A person sitting on a tall rock in Joshua Tree
Find a good vantage point in the desert. | R. Tyler Gross/Aurora Open/Getty Images
Find a good vantage point in the desert. | R. Tyler Gross/Aurora Open/Getty Images

Race Into Warm Weather with These May Travel Ideas

From slow desert living to fast cars.

May has always been a month of transitions, when the pleasant chill of spring gives way to long, lazy summer nights, and when school lets out and Memorial Day kickstarts the season of raucous boat parties and beach town boardwalks. And boy are the transitions happening at warp speed this year. Airplanes are ditching mask mandates, countries are opening up to vaccinated travelers, restaurants are back to bustling, theaters are packed, and the music festival calendar is fully swinging.

Proceed with caution, dear travelers, but have a hell of a time while doing so. Oh, and we should also remind you that May 8 is Mother’s Day. So, if you’re still looking for plans to celebrate the mother figure in your life, take inspiration from this list of May events. Might we suggest a Kentucky Derby party or an architecture tour? Or perhaps a trip to the Indy 500. Or, fine, a botanical garden.

Indulge your need for speed

Not only are we headed into summer, we’re gonna go fast. This month kicks off with the 148th annual Kentucky Derby in Louisville’s Churchill Downs (May 7), “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” they say. Stretch the time at the Kentucky Derby Festival, with hot air balloon rides, drag brunches, steamboat races, and bed races (yup, that’s a bed on wheels). While you’re there, hit the Kentucky Derby museum, where the Welcome to Derbyville exhibit explores the culture surrounding the big day and the Black Heritage in Racing exhibit delves into the African American contribution to the sport. Chase it with Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf at the Smithsonian’s International Museum of the Horse to learn more about jockeys like Oliver Lewis, the first winner of the Derby (13 of the first 15 winners of the race were Black), and Isaac Murphy, a former slave who became the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

Feeling fancy? Head down to Florida for the inaugural Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix (May 6-8), where the Hard Rock Stadium has been transformed into a Monaco-style race, complete with (landlocked) yacht club and (manmade) beach club. Go all in with a stay at the nearby oceanfront St. Regis Bal Harbour, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary. And if you really want to go all in, the actual Monaco Grand Prix is May 29.

Round out the month on the oval tracks of the Indy 500. Pack a cooler, make sure you know what color car your fave is driving, and go up high for the best vantage point. Make it a full IndyCar month: the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is May 1 in Birmingham and the GMR Grand Prix is in Indianapolis on May 14.

Head south for Memphis in May

It’s always a good idea to visit Memphis–what with that gigantic pyramid and all—but this month you’ll be especially rewarded. It’s the 46th year of Memphis in May, the umbrella for numerous festivals throughout the month, and this year paying homage to the culture and heritage of Ghana. Kick things off with the Beale Street Music Festival (April 29-May 1), back after two years, and though not being held on the river this year still goes hard with a lineup including Megan Thee Stallion, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, Lil Wayne, Spoon, Waka Flocka Flame, Deathcab for Cutie, and Memphis’s own Three 6 Mafia.

Follow it up with the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (May 11-14) making tastebuds tingle with traditional competition categories, but also a competition for hot wings and sauce. You can’t eat the food being judged, but don’t despair—there’s a whole tasting extravaganza happening as well.

There’s the Great American River Run (May 28) if running’s your thing, and all around Memphis you’ll find events and exhibits relating to Ghana, including a dance performance from the National Dance Company of Ghana (May 5) and shows by Ghanaian rapper Sarkodie and reggae, dancehall, and Afropop musician Stonebwoy. Plus a royal visit by His Majesty Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, ruler of the Asante Kingdom.

Have a laugh in Los Angeles or get super goth. Or both.

Boy, we could all use a good giggle right now. To the rescue is the inaugural—and massive—Netflix is a Joke Fest (April 28-May 8). All around Los Angeles comedians are taking over stages from Dodger Stadium to indie fave Dynasty Typewriter. And as for the incredibly stacked lineup, name a comedian and they’ll probably be performing. Conan O’Brien! Katt Williams! Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin! Also Snoop Dogg! Plus a free mini-fest with shows hosted by Joel Kim Booster, Bob the Drag Queen, Lil Rel, and Janelle James, among others.

But say you’re not so much into the feel-good scene. You’d rather visit the side of Los Angeles where every day is Halloween. You’d like to sip a martini at the Millennium Biltmore hotel, one of the places the Black Dahlia was last seen, and dance with Marilyn Monroe’s ghost around the David Hockney pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt. You want to daycation at the female-founded Hotel Figueroa, dip a toe into the coffin-shaped pool and toast to its symbolism—the death of patriarchy.

For something more sinister, stop by the “Dungeon of Doom” basement of the deceptively cheery Hollywood Museum for the prison corridor set from Silence of the Lambs. And if you’ve got the scratch, throw a private ghostly dinner party in the recently-renovated Houdini séance room of the Magic Castle (but don’t say we didn’t warn you). Hit Little Damage for some pitch black soft serve with a cone to match, Dark Delicacies bookshop for some horror-themed fare, Mystic Museum for your fill of Ouija boards, mummy skulls and slasher movies, and East LA pop up coffee pop up Mystyx Kafe, combining goth subculture with tasty caffeine.

Top it all off with a tour of Hollywood Forever cemetery, resting place of Old Hollywood stars. Then, stay a while, because the Netflix is a Joke Fest also takes over the Masonic Lodge at the cemetery, with shows by Colin Quinn, Beth Stelling, Tim Robinson, Sam Morril, Natasha Leggero, and Moshe Kasher. Because sometimes goths like laughing too.

Spend some time in the SoCal desert

Coachella may be over but music festival season is just getting started, baby. One week later right back in Indio is Stagecoach (April 29-May 1), a country music festival serving up twang with a Southern California twist. You’ve got Luke Combs and Carrie Underwood, but also Maren Morris, The Black Crowes, Orville Peck, and Smokey Robinson. Plus a Diplo after dark party, right next to Guy Fieri’s Stagecoach Smokehouse on the poster. What a pair.

Or make it a Palm Springs vacation. That same weekend is White Party Palm Springs (April 29-May 1), a massive LGBTQ dance party where presumably you wear white, or at least very little. This year Paula Abdul hosts.

Stop by the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens to enjoy desert blooms, see some rhinos and feed a giraffe, and learn about their conservation efforts. Take a tram ride or balloon flight and get high above the gorgeous scenery. Stop by the art museum. Then stick around for a new May edition of Modernism Week (May 12-15). For the first time you can tour Casa Tierra, a showcase home designed by Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk. Take tours of neighborhoods where the stars lived, bask in butterfly rooflines, learn about the women who were integral to the formation of the town, and take a mid-century cocktail clinic. Plus so much more to fulfill your architecture-loving desires.

Admire architecture in your backyard

And if SoCal is a little far for some building-peeping, why not celebrate the architectural icons in your neck of the woods? Perhaps Art Deco marvel the Empire State Building, which this May 1 turns 91 years young. Pay tribute to Bob Saget at the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, daydream about old Hollywood in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, or finally make a trip to his spectacular Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Maybe get a little whimsical with the boat-shaped Doullut Steamboat Houses in New Orleans or the historic “witch house” in Beverly Hills. Check out Albert Kahn’s Art Deco Fisher Building in Detroit, or take a tour through the unexpected mid-century modern hub of Columbus, Indiana. And if you’re in Connecticut, be one of the first to stay in a floating Marcel Breuer building, which beginning May 19, will reopen as an ultra-sustainable hotel. Be a tastemaker.

Surround yourself with beauty at a botanical garden

Cherry blossom season may be winding down, but there’s still plenty of use for those allergy pills. All around the country botanical gardens are waiting to be your floral-scented slice of paradise, helping you escape from the grind and feel like you’re miles away. Some, like the Filoli Botanical Garden in Bayside, California, have working fruit gardens, some have outdoor sculpture collections like Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina, and some, like the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, have a slew of carnivorous plants (watch out for any that go by the name Audrey). This month, the Atlanta Botanical Garden also unveils an origami-inspired sculpture exhibit, while others get super creative with their topiaries, like Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which brings flowered flamingos to Ohio.

There’s a garden with a moon-viewing platform (San Francisco), a tropical garden featured in Jurassic Park (Kauai). And only one garden has the futuristic-sounding Climatron, a 70-foot high geodesic dome that acts like a living laboratory, housing a tropical rainforest, streams, waterfalls and 1,200 species of plants. You’ll find the future in St. Louis.

Find a deserted island stateside…

If you’ve ever dreamed of finding your own secluded Island in the Sun™ stateside, you’re in luck. We’ve got a guide to the Spoil Islands in Florida, home to bioluminescent waters and craft brews that at the right time of day can feel like a deserted island all to yourself.

But wait, there’s more. Like the blissful beaches of Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia, just 20 minutes away from Savannah. Or Channel Islands National Park off of California, which have been called the “Galapagos of the North” for their natural beauty and diverse wildlife. Harness the Wild West in Utah’s Antelope Island State Park, which has no permanent human residents, but is home to bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, and pronghorn antelope. Or take a ferry across the harrowing strait known as “Death’s Door” for a cozy cottage getaway on Wisconsin’s Washington island. Meanwhile Block Island in Rhode Island is all New England charm. What’s your island style?

Or toboggan down the streets of a European island getaway

The hilly, terracotta-lined streets of Madeira, Portugal seem like something out of a fairy tale, with colorful houses and lush green foliage, all sloping down to the impossibly blue waters. Here you can go from scaling rushing waterfalls to tasting your way through seafood delicacies to hopping nightlife hopping in one swoop. And—perhaps the most fun transportation we’ve heard of—slip and slide your way down the hills on a wicker toboggan manned by carreiros. And May is the time of the flower festival, where the island bursts with blooms. Extend your trip to all of Portugal and really go for it.

Or make it an island-hopping vacation with inspiration from our list of island paradises you probably already fantasize about. Like Crete in Greece, Isla Mujeres in Mexico, or Lord Howe Island in Australia. Of course, before you book, be sure to make sure they’re actually open to US citizens.

Go outside and look up

Call it Meteor May because this month marks the return of excellent stargazing weather and some very cool celestial sights. We’re plowing through debris left over by Halley’s Comet, for the Eta Aquarid meteors on May 4-6. Peak is May 5, with as many as 40 meteors per hour under dark skies in the early hours of May 6. But if you *checks watch* missed the main event, don’t fret because the shower can be seen all month, and you’ll also have a shot at seeing Venus and ever-elusive Mercury. Plus the first total lunar eclipse this year, on May 15-16. (Intrigued but also confused? Check out our guide to stargazing for beginners.)

And now the time to get out there if birdwatching is your thing. Earn money for New Jersey Audubon at the World Series of Birding (May 14-15). (Side note: if you’re in New Jersey and would rather just have a bird’s eye view, the brand new American Dream observation wheel just opened in East Rutherford, with spectacular views 300 feet up.)

Not in New Jersey? How about the New River Birding and Nature Festival (May 2-7) in our nation’s newest National Park. Or the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival (May 4 to May 8), in Homer, Alaska (the state’s largest wildlife viewing festival). May 12-15 is a big one: you’ll find festivals at Indiana Dunes, Great Salt Lake, Eerie, Pennsylvania, and Astoria, Oregon. That one’s called the Birds of a Feather Spring festival. Cap it off with the Chequamegon Bay Birding & Nature Festival in Wisconsin (May 19-21) with a full schedule of field trips including kayaking to estuaries in Lake Superior with a US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge specialist.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She's never met an island she didn't love.