There is something about hitting that magic 21st birthday that makes even normally level-headed young adults throw caution to the wind. They have reached the legal drinking age and tales of pub crawls, shooter fests, and epic day-after hangovers abound.
For a low-key celebration, or sans booze completely (one 2019 report by Business Insider suggests Millennials and Generation Z are drinking less than generations past at their ages), here are 15 ideas for a memorable 21st birthday party. Of course, we're not counting the booze out, but we will try to avoid the hangover!
Visit a Winery
Whether you are in California’s Napa Valley, Virginia’s wine country or any of the other grape growing regions of the country (see: Oregon, Washington state, and yes, even Arizona), a wine tasting tour and vineyard picnic can be a memorable way to celebrate a big birthday.
Wineries are popping up everywhere and it should not be difficult to find one near you, especially with the rise of urban wineries, which bring the vineyard to you—trek to the countryside not necessary.
Tour a Brewery or Distillery
Still want to booze but wine isn't your thing? There are microbrewery and artisanal distilleries across the country. Take a tour, learn how the good stuff is made, and sip and compare the results.
Some distilleries are putting extra effort into their tasting room design; for example, consider the exposed concrete and wood finishings of Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn, the sleek and sun-drenched Deep Eddy Vodka tasting room just outside of Austin, or San Diego's modern, jewel-toned You & Yours gin distillery and tasting room.
Book a Dinner Theater Show
The days of children's menus and crayons are over. Family and friends, take your birthday kid out for a swankier evening. For example, enjoy a night filled with a sassy cabaret, cirque, and a five-course dinner at Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco or Seattle.
Celebrate in Las Vegas
What happens in Vegas... doesn't necessarily have to follow The Hangover storyline. In recent years, Sin City has bolstered its culinary offerings, while its entertainment options remain as vibrant as ever.
The Cosmopolitan hotel houses an upmarket-casual food court including David Chang's Momofuku and a "Secret Pizza" speakeasy. There's also the Latin-inspired brunch at Chica in The Venetian, vegan pastries at Sparrow + Wolf in Chinatown, and ever-popular northern Thai specialties at Lotus of Siam (located just off The Strip), for starters.
Find entertainment in shows like Absinthe, where "producers constantly scour the globe for new talent, so you likely won't see the same show twice," says Traveler magazine; or Le Revé, a visual love story. In 2020, top residencies include Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum, Cardi B, and Calvin Harris, among others reports U.S. Weekly.
Try the Bellagio—it rents luxurious poolside cabanas, which are equipped with a wet bar, television, tables, chaises, and misting sprayers, as well as waiters who replenish the sodas and alcoholic beverages. Rates vary from $200 to $350 depending on the day of the week, but that price gives you a little private party venue all your own.
Catch Some Air
Whether it's bungee jumping, a wind tunnel excursion, or skydiving, welcome year 21 with a jolt of heart-pumping adrenaline. Tamer, more grounded options include a hot air balloon ride, or a few cycles around a ferris wheel. We like the mega-wheels with floor-to-ceiling windows, or observation pods; like the High Roller on the Las Vegas Strip, the Great Wheel in Seattle, and The Capital Wheel in Washington D.C.'s National Harbor.
Conquer a "Thru-Hike"
Lace up your hiking shoes. According to an REI blog post, a "thru-hike" is "an end-to-end backpacking trip on a long-distance trail," such as the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). "More than 2,100 miles long, the A.T. runs from Georgia to Maine, while the PCT, at more than 2,600 miles long, runs from Mexico to Canada."
In preparation, REI, an outdoor retailer, recommends previous experience with backpacking trips and solo hikes beforehand (if you're planning to thru-hike solo); and to be mindful of both the physical and mental challenges that come with this rewarding experience. Practice your trail lingo too, like "Camel Up," meaning to hydrate like crazy because the next water source is far off; or "Bounce Box," to refer to your resupply box you'll ship ahead to lighten your load, says REI.
You don't always have to check-in to a hotel to enjoy its pool, spa, and other amenities. Many hotels offer a day rate, or check out ResortPass, which offer locals and travelers access to these perks (including fitness center access, and discounts to in-house restaurants, where available) across more than 350 hotel partners throughout the U.S. Hotel partners include Kimpton, Rosewood, Hyatt, Omni Hotels, and more across cities in Arizona, California, and increasing locations throughout Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, and more.
In San Diego, for example, spend the day at the Westgate Hotel and make use of its pool, expansive fitness center, steam room, dry sauna, and locker rooms.
Treat Yourself to Allover Pampering
This all-out self-care day can be a DIY-affair or outsourced to the pros. Splurge on a mani-pedi combo and upgrade your service with a hand and foot scrub and nail art. Next, get a full body massage or ask your massage therapist to focus on an area you feel needs some extra love. Then, get a blowout, or a facial, float around in a sensory deprivation pod, or hit up the steam room.
Attend a Live Performance
Choose from musical theatre, a live concert, or dance performance. Or get more intimate with a poetry or spoken word reading, or an acoustic performance in a cozy coffee shop. There are also open mic nights, where you might even be inspired to express yourself in front of a crowd on this special day.
Art can (and should) be experienced in many ways. From towering outdoor sculptures, to interactive, kaleidoscopic experiences like Meow Wolf or Wonderspaces, to leading contemporary art museums and hidden galleries featuring emerging artists, surrounding yourselves and loved ones with art on your 21st birthday is just a matter of selecting the experience you most resonate with.
Head to the Water
One USA Today article reports that there is "proven scientific evidence that being close to bodies of water promotes mental health and happiness." Between the country's rivers, lakes, and oceans, "even swimming pools can attest to the water’s power to inspire relaxation and promote personal rejuvenation," USA Today reports while interviewing biologist Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind.
That said, schedule a celebration near your favorite body of water for a relaxed, mildly meditative birthday gathering. This is the "blue mind,"; the opposite being the "red mind," which is the "anxious, over-connected and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life," Nichols tells USA Today.
Throw a Dinner Party
Whip out or borrow your very best tablecloth and dinner plates and host an intimate (or blow-out) dinner party. Get fancy and cook a multi-course meal (assemble an antipasto platter, and serve oregano and lemon grilled chicken as a main), or order from your favorite take-out place—but still serve them in formal dishes and serving bowls. Add a vase with fresh-cut flowers you'll pick up the day before or morning-of, order some fun cocktail napkins, ready the playlist, and you'll be set to entertain.
Seek New Heights
Whether it's a celebratory cocktail at a rooftop bar, brunch with a sweet view of the city skyline; a sunset dinner overlooking the bay or an early a.m. coffee with your loved one as you watch the sun rise over the ocean, celebrate in a locale that will allow you to look out on, and inspire you toward more fulfilling years ahead.
Challenge Your Comfort Zone
Take a pottery or painting class, enroll in a swing dance workshop, try your hands at woodworking. Whatever you do, put yourself (and your friends too) in a position to create and appreciate the opportunity to try something new, renew a former passion, or advance an existing skill.
Other ideas could include taking an improv or burlesque class, cooking a dish with an ingredient you've never worked with before, or if you've been on the fence about that writer's retreat or full moon manifestation circle—sign right up, this is your year!
Curate an Ice Cream Sundae Bar
Lead with dessert and plan an ice cream social. Round up your favorite milk and plant-based ice cream, go wild with toppings (from toasted nuts to gummy bears, sprinkles to cacao nibs, mochi bits and chocolate sauce), and don't forget the cherries. If you're keen, you could also blend up a boozy milkshake for those who want to partake in alcohol. Enjoy while watching a movie, or take the event outdoors if the weather is ideal.
Sales of Nonalcoholic Booze are on the Rise — and it Reveals a Dark Truth About Social-Media Surveillance Culture. Business Insider. February 14, 2019.