By Randy Yagi
If you’re a lover of American history, chances are that you’ve already been to many, if not all of the best known historical cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C. While all of these cities should be high on anyone’s bucket list for an historical vacation and then some, why visit the same familiar places when you can consider a completely different destination this year, for a broader appreciation of U.S. history and a refreshing new look upon the nation’s vast landscape? Here are just a few other exceptional suggestions and maybe a few surprises for you to consider for your next big American history vacation.
Set in the heart of the famed Texas Hill Country wine region, Fredericksburg might be best known for its impressive collection of world-class wineries, German architecture, superb cuisine and breathtaking landscapes. But this small city with a population of about 12,000 is also rich in history, and filled with important historical sites and museums, such as the beloved LBJ Ranch and the National Museum of the Pacific War, which were the respective childhood homes of two distinguished Fredericksburg natives – Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the U.S. and Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II. Located within the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, the LBJ Ranch was also known as the Texas White House during President Johnson’s term in office, and was his birthplace and his place of residence, in addition to being the final resting place for him and his wife Lady Bird Johnson. Established in 1969, the National Museum of the Pacific honors Admiral Nimitz, who represented the U.S. when accepting the formal surrender of Japan onboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, to effectively end World War II in Asia. The Museum also features the Admiral Nimitz Museum, housed within a former landmark hotel once owned by the admiral’s grandfather. Other notable points of interest in this city named one of “America’s most romantic small towns” by CNN Travel include Fort Martin Scott Historic Site – one of the first Army sites in Texas and the Pioneer Museum Complex, which preserves many structures and artifacts from the German immigrants who founded the city in 1846 and named it after Prince Frederick of Prussia.
With more prominent cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, Mobile is often overlooked as a historical destination in Alabama. However, this coastal city named after the Native American Maubila tribe and once described as the “Paris of the South”, actually predates the state’s larger cities, having been founded in 1702 as Fort Louis de la Louisiane and was the first capital of French Louisiana. A year later, the then capital city held the first organized Mardi Gras celebration in the New World, and 15 years before New Orleans held its first and now much more famous Mardi Gras celebrations. After the Seven Years War ended in 1763, Mobile became part of British East Florida as the “14th colony” yet did not become a part of the U.S. until 1813, when leaving the Spanish colony of West Florida. Eventually incorporated as a city by 1819, Mobile was an important port city for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The city was heavily fortified during this time in history, with three military installations near the entrance to Mobile Bay, which was setting for the famous Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 when U.S. Navy Admiral David Farragut famously declared “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”, in his assault against the Confederate forces. More recently, Mobile, who’s also known as the City of Six Flags, was named one of America’s Best Adventure Cities by National Geographic and several historic structures and points of interest remain in the city. This includes Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile Carnival Museum, Renaissance Riverview Plaza Hotel – the state’s tallest hotel, African American Heritage Trail, Bellingrath Gardens and Home, USS Alabama and the replica of the Colonial Fort of Mobile.
Founded in 1779 and incorporated as a city in 1806, Nashville is the capital and largest city of Tennessee. Also known as “Music City”, many of this thriving city’s top historical attractions have a played a major role in American music history, such as the legendary Ryman Auditorium – the “Birthplace of Bluegrass” and the primary venue that helped popularize country music, and Historic RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley recorded more than 200 songs including hits like “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “It’s Now or Never”, in addition to more than 35,000 other recordings, from such music legends as Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Dottie West. But the Greater Nashville Area is also home to several other historical attractions, including antebellum homes like Belle Meade Mansion, Belmont Mansion and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, as well as a handful of Civil War battleground sites, and even full-scale replicas of both the Athena statue and the ancient Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Of course, there are several more exceptional attractions to consider on an historical trip, such as the world famous Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Tennessee State Capitol, the Johnny Cash Museum and the new Patsy Cline Museum on the second level, the must-see Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, Frist Center for the Visual Arts next to historic Union Station Hotel, and the enormous Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, the home of the Grand Ole Opry House. Lastly, no trip to Nashville would truly be complete without taking a tour along the city’s famous Music Row with a leading provider like SongBird Tours, and visiting the city’s lively, neon-rich Honky Tonk Highway in the Broadway Historic District, where several famous music artists got their start, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller and Patsy Cline.
New Haven, Connecticut
Founded in 1638 by English colonists, New Haven is best known as the home to prestigious Yale University, America’s third oldest institution of higher education and one of the nine colonial colleges that were established prior to the American Revolution. Yet not as widely known, even for many American history enthusiasts, is that New Haven was likely the first planned city in the country, having established the Nine Squares, the first street grid plan in the American colonies, and inspiring other, more historically famous cities like Philadelphia and New York to create more efficient roadways. Still, clearly the premier attraction in New Haven, historical or otherwise, is unquestionably Yale University, which features many renowned points of interest, such as the Yale University Art Gallery – the oldest college art gallery in America, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History – among the oldest of its kind in the world, Yale Center for British Art – with the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom and Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library – one of the world’s largest libraries devoted to rare books and manuscripts. Other noteworthy attractions include the Wooster Square Historic District, Grove Street Cemetery – the world’s first private, non-profit cemetery, the Knights of Columbus Museum, Shubert Theatre, Woolsey Hall and Yale Repertory Theatre, and New Haven Green, featuring three historical churches, as well as the Amistad Memorial, in front of New Haven City Hall. History lovers with additional time to spend in New Haven can also consider the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, St. Mary’s Church and Christ Church.
The capital city of a state full of historic settlements, Richmond was founded along the James River in 1737, making it among the oldest major cities in the country. Although not nearly as old as the state’s Historic Triangle settlements of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, Richmond definitely should not be overlooked, particularly for its many phenomenal attractions and its indelible place in American history. Take for example, the oldest church in the city – St. John’s Episcopal Church – which will be forever known as the location for Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death speech” in front of the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, which helped spark the beginning of the American Revolution. The capital of Virginia by 1780, Richmond also served as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War and is home to several Civil War attractions, including the American Civil War Museum, Richmond National Battlefield Park and the Civil War statues on Monument Avenue. Other historical points of interest include the statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Virginia Capitol Building, Edgar Allen Poe Museum featuring the world’s largest collection of Poe memorabilia, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) established in 1838, Virginia Historical Society and the Black History Museum. To truly complete an historical visit to Richmond, there is no better place to stay than the magnificent Jefferson Hotel, built in 1895, clearly one of the best hotels in America, a favorite of more than a dozen American presidents and graced with a breathtaking atrium, whose luxurious marble staircase may have served as the inspiration for the grand staircase seen in the 1939 film classic “Gone with the Wind”.
Related: The Historian’s Guide To New England