These Historic American Cities Are the Perfect Places for History Buffs

The U.S. began as Great Britain’s rowdy younger sibling with little of Europe’s history. However, over the centuries, it earned a colorful past of its own. There’s no better way to appreciate American history than seeing it for yourself. Whether it’s civil rights, military battles, music, or architecture that you enjoy, these are the 15 best cities for history buffs.

1. Philadelphia, PA

Independence Hall Philadelphia Pennsylvania
Philadelphia’s Independence Hall | Mark Makela/Getty Images

The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Geno’s cheesesteaks … Philadelphia is home to many historic symbols. It’s not Pennsylvania’s capital, but it was briefly the U.S. capital after hosting both the First and Second Continental Congresses. In addition to scenes from the Revolutionary period, visitors can see newer parts of history, like the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Sylvester Stallone was immortalized as Rocky.

Next: High-tech flower power

2. San Francisco, CA

A cable car in San Francisco, California
Alcatraz Island from a cable car | Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

San Francisco is synonymous with Silicon Valley, but it’s also home to an older America. Stroll by the Mission District‘s Spanish colonial architecture or head uptown to ride the famous cable cars. History buffs can enjoy the 60s and Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. If you want a side of tech with your history, visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to see the progression of computing from the abacus to the cellphone.

Next: Remember the Alamo

3. San Antonio, TX

Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as The Alamo
Mission San Antonio de Valero | Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The city of San Antonio began with the construction of Mission San Antonio de Valero — known as the Alamo — by Spanish missionaries in 1718. Now a museum and monument, visitors can learn about the events of 1836 and the Texan rebels who failed to hold the site against the Mexican army but inspired new courage among compatriots, ultimately leading to the success of the Texas Revolution.

Next: Baptists and boycotts

4. Montgomery, AL

Montgomery Alabama Downtown
Historic Montgomery, Alabama | SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images

Many southern cities had crucial roles in the Civil Rights movement, but few are as notable as the Alabama capital. From Jefferson Davis’s inauguration on the steps of the capitol building (when it served as the Confederacy’s capital) to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, Montgomery’s history has been both good and bad — but never boring.

Top sites for visitors are the Civil Rights Memorial and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

Next: No fountain of youth, but a fountain of history

5. St. Augustine, FL

St Augustine Florida
Gonzalez-Alverez House, the oldest house (1650) in the oldest city in America, St. Augustine | Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

No list of historic cities is complete without St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. Founded in 1565, it was first discovered by European explorers as Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. Nowadays, you can visit the Oldest Wooden School House and military fort of Castillo de San Marcos, or simply wander the oldest cobblestone streets in the nation.

Next: How do you take your tea?

6. Boston, MA

Boston Massachusetts Quincy Market
A Boston view from Quincy Market | Sean Pavone/Getty Images

From the bad boys of the American Revolution — we’re lookin’ at you, Sam Adams — to the Irish punk attitude embodied in The Departed, Boston has a history of riotous rebellion. Imagine tossing casks of tea into the harbor or watch a game in the oldest MLB ballpark. If academia is your thing, you can explore the ivy-covered buildings of Harvard, the oldest university in America.

Next: Rhett Butler’s hometown

7. Charleston, SC

Charleston, South Carolina
Tourists on a buggy in 19th-century Charleston | Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

For a look at the antebellum South, we suggest Charleston. Take a horse-drawn carriage to the water, where you can see Fort Sumter, the site of the first shots of the Civil War. One of the oldest plantations in the U.S., the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens welcomes visitors to explore the house and Spanish moss-covered grounds.

Next: A taste of the Wild Wild West

8. Deadwood, SD

Deadwood, South Dakota
Historic Deadwood | Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Black Hills region offers everything from the other-worldly scenes of Badlands National Park to Mt. Rushmore’s famous faces. Founded in the 1870s gold rush — and inspiration for the HBO show by the same name — Deadwood is ideal for those interested in the gunslinging history of the Old West. Far from an abandoned ghost town, Deadwood stays very much alive while preserving its frontier spirit via museums, reenactments, and more.

Next: It’s got sunshine on a cloudy day.

9. Detroit, MI

Hitsville U.S.A.
Motown recording studio, Hitsville U.S.A. | Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

Another city whose historical impact is overlooked, Detroit is home to many meaningful innovations. The Motown Museum chronicles the record label that began a new era of American music via the Jackson 5, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes. Less than two miles away, you can visit the birthplace of the Model T at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant.

Next: Hear ye, hear ye! Mob caps are back in fashion.

10. Williamsburg, VA

17th-century church at Jamestown Settlement
A recreation of a 17th-century church at Jamestown in Williamsburg | Washington Post via Getty Images

Together with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg comprises the Historic Triangle, a place drenched in colonial significance. Upon entering Williamsburg, you set foot in a living museum. Watch an apothecary work with a mortar and pestle, listen to courthouse arguments from men in tri-cornered hats, and discuss the colonies’ need for liberation over a pint at the local tavern. Cobblestone streets and restored architecture immerse visitors into one of the most formative times of our nation’s past.

Next: No reservations needed

11. Santa Fe, NM

Cathedral Basiilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Cathedral Basiilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe | barbaraaaa/Getty Images

Far too much of Native American culture has been lost, but you can still explore America’s earliest human history in the Southwest. Santa Fe is home to the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, which recently experienced a massive federal restoration project to preserve the buildings’ integrity. Santa Fe is also the closest city to Los Alamos, the site of the WWII Manhattan Project and birthplace of the atomic bomb. 

Next: Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z are big fans.

12. New York City, NY

Memorial in honor of the victims of the 11 September attacks
The memorial honoring the victims of the September 11 attacks | I-d-N/Getty Images

While people head to the Big Apple for many reasons, its historical offerings shouldn’t be overlooked. From its role in immigration at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to the events memorialized at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza and Museum, NYC has a significant role in history. Add its legacy in theater, fashion, finance, and sports, and you have attractions for all.

Next: Not just for Mardi Gras

13. New Orleans, LA

Saint Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
New Orleans’ Saint Louis Cathedral | f11photo/Getty Images

With more to offer than beads and king cake, much of New Orleans is a museum itself. Walk below iron-wrought balconies and hanging ivy in the French Quarter, or visit the St. Louis Cathedral, one of the oldest in the U.S. You can also visit the location of the Battle of New Orleans, one of the most significant events in the War of 1812, which propelled U.S. commander Andrew Jackson to national fame and, eventually, the presidency.

Next: Put on your blue suede shoes.

14. Memphis, TN

Beale Street in Memphis | Sean Pavone/ iStock/ Getty Images

Even if you don’t see the ghost of Elvis, Memphis offers attractions for any history buff. Another stop on the Civil Rights Trail, the National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Motel, the site of MLK Jr.’s assassination. Another museum guides visitors through the history of the Underground Railroad. Music-lovers can visit the Graceland estate and enjoy blues on Beale Street

Next: A national treasure — with or without Nicholas Cage

15. Washington, D.C.

The Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossoms frame the Jefferson Memorial. | Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

While our nation’s capital is a critical part of our future, it also hosts some of the most significant moments from our past. Monuments and memorials face each other across national lawns. The Smithsonian offers glimpses of everything from the land’s natural history to Dorothy’s red shoes. Visit the National Archives to see documents like the Bill of Rights, and then learn the history of one of its liberties — freedom of the press — at the Newseum