|CAPITAL WASHINGTON DC - POPULATION 306 MILLION - AREA 9,161,923 SQ KM - OFFICIAL LANGUAGE ENGLISH|
Whether you're sybarite longing for lounge-lizarding in New York City or a rugged get-away-from-it-aller hoping to hit the Rocky Mountain Trails, the USA has it in spades. And with the country's president-elect set to be inaugurated on 20 January 2009, these are exciting times for the grand ole US of A. When the votes are finally counted and the new president is warming the seat of the white House, the world will be looking on carefully to see how the beleaguered countries of Afghanistan and Iraq will fare from US foreign policy, and the new government's approach towards the Middle East and global terrorism. However, this doesn't look set to affect the country's appeal to tourists from across the globe, arriving in droves to find their own piece of the American Dream.
The city itself
That's right - oft-neglected Orlando. Away from the theme parks, the city itself is surprisingly inviting. Built on a bedrock of limestone pocked with little lakes, it features leafy blocks with Cracker-style mid-century homes you could imagined yourself living in. And historical leafy 'hoods, like Thorntree Park or College Park, boast B&Bs, boutique eateries and shops, a gorgeous museum complex and some of the best Vietnamese food outside Saigon. Greater Orlando hopes to attract 50 million visitors this year, but most will head for the parks and miss out on the city itself. But it's time all that changed.
This should be a great year for Orlando as it's hosting the 61st NBA All-Star Weekend (25 and 26 February). Don't laugh - this is a big deal. The hippest sporting event in the USA, it brings much of the basketball and music worlds together for slam-dunk contests, after-hours parties and concerts, as well as the all-star game itself.
It's worth poking around the city, too. Keep an eye on the boho 'Milk District', a neighborhood on the rise with its motley crew of eateries, bars serving microbrews, bookshops and tattoo parlors, just a short drive east of downtown. Orlando hip? Who knew?
The city by the bay might be expensive to live in, but it practically begs you to visit. Little boutique hotels near Union Sq can be had for under US$100 - a fraction of what you'll pay in New York or London. Beyond the street cars (the historic ones on Market St are cheaper than the touristy cable cars), BART has cheap, easy links to San Francisco's airport - no need for US$60 taxi rides. Food-wise, San Francisco's 'mission burrito' (stuffed with rice, beans and carne asada) goes for US$5 in the bar-filled Mission. And there's so much cheap and free stuff to do: walking the Golden Gate, Pacific beaches, vintage arcade Musée Mécanique and a host of free galleries.