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6 Great Options for a Summer Trip That Celebrates American History

These cities say: ‘You are welcome here’

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American history can be found throughout Philadelphia.
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Domestic travel numbers are ticking up toward levels not seen since before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That means vacation planners should book now to get transportation, hotels and advance tickets for popular attractions. Birthplace of the national anthem? Check. Native American culture? Check. Liberty Bell? Yes. Early settlers? Yes. Former Spanish colony? Yes. Country music? Check. These six cities offer a bit for everyone, including the country’s early history, nostalgia, natural wonders and a welcoming vibe.

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The last sail-only warship, USS Constellation, is anchored at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.
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Baltimore

Don’t be surprised to hear locals greet you with a familiar “Hon” (said hun), one of many delights visitors find in Maryland’s largest city. About 40 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., Baltimore, too, is rich in national history (the birthplace of "The Star-Spangled Banner"); has deep African American origins (a stop on the Underground Railroad), a love of America’s favorite pastime (Babe Ruth was born here in 1895); and pride of place in our entertainment culture (think HairsprayDinerThe Wire). The last sail-only warship, the USS Constellation built in 1854 for the U.S. Navy, remains in Baltimore’s harbor (adults $19.95; seniors 60+, military, students 15-20 $17.95; youth 6-14 $7.95), but now the Inner Harbor is a magnet for families. There’s also the National Aquarium (adults $49.95; seniors 70+ and youths 5-20 $39.95), the kid-friendly Maryland Science Center (adults $26.95; seniors 62+ $25.95; child 3-12 $20.95); and shopping and eateries aplenty. There’s much beyond the expected in Bawlmer or Baldamore, as the locals drawl it, including more than a dozen different neighborhoods. Oh, and about that “Hon”: Go with it. It’s part of the charm.

Beyond Baltimore: Take a Maryland road trip

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Catch a spectacular view of Seattle from the Great Wheel.
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Seattle

A vibrant urban oasis plunked down amid breathtaking natural beauty, Seattle is more than worth a bird’s-eye view from the top of its iconic Space Needle or The Seattle Great Wheel. Yet, oh, the places you can go on the ground! Pike Place Market is a kaleidoscope of fresh flowers, specialty foods and the original Starbucks, which opened in 1971. Cruise ships and ferries come and go on the Salish Sea (take a ride to Bainbridge Island just for fun). Discover vibrant neighborhoods with unique personalities, each offering dining, shopping and local farm markets. You will find art and specialty museums (try the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) [adults $25; seniors 65+ and students $22.50; military $20; youth 5-12 $17.50] next to the Space Needle; or the National Nordic Museum [adults $20; seniors 65+ $16; college students $15; youth 5-18 $10] in the Ballard neighborhood). It may be a tech hub, but Seattle’s cultural history is what makes it interesting. The city sits on land that belonged to Indigenous Suquamish and Duwamish tribes, but embraces African American, Nordic, Asian American and Latino heritage as well.  

City guide: AARP Destination Guide to Seattle

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The Rocky Statue at the bottom of the stairs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a favorite stop.
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Philadelphia

Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center and the African American Museum in Philadelphia are icons in the city. America’s history is in Philadelphia’s DNA, and it springs to life in Independence National Historical Park. Summer is full of events, so a check of the National Park Service website will help you plan the best days to go. However, put more than history on the Philly itinerary. Get a cheesesteak, visit Reading Terminal Market to lunch or munch, cheer the Phillies if they are playing at home, run (or walk) the 72 “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and pay homage with a selfie at the Rocky Statue at the bottom of the stairs. For some maritime history, head to the Independence Seaport Museum (adults $18; seniors and children $14); or try the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia for some truly eye-opening medical history exhibits (adults $20; seniors 65+ and military $18; students and youth 6-17 $15).

Beyond Philadelphia: Drive Pennsylvania’s Heritage Corridor

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Native American makers showcase their jewelry, pottery, sculpture, paintings and more on the portico of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N.M.
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Santa Fe, New Mexico

Arrive with imagination to downtown’s central Santa Fe Plaza. Look north to the blocklong Palace of the Governors; look east to The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. These structures alone speak to the history of this capital city nearly 7,200 feet above sea level at the southern end the Rocky Mountains, now a mecca for creatives. Native American makers showcase their jewelry, pottery, sculpture, paintings and more on the portico of the Palace. Shops are filled with original works, but there are more in dozens of galleries in the arts district on Canyon Road. No discussion of Santa Fe is complete without acknowledging the renowned Santa Fe Opera (this summer doing Tosca and The Flying Dutchman, among others). It is officially a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art, yet Santa Fe’s culinary scene is equally inspiring; and it’s hard to go wrong whether you want the finest dining experience or the best burrito money can buy. P.S. Don’t miss weekend farmers and artisans’ markets at the Santa Fe Railyard.

National Park: AARP Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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Casco Bay is a vibrant part of life in Portland, Maine.
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Portland, Maine

Summer in Portland is a thing to behold. Pinkish-red lobster bites in buttery rolls, sea kayaks and paddleboards on Casco Bay, waterside promenades to stroll, outdoor yoga in a city park (or with goats on a nearby farm)! Nature is front and center here as Portland is built on a neck of land that juts into the blue sea. It was settled by the English in1633, when it was called Machigonne (meaning "great neck") by the Native Americans who inhabited the area. By 1786, the seafaring trade — still obvious in Old Port, now a funky mix of shops with names like Cool As A Moose — was established. Nowadays, like many cities, Portland offers unique neighborhoods such as East End (with its promenade), East and West Bayside, and West End. It’s a town with Victorian mansions, a working wharf and a trove of local dining spots serving oysters, crab cakes, Atlantic char and blueberries in pancakes, muffins and pie. There are many options to get out on the water here: Sail on a schooner or book a sunset lighthouse cruise.

National Park: AARP Guide to Acadia National Park

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The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a main draw in Nashville, Tenn.
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Nashville, Tennessee

Music City draws travelers with its country history and song, but one need not be a super fan of “three chords and the truth” to explore with gusto. Nashville was number 5 on Southern Living’s list of the South’s best cities for 2023. It’s easy to see why. There’s Lower Broadway, where one can delight in honky-tonk music and dance nearly 24-7; there’s the Grand Ole Opry, where the biggest names in country still headline; there’s the National Museum of African American Music (adults $24.95; seniors 65+, students, military, educators $19.95; youth 7-17 $13.50); and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for fascinating history. See Nashville’s RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley recorded a Christmas album. (Buy tickets for both the Hall of Fame and Studio B: adults $49.95; ages 6-12 $39.95). You can’t spend all your time in the low lights of those honky-tonks, so get outdoors in Nashville’s Centennial Park, where visitors will find a replica of the Greek Parthenon built for an 1897 exposition to celebrate 100 years of Tennessee statehood. It offers a great lawn for picnics, a mile-long trail around Lake Watauga, and historical monuments to discover throughout.

National Park: AARP Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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