50 American destinations every history buff should visit in their lifetime
50 American destinations every history buff should visit in their lifetime
America may not have a long history compared to some other countries around the world, but it does have a uniquely interesting history. If you're fascinated by American history but are far removed from the days when you would sit in a classroom and learn about it, know that your days of expanding your knowledge are far from over. We've curated a list of 50 of the most important destinations for history lovers to see across America. From museums that tell underrepresented stories to some of the most important battlefields to sites that defined our freedom, here are 50 American destinations every history buff should visit in their lifetime.
The Alamo (San Antonio, Texas)
The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, is the most-visited tourist attraction in the Lone Star State. The mission and fortress was the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, at which a small garrison of Texas independence fighters was finally overwhelmed by a much larger Mexican army after a 13-day siege. Today, visitors can take guided or self-guided tours of the mission to learn more about the church, the various rulers of Texas, the Texas Revolution and the defenders of the Alamo, including famed pioneer Davey Crockett.
Alcatraz Island (San Francisco, California)
A 15-minute ferry ride from San Francisco, California, takes visitors to Alcatraz Island. On this 22-acre island, you can visit the former fort and federal prison, which is said to be one of the most haunted places in the world. Here, you can learn about military history and the infamous escapes from Alcatraz. The island also features exhibits on the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island by American Indian activists and information about the island's topography.
American Civil War Museum (Richmond, Virginia)
The American Civil War was a complicated conflict that somehow Americans still can't agree on today. The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, attempts to tell the story of the Civil War from all sides of the battle. Voices from soldiers and civilians both Confederate and Union are represented. The museum's main exhibition, "A People's Contest: Struggles for Nation and Freedom in Civil War America" also includes narratives from the eyes of women, enslaved African-Americans, Native Americans and more.
Arlington National Cemetery (Arlington County, Virginia)
The Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, features over 400,000 graves of American soldiers, both those who died in battle and those who retired and died later of other causes. Every American should see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is the final resting place for unknown soldiers from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Every hour in the summer (and half hour in cooler months), there is a changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, complete with a moving ceremony. Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of John F. Kennedy, William Howard Taft, the space shuttle Challenger's crew and more.
Betsy Ross House (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Betsy Ross is known as the woman who sewed the first American flag, but this seamstress had a more complicated life than you might think. The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, tells her story. The 18th-century home features an audio tour of the building, which tells Betsy's story. There are also special exhibits, including presentations about working women during the Revolutionary War.
Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum (Boston, Massachusetts)
There's no shortage of things for history buffs to do in Boston, Massachusetts, but the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is an absolute must-see. The museum itself tells the story of the events that happened leading up to the American Revolution, and you'll see a colonial town meeting in action and can "dump the tea" on the ship. The Boston Museum features perhaps one of the most fascinating objects from this era of American history, the Robinson Tea Chest, the only known remaining tea chest from the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Bunker Hill Monument (Charlestown, Massachusetts)
One of the first monuments in the United States, the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston, Massachusetts, is actually on Breed's Hill, which is where the misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place. Here, you'll hear a talk on why this costly British victory was a major turning point for the colonies during the Revolutionary War and can learn about the soldier's weapon of choice, the musket.
Capitol Building (Washington, D.C.)
The home of Congress, the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., is the pillar of the legislative branch of the American government. On a guided tour, you can see the Crypt, the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall, which feature truly stunning Greek-inspired architecture. You can also obtain a pass from your state senator or House representative to see the Galleries of the Senate and House. Here, you'll be able to watch Congress in action.
Disneyland (Anaheim, California)
Widely considered to be the first-ever theme park, there's a surprising amount of history at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Disneyland changed the American amusement park forever thanks to its innovations in themed lands and technology. There are a number of original 1955 attractions still operating today, including Autopia, the Disneyland Railroad, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and the Storybook Land Canal Boats. History buffs should also be sure to see Abraham Lincoln himself tell his story in Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, featuring the first-ever animatronic from the 1964 New York World's Fair.
Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort
Ellis Island (New York, New York)
America would be nothing today without immigrants, and between 1892 and 1924, more than 12 million of them were processed at Ellis Island. Today, Ellis Island in New York, New York, is the home to a museum where you can see the plight and hope of these immigrants. Some 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to one of the aforementioned 12 million immigrants. At Ellis Island, you can visit the American Family Immigration History Center and try to trace your own family's heritage.
Ford's Theatre (Washington, D.C.)
The site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., will teach you about the impact of that singular, violent act as well as the rest of Lincoln's presidency. A museum at the theatre features a number of artifacts, including the weapons assassin John Wilkes Booth used to murder our 16th president. The theatre itself is also a stunning, historical venue, and live shows take place there regularly.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (Hyde Park, New York)
Opened in 1941, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, was the first presidential library and continues to be a must-see for anyone interested in the presidency. FDR was the president during the Great Depression, New Deal and World War II, and his library features documents and self-guided exhibitions about that fascinating period of American history. A $20 ticket to this museum also grants you access to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's home, with a guided tour from a park ranger.
Freedom Trail (Boston, Massachusetts)
The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile path across downtown Boston, Massachusetts, features a great number of historical sites tied to the early history of the United States. Walk this trail (recommended from south to north) to see Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the USS Constitution and more sights. The Freedom Trail also includes the Granary Burying Ground where the likes of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere are buried as well as King's Chapel Burying Ground, where early pilgrims are buried.
Fort McHenry National Monument (Baltimore, Maryland)
Without Fort McHenry, there would be no "Star-Spangled Banner." During the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, the raising of the American flag over this battlefield inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the song that would become our national anthem. Today, you can visit the Fort McHenry National Monument and hear talks about the famous battles that took place at this Baltimore, Maryland, spot. You can also raise and lower replicas of the flag that inspired Key.
Fort Sumter (Charleston, South Carolina)
The Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie monument in Charleston, South Carolina, is the site of the first shots of the Civil War. Here, you can take a self-guided or ranger-led tour to learn about how slavery and sectionalism in the early history of the United States eventually led to the devastating Civil War. This educational spot is meant to be a reflective, historical and contemplative place.
Gettysburg National Military Park (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)
The Civil War comes alive in Gettysburg, the famous Pennsylvania battlefield where the U.S. Army repulsed a Confederate invasion in the costliest battle of the war. Every weekend from April to October, Civil War living historians give demonstrations across the park to show how people of the time lived and fought. Gettysburg also hosts battle walks and campfire lectures throughout the summer. Visitors should also pay their respects at Gettysburg National Cemetery, where President Lincoln gave his stirring Gettysburg Address in tribute to those who fell in the battle.
Graceland (Memphis, Tennessee)
Rock 'n' roll music is an integral part of the American story, and perhaps no artist has had as much impact as Elvis Presley. Today, his mansion Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, is a memorial to the "King of Rock 'n' Roll," and you can take an iPad-led tour of his mansion home. There's also Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum and a collection of Elvis' automobiles in Memphis. Of course, the musical history in this town doesn't begin and end with Elvis; while in Memphis, be sure to also visit the legendary Sun Studio, where B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and more recorded some of their biggest hits.
Grand Canyon (Arizona)
If you're looking for the most breathtaking views of America while you learn a thing or two about this country, look no further than the Grand Canyon. The history of this Arizona wonder is largely in the visitors center on the South Rim. Here, you can watch a 20-minute movie about the canyon, see historic artifacts from the region or sign up for a guided tour of the area. The Yavapai Geology Museum is nearby, as is the Tusayan Ruin and Museum, where you can learn about Puebloan Indian life.
Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation (Dearborn, Michigan)
The history of American transportation and invention is told at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan. Car culture is at the forefront of this museum; the Driving America exhibit is a must-see, with the first car built by Henry Ford and the history of the American automobile. Other fascinating artifacts at this museum include steam engines, Rosa Parks' Bus, Model T Fords, JFK's limo and other presidential vehicles.
Independence Hall (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is technically where U.S. history began, so of course any history buff should have this on their travel bucket list. At the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, you embark on a 40-minute guided tour where you see the Assembly Room as it actually was during the Constitutional Convention. An original draft of the Constitution is also a must-see.
Jamestown (Williamsburg, Virginia)
For English settlers in America, history starts in 1607 in historic Jamestown, near Williamsburg, Virginia, the first permanent English colony in the New World. Adjacent to that archaeological site is a modern reconstruction, the Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum that illustrates the story of 17th-century Virginia through the experiences of the colonists. See recreations of the ships that brought the first settlers, a colonial fort and a recreated Powhatan Indian Village where you can see how the Native Americans who the Europeans interacted with lived.
Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, Florida)
If you have any interest in NASA and space, then Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is a must-visit. Since 1968, Kennedy Space Center has been NASA's primary launch center. The facility still launches rockets every so often, which you can watch - and it really is a sight to behold. Even if there is no launch, you will see the launchsite of the Apollo missions, including the famous Apollo 11 flight during which astronauts walked on the moon for the first time. This awe-inspiring center is one of the best things to do in Florida beyond Disney and the beach.
The Liberty Bell Center (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
One of the most recognized symbols of America and its freedom, you can actually see the original state house Liberty Bell and its world-famous crack at the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition to the big bronze bell, the Liberty Bell Center also features exhibits on the iconography of this bell, which has been featured on everything from stamps to ice cream molds, and X-ray views of the bell.
Mark Twain House & Museum (Hartford, Connecticut)
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is one of the country's most famous authors. He wrote quintessential American works, such as "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, is the Clemens family home and where Clemens wrote some of his most famous books. You can take a guided tour of the home, watch a Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain and see the adjacent museum.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park (Atlanta, Georgia)
The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta, Georgia, features several buildings documenting the life and work of one of America's foremost civil rights activists. Learn about MLK's roots by seeing his childhood home and the church where he was baptized. His final resting place is also in this national park in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. This center also features exhibits on King, his wife Coretta Scott King and Mahatma Gandhi. Be sure to stop by the visitor center where you can see exhibits on the Civil Rights Movement.
Montpelier (Orange County, Virginia)
Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia, was the plantation home of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and primary author of the Constitution. The estate features over 8 miles of hiking trails and offers a variety of tours, most of which touch on the Constitution and on Madison as a man. Slavery was also a huge part of Montpelier, and the former plantation does not hide or gloss over this fact. The permanent exhibition "The Mere Distinction of Color," curated by descendants of slaves who worked on the Madison family property, tells the story of slavery's impact on Virginia.
Mount Rushmore (Keystone, South Dakota)
If you're interested in and respect former presidents, then Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota, is the tourist destination for you. The likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are carved into stone here. For history buffs, we recommend renting an audio tour wand and listening to the story of Mount Rushmore and how this American vision was brought to life.
George Washington's Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon, Virginia)
Learn the history of the family of our country's first president by visiting George Washington's Mount Vernon in Mount Vernon, Virginia. You can see the mansion, its stunning grounds and even George Washington's distillery. Learn more about Washington and his history as a military general during the Revolutionary War at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. There are also important exhibits about the life of Martha Washington, slaves at Mount Vernon and a moving wreath-laying ceremony at the Washingtons' tomb.
Museum of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
If you're looking for one of the best museums in America, look no further than the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. This museum has an expansive collection of Revolutionary War weapons, diaries, letters and other personal items, telling human stories of a war that happened long ago. See a replica of the Boston Liberty Tree, where the first rumblings of revolt were discussed. Must-see items also include George Washington's tent, a 13-star flag and a copy of the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence on July 6, 1776.
National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, Tennessee)
Built around the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination at the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the National Civil Rights Museum tells the story of the search for civil rights in America from slavery in the 1600s to present day. This moving yet highly educational museum has over 260 artifacts, 40 films and interactive exhibits that show the history of racism and resistance in America.
National Mall (Washington, D.C.)
Some of the most famous monuments in America surround the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Head to this grassy field, where numerous famous protests and presidential inaugurations have occurred. After you soak in that sight, see the nearby monuments, which include the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial, Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool and more.
National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, D.C.)
There are a lot of museums in Washington, D.C., so don't worry if you haven't been to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It's relatively new; it opened in September 2016. The museum highlights the culture and strength of African-Americans in America but doesn't hide from the tragedies that they have faced during the country's short history. Must-see items include garments worn by slaves, a bible owned by rebellion leader Nat Turner and Emmett Till's glass-topped casket.
National Museum of American History (Washington, D.C.)
Any history buff could easily get lost in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Nearly 4 million people visit this Smithsonian-run institution annually. Exhibits here focus on every part of American history and culture, including entertainment, politics, science and the military. Not-to-be-missed items on display include Julia Child's kitchen, the John Bull locomotive, the lunch counter at which the Greensboro civil rights sit-in took place, a display of first ladies' dresses and the original flag that inspired the "Star Spangled Banner."
National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, D.C.)
The rich culture of American Indian communities from the past and present is on display at the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum has two locations, one in Washington, D.C., and another in New York City. Both are definitely worth a visit, but the D.C. museum is an absolute must-see. This museum has one of the largest collections of Native American art and artifacts in the world, with over 800,000 items.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force (Dayton, Ohio)
The National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, is the official museum of the United States Air Force. This museum tells the story of military aviation through its collection of planes, missiles and uniforms from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and more. The museum also tells the history of pioneers in flight, including Ohio's own Wright Brothers.
National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D.C.)
The National Portrait Gallery of the United States opened in 1968 and showcases the likenesses and stories of the people who have shaped America. No trip to this gallery would be complete without seeing the America's Presidents exhibit, which has the largest, most complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House. It's truly remarkable. The only museum in the country dedicated to portraiture, the gallery also features paintings of Benjamin Franklin, Michelle Obama, Martha Washington and more.
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9/11 Memorial & Museum (New York, New York)
The National September 11 Memorial Museum tells the story of the largest terrorist attack in American history. The highly informative 110,000-square-foot museum tells the history of the World Trade Center before September 11, 2001, what happened on that fateful day and how 9/11 changed the landscape of New York and the United States forever. The National September 11 Memorial features twin reflecting pools where the Twin Towers once stood. The names of the 2,977 people killed in the 9/11 attacks and the six victims of the 1993 terrorist attack at the World Trade Center are etched in bronze around the waterfalls. It's a somber yet important place for every American to visit.
Paul Revere House (Boston, Massachusetts)
Though it's along the Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts, the Paul Revere House is worth a special stop. This 17th-century house is the oldest house in downtown Boston, which is already interesting enough, but this was also the actual home of Paul Revere during the American Revolution. Here, you can learn about this silversmith's role in the early days of the Revolution and what really happened during his famous midnight ride as he warned that the British were coming - without actually muttering that phrase.
Pearl Harbor (Honolulu, Hawaii)
While there are many stunning places to visit in Hawaii, if you're looking for American history, be sure to travel to Honolulu and visit Pearl Harbor. This National Historic Landmark actually features four different attractions, so plan for a whole day here. The USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri Memorial both commemorate those who lost their lives when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. One can also take a self-guided tour of the World War II submarine USS Bowfin and visit the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (St. Augustine, Florida)
St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest city in America, and the Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is the first site in that city. Learn about Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and the 1565 colony in St. Augustine. While in St. Augustine, explore beyond this park to take in the Spanish-style architecture and stop by the very unique Spanish Military Hospital Museum to see Spanish Colonial medical practices.
Calvin L. Leake/Dreamstime.com
Preservation Hall (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Jazz is arguably the American musical art form, and Preservation Hall in New Orleans, Louisiana, is the home of jazz. This music venue, which has been open since the 1960s, has multiple shows nightly where you can see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. American history is also about culture, and the Cajun culture and the excitement of a big brass band is a must-do for those who have never seen real, live jazz.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (Simi Valley, California)
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is a truly unique thing to do in California and is an important place for fans of the modern presidency to go to. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this Simi Valley museum and library is the largest of the 13 federally operated presidential libraries. This is largely due in part to the Air Force One Pavilion, a 90,000-square-foot hangar that has the actual presidential plane used from 1973 to 2001 by Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton and Bush. The library also has tens of thousands of documents, photographs and films from the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.)
Formerly known as the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., tells the story of American history through its various art movements. Here, you'll see everything from modern folk art to impressionist paintings to paper sculpture. It's one of the largest collections of American art in the world and spans everything from colonial works to modern multimedia pieces.
The Statue of Liberty (New York, New York)
Perhaps the most iconic symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty in New York City is also a national park and museum you can visit, though advance tickets are highly recommended. After a ferry trip to Liberty Island, you'll be able to explore the lush green grounds around the statue. You can also access the pedestal and see a museum telling the story of how the Statue of Liberty was built and how it became such an icon. With an advance reservation, you can also step into the crown of Lady Liberty to see a truly stunning view of New York.
The Supreme Court of the United States (Washington, D.C.)
The legislative branch of government is headed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. This stunning building is where the nine Supreme Court justices make some of the most important constitutional decisions that impact the everyday lives of Americans and their rights. There are no guided tours of the Supreme Court, but there are self-guided tours you can take, and you can see exhibits about former Supreme Court justices and the architecture of the building. Courtroom sessions are also open to the public and subject to availability. When the court is not in session, courtroom lectures are given in the space.
Tenement Museum (New York, New York)
The immigrant story in New York City and the United States isn't always a glamorous one, and the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan, New York, tells that tale. You can see actual apartments that immigrants lived in and learn their stories. The Tenement Museum tells the history of people from a variety of backgrounds, including immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Greece, China, Puerto Rico and more.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, D.C.)
Though the horrors of the Holocaust took place largely overseas, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum not only tells the international story but also the story from the American point of view and asks why very few Americans helped. Like other places on this list, this museum is a sobering yet important place for all Americans to visit and asks us to confront other modern genocides and instances of antisemitism.
The White House (Washington, D.C.)
Yes, you actually can visit the White House without being a member of the presidential administration. You can request a public tour through your Congressman. The self-guided tour allows you to see public areas of the home of the executive branch, including the Red Room, the East Room and more.
William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park (Little Rock, Arkansas)
Located in Little Rock, Arkansas, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park features artifacts from Bill Clinton's two terms as president with the largest archives and library space of any presidential library. There are over 2 million photos, 80 million pages of documents and other items from this time in American history. Learn about Clinton's life and see a timeline of his presidency. The Clinton Library also features a full-scale replica of the Cabinet Room in the White House, where presidents will meet with their advisors.
Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming)
While hiking across Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park may not be every American history buff's idea of a good time, this 2.2-million acre park has a storied history. It was designated as America's first national park by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and has numerous different ecosystems that tell the larger story of America's topography. Of course, be sure to see the erupting geyser Old Faithful, which goes off every 45 to 125 minutes. After you visit Yellowstone, you'll know why it's one of America's most popular tourist destinations.
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