The United States is home to an array of fascinating historic sites, from the battlefields of the American Civil War to the iconic Statue of Liberty. Traversing its Native American origins all the way up to the 20th century, exploring the history of the USA is an intriguing and worthwhile pursuit.
For this world superpower, we have compiled a list of the best sites to visit, featuring a range of the USA’s most famous attractions alongside its lesser-known gems.
30 of the Best Historic Sites in the United States
The White House has been the seat of the US government and home of Presidents of the United States of America for over 200 years.
Original construction of the White House began in October 1792 after President George Washington chose what is now 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as the location for the new home of the federal government. The White House was not yet completed when, in 1800, it housed its first ‘first family’ President John Adams and First Lady, Abigail Adams.
The White House Visitors Centre is also a source of White House history, including details of the building’s architecture and history. A tour of the visitors centre should take between 20 minutes and an hour.
Gettysburg National Military Park is brimming with approximately 1,328 monuments, markers and memorials relating to the American Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg raged from 1 to 3 July 1863, resulting in over 51,000 casualties and victory for the Unionists. It marked a significant turning point in the war, followed twenty one months later by the surrender of the Confederacy.
Visitors can follow the route of Battle of Gettysburg, from Seminary Ridge and Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Ridge and Devils Den as well as visiting David Wills’ house, a museum about the town. The National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center is a good place to start as it contains a wide range of Civil War related information as well as a plethora of guided tours and exhibitions.
The Lincoln Memorial is a Greek style monument in Washington DC’s West Potomac Park. The Lincoln Memorial was designed by the architect, Henry Bacon, who also sculpted the statue of Lincoln which visitors can see within its walls.
As the site of many important political speeches and events, Lincoln Memorial has a history of its own, independent from its original purpose. In particular, it was the site where Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on 28 August 1963.
Mesa Verde National Park is a breathtaking Native American site dotted with over 4,000 archaeological treasures, including 600 exceptionally well preserved cliff dwellings dating back to 600 AD. Mesa Verde National Park was once the home of the Pueblos, a Native American people who lived there for over 700 years before migrating to New Mexico and Arizona.
Some of the sites, such as the Cliff Palace and Balcony House with its over 150 rooms can only be viewed as part of a ranger tour, for which you can buy tickets at Far View Visitor Center before attending the sites. It’s also well worth viewing the large collection of artefacts on display.
The Statue of Liberty is an iconic copper and steel statue in the entrance to New York Habour and an enduring symbol of freedom and independence. The Statue of Liberty’s total height from ground to torch is a staggering 92.99 metres. Originally built in France in 1884, it arrived in New York in June 1885 and was dedicated on 28 October 1886.
Situated on Liberty Island, there are numerous exhibits and tours available both inside and outside the Statue of Liberty. Upon reaching Liberty Island, visitors can go to the information station to watch a short film about the statue’s history and check the schedule of events for one of 45 minute long ranger tours, which start at the Liberty Island Flagpole.
Alcatraz Island was the site of a notoriously harsh prison based off the coast of San Francisco, California, this isolated position earning it the name of “The Rock”.
Alcatraz Island is today managed by the National Parks Service and offers tours of the old prison. An eerie yet fascinating journey into the workings of this famous site, visitors to Alcatraz Island can make use of audio guides which chronicle its history (45 minutes). The visit usually lasts 2-3 hours.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia is one of the most important landmarks in US history, being the site where the nation declared independence from Great Britain on 4 July 1776. The hall is now part of Independence National Historical Park, which also encompasses a myriad of important sites such as Congress Hall and Liberty Bell Centre sprawled over 55 acres within the City of Philadelphia.
Visitors can choose from a variety of ranger guided walking tours as well as various indoor and outdoor activities. Across the road is the Liberty Bell Centre, housing the famous Liberty Bell, one of the most significant symbols of the American Civil War and formerly hung in Independence Hall’s tower. Congress Hall is next door to Independence Hall.
It was in Historic Jamestowne in 1607 that the English established their first successful colony in America. Previous attempts, notably that of Roanoke in 1587, had been made, but the colony the English formed in Jamestowne was the root of what was to eventually become America.
Today, Jamestowne forms part of Colonial National Park, a historic site which encompasses York Town Battlefield, Colonial Parkway and the Cape Henry Memorial. Visitors can explore the history of the site and that of the country as a whole. Amongst its many attractions, it is worth seeing the Jamestown Glasshouse, a recreation of the first industrial building of the Virginia Company, the London-based company that founded the colony.
The Freedom Trail takes visitors to Boston through a tour of sixteen sites in the city which were of importance before and during the American Revolution against British rule in the 18th century.
Boston played a central role in igniting the American Revolution, also known as the American War of Independence, and the Freedom Trail contains the sites which tell its story.
The Freedom Trail is a 2.5 mile trip which visitors can either follow independently using the red pavement markings around the city or join one of the selections of guided tours, which last around an hour and a half.
The World Trade Centre was a complex of seven buildings in Manhattan in New York, which was destroyed by terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 in a devastating event known as 9/11.
Today, visitors can see the site where the attacks took place, with the World Trade Centre Memorial and Museum on the site where the Twin Towers once stood.
The Martin Luther King Jr National Site in Atlanta, Georgia is dedicated to commemorating the life of the leader of the African-American civil rights movement and chronicling his campaign for racial equality.
Visitors to the Martin Luther King Jr Historic Site can visit Dr and Mr’s King’s crypt at the King Centre, view his birthplace and see exhibitions and films about Dr King’s life and the civil rights movement. There are also exhibits about Gandhi, who inspired Dr King and about Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus was an iconic event of the movement.
Ellis Island was the entry point into the United States of America for over twelve million immigrants between 1892 and 1954.
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum offers a detailed insight into the island’s history, its role in the country’s immigration procedures and the stories of the immigrants. It is a celebration of immigration, including a wall of honour and many exhibits and artefacts.
Montezuma Castle in Arizona is a cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua Indians in around 1100 AD, and occupied until approximately 1425 AD. Occupying an area of around 4,000 square feet, Montezuma Castle is an eminently impressive five storey limestone and mud structure demonstrating the ingenuity of the Sinagua people.
Unfortunately, the public cannot actually enter Montezuma Castle and have not been able to do so since 1951. Those interested in its history and excavation can visit the onsite museum.
It was in Ford Theatre on the night of 14 April 1865 that well-known actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated.
Ford Theatre is now an operating theatre house as well as a museum showcasing a variety of historical artifacts related to Lincoln’s presidency, his assassination and his life in Washington. Ford Theatre also stands across the street from Petersen House, where the President was taken following the shooting and where he subsequently died.
Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana played an important role in the Great Sioux War, a conflict between the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Native Americans and the US government and which was part of an era known as the American-Indian Wars.
Now a National Park, the battlefield is dedicated to commemorating the events of the battle and the conflict of which it formed part. It includes an Indian Memorial, the Custer National Cemetery and offers guided talks exploring the conflict.
The Washington Monument was designed by architect Robert Mills, made out of marble, granite, and sandstone and completed on 6 December 1884, almost thirty years after Mills’ death.
The Washington Monument was constructed in honour of the first president of the United States of America, George Washington, who was considered to be the “Father of the Country”. Washington led the USA to independence from the British and commanded great respect from his countrymen.
The Washington Monument is now part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, with visitors able to ride the elevator to its observation deck, from which the views of the city are spectacular and run for thirty miles.
Taos Pueblo is a Native American settlement in New Mexico’s Rio Grande, USA.
The Pueblo community in Taos Pueblo is known to date back to the fourteenth century, although some archeologists think it was established as far back as the 1st century AD. The Pueblo tribe is one of the most secretive and enigmatic of the Native American communities, meaning that little is known about their culture, however around 150 Pueblos still live in Taos Pueblo.
Visits can be somewhat restrictive, particularly as regards Taos Pueblo’s beautiful church, but tours are available offering an insight into the Pueblo culture.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the most famous art museums in the world, exhibiting pieces spanning over eight thousand years of history.
From prehistoric art and that of the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to medieval works, Asian art and art of the Americas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores ancient and historical cultures through their artwork.
Containing an incredibly diverse and comprehensive collection, the best way to tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art is probably with one of their guided tours, especially if you’re not sure what you want to see or want an overview of the museum or one of its collections. Tours are included in the admission price.
Yorktown battlefield in Virginia is the location of the final battle of the American Revolution.
It was at Yorktown battlefield that, on 19 October 1781, the British surrendered to the combined forces of the French and American armies, under the command of General Washington. This dramatic action marked the end of the war and was the point at which the Americans attained independence.
Today, Yorktown battlefield forms part of Colonial National Park which encompasses Historic Jamestown, Colonial Parkway and the Cape Henry Memorial. Visitors to Yorktown Battlefield can learn about the history of the site and the end of the American Revolution with tours and exhibitions including visiting Moore House, where the terms of surrender were agreed.
The Liberty Bell is one of the most important symbols of freedom and liberty in the US. Cast in London’s East End, the Liberty Bell arrived at Independence Hall – then called the Pennsylvania State House – in 1753 where it was hung. There it cracked on its very first toll.
The Liberty Bell has always embodied ideas of freedom and democracy. For example, it was engraved with the quote “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof” from Leviticus 25:10. This extract inspired a group of slave abolitionists to first name it the Liberty Bell, making it an emblem of their movement.
Today, the bell is on show in the Liberty Bell Center, part of the Independence National Historical Park.
Lincoln Tomb in Springfield, Illinois, is the final resting place of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States of America.
Abraham Lincoln, born 12 April 1809, was the country’s first Republican president and led the Union during the American Civil War. His Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 resulted in the abolition of slavery. His term as president ran from March 1861 until 14 April 1865, when he died after being shot at Ford Theatre.
Abraham Lincoln is buried at Lincoln Tomb, which is now also the resting place of his wife and three of his four sons. Visitors to Lincoln Tomb can enter the 117-foot brick and granite structure and learn about Lincoln through his own speeches, which are displayed throughout.
The US Capitol is the seat of the United States Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and, with its famous neoclassical facade and dramatic dome, is an iconic building in its own right.
Construction of the first incarnation of The US Capitol began in 1793 and the US Congress first met there – in what would be its north wing – in November 1800. Since then, The US Capitol has been the setting for many important national events such as presidential inaugurations.
Today, The US Capitol is both the home of the US legislature and a museum of American history and art. Free tours of the Capitol building itself are available, but must be booked in advance, and there is also a new visitor centre with exhibits about the US Capitol and its history.
The Anasazi Heritage Center in Southwest Colorado is an archaeological museum which explores the culture and history of the Ancestral Puebloan people, also known as the Anasazi.
The Anasazi were Native Americans who lived and farmed in an area known as the “Four Corners”, made up of southwest Colorado, northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and southeast Utah from as early as 1500 BC to around the fourteenth century. They were the ancestors of the modern Pueblos.
The Anasazi Heritage Center works to explore their culture through finds from excavations of archaeological sites. Two such twelfth century sites can also be found nearby and the museum is a good starting point for exploring the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which contains a wealth of historical sites.
Colonial Williamsburg is a historic site in Virginia made up of an entire town restored to its colonial state.
From homes to public buildings and shops, Colonial Williamsburg takes visitors back to the time when Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia – between 1699 and 1780. Later, during the American War of Independence, the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond.
The Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island in Hawaii is dedicated to telling the story of US aviation in the Pacific during World War II.
The museum is located on the historic Ford Island, a 441-acre island in the middle of Pearl Harbour. The museum thus focuses on the fateful day – 7 December 1941 – which effectively forced America to join World War II, when Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the US military base.
Visitors begin by viewing a film about the attack on Pearl Harbour, before seeing a series of exhibitions ranging from photographs and dioramas to aircrafts. The Pacific Aviation Museum houses numerous aircrafts including light civilian planes, a B-25B Mitchell, a P-40 fighter, and a SBD Dauntless dive bomber.
The Alamo is an iconic historic site in downtown San Antonio that remains a symbol of Texan heroism. It has been immortalised in popular culture for the events that unfolded during the famous Battle of The Alamo, which took place on the 6th March 1836.
Today the Alamo is one of Texas’ most popular tourist destinations. The complex is made up of a number of buildings, including the barracks, and hosts several exhibits about the battle and the history of the war. Tour guides are also on hand to guide visitors around the complex.
Mount Rushmore is a granite mountain in Keystone, South Dakota carved with the heads of four of the Presidents of the USA.
Begun in 1927, the work to create Mount Rushmore was carried out by 400 sculptors. It was intended that each figure be shown from the waist upwards, but the project ended prematurely in 1941 when funds ran out.
There are guided tours of Mount Rushmore (30 mins) or visitors can rent an audio guide (30-120 mins). A trip to Mount Rushmore usually lasts around 2 hours.
Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is both a military burial site and an iconic monument to fallen soldiers. Initially, the site of Arlington Cemetery began as a house – Arlington House – built in memory of President George Washington. The house, which still stands today, then became the property of Mary and Robert E. Lee.
Over the years, Arlington National Cemetery has come to represent a memorial to all US soldiers who have died for their country and is still an active cemetery. In fact, there are approximately 300,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery, neatly aligned and each with a white headstone.
Many famous Americans are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, from military heroes to astronauts and leaders such as President John F Kennedy. Those visiting Arlington National Cemetery can start at the visitor centre, where there are guide books, maps and exhibits. Arlington House itself is also open to the public, with a museum and guides chronicling this building’s unique history.
Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas was the site where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated at 12:30pm (CST) on 22 November 1963. Kennedy was the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America and served during the Cold War, his premiership encompassing events such as the Invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall.
Dealey Plaza has changed little from the day of Kennedy’s assassination, however there are several nearby monuments such as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. There is also a small museum, known as the Sixth Floor Museum, in the adjacent Texas School Book Depository where Oswald is alleged to have hidden. This chronicles the life of John F Kennedy. The museum also offers audio guides to Dealey Plaza and nearby sites, which is included in the entry fee.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History offers a diverse exploration of the nation’s history, its collections ranging from public lives, to major national events and cultural elements such as areas of advertising and the cinema.
With over three million artifacts, the National Museum of American History covers everything from popular culture and entertainment to technology, military history and politics.
Some of the highlights of its exhibits include the actual Star Spangled Banner, Lincoln’s iconic top hat and, depending on your area of interest, the original Kermit the Frog Puppet.