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7 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 continue to tick up to levels not seen since before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Travel Association. And a recent AARP report found 63 percent of travelers 50-plus are planning to travel somewhere in the U.S. in 2024.

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That means vacation planners should book now to get transportation, hotels and advance tickets for popular attractions in historic cities. Birthplace of the national anthem? Check. Native American culture? Check. Liberty Bell? Yes. Early settlers? Yes. Former Spanish colony? Yes. Country music? Check. These seven 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 $21.95; people 60-plus, military, students 15-20 $19.95; youth 6-14 $9.95), and now the Inner Harbor is a magnet for families. There’s also the National Aquarium (adults $49.95; people 70-plus and youths 5-20 $39.95), the kid-friendly Maryland Science Center (adults $26.95; people 62-plus $25.95; children 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.

spinner image the great wheel at pier fifty seven on the seattle waterfront
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 farm markets. You will find art and specialty museums; try the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPop (general admission $27-$29.75 depending on the day of the week and more for special exhibits), next to the Space Needle; or the National Nordic Museum (adults $20; 65-plus $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.  

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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 $20; people 65-plus and children $15); or try the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for some truly eye-opening medical history exhibits (adults $20; people 65-plus and military $18; students and youth 6-18 $15).

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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, New Mexico.
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Santa Fe, New Mexico

Arrive with imagination to downtown’s central Santa Fe Plaza. Look north to the block-long 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 of 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, with 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 Don Giovanni and La Traviata​, 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.

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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 in 1633, 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 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.

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The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a main draw in Nashville, Tennessee.
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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 3 on Southern Living’s list of the South’s best cities for 2024. 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 $26.95; people 65-plus and military $24.95; students and educators $22.95; youth 5-17 $22.95); 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 $51.95; ages 6-12 $41.95). 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. 

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The Golden Gate Bridge draws millions of people to San Francisco each year.
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San Francisco

Approach San Francisco from any direction and you’ll see the towering office buildings and historical landmarks that paint an iconic skyline. Colorful Victorian homes sparkle on the city’s rolling hills whether seen at night or in daylight. And the bridges, both Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay, are marvels. This peninsula city between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay was a tiny settlement before the Gold Rush of 1849 brought some 25,000 new residents and flourishing commerce. It became a mecca for explorers and innovators, bohemians and creatives, wealth and health seekers — a mix of adventuresome spirits visitors today can’t help but feel. To explore now, start with a visit to the landmark Ferry Building, a farmers market full of shops and eateries. Head to Fisherman’s Wharf (seafood and souvenirs); take a cable car ($8 a ride; $4 for people 65-plus before 7 a.m. and after 9 p.m.) from the wharf to Nob Hill to Top of the Mark in the InterContinental Mark Hopkins hotel for a drink and an awesome view. Or, if it’s a Tuesday evening, try yoga on the labyrinth ($15 to $50) inside stately Grace Cathedral. Don’t miss Golden Gate Park, for a walk, a bike ride or a roller skate as well as multiple gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers. Explore neighborhoods with history, food and culture all their own, among them: Haight-Ashbury, hotbed of 1960s and ’70s hippie life; North Beach, home to the Beats and the famous City Lights bookstore; the Mission for all things Latino culture; the Castro, epicenter of LGBTQ+ culture; or Chinatown, centrally located and the oldest such neighborhood in North America. Restaurants and culinary stars are plentiful here. And some of the icons — Tadich Grill in the Financial District and Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ original in Berkeley — stand the test of time.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 21, 2023. It has been updated to reflect new information.

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