- Culture + Design
- Landmarks + Monuments
From colonial landmarks to theme parks, we reveal which U.S. tourist attractions are the most popular.
Every day, 10,000 people enter New York’s Grand Central Terminal—with no intention of catching a train. They come to slurp bivalves at the Oyster Bar or cocktails at the Campbell Apartment. They gawk at the ceiling embellished with gold constellations, browse shops, and take tours. It’s enough to make the landmark one of America’s top five most-visited attractions.
Location, of course, plays a role, and many of the most popular attractions are found in major cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. Size, too, matters. While the National September 11 Memorial had an impressive 4.5 million visitors during its first year (it opened on Sept. 12, 2011), it was dwarfed by Central Park with 100 times the area.
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Yet for every traveler drawn to the big city, there are others who embrace the great outdoors. With its accessibility and size, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a natural choice for millions—more than 9 million to be precise, making it the No. 16 most-visited attraction in the nation.
Like it or not, the white-tailed deer, black bears, and brilliant foliage of the Great Smokies can’t quite compete with the popularity of Disney among Americans and international visitors; five theme parks made it into the top 20. To determine these rankings, we gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets.
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Read on to find out which tourist attraction claimed the No. 1 spot with more than 41.9 million visitors in 2011. Were you one of them?
The Methodology: Our definition of tourist attractions included natural, cultural, and historic sites as well as recognized areas of limited geographic scope like the Las Vegas Strip. (We eliminated national parkways as they spread over extensive distances). Accurate numbers weren't available for some popular attractions such as Waikiki Beach in Honolulu and the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey. In the case of transportation hubs like Grand Central Terminal or San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge that bring in both travelers and locals, we focused as much as possible on visitor data that excluded the strictly commuting set.