On the occasions history lovers emerge from their libraries, they often head to Washington DC, Boston and Philadelphia to see the historical sites. However, there’s more to history than the Smithsonian and the Liberty Bell. TravelNerd looked for smaller cities with lesser-known, but no less important, historical landmarks. By focusing on smaller cities, TravelNerd was able to find the top 10 overlooked historical cities. Warning: you might even learn something while on vacation.
Honolulu may seem like an odd place to look for a history lesson. Hawaii may have been the most recent state to join the union, but its history traces back much further than its American statehood status. Stop by Iolani Palace to see the only royal palace in the United States. King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokani governed Hawaii until 1893, and the palace is a spectacular place to see Hawaiian-inspired Renaissance architecture. Also visit Washington Place to see the former governor’s mansion, built in a Greek Revival style modeled after houses in Massachusetts.
Step even further back in time at the Pu’u o Mahuka Helau State Historic Park. This was the social, political and economic center before the 1800s. Visitors will see walled enclosures that formed the helau, a religious site similar to a temple, which covers almost 2 acres. For a taste of something modern, go see the USS Arizona shipwreck and Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona was sunk during the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor and serves as a tribute to the men who died that day.
Charleston gives visitors a sense of the old South, where everything, from the pastel houses lining the streets to the swings on the Waterfront, seems like a history lesson. First, head to the Charleston Museum to see exhibits of the Civil War, traditional textiles and the famous Charleston Silver, which includes George Washington’s christening cup. Then go see Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and take a tour with historians from the National Park Service. Go to the Charleston City Market, one of the oldest public markets in U.S., which is home to 285 local endors, including artisans weaving sweetgrass baskets, an indigenous craft.
Be sure to stop at the Aiken-Rhett House Museum, a historical house built in 1820 that remained in the family until 1975. Then visit Drayton Hall, the oldest unrestored colonial houses in America and the only plantation on the Ashley River to stay intact. Walk in the garden at Middleton Place, one of the oldest landscaped gardens in America to see camellias, magnolias and roses that are over a century old. The College of Charleston, founded in 1770, is one of the oldest higher education institutions in the U.S., and its entire campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Be sure to see Randolph Hall, The Cistern Yard and Porters Lodge, some of the oldest and most popular buildings on campus.
St. Augustine, FL
St. Augustine is the oldest continually occupied European settlement, founded by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles 44 years before Jamestown. Start off your day at the oldest building, Mission de Nombre de Dios, the oldest mission in the U.S., which is still in use today. Then check the historic fortress of Castillo de San Marco, located on the shore of Matanzas Bay, to see 16th century armaments.
Stop at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, built in the late 1500s, and see the collection of museum artifacts, including the Fresnel lens made of 370 hand-cut glass prisms that are stacked 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Visit Florida’s oldest house in St. Augustine, where visitors can see evidence of the Spanish, British and American occupants. Be sure to also check out the Manucy Museum and the Page L. Edwards Gallery to see evidence of pirates, treasure fleets and wars.
With over 400 buildings built before the Revolutionary War, it’s no wonder that visitors can practically see ghosts of the Puritans that settled in Newport. Follow their footsteps by taking the Discover Colonial Newport tour from the Newport Historical Society to see some of the oldest colonial houses and learn about life in that period.
Move forward in time to catch a glimpse of the glamorous life of the Vanderbilts at The Breakers, one of Newport’s finest historic mansion, built in 1885 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Also stop by Rough Point, the oceanfront mansion of Doris Duke, a tobacco heiress and art collector in the 20th century. The mansion is still decorated the same way it was in her lifetime, so visitors can see European art and furniture and Chinese porcelains collected from around the world.
Charlotteville is the land of the Founding Fathers. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe made their homes here, and James Madison’s Montpelier was a mere hop away in Orange. So while you’re here, be sure to visit the famous Monticello, the house and the gardens, to see the Dome Room and skylights. About 60% of the furnishings are original. Go on to visit the University of Virginia, right near Monticello. Be sure to take a free tour of The Rotunda, designed by Jefferson, and the rest of the Academic Village.
Then head to James Monroe’s Ash Law-Highland, operated by the College of William and Mary, Monroe’s alma mater. It consists of the original 1 story original frame and an additional section built in the mid-1800s. Fun fact: the front porch faces north, so you can see Monticello. Then head to Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison to see where James Madison brainstormed the Constitution.
St. Louis, MO
Go pre-Columbian with the Cahokia Mounds, just 15 minutes east of St. Louis. One of the greatest cities in the world, Cahokia was the largest settlement north of Mexico. See the 100 ft. mound Monks Mound, and walk the trails around it. Then head back to St. Louis to the Missouri History Museum to explore exhibits on the Civil War and the World Fair in 1904. Download their free iPhone app on Historical St. Louis to find out more information about their historical photographs, or the free Android and iPhone app on Civil War sites throughout St. Louis.
Don’t forget to stop by the many universities in town. The exquisite, 42-room Samuel Cupples House and Gallery on the campus of Saint Louis University is listed on the National Historic Register. The Richardsonian mansion is located one door west of the Pius XII library on the Frost campus of Saint Louis University. Washington University in St. Louis is a great example of Collegiate Gothic architecture. Be sure to walk to the end of Forest Park to the Medical Campus, the site of 1904 World’s Fair.
Salt Lake City, UT
The Utah State Capitol is one of Utah’s most prominent landmarks. Interestingly, the Travel Council Building was originally on Main Street, but dismantled in the 1963 and moved stone-by-stone to the top of State Street. The Marmalade Hill Historic District is one of the oldest districts in Salt Lake City, full of narrow streets and vintage buildings. Take a walking tour with the Utah Heritage Foundation.
Spend the afternoon outdoors in Memory Grove Park for a quick walk on the Freedom Trail. Then stop in Memorial House, which was previously used for veteran’s activities and is a popular setting for weddings, receptions and luncheons.
New Castle, DE
Historic New Castle dates back to 1651 and was founded by the Dutch West India Company on the old settlement of a Native American Village. What’s special about New Castle is the assortment of architecture in this town Start at the New Castle Court House, now a museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad history. Then head down the cobblestone streets to Amstel House, one of the surviving early colonial buildings left.
Stop in WIlmington, just 10 minutes north of Historic New Castle, at the Delaware History Museum to see exhibits of Delaware’s historic achievements.
New Orleans, LA
The Big Easy may be known for its fantastical Mardi Gras celebrations, which harken back to its historical roots as a multilingual city. Start in the famous French Quarter to see iconic steamboats sail up the Mississippi River, same as they did in the 1800s. Then walk to Jackson Square to see art galleries and the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartments in the U.S. Stop by the Hermann-Grima and Gallier Historic Houses, 19th-century houses turned into historical museums.
Tulane University hosts the Amistad Research Center, which houses the largest collection of manuscripts about African-Americans and the Civil Rights movement. The Historic New Orleans Collection hosts many exhibitions on the history of Louisiana, including current exhibitions on the cartography of Louisiana and on the natural flora and fauna of the New Orleans region. Top it off with a fun visit to the Museum of the American Cocktail to learn about the evolution of the cocktail and how to prepare perfect historical cocktails. Heads up though – they’re moving locations right now and will reopen in October of November this year. Go just outside the metro area to Bocage Plantation for a well-preserved example of a Southern plantation and historic home.
San Antonio, TX
Remember the Alamo at Alamo Plaza, located in the center of downtown San Antonio, next to the San Antonio River. Be sure to visit the Alamo itself, the Mission San Antonio de Valero to see the traditional Spanish-style architecture. Head to the San Antonio River to see the River Walk, flanked by early Texan and Mexican architectural buildings.
The Witte Museum provides fun for the whole family, with the South Texas Heritage Center where visitors can explore southern Texas history and watch demonstrations of traditional crafts. The University of Texas at San Antonio partnered with the Smithsonian to form the Institute of Texan Cultures, with exhibits on immigration in Texas and the influence of Texas culture on the world.
Photo Credit: New Orleans Square