Take a bite out of the Big Apple then head off to some of the best cities in the US. Words: ELISE RANA

There are cities older, greater, more historic, more beautiful – but if the world has an ultimate city, it’s got to be New York. A metropolis on the move and on the make, constantly evolving with every new soul who comes to throw their wish into the well and their ambitions into the ring, New York’s star is shining brighter than ever today, after the Giuliani clean-up, the stock market boom of the 1990s and the disaster of September 11.

With the dollar nearly at two to the pound, the hop across the pond is still our favourite journey. But the chance to stock up on Levi’s and iPod goodies isn’t the only thing that stokes our continuing love affair with the Big Apple. We’re drawn here because this is our town. You know it before you get here, for if American popular culture belongs to the world, then this is our global hometown, our gold-paved city of dreams.

Whether you grew up in Sydney or Streatham, you know what kind of girl is a Fifth Avenue princess, and how busy a place must be to be compared to Grand Central Station. Before you even hail your first yellow cab in this city you’ve sat on its park benches with Woody Allen, hung out in its East Village dives with The Ramones or its swanky cocktail bars with Carrie Bradshaw, had breakfast at Tiffany’s with Holly Golightly (Capote’s print creation or Hepburn’s iconic screen version). When the twin towers burned, we all gaped in horror – that was our skyline destroyed forever.

So when you finally find yourself here, what do you do first? Some things you just have to play tourist for – Broadway shows, strolling in Central Park, going up the Empire State Building (preferably at dusk to avoid the queues and see the city lighting up). Before you leave, you must marvel at the collections in the Met and MoMA, be overwhelmed by the 360-degree advertising onslaught of Times Square, take the (free!) Staten Island Ferry for a closer look at the torch-holding lady Liberty, be solemnly awed at Ground Zero.

Yet tempting as it is to consider this the ultimate city break, an extra day or two will afford you the time to experience some of the less obvious yet often more rewarding sides of New York. Get out of Manhattan for culture without the crowds, be it gospel in Harlem, seaside sideshows in Coney Island, the Brooklyn Museum or hanging out with the hipsters in Williamsburg.

Far from the tourist traps of Little Italy or Chinatown, the outer boroughs are also where you’ll taste the true authenticity of New York’s buzzing ethnic enclaves, eating pasta among the goodfellas of Belmont in the Bronx, feasting on Indian thalis in Jackson Heights, Queens or chowing down on dim sum in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. To find out more about the struggle of people who chased their dreams here from all over the world, visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum or head to Ellis Island – portal for 12 million of them in the space of just 64 years. Or just let the frenzied pace of life wash over you, watch the world go by and soak up the city.

San Francisco
Whether you leave your heart here or not, it would have to be made of stone not to flutter a little at the sight of a pale mist swirling around Golden Gate bridge before one of America’s prettiest cities, cable cars clambering up and candy-coloured houses tumbling down the many hills that rise up against a blue bay. If you have your own wheels, you can tick off the highlights by following the blue-and-white seagull signs that mark the 49-Mile Drive, a scenic wind through the city. When you reach touristy Fisherman’s Wharf, check out the resident sea lions but skip the naff souvenir stands and waxwork museums and hop straight on a ferry out to Alcatraz. To appreciate the fact that here counter-culture is king, soak up the vibe in the likes of the out-and-proud Castro or the hippie Haight (if you’re going, be sure to wear flowers in your hair).
Tuck in: Cioppino, a tomato-based seafood stew served with chunks of sourdough bread.
Essential viewing: The Maltese Falcon, Bullitt, Vertigo, Dirty Harry, The Rock.

Las Vegas
A century on since its inception, this manmade pleasure playground in the middle of the harsh Mojave Desert just keeps on getting bigger and wilder. Built on loopholes in the gaming laws, gambling is Vegas’ lifeblood though the over-the-top glamour and glitz that comes with this much moolah have become as much a part of the attraction for the millions of visitors that come here every year. Since the 1990s dawn of the mega-resort, construction is continuous as each tries to outdo the last. Each with its own theme (from the medieval Excalibur, King Tut’s tomb-raiding Luxor or the life-size pirate ship at Treasure Island to the palatial Venetian and the tropical Asian flavour of Mandalay Bay), these sprawling hotel complexes are home to restaurants, bars, nightclubs, sporting arenas, pools, theatres, spas, water parks and, of course, casinos, meaning guests need never see the rest of the Strip let alone the actual light of day. Be it a blackjack blowout or an Elvis wedding, ill-advised excess is the name of the game here, so let rip – and remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Tuck in: For a classic Vegas steak dinner for less than $10, try the 16-ounce T-bone at the Orleans’ Courtyard Café or prime rib at Suncoast’s Café Siena.
Essential viewing: Casino, Ocean’s Eleven, Leaving Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

New Orleans
The images were unforgettable. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the levees broke and this famous city was all but washed away, it was a catastrophe of almost biblical proportions. A year and a half later, the city’s population is still only a fraction of what it was and much remains in tatters – bus tours to the worst-hit areas are now a visitor attraction. Yet the miraculous survival of the French Quarter and the determination that the Big Easy’s party spirit won’t be dampened have seen visitor figures continue to rise. For even in its darkest hour there’s nowhere like New Orleans, with the influences of its colonial European, African and creole heritage shaping its unique architecture, cuisine and, most famously, music – the birthplace of jazz is also a hotbed of myriad other styles such as cajun, zydeco, delta funk and hip-hop.
Tuck in: Café au lait and beignets (square-shaped French doughnuts) at the Café du Monde in the French Market.
Essential viewing: Angel Heart, The Big Easy, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Set in the heart of the industrial Midwest, Chicago isn’t really a tourist town. And that’s why it’s our kinda town. Combining the ethics of honest, blue-collar graft with the principles of free speech and independent thought, it’s a place with warm-hearted, salt-of-the-earth characters that can’t be chilled even by the icy gusts that earned the city its windy nickname.
Despite its towering buildings, the city is a blessedly manageable size, with good public transport filling in for what can’t be done on foot. What’s enjoyable here is the everyday: baseball at Wrigley Field, a wander downtown, then blues and beer until late.
Tuck in: Taste the city’s central European heritage in a Chicago Red-Hot – a Vienna beef frankfurter served on a poppy-seed roll with mustard, onion, sweet relish, tomato, pickle spear and celery salt.
Essential viewing: The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Road to Perdition, Chicago.

A business centre of South, Central and North America alike, Miami is a world city in every sense, a cultural melting pot flavoured more by its large African, Caribbean and Latin American populations than anything else – English, Spanish and Haitian Creole are Miami’s three official languages. Fringed at the west with subtropical gator-friendly marshes of the Everglades, the city sprawls along the shores and barrier islands of Biscayne Bay and with the bright Florida sunshine adding to the exoticism, the beaches of Greater Miami are a major draw. Take a drive bayside to glimpse the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and don’t leave without sampling the elegant Art Deco buildings and bling-tastic nightlife of South Beach.
Tuck in: Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice, Cuban-style) at the Versailles in Little Havana.
Essential viewing: Scarface, There’s Something About Mary, Miami Vice.

• Elise Rana travelled to New York City with Flight Centre. Flight Centre can also arrange accommodation in New York