8 U.S. Cities With Great Architecture

Explore Architecture in These American Cities

colored illustration of city skycrapers
Chicago River Sunset. Mark McMahon/Getty Images (cropped)

From sea to shining sea, architecture in the U.S.A. tells the history of America, a young country studded with architectural jewels. Even if the built environment is not filled with time-honored great architecture, the United States has some interesting cities to see. As you plan your architecture trip, be sure to put these great American urban areas at the top of your must-see list.

Chicago, Illinois

Gothic Revival style Top of skyscraper
Detail of the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Angelo Hornak/Getty Images (cropped)

See Chicago for the roots of American engineering and design. Chicago, Illinois has been called the Birthplace of the Skyscraper. Some call it the home of American architecture itself. A group of architect who later became known as the Chicago School invented and tested the steel-framed tall building. Many still stand in the streets of Chicago, alongside modern masterpieces by the likes of architect Jeanne Gang. Chicago has long been connected with some of architecture's biggest names, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, William Le Baron Jenney, and Daniel H. Burnham.

New York City, New York

top of skyscraper above a city park with people
The Empire State Building and Central Park, New York City. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images (cropped)

See New York City for a crash course in American architectural history. We think of the Borough of Manhattan when we think of New York, New York, and rightfully so. Manhattan is known for its soaring skyscrapers, from the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in Midtown to Wall Street and the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. As you explore, you'll soon discover that this New York City borough is filled with neighborhoods of hidden architectural treasures. From Whitehall Street moving northward, experience the birth of a nation.

Washington, D.C.

Close-up of US Capitol dome with flag at half staff
The U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

See Washington, D.C. for monuments and grand government buildings — the architecture that represents Americans. The United States is often called a cultural melting pot, and the architecture of its capital city, Washington, D.C., is truly an international blend. Not only can you see monuments to the Founding Fathers, great leaders, and memorials to national events, but the design of these public buildings is profound, from the Brutalist architecture of the F.B.I building to the cast iron dome of the U.S. Capitol.

Buffalo, New York

brown sculpted terra cotta detailing, ornate curls and monogram GB
Louis Sullivan Detail on Guaranty Building, Buffalo, New York. Lonely Planet/Getty Images

See Buffalo for landmark examples of Prairie, Arts & Crafts, and Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Who knew that Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, the Olmsteds and Saarinens, and other top architects would travel to Buffalo, New York to design buildings for prosperous businessmen in the thriving industrial city. The completion of the Erie Canal made Buffalo the gateway to western commerce, and it remains an interesting town.

Newport, Rhode Island

two story brown-sided pyramid roof structure with arched windows in a small city
Touro Synagogue, 1763, Designed by Peter Harrison, Newport, Rhode Island. John Nordell/Getty Images (cropped)

See Newport for colonial architecture, lavish mansions, and summer music festivals. After the American Civil War, this young country flourished with invention and capitalism. Newport, Rhode Island was a favorite vacation spot for the rich and famous during a period that Mark Twain called America's Gilded Age.  Now you can tour the historic, opulent mansions of the 20th century. Remember, though, that Newport was settled in the early 17th century. The town is filled with colonial architecture and a number of "firsts," like Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the U.S.

Los Angeles, California

An octagon house that looks like a space ship perched in trees
The Malin Residence or Chemosphere House, 1960, Designed by John Lautner. Andrew Holbrooke/Getty Images

See Los Angeles for a dazzling mix of possibilities. Southern California offers an architectural kaleidoscope, from Spanish influences to tacky Googie buildings to trend-breaking modernist architecture, like the shiny, curvy Walt Disney Concert Hall built by Frank Gehry in 2003. Before Gehry came to L.A., however, the mid-century Modernist architects like John Lautner were tearing up the town. "If you had to choose one building to represent the most Modern of iconic Modern designs," writes the Los Angeles Conservancy, "you might well choose the Malin House (Chemosphere) in the Hollywood Hills." It's right up there with the crazy restaurant at the LAX airport and certainly more than anything you'll find a couple hours away in Palm Springs.

Seattle, Washington

space-age tower next to metal swirl building
Seattle Space Needle (left) and Frank Gehry's Music Experience Project (right). George Rose/Getty Images

See Seattle for more than the Space Needle! The Gold Rush that helped settle the West is embodied in this northwest territory. But Seattle is the city that keeps itself alive by preserving the historic and welcoming the experimentalists.

Dallas, Texas

detail of art deco metal sculpture in Fair Park, Dallas, nude woman, hair flowing backwards
Reproduction of the Art Deco Contralto Sculpture in Fair Park, Dallas, Texas. Steve Rainwater, steevithak on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

See Dallas for history, diversity, and designs by Pritzker Prize Laureates. For years, Texas wealth has shown up in the architecture of the city, proving that architects go where the money is. Dallas has spent its money well.

More Cities to Explore

Of course, the U.S. is a big country and there's so much more to explore. Out of all the cities in the United States, which has the most to explore? What works of architecture make your favorite city special? Why visit there? Here are some answers from other American architecture enthusiasts just like you:

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: There are precious few cities in this country where one can walk an entire day enjoying block after block of architecturally relevant buildings — be it of historic or design relevance. Three come to mind, two of them are on this list, but Philadelphia (the third) is not. Architecture in Philadelphia is not just about the beauty of the Frank Furness library at U. of Penn or the Academy for the Arts, and neither is it the monumental impression of City Hall along with the Baroque grand manner of the Parkway. The city has its masterpieces. Rather it's more about how the modern scales with the historic in Northern Liberties, and why a walk along Delancy in Society Hill (brick) or in Rittenhouse (brown stone), is so darn lovely.

San Francisco, California: A great place to visit for Victorian detailing found in many neighborhoods and the paint palettes that are used to dramatize those details.

Madison, Wisconsin: Madson has many wonderful buildings, including nine Frank Lloyd Wright homes and commercial structures, plus buildings by Sullivan, Maher, Claude & Starck, plus modern structures by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, all on a mile wide isthmus.

Colombus, Indiana: No where else in the world can you experience so many award-winning architects in such close proximity. A town of only 40,000 people, it boasts the work of I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen, Richard Meier, Robert A M Stern, Gwathmey Siegel, Cesar Pelli, and many more. It is a small-town architectural mecca — the only one of its kind in America.

Hartford, Connecticut has a surprising range of four centuries of architecture (if you count tombstones). Just take a walk on Main Street starting at the Butler McCook Historical house (all original items inside, preserved and documented by the last McCook). From the 19th century State House to insurance company and department store architecture to some awful examples of how not to create a plaza that is welcoming, a few blocks say a million words.

Savannah, Georgia has a wonderful array of architecture all within walking distance between beautiful parks.

Las Vegas, Nevada. Specifically, "The Strip." It has the most diverse group of buildings in a 4.2 mile stretch of road of possibly anywhere in the world. There is the Venetian which is a distortion of the architecture of Venice. All of the theme hotels next to the ultra modern City Center. Then there is the one of a kind "glitter gulch." Then there are buildings like the Bellagio, the Wynn, the Palazzo, and Treasure Island the are designed to mask that they are 40+ story buildings by cleverly designed windows. Las Vegas has some of the most interesting architecture in the world.

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Craven, Jackie. "8 U.S. Cities With Great Architecture." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/must-see-cities-in-the-usa-178154. Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). 8 U.S. Cities With Great Architecture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/must-see-cities-in-the-usa-178154 Craven, Jackie. "8 U.S. Cities With Great Architecture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/must-see-cities-in-the-usa-178154 (accessed June 1, 2023).