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Top 10 historical cities in America
Read time: 8 mins
Despite being a relatively young nation, America has witnessed more than its fair share of fascinating history. It’s been shaped and reshaped by a tumultuous and remarkably diverse past that spans the entire gamut, from indigenous settlements and colonial conquests, to the civil war and fight for independence, to the impact of waves of immigration and varied cultural influences emanating from all four corners of the globe.
What’s more, this nation’s storied past is laid out in spectacular glory at every turn you take, nowhere more so than in its dozens of history-filled cities. Admire the grandeur of centuries-old colonial architecture. Marvel at monuments, tour inspiring museum collections, and learn about America’s evolution through its streets, homes, and landmark sites.
For those who love nothing more than discovering a new place through it’s past, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most historical cities in America. These destinations are brimming with heritage, culture, unique stories and plenty of old world charm, each harbouring a wealth of fascinating historical attractions begging to be explored.
San Antonio, Texas
Founded in 1718 around the Alamo mission, San Antonio is unmatched as a destination for learning about fascinating Texas state history, from its Native American occupation, to colonial conquests and the fight for independence. Locals harbour a strong sense of pride surrounding their city’s history and the old battle cry “Remember the Alamo” is a phrase still commonly heard and seen engraved on memorabilia. In addition to the Alamo there are numerous other inspiring colonial Spanish missions scattered throughout the city well worth exploring. Collectively, these form part of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, which was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015 owing to its exquisitely well-preserved buildings.
Other historically significant sights to delve into include the elegant San Fernando Cathedral, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, a handful of insightful museums, as well as the highly prized River Walk replete with historic treasures and authentic architecture. In recent years, the riverside has undergone significant renovation. And now there’s certainly no better place to soak in the heritage of this city than with a stroll beside the waterway, or to unwind after a day’s sightseeing at one of the many enticing sidewalk cafes artfully shaded by colourful umbrellas.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Since its establishment as a French colony in 1718, New Orleans has witnessed some fascinating episodes in history, changing hands multiple times through Spanish conquests and the Louisiana Purchase. This has given rise to what is arguably the most interesting and eclectic collection of historic architecture in the US. History buffs should delve right into exploring the charming colonial heritage of the French quarter. Follow this with visits to the striking St. Louis Cathedral – the oldest church structure in America – and with a stroll around the Garden District, home to an amazing collection of lavish antebellum mansions.
Signs of the past can be found at every turn, including in many of the city’s eateries and watering holes. Pay a visit to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, home to one of the oldest bars in the US, or feast on French-Creole cuisine at fine dining establishment Antoine’s, which has been in operation for nearly two centuries. When you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, New Orleans has no shortage of other diversions, ranging from mouth-watering soul food, to authentic live jazz venues and some of the liveliest nightlife in the country.
Philadelphia is often unjustly overlooked by visitors keen to hop between the higher profile destinations of New York and Washington lying just to its north and south. But as the nation’s former capitol and birthplace.
ce of American democracy, it’s hard to compete with the city’s deep-seated significance in US history or its sheer concentration of noteworthy sights.
Independence National Historical Park offers a host of marvellous attractions that truly succeed in bringing the past to life, ranging from Georgian-style Independence Hall (the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution), to Liberty Bell, Franklin Court and Betsy Ross House. History lover’s will also relish exploring the National Constitution Center and President’s House, as well as the recently revamped Benjamin Franklin Museum. All these sights, along with plenty more, are located in the heart of the Old City, characterised by quaint townhouses and old cobblestone streets that make the area easily navigable on foot.
Beyond the well-known sights, Philadelphia has more than its fair share of beautifully preserved colonial-era buildings, vintage row homes (see America's oldest inhabited residential street, Elfreth's Alley) and federal-style mansions, many of which can be found scattered around its neighbourhoods and surrounding hills. If you need to recuperate from a busy day of sightseeing, immerse yourself in the city’s thriving food and drink scene, making sure to sample the renowned craft beer and famed Philly cheesesteak.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Sante Fe is a city of many historic firsts for the US. Established in 1697, it’s the country’s oldest state capital. It’s home to the nation’s first public building (the magnificent Palace of the Governors), the oldest religious building in the US (San Miguel Chapel dating from 1610), as well as playing host to the longest-running community celebration in America, the annual Sante Fe Fiesta.
This vibrant city is brimming with history and has done remarkably well both in preserving its original treasures and to ensure that all construction in the downtown area conforms with the unique adobe architectural style. The result is that you can’t help but feel the strong pull of the city’s long and varied past on every street corner. Be sure not to miss the historic Plaza, where you’ll find the landmark sight Palace of the Governors and have the chance to browse a selection of Native America arts and crafts around the square. There are also plenty of fascinating museums to explore, including the New Mexico History Museum – home to an astonishing collection of historical and cultural artefacts - as well as the colourful Museum of International Folk Art, both located in the city’s Museum Hill district.
Washington D.C., District of Columbia
The nation’s capital offers an unparalleled insight into American history in all its glory and complexity, with an enviable collection of world famous monuments, landmarks and museums attracting millions of visitors from across the globe. Most of D.C.'s big name sights are concentrated along The Mall, where you can pay visit to the Washington Monument, Capitol Building, The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnams Veteran Memorial.
Many of the city’s famous Smithsonian museums also teem with history, providing a tantalising glimpse into everything from the history of food and popular entertainment, to colonial era agriculture and African American culture, all of it completely free. History enthusiasts won’t want to miss The National Museum of American History, which presents a sweeping and in-depth view of the country’s past through a collection featuring more than 3,000 artefacts, including the famed Star Spangled Banner.
Beyond the high profile attractions, Washington is a city of distinctive neighbourhoods, many of which harbour fascinating histories of their own. Scattered throughout the city are self-guided Neighbourhood Heritage Trails that provide the perfect means of exploring some of the lesser known, yet still hugely rewarding museums, historic houses and storied pasts that these areas have to offer.
Boston is a treasure trove of American history, and there is quite simply no better place to learn about the fascinating stories surrounding the founding of the nation and its fight for independence. Emblems harking back to the city’s illustrious past are evident all around. When touring the city, be sure to keep an eye out for the nation’s first college (Harvard University), its first public school, oldest public library, earliest subway system, and first public park.
First time visitors will want to head straight for the Freedom Trail, a sightseeing route which guides you seamlessly between sixteen of the city’s standout historical sites, ranging from The Old State House, Faneuil Hall and Paul Revere House, to Copp’s Hill Burial ground, Bunker Hill Monument and USS Constitution. Wind your way through the city’s atmospheric cobblestone streets, pay homage to one dramatic landmark after another, and marvel at the striking blend of old and new architecture in the downtown area. Along the way, you’ll pass through the North End district, a little slice of Italy, whose authentic cafes provide the perfect excuse to refuel with coffee and pastries.
St Augustine, Florida
Established by the Spanish in 1565 and commonly referred to as the “Old City”, St. Augustine is the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in the US, predating the landing of the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock and the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by several decades. Unsurprisingly, then, this city is steeped in history, and visitors are spoilt for choice with the array of top-notch museums, inspiring monuments and authentic colonial architecture on offer.
Signs of its long history and varied cultural influences are evident at every turn, and there’s no better place to soak it all in than the 144-block National Historical Landmark District. The city’s original settlement at the Mission de Nombre de Dios, as well as the seventeenth century fort of Castillo de San Marcos, serve as striking reminders of the Spanish colonial era. Many historical landmarks also date back to the 1800s, when the city underwent a renaissance under the guidance of Henry Flagler, giving rise to the impressive Flager College and the beautifully restored Casa Monica hotel.
Once you’ve toured the historic streets, there are several informative museums where you can deepen your knowledge of St. Augustine’s storied past. The Lightner Museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum and Lincolnville centre all host evocative collections helping to bring the past to life, whilst themselves being housed in attractive historical buildings.
Charleston, South Carolina
Visit the picturesque and famously friendly city of Charleston and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported back in time. Established as an English colony in 1670, this east coast settlement grew to become one of the nation’s most prosperous cities, as well as harbouring an eclectic mix of cultures. Learn about Charleston’s economic past, slave culture and landmark events through exploring its plantations, museums and colonial buildings. The McLeod Plantation Historic Site offers an excellent insight into the lives of slaves, whilst a visit to Fort Sumter sheds light on the beginnings of the civil war. A tour of Charleston would be incomplete without taking in its impressive antebellum mansions, Nathanial Russel House and the Calhourn Mansion being two of the very best.
There’s no better way to soak in Charleston’s southern charm and relaxed pace of life than with a stroll through The Battery (a pretty waterfront public park), admiring streets lined with grand eighteenth century buildings, and listening out for the sound of horse-drawn carriages along the gas lamp-lit cobblestone pathways. To infuse your stay with even more history, there are numerous accommodation and dining options boasting strong connections to the past, including the historic homes that now serve as hotels along Zero George Street, as well as McCrady’s restaurant where George Washington once dined.
Home to the Georgian elite until not long ago, elegant Savannah is a remarkably well-preserved city, brimming with over a thousand historic buildings, beautiful cobblestones streets and gracious public squares. All this is encapsulated in Savannah’s Historic District, one the largest National Historical Landmark districts in the US, and an early example of colonial planning with its grid street layout. Twenty-two of the city’s original twenty-four public squares remain intact, and filled with greenery, fountains and monuments they make the perfect place to soak in Savannah’s history and charm.
Be sure to pay a visit to the popular 30-acre Forsyth Park and to the federal-style Davenport House Museum. Take a tour around upscale historic homes, such as the Green-Meldrim house, and then wander down River Street, an attractive concourse featuring nineteenth century cotton warehouses which have since been refurbished into stylish boutiques and restaurants. Similar in many ways to Charleston, Savannah’s colonial history and antebellum heritage permeates every corner. But this city also has an eccentric edge: there’s a thriving arts scene, plenty of creative eateries and lively nightlife venues to explore once you’ve had your fill of the historic sights.
To gain the ultimate insight into America’s pre-civil war days, it doesn’t get any better than Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital and a hub for many of the most significant political and cultural events of the time. Colonial Williamsburg is one of the world’s largest living history museums, effectively functioning as a huge outdoor theatrical stage. It offers visitors an authentic recreation of American colonial life, featuring hundreds of refurbished buildings, live re-enactments and numerous actors adorned in period costumes.
Keep an eye out for the famous Wren building, the Capitol Residence and Governor’s Palace, as well as the Bruton Parish Church. The area is also filled with traditional shops, craft, cooking and farming demonstrations, and plenty of taverns and coffeehouses where you can sample popular eighteenth century dishes. Beyond the theatrical recreation, the town of Williamsburg itself is also well worth exploring. One notable attraction is the prestigious College of William and Mary, the second oldest college in America, and boasting an impressive list of alumni that includes three US presidents.
If you fancy getting to grips with some of the US’s most historical and charming cities, there are numerous exciting tour options which seamlessly integrate the very best destinations and sites. Embark on an independent rail tour of America’s iconic East coast cities, where you’ll be effortlessly transported between Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Williamsburg and Washington D.C. Alternatively, a fantastic way to explore America’s history-filled Deep South is through a self-drive tour incorporating the likes of New Orleans, St. Augustine, Charleston and Savannah.
Delve into the history of America's top cities with these recommended tours
Self-Drive Historic Highlights (7 nights)
Self-Drive American Heritage - New York to Miami (15 nights)
Self-Drive Colonial America (10 nights)
Great Eastern Cities Escorted Tour (7 nights)
America's Heritage - Independent Rail Tour (13 nights)
Heritage of America Escorted Tour (9 nights)
Historic Highlights Escorted Tour (7 nights)