Mickey Mouse, Miami Vice, Sleepless in Seattle... thanks to cinema and TV we all have impressions of the United States of America. Yet nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of Manhattan's unforgettable skyline, your first ride in a yellow cab, the ubiquitous hamburger joints, the vast expanses of prairie, the sweet strains of New Orleans jazz or the neon-lit excesses of Las Vegas.The USA is a huge country to explore, with 50 states to choose from, flanked by two oceans and covering an incredibly varied terrain. For five centuries, since the 'New World' discoveries of Christopher Columbus, people from every corner of the globe have come here in search of 'the American Dream'. Between them, they have created the richest, most powerful country on earth, and a fascinating melting pot of cultures and traditions.Vast plains, snow-covered mountain ranges, forested rolling hills, deserts, strange rock formations, soaring skyscrapers, stunning coastlines, impressive national parks and a thriving cultural scene; the USA has it all, plus some.Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus initiating trade routes to the Americas in 1492, the northern continent was inhabited by peoples thought to have been descended from nomadic Mongolian tribes who had travelled across the Bering Sea, between Russia and Alaska. The first wave of European settlers, mainly English, French and Dutch, crossed the Atlantic in the 17th century. The restrictions on political rights and punitive taxation imposed by the British government on American colonists led to the Boston Tea Party and the ensuing American War of Independence (1775-1783), with the Declaration of Independence being signed in 1776. The American Constitution resulted from the states' Declaration, a governing format emulated by many other countries. By 1853, the boundaries of the USA were, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, as they are today. Economic activity in the southern states centred on plantation agriculture dependent on slavery. Attempts by liberally-inclined Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, to end slavery were opposed. The election of Lincoln to the presidency in 1861 precipitated a political crisis in which 10 Southern states seceded from the Union, leading to the American Civil War - a war that focused primarily on states' rights. After the four years of war, the country entered a period of consolidation, building up an industrial economy and settling the vast interior region of America known as the Wild West.