American culture: An epic guide to diversity, history, arts & more

Welcome to the land of opportunity, where diversity is not just celebrated but embraced as the very essence of the national identity. Welcome to America!

From the dreamy shores of California to the bustling streets of New York City, from the soulful melodies of New Orleans to the rugged beauty of the Rockies, American culture and values resonate with the echoes of its rich and complex history.

In this article, we embark on a journey through the kaleidoscope of American traditions, values, cuisines, fashion, art, architecture, music, dances, religions, languages… and dreams. A culture that has been fascinating and influencing the world for over two centuries.

From the indigenous tribes who first called this land home to the European settlers who left their mark on its language and cuisine, the influences that have converged to create modern culture in America are as diverse as the country’s landscapes.

Get ready to feel the pioneer spirit, to hear the call of the great outdoors, to explore forests of ancient sequoias… and skyscrapers.

And here’s some musical inspiration to keep reading!

Geographical and cultural diversity of America

America's geographical and cultural diversity is remarkable, with drastic differences from coast to coast — all the way to Alaska and Hawaii — and everywhere in between.

Skiing in Northern America.

The US really has it all: deserts, tropical beaches, volcanoes, high peaks, lush forests, lakes, prairies, dunes, glaciers… you name it. And cultures are as diverse as the landscape, shaped by centuries of history, native heritage and immigration.

Take, for instance, the vibrant Cajun culture of Louisiana, with its amazing cuisine — my favorite American gastronomy — and zydeco music, or the cowboy culture of Texas, steeped in tales of ranching and rodeos.

In the Northeast, you'll find a melting pot of ethnicities, each adding their own customs and flavors to the mix, while in the Deep South, traditions run deep — pun intended — from soulful blues music to mouthwatering barbecue.

Even within individual states, diversity never ceases to surprise visitors. California, for example, is not only home to Hollywood and Silicon Valley but also boasts agricultural heartlands, ancient forests, and stunning deserts inhabited by alternative communities. Similarly, New York encompasses the hustle and bustle of Manhattan as well as the scenic beauty of the Adirondack Mountains.

Mother sitting with her daughter at Arizona grand canyon.

This diversity isn't just limited to landscapes and traditions but also extends to language, cuisine, and lifestyles. Whether you're exploring the bustling streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, sampling authentic Cuban cuisine in Miami, or experiencing the native cultures of the Southwest, keep reading for the trip of a lifetime.

Regional differences and their cultural impact

Each American state, region or even county, has its own distinct cultural identity shaped by history, geography, and the people who call it home. These regional differences have a profound impact on everything from food and music to language and social norms.

For example, the Northeast is known for its bustling cities, fast-paced lifestyle and diverse immigrant communities like Europeans and Latin Americans, which have contributed to its rich culinary scene and vibrant arts scene.

On the other hand, the Deep South is steeped in traditions rooted in its agrarian past, with a strong emphasis on hospitality, family values, and Southern cuisine like fried chicken, grits, and collard greens.

In the Midwest, the vast expanse of farmland shapes the region's identity, fostering a strong sense of community and a connection to the land. Here, traditions like county fairs, barn dances, and potluck dinners are still cherished, reflecting the values of hard work, self-reliance and neighborly support.

Working on a ranch in America.

Meanwhile, the West Coast, like California, Oregon or Washington, embodies a spirit of innovation and diversity, with its tech hubs, cultural melting pots, liberal views and outdoor lifestyle.

Urban vs. rural lifestyles

While differences between urban and rural lifestyles can be found virtually anywhere in the world, the US takes it to the next level — like everything else!

Urban areas are hubs of activity, where the pace of life is fast, and diversity is celebrated. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Chicago buzz with energy, offering a wealth of cultural attractions, culinary delights, career opportunities — check this article to learn about American work culture and etiquette — and more liberal views. Urban Americans connect more by shared interests and experiences rather than proximity, leading to a dynamic and cosmopolitan way of life.

In contrast, rural areas offer a quieter, more laid-back existence, characterized by close-knit communities, wide-open spaces, a stronger connection to nature and a more conservative approach, especially in the so-called “flyover states”. Life moves at a slower pace in rural America, where traditions are often deeply rooted in agriculture, hunting, and fishing.

If you want to experience the heart of America and a true immersion off the beaten track, this is where you should go. I studied a semester in high school in a small Texan town, and it was just like being in a TV show! I came back with lifelong friends (including my now husband!), unforgettable memories, a fluent level of English and a profound understanding of USA culture and values.

Indigenous influences on local traditions

America is a melting pot from waves of immigration, but Native Americans were there before anyone else!

The indigenous peoples of America, including Native American tribes and Alaska Natives, have left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of the regions they inhabit. From the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest and beyond, indigenous influences are woven into the fabric of local traditions, art, music, and spirituality. In places like New Mexico, the Navajo and Pueblo cultures have influenced everything from architecture and cuisine to traditional crafts like pottery and weaving.

In addition to tangible cultural contributions, indigenous peoples also play a vital role in preserving the natural environment and traditional knowledge systems that have sustained their communities for generations. Despite a somber past and their current challenges, efforts to revitalize indigenous languages, practices, and governance structures are helping to ensure that these rich cultural traditions continue to thrive and evolve in the modern world.

Moreover, indigenous peoples' deep connection to the land and commitment to environmental stewardship serve as powerful reminders of the importance of respecting and preserving the natural world for future generations.

Native American man preserving the natural world for future generations.

Historical significance of culture in America

A lifetime is not enough to cover America's history, but we’ll try to summarize the main influences that have shaped the USA as we know them today.

Colonialism and cultural exchange

The colonization of America by European powers brought about profound cultural transformations as indigenous peoples were displaced, enslaved, or assimilated into colonial societies. Despite the dark legacy of exploitation and violence, this period also witnessed a rich exchange of ideas, languages, and traditions between European settlers and Native American tribes.

Native American agricultural techniques, medicinal knowledge, and spiritual beliefs profoundly influenced European colonists, while European technologies, languages, and customs left an indelible mark on indigenous cultures.

The legacy of slavery and African-American culture

The institution of slavery, which endured for centuries in America, represents one of the darkest chapters in the nation's history. Millions of Africans were forcibly transported to America, where they endured unimaginable suffering and exploitation.

Despite this, enslaved Africans and their descendants forged resilient communities, preserving their cultural heritage through music, dance, storytelling, and religion. The incredibly rich African-American culture, from blues and jazz to soul food and spirituals, continues to shape American identity and inspire movements for social justice and equality.

Man playing jazz.

Each year, the USA commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865. More on this in our article dedicated to Juneteeth.

Waves of immigration and cultural diversity

Throughout its history and up to this day, America has been a beacon of hope for millions of immigrants seeking a better life. From the Irish fleeing famine in the 19th century to the Chinese building railroads in the West, and the Mexican migrants working the fields in the Southwest, each wave of immigration has brought new languages, religions, cuisines, and customs to America's shores.

Despite facing discrimination and prejudice, immigrants have enriched American culture with their diversity, resilience, and entrepreneurial spirit.

American art and architecture

The US is a prime destination for art and architecture enthusiasts. From world-famous museums to iconic buildings, they symbolize the enduring spirit of American creativity.

Iconic landmarks and architectural marvels

America boasts a wealth of iconic landmarks and architectural marvels that have captured the world's imagination. In New York City, the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, including the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center, symbolize the city's dynamism, resilience and ambition.

Chicago is a playground for architects, with impressive works of art such as the St. Regis, Marina City and the Willis Tower. If you ever visit this awesome city, I highly recommend an architecture tour at night on the river!

Washington D.C. is home to national monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building, and the Washington Monument, which embody the ideals of democracy and freedom.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpieces, like Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, showcase his innovative approach to design and integration with the natural environment.

Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

California's mid-century modern architecture, characterized by clean lines, open spaces, and a connection to nature, cohabits with symbols of American culture such as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Regional diversity in art and architecture

Across the country, regional diversity in American culture is reflected in its art and architecture. Southern plantation homes, with their grandeur and elegance, offer a glimpse into the antebellum era and the dark legacy of slavery.

San Francisco's Victorian architecture, with its colorful facades and intricate detailing, showcases the city's rich history and cultural heritage.

In Miami, art deco buildings adorned with geometric patterns and pastel colors evoke the glamour of the 1920s and '30s.

In the Southwest, adobe dwellings with their earthy hues and organic forms, pay homage to indigenous building techniques and the region's desert landscapes.

Artistic influences and cultural significance

Immigration and multiculturalism have influenced American art and architecture, from European classical traditions to African, Asian, and indigenous aesthetics.

Representation of diversity in art has become increasingly important, with artists exploring themes of race, gender, identity, and belonging, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable society.

Through their creativity and vision, artists and architects continue to shape the narrative of America.

Diversity of cuisine

To understand the importance of food in America, just ask any local for tourist recommendations. The first thing — and maybe the only thing — they’ll mention is the restaurant scene!

And before I get in the yummy side of culture, I’d like to insist on the fact that America has a true gastronomy, despite what many people think! Reducing American cuisine to burgers and fast food is like limiting French cuisine to French fries — take it from a French person!

American cuisine is a melting pot of flavors and diversity, with regional variations showcasing unique dishes.

The big picture of American cuisine

Native American culinary traditions laid the foundation for many staples of American cooking, including corn, beans, and squash.

European immigrants, such as Italians, Irish, and Germans, brought their own culinary customs, introducing dishes like pasta, pizza, corned beef and cabbage, and sausages.

Group of teens eating pizza.

Asian fusion cuisine has also made a significant impact, with sushi, Vietnamese pho, and Korean BBQ becoming beloved staples.

Latin American flavors, including tacos, burritos, and ceviche, have further enriched the American culinary landscape, reflecting the nation's vibrant multicultural heritage.

Regional and state variations in dishes

Across the United States, regional and state variations in dishes offer a tantalizing glimpse into the diverse culinary traditions that define American cuisine.

In the South, comfort food reigns supreme, with BBQ, fried chicken, and soul food. On the East Coast, seafood takes center stage, with dishes like clam chowder, lobster rolls, and crab cakes.

The Midwest boasts classics like deep-dish pizza, hot dogs, and cheese curds, while the Southwest delights with Tex-Mex cuisine, chili, and enchiladas. In the Pacific Northwest, specialties like salmon, Dungeness crab, and artisanal coffee reflect the region's commitment to fresh, locally sourced ingredients and culinary innovation.

Oh, and Cajun food… (salivating right now, as I’m writing this article from Louisiana :-)).

Bucket of crayfish.

Iconic ingredients and their cultural significance

Iconic ingredients play a vital role in American cuisine, each carrying its own cultural significance and historical legacy. Corn, a staple of Native American cuisine, is used in a variety of dishes, from cornbread to tortillas.

Tomatoes, introduced to America by European settlers, have become a cornerstone of dishes like pizza, pasta sauce, and salsa, symbolizing the fusion of Old and New World culinary traditions.

Other iconic ingredients, such as avocados, rice, and beans, speak to the diverse cultural influences that shape American cooking.

Celebrations and festivals in American culture

From coast to coast, Americans gather to celebrate festivals and holidays, bringing people together to honor traditions, express identity and have fun.

Patriotic pride: Independence Day and beyond

Featured in countless movies and TV shows, Independence Day, with its fireworks, parades, barbecues… and aliens, stands as the quintessential American celebration of freedom and national unity. Yet, beyond July 4th, Americans also commemorate other patriotic occasions, such as Veterans Day and Memorial Day, paying tribute to the sacrifices of those who have served their country.

Friends celebrating Independence Day in America.

Joyous seasons

Christmas, with its festive decorations, gift-giving, and family gatherings, is a beloved holiday cherished by people of all backgrounds. Similarly, Mardi Gras in Louisiana showcases the city's vibrant culture through colorful parades, masked balls, and a lot of shenanigans.

My personal favorite is Thanksgiving!

Cultural heritage: Juneteenth and beyond

As mentioned, Juneteenth has grown into a widely celebrated holiday honoring African American heritage and resilience. Beyond Juneteenth, Americans also celebrate a multitude of cultural festivals that reflect the nation’s melting pot, from Chinese New Year and Diwali to Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick's Day.

American music and dance

Music and dance are integral components of American culture, serving as vibrant expressions of creativity, identity, and community.

In fact, in Europe, we’re always jealous of the natural talent many Americans seem to have for music AND dance AND even acting. We’re barely good at one thing!

From the roots of African spirituals to the global impact of jazz and the fusion of diverse genres, American music and dance are the perfect reflection of the country’s soul — and the perfect soundtrack to a road trip.

Roots of American music: From spirituals to jazz

African influences permeate the foundations of American music, with spirituals, blues, and gospel music serving as powerful expressions of resilience and faith. These genres evolved from the musical traditions of enslaved Africans, blending elements of African rhythms, call-and-response vocals, and Christian hymns.

Meanwhile, folk traditions such as Appalachian music, bluegrass, and country reflect the rustic atmosphere and storytelling traditions of rural America.

Jazz, born in the vibrant streets of New Orleans, emerged as a revolutionary art form, blending African rhythms, European harmonies, and improvisation into a dynamic and expressive genre with adepts worldwide. And we can’t forget my personal favorite, zydeco, originally a blend of Louisiana French accordion music and Afro-Caribbean beats.

Cultural fusion and diversity in music and dance

American music and dance celebrate cultural fusion and diversity, embracing influences from around the globe. Latin music, including salsa, merengue, and reggaeton, is an explosion of rhythms and passionate energy, while Asian-American artists contribute to the musical landscape with genres like K-pop, Bollywood, and fusion styles.

LGBTQ+ representation has also played a significant role in shaping American music and dance, with contributions to disco, house music, and voguing.

Iconic music and dance events

American music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Burning Man, and Bonnaroo draw people from all over the globe, serve as epicenters of musical creativity and cultural exchange. In fact, you’ll find a few in our top 50 festivals around the world!

Crowd of fans at a music festival.

Broadway musicals, including Hamilton, The Lion King, and Chicago, transport audiences to fantastical worlds of song and dance, showcasing the talent — jealous! — and creativity of American performers and storytellers.

Religious influences

I remember my first thought when I arrived in Texas for my high school semester: Wow, there are as many churches as fast food restaurants for a town of 7000 inhabitants!

Religion has played a profound role in shaping the cultural landscape of America, influencing beliefs, values, and traditions across diverse communities. From the early settlements of European colonists to the present day, religion has left an indelible mark on American society.

Pilgrims and puritans

The roots of American religious influence trace back to the arrival of Pilgrims and Puritans seeking religious freedom in the New World. These early settlers brought with them Protestant Christian beliefs that would lay the foundation for much of America´s religious identity. Their communities established the framework for religious tolerance and pluralism that would become fundamental principles of American democracy.

Diversity and pluralism

As America evolved, so did its religious landscape, becoming increasingly diverse and pluralistic. Waves of immigration brought adherents of various faiths, including Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and more. Today, America stands as one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, with a vibrant array of religious traditions coexisting, most of the time peacefully and respectfully.

Social movements and moral values

Religion has also played a significant role in shaping social movements and moral values throughout American history. From the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, religious leaders and organizations have been at the forefront of advocating for social justice, equality, and human rights.

The teachings of various religious traditions have inspired individuals to work towards a more just and compassionate society, leaving a lasting legacy on culture.

Contemporary challenges and debates

Today, America grapples with ongoing debates and challenges surrounding religion's role in public life. Issues such as the separation of church and state, religious freedom, and the intersection of religion and politics on topics like LGBTQ+ rights and abortion — just to name a few — continue to spark contentious discussions and shape public discourse.

Additionally, the rise of secularism and non-religious affiliation presents new challenges and opportunities for understanding the evolving landscape of American spirituality and belief.

Linguistic diversity in America

With roots tracing back to indigenous languages, colonial influences, and waves of immigration, America is home to a myriad of languages. This linguistic diversity not only enriches the culture, but also underscores the complexity and vibrancy of American society.

As a foreigner, I just love how people in the US rarely ask you where you’re from just because you have an accent.

Linguistic diversity in America.

Official languages in America

Unlike many countries that have one or a few official languages — like Spain, which takes it very seriously — the United States does not designate any official language at the federal level.

English is the de facto national language and is used for most official government communications and documents.

However, numerous states have adopted official languages at the state level, reflecting the linguistic diversity within their borders. For example, Hawaii has both English and Hawaiian as official languages, while New Mexico recognizes English and Spanish.

Moreover, most administrative forms are available in several languages to facilitate integration.

Native languages in America

Before the arrival of European settlers, hundreds of indigenous languages were spoken across the land that would become the United States. While many of these languages have faced significant decline due to colonization, efforts to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages are underway.

Native American tribes and communities are working tirelessly to document, teach, and revive their ancestral languages as a vital and beautiful part of their cultural heritage and identity.

Most spoken languages in America

English predominates as the most widely spoken language in the United States, serving as the primary language of communication for the majority of the population.

That being said, America's linguistic landscape is increasingly diverse due to immigration from around the world. Spanish is the second most spoken language, with millions of Spanish speakers across the country, particularly in states with large Hispanic populations like California, Texas, and Florida. Don’t miss our article on Spanglish!

Other commonly spoken languages in America include Chinese, Arabic, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, and Korean, reflecting the diverse origins and cultural backgrounds of immigrants who have made the United States their home.

American attire and fashion

From traditional Native American regalia to New York’s fashion week runway, American attire embodies a diverse range of expressions and meanings.

Two men enjoying clothes shopping in America.

Traditional American clothing styles

Traditional American clothing styles vary widely across regions, reflecting the unique histories and cultures of different communities. In the Southwest, for example, Native American influences are evident in garments like Navajo rugs, turquoise jewelry, and woven blankets, appreciated for their craftsmanship and symbolism.

In the South, plantation culture and African American heritage inspire fashion choices like cotton sundresses, straw hats, and colorful headscarves, reflecting a blend of comfort, elegance, and practicality.

Meanwhile, in the Northeast, colonial-era influences are still visible in attire like bonnets, breeches, and buckled shoes, which evoke a sense of nostalgia and historical pride.

Symbolism in attire

American attire often goes hand in hand with symbolism, conveying messages about identity, status, and cultural heritage. For example, clothing choices may reflect religious beliefs, political affiliations, or social values, signaling belonging to specific communities or expressing individuality.

Traditional garments like Native American regalia or Amish clothing carry deep cultural significance, representing ancestral traditions and spiritual connections to the land.

Similarly, fashion trends like tie-dye, bell-bottoms, or punk attire have been associated with countercultural movements and expressions of solidarity, peace or rebellion.

Many people proudly wear apparel representing their school, company or any organization they belong to.

Evolution of American fashion over time

American fashion has undergone significant evolution over the centuries, reflecting changes in society, technology, and global influences. From the early colonial period to the present day, fashion trends have evolved in response to shifts in industry, economics, and cultural norms.

The Industrial Revolution brought about mass production and ready-to-wear clothing, democratizing fashion and making it more accessible to people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

In the 20th century, iconic designers like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein revolutionized American fashion with their innovative designs and marketing strategies.

Outside of large cities, American apparel is caracterized by comfort and casualness.

Contemporary influences

Today, American culture continues to evolve and influence the global landscape across various artistic mediums. From groundbreaking literature to blockbuster movies and avant-garde art, American creativity keeps fascinating people from all over the globe.

And it’s no wonder with such dramatic landscapes as an endless source of inspiration!

American literature and notable authors

American literature boasts a rich tradition of storytelling, with notable authors contributing to the literary scene across genres and styles. From Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain to Stephen King and John Grisham, American authors captivate readers with their diverse voices and compelling narratives.

American authors such as Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Stephen King and John Grisham.

Contemporary writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates continue to push boundaries and challenge conventions, exploring themes of identity, social justice, and the human condition.

American cinema and its global influence

Everyone knows the Hollywood sign and stars — the human ones and the ones on the Walk of Fame! American cinema holds a dominant position in global entertainment, dating all the way back to the late 1900’s.

Hollywood blockbusters like "Star Wars," "Jurassic Park," and "Avatar" dominate the box office and set trends in filmmaking worldwide, while independent films and documentaries offer thought-provoking insights into social issues and personal narratives.

American blockbuster movies such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Avatar and Lost in Translation.

American filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Sofia Coppola push the boundaries of cinematic expression, earning critical acclaim and international recognition for their groundbreaking work.

And, only in America can a foreign movie star become a governor.

Modern art and cultural expressions

In the realm of contemporary art, American artists continue to push boundaries and challenge conventions, exploring new mediums, techniques, and conceptual frameworks.

From the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock and the pop art of Andy Warhol to the provocative installations of Kara Walker, American artists engage with pressing social, political, and environmental issues, sparking dialogue and reflection.

Contemporary art movements like street art, digital art, and environmental art reflect the changing landscape of cultural production and consumption, blurring the boundaries between high and low art and inviting audiences to reconsider their perceptions of the world around them.

This article is merely gathering a few examples of American culture. In fact, it would be more accurate to speak about American “cultures” than “culture”, and a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to cover all their layers.

The American dream is not a pipedream. Despite past and current challenges, the US is made up of millions of happy stories, each with a different color, language and religion.

America might generate inspiration, fascination, curiosity, envy, misunderstanding… But one thing is sure: it never leaves anyone indifferent.

If you’re visiting the United States — this painting of thousands of different colors and styles — for the first time, get ready to discover the true meaning of “melting pot” and “welcome”.

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