12 Things About America That Always Surprise Tourists

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by Reader's Digest Editors

Ask any foreign traveler who has visited the U.S. and they'll tell you that there are things about our culture that are as funny as they are wacky. Read on for 12 things that are as American as apple pie, yet give visitors pause.

1. DONUTS

"Why do Americans have pastries with holes in them? Why would you remove the center? And then you sell the holes separately? That's crazy," says Dmitry Kuzhanov, a Russian citizen who has been living in the U.S. for two years.

2. SQUIRRELS

Photo of a little girl feeding a squirrel
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“Foreigners find it funny that some Americans go as far as to interact or feed squirrels in the park,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert. “This is viewed as quite bizarre and eccentric!”

3. FOOD PORTIONS

“Food portions in the U.S. are much larger than in China, where food is served 'family style' for everyone to share,” say Glen Loveland, an American who has lived in China for over a decade. “Seeing the look on the faces of Chinese tourists at The Cheesecake Factory, for example, as their dishes are served is quite amusing!”

4. WHITE SOCKS

Photo of man in white socks and sandals.
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"The white socks thing baffles many Europeans,” says Alex Bunten, who has lived in Scotland, Sweden, Spain, and Russia for over a decade. “You can pick an American tourist out from miles away—poor-fitting clothes, usually brand-new sneakers (if not sandals) with bright white socks!"

5. SUPER-SIZED BEVERAGES

"In most European countries, the sizes of beverage packaging are standardized, usually in the size of one liter or one and a half liters,” says Clemens Sehi, a Germany-based travel writer. “Also, most Europeans buy just as much milk as they really need. Not so in the U.S. where milk or red wine is often bought in huge containers so that it can last for weeks to come."

6. CHILD ATHLETES

Photo of Little League baseball team
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"Little League sports teams, and specifically parents coaching them, is something I just don't understand,” says Kuzhanov. “Maybe that's because children's sports teams don't exist in Russia."

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7. FAST FOOD

"It's hard to get used to all the fast food in America,” says Sehi. “It seems that many Americans love eating their food on the go and as quickly as possible, whether it's the drive-through, at In-N-Out Burger or a short stop at a favorite food truck on the corner."

8. INSTA-SMILES

Family photo selfie
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"I find the 'American smile' really funny and endearing,” says Sonam Yadav, who lives in New Delhi, India. “I'm talking about the wide ardent 'say cheese' grin every kid and adult seems to have practiced and is visible in every image which appears at a second's notice.”

9. ENORMOUS HIGHWAYS

"Particularly as a German used to the Autobahn with its six lanes, it's shocking to see that in the U.S. you have highways with 12 or more lanes, on which most cars drive at the same speed,” Sehi says. “It can be hard to learn the rules of the road!"

10. ICED DRINKS

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"Iced drinks are something Chinese people don't understand,” Loveland says. “Chinese people tend to drink lukewarm or hot water for beliefs related to traditional Chinese medicine."

11. EXTENDED SHELF LIVES

"I find it unbelievable that Americans buy groceries for one or even two weeks at a time,” says Landon Lin, who was born and raised in China. “I can't believe Americans trust food to stay fresh that long. In Asia, people go shopping every day, or at least once every two to three days!"

12. AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSIONS

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"In Germany and other European countries, you mostly learn to drive with cars that have a gear shift and not with a transmission,” Sehi says. “This makes it weird for many foreigners to rent a car in the U.S., because most rental cars have automatic transmissions.” 

The New York Times's Latest Book on Travel Will Help You Plan the Perfect Weekend Getaway

TASCHEN
TASCHEN

Getting a full sense of a new city while traveling can be tough—especially if you only have a weekend to explore it. But since 2002, The New York Times’s "36 Hours" column has been breaking down destinations all over the world into bite-size pieces, allowing travelers to see the big attractions while still experiencing the city like a local. Now, you can get the best of the column's North American destinations with the fully updated and revised edition of 36 Hours: USA & Canada for $40 at TASCHEN or on Amazon.

Even if you have the original, it’s worth purchasing this updated copy, as this version features 33 new itineraries from Anchorage, Alaska; the Berkshires in Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado; Miami; Oakland, California; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and many more.

36 Hours: USA & Canda from the New York Times
TASCHEN

The 752-page book also offers more than 5400 hours of travel itineraries, 600 restaurants to dine at, and 450 hotel options. Each city featured includes a brief history, a list of popular destinations, and tips on how to experience it all like a local. For example, the New Orleans guide encourages travelers to start at the French 75 Bar for happy hour and order a Sazerac, a cocktail close to an Old-Fashioned that's a local favorite. Whereas the Miami guide takes you to the Buena Vista Deli, a bistro known for its take on classic French dishes. The travel book also features detailed city maps that pinpoint all the stops, and it's accompanied by nearly 1000 photographs.

Once you've picked your destination, check out some tips on how to craft the perfect itinerary.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

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