Looking for great American architecture? Focus on these four cities

US offers cultural, geographic diversity

By BLAKE SNOW
CNN image

The Empire State Building rises above Midtown Manhattan.

(CNN) - As the third-largest country in the world, the United States is roughly 2,600 miles wide by 1,500 miles long. And it's more culturally and geographically diverse than many larger or comparably-sized countries.

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, knowing where to start might seem overwhelming as you make travel plans.

For those interested in skyscrapers, big monuments and remarkable structures, however, the good news is that a large portion of America's most iconic buildings can be found in four of its greatest cities. To see many of the best in as little time as possible, consider the following sightseeing approach.

 

See skyscrapers -- and more -- in Manhattan

 

There's no better place to see some of the world's most remarkable buildings than New York City.

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

The Empire State Building, completed in 1931, is an Art Deco masterpiece designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Tickets to either the open-air deck on the 86th floor or windowed lookout from the 102nd floor start at $37 for adults.

On the Upper East Side, you'll find The Metropolitan Museum of Art; on 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, its quantity and quality.

 

Look for a 'wow' in Washington, DC

 

Although jam-packed New York is understandably home to more architectural accomplishments, DC is home to noticeably more iconic and top-rated buildings and monuments in a hyper-condensed area.

For example, you can find the following four monuments on the western end of the National Mall, all within walking distance of each other: Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument.

The White House is within view of the Washington Monument. Designed by Irish-born architect James Hoban, the house sprawls a modest 55,000 square feet.

Self-guided tours are free, but they must be requested through one's Member of Congress or the appropriate embassy (for international visitors) in Washington DC.

On the east end of the Mall, you'll find the Capitol Building, Supreme Court Building and Library of Congress.

Like the White House, the neoclassical Capitol Building was first occupied in 1800. Admission to the four-acre office building is free but passes are required in advance for guided tours.

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

 

Make Chicago a 'floating' priority

 

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.

That's for good reason. Operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the tour offers information from docents on more than 50 buildings of note and costs about $50 per ticket.

In short, there's no better way to see it all in one fell swoop.

Chicago is teeming with notable buildings, 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.

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

 

Leave your heart in San Francisco

 

Thanks in part to the 1849 Gold Rush that spiritually continues to this day in nearby Silicon Valley, San Francisco is home to some of America's greatest architectural feats.

And none is bigger than the open arms of Golden Gate, the marvelous suspension bridge that has served as an American icon since its completion in 1937. For the most scenic views of it, visit either Baker Beach or Crissy Field on the south side.

Moving into downtown, preferably by cable car, do not miss the historically decadent Fairmont Hotel (1907), the triumphant City Hall (1915), or the triangular Transamerica Pyramid (1972).

Last but not least, consider a visit to Giants Stadium. Whether you're a baseball fan or not, both the structure and the setting are more than deserving of your attention.

Truth be told, the scenic backdrop of San Francisco amplifies most of the city's structures.

 

Consider other honorable mentions

 

While the above four cities are enough to justify several weeks of admiring world-class buildings, the rest of America's best architecture is scattered throughout in smaller quantities.

In St. Louis, Missouri, for example, visitors can appreciate the well-known Gateway Arch, a dazzling steel structure designed by architect Eero Saarinen.

In Los Angeles, its Getty Center and Union Station both stand supreme.

In Asheville, North Carolina, visitors can explore more than 135,000 square feet at the Biltmore Estate, the largest and most impressive privately-owned home in America.

Like the country they find themselves in, all of the above are big, bold and beautiful.

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