in such an alien, special way.
posted by asimplemouse at 3:14 PM on February 5, 2023

If she hasn't been to NYC, then I would do that (unless she really doesn't like big cities). If she's been there, then I really like the Grand Canyon/Southwest idea. As someone who grew up on the East Coast of the US, doing a road trip across the Southwest was great, and the Grand Canyon was truly spectacular - one of those things I'm really glad I got to experience for myself (Niagara Falls on the other hand was kind of underwhelming). Personally, I would not want to be visiting the tourist sites in Florida during Spring Break (I grew up there - although March is generally the time when the weather in N Florida is nicest - S Florida is nicer more of the year). But some of this is going to depend on what she prefers. Does she like outdoorsy stuff? Or would she prefer more culture? I would probably skip DC.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:14 PM on February 5, 2023

I would definitely try to find out if the student would prefer a city or a nature experience.
posted by JenMarie at 7:04 PM on February 5, 2023

A road trip in Austen and San Antonio is pretty unique in history, food and geography.
posted by waving at 4:38 AM on February 6, 2023

Best answer: I'd ask the student what kind of stuff she's into. Be aware that her idea of history and historical buildings will likely be very, very different to the average American experience, so keep that in mind if thinking about museums or historical monuments. Even if she thinks this will be her last Stateside visit, bear in mind that it's relatively easy for Europeans to fly into Las Vegas and New York, and Florida is a top holiday destination for many Europeans too.

Having said all that, I'm trying to remember what I was like at 17. I would have loved seeing Grand Canyon and desert landscapes (big cacti!!!), but afterwards I would want to hit somewhere more urban where I could browse shops and drink something cool (and cold). I would also have loved Nashville, Santa Fe or New Orleans.
posted by peacesign at 4:39 AM on February 6, 2023

Immigrant's view here. Depending on the interests of the student:

Culture: New Orleans for a uniquely American City, that is the place for so many things that came from intermingling of cultures. Music (Jazz specifically, but also Blues, Zydeco, Cajun music etc.), food (creole and cajun) etc.

Nature: Yellowstone. It has the almost all the examples of the full geography of the US (canyons, waterfalls, mountains, plains, valleys etc.) plus things that are unique to Yellowstone like geysers, hot springs; and wonderful wildlife.

Big City: NYC for sure. Especially for Architecture, food, culture and museums. Oh god those museums. And of course, Broadway!
posted by indianbadger1 at 7:40 AM on February 6, 2023

Where in Europe is the student from? Greece is different for Berlin is different from Northern Norway.
posted by Iteki at 9:21 AM on February 6, 2023

A bit of an outlier, but maybe Puerto Rico? Tons of different kinds of things to do and see for an adventurous teenager (jungle, snorkeling, old colonial cities, unique cuisine, bioluminescence), warm weather in March/April, and loooooots of selfie opportunities. And someplace a probably a lot of people back home haven't seen.

Otherwise I think New Orleans is a great idea. I think DC could be a bit boring if she's not super into museums or American history. New England could also be really good (Boston plus Maine or VT) but depending on where she's from, may be a little bit less "exotic." That time of year is also pretty rainy/muddy in New England.
posted by lunasol at 12:34 PM on February 6, 2023

Response by poster: Thank you all for the wonderful suggestions. She chose a southwest/Grand Canyon trip!
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:29 PM on February 9, 2023 [2 favorites]

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