Even if you check off a top 10 list of US landmarks and tourist sights – like the Grand Canyon, Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, the Manhattan skyline and Walt Disney World – you might still return from your trip not understanding what makes the United States of America tick.
The solution? Plan to meet the locals instead, and taste the USA's melting pot of multiculturalism by timing your trip around one of the nation's vibrant festivals.
Festival season gets into full swing during the summer. Every major American city stages outdoor music and performing arts festivals, including New York City's SummerStage (001 212 360 2777; cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage; free admission) in Central Park and Outside Lands (001 415 391 2000; sfoutsidelands.com; three-day pass $225/£140) during August in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Fireworks, parades and family-friendly festivities mark mid-summer's Independence Day (4 July), nowhere celebrated more meaningfully than in the nation's capital, Washington DC (001 202 789 7000; washington.org; many free events). Summer is also a time to revel in the carnival atmosphere of old-fashioned American fairs, especially in the rural heartland of the Midwest. Texas brags of having the biggest state fair (001 214 565 9931; bigtex.com; tickets $16/£10), starting in September.
Travelling in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn will let you save money on airfare and accommodations, but still take in some of the USA's top-ranked festivals. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (001 504 410 4100; nojazzfest.com; tickets from $65/£41) lights up Louisiana's Crescent City with live performances by celebrated musical talent in late April and early May. Autumn is an ideally temperate time to visit the deserts of the US South-west, especially for New Mexico's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (001 505 821 1000; balloonfiesta.com; tickets from $8/£5) in October, when rainbow-coloured hot-air balloons ascend en masse into the dawn sky.
Winter can also be a good time for festival-goers, with savings on travel even bigger during the off season.
In the Great Lakes state of Minnesota, the 125-year-old St Paul Winter Carnival (001 651 223 4700; winter-carnival.com; many free events) stages ice carving and sculpture competitions and a torchlit parade in late January and early February.
Ready to brave the USA's coldest weather extremes?
Head north up to Alaska for the Iditarod ( iditarod.com; free to watch) dog sled race. It follows a historic 1,049-mile route from Anchorage to Nome, often barrelling through snowstorms in sub-freezing temperatures , every March.
Year-round, smaller festivals pop up all across the country, especially those celebrating America's rich immigrant heritage and indigenous cultures.
In particular, Hawaii's Aloha Festivals (001 808 483 0730; alohafestivals.com; many free events) enchant visitors with hula dancing, slack-key guitar music, block parties and more on all the islands throughout September.
Native American tribal traditions are honoured back on the Great Plains by Oklahoma City's Red Earth Festival (001 405 427 5228; redearth.org; tickets from $10/£6), with ceremonial dances and an artisanal crafts show every June.
Even religious holidays can be just another excuse to party: witness the bawdy costumed shenanigans of Mardi Gras (001 504 566 5011; neworleanscvb.com; many free events) in New Orleans, falling during February or March.
See DiscoverAmerica.com for more information
Off beat and outdoors
To uncover the oddball aspects of American culture, you'll have to drive far from the city lights. In Nevada's remote Black Rock Desert, Burning Man (001 415 863 5263; burningman.com; eight-day passes from $240/£150) is a wild, week-long celebration of radical self-expression and outsider art happening in late August and early September.
Georgia's Summer Redneck Games (001 478 697 3202; summer redneckgames.com; admission $5/£3) is a tongue-in-cheek mini-Olympics, with watermelon- seed spitting and auto hubcap hurling every June.
New Mexico's Roswell UFO Festival (001 925 330 2364; ufofestivalroswell.com; many free events) attracts sci-fi fans, conspiracy theorists and sky watchers with lectures on paranormal phenomena and an “alien chase” race in July.
Bottoms up: beer and wine
Ready to tap a shiny copper brewing vat? Over 100 American craft brewers gather in the Rocky Mountains every October at the Great American Beer Festival (001 303 447 0816; greatamericanbeerfestival.com; tickets from $65/£41) in Boulder, Colorado. On the West Coast, Portland's Oregon Brewers Festival (001 503 275 9750; oregonbrewfest.com; free admission) draws just as many beer geeks every July.
Wine is now produced in all 50 US states, but almost 90 per cent of it comes from the golden rolling hills and green vineyards of California. The most festive time to visit Northern California's wine country is during the autumn harvest, when you can stomp grapes during the crush in Sonoma Valley (001 707 431 1137; heartofsonomavalley.com; tickets from $35/£22), or try the Flavor! Napa Valley (001 646 292 1141; flavornapavalley.com; tickets from $100/£62.50) food and wine festival
Countless music festivals pump up the beats in the USA and have everything to offer, whether you're a fan of hard rock, reggae, jazz or blues, or want to uncover the roots of American folk and country-and-western music. Edgy bands and global trendsetting DJs make their way to California's desert in April for the hugely popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival ( coachella.com; three-day pass $285/£190).
For bluegrass, rock'n'roll and folksy sounds, camp out 1960s Woodstockstyle on a real-life Tennessee farm during Bonnaroo ( bonnaroo.com; four-day pass $235/£147) in June.
At a New England seaside resort, where the likes of jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane once electrified crowds, the celebrated Newport Jazz Festival (001 401 848 5055; newportjazzfest.net; tickets from $85/£53) still takes place every August and is definitely worth a watch.
To dig deep into the soul of American blues music, there's no place better than sweet home Chicago, where, if you're lucky, local blues legend BB King might get up on the stage during the Chicago Blues Festival (001 312 744 3316; explorechicago.org; free admission) outdoors in Grant Park in June.
With scores of regional American specialities on offer, food festivals are undoubtedly the best way to take a huge bite out of American life.
In the South, barbecue pit masters compete in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (001 901 525 4611; memphisinmay.org; tickets from $8/£5) in Memphis in May.
Ravenous crowds also line up for the Taste of Chicago (001 312 744 3316; choosechicago.com; free admission), when dozens of specialty food vendors set up beside Lake Michigan in July.
In California, the nation's most bountiful agricultural state, quirkier food festivals are often devoted to just one ingredient – for example, Gilroy Garlic Festival (001 408 842 1625; gilroygarlicfestival.com; tickets $17/£11) in July or Castroville's Artichoke Festival (001 831 633 2465; artichokefestival.org; tickets $10/£6) in May.
If American junk food is an irresistible temptation, hop over to Hawaii for the SPAM Jam Waikiki (001 808 255-5927; spamjamhawaii.com; free admission), a street party of food and music by the beach in April.
On stage and screen
To spot a celebrity, join the crowds at one of the USA's revered film and performing arts festivals.
What started out in Texas as a showcase for indie bands, South by Southwest ( sxsw.com; 10-day passes from $450/£281) has become a powerhouse for indie films and interactive digital technology in March.
At the cutting edge of pop culture since the 1970s, Seattle's Bumbershoot (001 206 673 5060; bumbershoot.org; tickets from $55/£34) unites indie bands, theatre troupes, spokenword artists, film makers and standup comics each September.
Founded by Robert Redford, Utah's Sundance Film Festival (001 435 776 7878; sundance.org; tickets from $15/£9) takes over the ski resort of Park City in January.
On the East Coast, New York City's Tribeca Film Fest (001 646 502 5296; tribecafilm.com/festival; tickets from $8/£5), founded by Robert De Niro in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, showcases independent voices in film every April.