A slice of history
The US has plenty to offer history buffs with many charming towns and diverse cities packed full of fascinating heritage, cultural institutions and old-world charm. Here is our pick of the best places to visit for characterful centers, magnificent monuments and intriguing tales of life over the centuries. Due to COVID-19, remember to check state travel advisories and if places are open to visitors or have any special measures or opening hours in place before you head out.
Sat on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland’s picturesque capital has more 18th-century buildings than anywhere else in the US and plenty of quaint cobblestone streets too. The city was named Annapolis by the Royal Governor Sir Francis Nicholson in honor of Princess Anne, who went on to become queen in 1702. Must-see landmarks in its historic center include the Maryland State House, where the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War. It’s currently closed due to COVID-19; check the website for updates.
The port city is a center of sailing and home to the United States Naval Academy, founded in 1845. The Annapolis Maritime Museum reveals the area’s rich maritime heritage including how oyster farming shaped the region’s historical and cultural heritage (it’s currently closed for renovations; check the website for updates). National Historic Landmark Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, a striking 1875 structure which still stands in the Chesapeake Bay, is another reminder of the how the estuary shaped the city’s history (tours are canceled for 2020).
First settled by the English in 1607, Richmond became the capital of Virginia in 1780, replacing Williamsburg. There are masses of historic sites, museums and galleries (The Black History Museum, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and mansion-turned-museum The Maymont among them – all are open with COVID-19 guidelines in place) to explore. The state’s stunning Capitol building, built in the style of a classical temple, was partially designed by Thomas Jefferson (it’s currently closed to visitors; check the website for updates). Capitol Square has some of the city’s most impressive monuments too.
Proudly known as the tiniest of all state capitals, Montpelier is mostly associated with maple syrup and mountains but it’s got plenty of history too. Snug in the foothills of the Green Mountains, its downtown area is the largest National Register of Historic Places District in Vermont. Today the 19th-century buildings are filled with quaint stores including vintage record and independent bookshops, and historic inns. Its skyline is dotted with church steeples and dominated by its grand gold-domed State House.
The Vermont History Museum is a treasure trove of local information, while the city’s historic sugarhouses (many which are usually open for tours and tastings) are full of appeal. Plenty are still run by the same families who began them such as the 200-year-old Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, Vermont’s oldest maple farm. The age-old process of tapping trees was discovered by indigenous peoples and taught to the settlers.
Deadwood, South Dakota
It might be a sleepy little tourist town today but during the Gold Rush in the late 1800s, things were a little different. Thousands flocked to the Black Hills and to Deadwood to seek their fortune. They included Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and other notorious gunslingers, many of whom you’ll find buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery. Now take a look at America’s eeriest ghost towns.
Deadwood, South Dakota
In normal times, the Gold Rush town (which is a National Historic Landmark) hosts shoot-out re-enactments in the historic main streets and its themed saloons. Another intriguing attraction is the Historic Adams House, a Queen Anne-style house built in 1892 that gives an insight into how wealthy some residents became. Nearby is the town of Lead, home to the Homestake Gold Mine, the oldest, largest and deepest mine in the western hemisphere until it closed in 2002.
When it comes to history, Boston takes some beating. The 2.5-mile (4km) Freedom Trail is the best way to appreciate this handsome city’s historical importance. Marked by a red-brick path, the walking trail goes past 16 historic landmarks over the course of a few hours, including Faneuil Hall. Built in 1741, it has hosted many significant meetings over the centuries including America’s very first town meeting and is often referred to as “the home of free speech”. See the Freedom Trail website for updates on what sites are open to visitors.
The city has some characterful old neighborhoods too: Beacon Hill was home to the first descendants of the early English settlers known as the Boston Brahmin. The picturesque area, with its red-brick row houses and gas-lit narrow streets, remains an elite enclave and is well worth a wander. As is the historic harbor, setting for the infamous Boston Tea Party. The informative and interactive Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum (now open) brings to life the story of the protest that helped start the American Revolution.
Just over the Charles River from Boston is Cambridge, home of Harvard University. The nation’s first college, it was established in 1636 by Cambridge University alumnus John Harvard. Its student-led tours are a great way to hear the incredible history of these hallowed halls – at the moment only virtual tours are on offer. Harvard’s prestigious alumni include numerous presidents: John Adams (the country’s second president), John F Kennedy and Barack Obama to name just a few.
Other top draws are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Art Museums (with three art institutions under one roof it’s home to a staggering collection of art works) and the Harvard Museum of Natural History – all are currently closed; check the websites for updates. Tucked among Harvard Square’s historic buildings are numerous atmospheric bars and academic eating institutions (still frequented by famous alumni). And, as you might hope, the student town is a treasure trove of small and independent bookstores.
New York City, New York
Arguably the world’s most exciting modern city, New York is absolutely brimming with historic sites too. The atmospheric museum on Ellis Island has to be one of its most memorable and moving (Ellis Island and the museum have reopened; check the website for updates). The Statue Cruises ferry goes from Battery Park on Manhattan to what was the gateway to the USA for over 12 million immigrants (the ferry is operating with guidelines in place). It also stops at Liberty Island, site of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Island is open but the museum and Statue of Liberty interior are closed; check the website for updates).
New York City, New York
Linking Manhattan with Brooklyn, Brooklyn Bridge is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. A marvel of engineering at the time, it took 14 years to build and over 600 workers. It was one of the world’s first steel wire suspension bridges and the longest when it opened to great celebrations in 1883. While charming Brooklyn Heights, with its brownstone townhouses and Federal-style wood-frame houses, was the first in the city to be classified a historic district. This is the most impressive bridge in every state.
San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio de Béxar, as it was known, was founded by the Spanish in 1718 and was the first civilian settlement in Texas. It has the largest concentration of Spanish architecture in North America. Its most famous site is the Alamo, one of five missions that are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The fascinating complex has beautiful gardens and inside there are exhibits on the Texas revolution and Texas history. The Alamo Plaza and grounds are open but you’ll need a timed ticket to enter the church; check the website for updates.
San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio’s fascinating missions, which are comprised of a church and buildings where the priests and indigenous people lived and worked, are along the River Walk’s Mission Reach section. This eight-mile (13km) stretch of the urban waterway goes past the Concepción, San José, San Juan and Espada. Sitting below street level, the River Walk or Paseo del Rio, goes for 15 miles (25km) and is one of the city’s top attractions. River barges also follow the route.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Founded by the French in 1718 and later ruled by the Spanish, the beguiling port city of New Orleans on the Mississippi River simply oozes old-world charm. It has a vast number of historic buildings, especially in the Vieux Carre (or French Quarter), where you’ll find Jackson Square and the triple-steepled St Lois Cathedral, which was dedicated to Louis IX, the sainted King of France. These are the world’s most beautiful cathedrals.
New Orleans, Louisiana
As well as oodles of European-influenced architecture and Southern charm, the swinging city has an impressive musical heritage – it was, after all, the birthplace of jazz. Taking in live music at a jazz bar where it all began on Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny district, just east of the French Quarter, is a quintessential New Orleans experience. But be sure to check where’s open and book ahead. Food is also part of the city’s fabric – feast on Creole and Cajun classics in one of the century-old institutions in the French Quarter.
Savannah’s historic center is one the largest National Historic Landmark districts in the country, and pretty Forsyth Fountain is at its heart. With its canopies of ancient oak trees, bearded with Spanish moss, Forsyth Park is a stunning urban green space. However there’s also no escaping the Georgian city’s past which is inextricably linked with slavery – the grand old homes tell of wealth acquired through an enslaved workforce’s cultivation of cotton and rice.
A hop-on, hop-off old-school trolley tour is the best way to learn about the city’s complex past and explore the historic quarter’s many shady squares and cobbled streets. Savannah’s culinary heritage is also celebrated. Local institutions Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room (currently open for takeout) and The Olde Pink House (housed in Georgia’s first bank building; currently open for dine-in) are the places to try Southern staples of fried chicken, okra, gumbo, collard greens, crab cakes and fried green tomatoes.
Founded in 1632 between the James and York rivers, Williamsburg was the capital of the Colony and Commonwealth of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Colonial Williamsburg, the city’s restored historic area, and nearby Yorktown and Jamestown teem with heritage sites. The former vividly recreates life in the 1700s. It’s the world’s largest living history museum and has won numerous awards for its meticulous recreation and immersive experiences. It also takes an unflinching look at the story of enslaved, free African-Americans and indigenous people.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Originally home to Pueblo peoples between 1050 to 1150, the scenic city of Santa Fe was overtaken by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta in 1609 to 1610. The oldest capital city in North America, it has the country’s oldest church (San Miguel Mission) and public building – the Palace of the Governors, which was built in 1610 (it’s currently closed for renovations). The New Mexico History Museum is attached and the place to unearth the area’s far-reaching history. The 19th-century Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, pictured, is another Santa Fe landmark.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The city is a fascinating blend of Spanish, Pueblo and Mexican cultures with a rich creative scene. Between the plaza and the cathedral is the fascinating IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art, while Museum Hill has the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian as well as the lovely Santa Fe Botanical Garden (some are currently closed; check the websites for updates). Just north of the city are eight ancient pueblos which it’s possible to visit, including Taos (pictured). It’s currently closed due to the pandemic.
The epicenter of US political power, America’s capital city is packed full of historic and handsome architecture. But The Mall is where you’ll find the big guns: the Washington Monument, Capitol Building, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veteran Memorial. Self-led Neighborhood Heritage Trails allow visitors to walk around some of DC’s lesser-known areas. These are America’s 50 most important landmarks.
Capitol Hill has sweeping views of the beautiful US Capitol Building and down to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. There are also the 17 museums and galleries that make up the world-leading Smithsonian Institution museums (check the website for updates), including its newest addition the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first national museum devoted to African American art, history and culture, it’s based on the National Mall.
Despite Washington DC’s heavyweight status, Philly takes some beating when it comes to historical importance. Touted as the “birthplace of the nation”, its historic district is where the most significant sites are concentrated, including Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, and the Liberty Bell.
Cobblestoned Elfreth’s Alley is America’s oldest residential street. Once home to the fledgling city’s many merchants and artisans, most of these narrow shuttered houses remain privately owned. The Elfreth’s Alley Museum gives a glimpse of what life was like for the street’s working class residents. Spread across two houses built in 1755, the enchanting museum is currently offering limited guided tours – advance booking is necessary. Take a look at more of the world’s most beautiful and historic streets.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California
But the city’s earliest beginnings can be found in the lively Mission District. This is the oldest part of San Francisco and where the Spanish missionaries first established the settlement that was originally known as Yerba Buena. Mission Dolores is San Francisco’s oldest remaining building. Now take a look at America’s most important National Monuments.
Founded in 1837, Georgia’s capital was at the end of the Western & Atlantic Railroad line. First nicknamed Terminus, it then became Marthasville in honor of the then-governor’s daughter. It was finally renamed Atlanta in 1845. Oakland Cemetery, with its ancient oaks and historic gravestones, is one of Atlanta’s most important sites. Thousands of Confederate soldiers lay buried in this peaceful place that sits at the highest point of the city, as well as Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell who lived and worked in the city.
Another of the city’s most famous historic figures is Martin Luther King Jr. Atlanta played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement and was King’s birthplace. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park is in Sweet Auburn – it includes his childhood home (pictured) and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father preached (currently closed; check the website for updates). There’s also the excellent National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum (check the website for updates).
Dating back to 1635, the state capital of Connecticut is a historic and cultural heavyweight. Key landmarks include the 18th-century Old State House of Connecticut and 19th-century golden-domed State Capitol, which gleams in Bushnell Park (both are currently closed to visitors; check the websites for updates). The leafy public park is particularly picturesque in the fall. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, America’s first public art museum when it opened in 1842, wows with its priceless works of art. It’s currently operating at a limited capacity; check the website for updates.
The Ivy League city also has literary clout. It was home to Mark Twain for many years and where he wrote some of his greatest works – it’s possible to visit his house. The striking American high Gothic-style house (pictured) is open to visitors for tours. Hartford was also home to author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her house is now a National Historic Landmark: The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center (it’s closed until 2021). Take a look at beautiful historic homes in America you can visit.
Charleston, South Carolina
South Carolina’s port city of Charleston is steeped in the rich culture and complex history of the Deep South. Its elegant and colorful historic architecture, cobbled streets, fabulous cuisine and verdant parks are big draws for visitors. As is the historic harbor – it was just off the coast at Fort Sumter that the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. Pictured here is Rainbow Row, 13 pastel-hued 18th-century buildings that are one of the city’s most photographed landmarks.
Charleston, South Carolina
Grand homes and plantation buildings that pre-date the Civil War also stand as reminders of Charleston’s dark past as a slave trading center. Learn more at the Old Slave Mart Museum and Middleton Place (open for bookings). Its interactive powerful storytelling reveals what life was like for enslaved people on the plantation as well as the Middletons. The National Historic Monument has beautiful grounds too. As does the magnificent Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, founded in 1676 by the Drayton family, which has a moving tour of its restored slave cabins.
St Augustine, Florida
Sun-kissed St Augustine has serious credentials when it comes to history. Established by the Spanish in 1565, it’s the oldest permanently-occupied European settlement in America. As such its center is jam-packed with historic architecture and intriguing museums. One of the city’s main landmarks is the massive Alcazar Hotel, a Spanish Renaissance Revival structure built in 1888. Today it’s home to the Lightner Museum and filled with Victorian-era fine art. These American destinations feel like a different country.
St Augustine, Florida
The 17th-century Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos commands the western shore of Matanzas Bay. It weathered many attacks during tussles between the Spanish and British and is now a National Monument. Usually, re-enactments (complete with cannon firings) give visitors a glimpse into the extraordinary role this fort played in America’s history and what life was like for early settlers. It’s currently open Wednesday to Sunday; check the website for updates. The St Augustine Lighthouse is another heritage highlight – the first wooden watch tower was built here in the late 1500s with the current one dating from 1871.
Inextricably associated with witchcraft, the coastal city of Salem is steeped in fascinating tales of sorcery and seafaring. In the 17th century, it was a small rural, Puritan community that was thrust into infamy as the center of a witchcraft trial in 1692. A group girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of being witches. Nineteen people were subsequently hung on Salem’s Gallows Hill and one man pressed to death. The home of the trials’ judge Jonathan Corwin, known as the Witch House, still stands and is open for visitors (with advance bookings).
As you’d hope, ghost tours and “witch walks” are definitely a thing in Salem. Check the tourist board website to see which are currently running. The hop-on, hop-off Salem Trolley has reopened and takes an eight-mile (13km) loop with commentary around key spooky sites including the Charter Street Burial Ground, the House of the Seven Gables (one of New England’s oldest surviving 17th-century wooden mansions) and historic waterfront. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which covers 12 structures, was the first ever National Historic Site when it was created in 1938. Only parts of the park are currently open – check the website for details.
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