Travel Themes Part 3: Historic Destinations

My dear father was an avid historian and later in life a genealogy buff. So it goes without saying that I am very familiar with planning Historic Destinations. Every August, the only month he had off as a school teacher, we traipsed around as many stifling battlefields, odd utopian settlements and opulent historic mansions as Dad could find. My brother and I liked to moan and groan about these travels, but to this day you can see the imprint they left on us. I find some historically relevant stop on every trip,with some destination entirely about the history.  Let’s Go Learn Things……about the Past!

Historic Sites

Every country proudly preserves its historic sites. If willing to do a little digging you can uncover nuggets of history on any trip to anywhere. Investing time and effort into exploring the historical and cultural sites will deepen your travel experiences. Sites range from icons such as The Coliseum in Rome to the tiny village of St. Ignace, Michigan. Historic destinations might be a quiet self-guided wander, an experiential immersion, a glimpse of an era gone, a poignant paying of respects, or a haunting walk through humankind’s mistakes. Many sites include museums and docent led tours, many are part of the National Parks system.  Whatever the setting, take your time, absorb the lessons history can teach, you will be changed by it.


Historic destinations
Visiting Historic Battlefields can be very poignant.

There are enough battlefields in the continental United States to keep you busy visiting for years.  My father’s war of choice was the Civil War. I think we visited Gettysburg when I was about 10 and I still have vivid memories. It was surreal to look out on that serene rolling landscape and imagine the smoke and blood and agony of that battle. Decades later I visited Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was a grey drippy day but the beauty of the region could not be hidden.  We were on motorcycles and wound our way from the Visitor Center around the grounds.  So much carnage, for so many weeks, over such a small group of hills.

Historic destinations
Photo Credit to NPS

There are of course battlefield destinations all over the world. A few for consideration:

  • Dunkirk
  • Beaches of Normandy  This article in the Smithsonian brings home
    the value of visiting Normandy.
  • Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona Memorial
  • Vietnam, I must admit after the Ken Burns series on PBS this fall
    I find Vietnam moving up on my Historic Destinations bucket list.
  • Truk Lagoon, I have to sneak in a Diving and Historic destination. This is an atoll
    of islands filled with WWII Pacific Theater wrecks
Historic destinations
USS Arizona Memorial

Living History

Let’s move on to a lighter note.  Historic destinations often offer a reenactment experience set in the “olden times” These destinations are popular for traveling families, but are equally fascinating for empty nest travelers.  These historical settlements typically have ongoing research in order to assure that their representations are historically accurate. Jamestowne has ongoing archaeological research with fascinating new details every season.  Education is their primary focus, with life-long learners of any age their target. Watch the video on Historic Jamestowne below.

Plan to hit these during shoulder or off seasons and you will find them wonderfully less crowded.

Historic Routes

For us Empty Nesters, road trips have taken on a totally different meaning without kids in the backseat. Now with time and curiosity along for the ride, hidden gems are endless.  Most states have a system of scenic byways that will offer spectacular vistas and/or historic waypoints.

  • Heritage Trails. I have mentioned the National Parks System several times.  Their site is full of wonderful itineraries and travel ideas. As I was gathering research I found this page of NPS recommended routes.
  • Natchez Trace Parkway We stumbled upon the Natchez Trace Parkway during a trip to Mississippi. The 450-mile Parkway provides a near-continuous greenway from the southern Appalachian foothills of Tennessee to the bluffs of the lower Mississippi River.  It follows the the most significant highway of the Old Southwest, used by indigenous tribes originally and then followed by the settlers of United States expansion. The NPS recommends getting out of your vehicle and hiking portions of the trail here.
  •  Oregon Trail  became popular in the 1990’s with the fledgling computer game.  Have you ever imagined what it was like to cross the formidable Rocky Mountains in covered wagons? Today you can make the experience a reality in parts of California.

Historic Homes/Mansions/Castles

Preserved buildings such as homes, mansions, castles and State capitols are my favorite historic destinations.  These sites give a very personal glimpse into the lives of region or time period. The residences especially display items of daily life, entertainment and comfort.  Some are embarrassingly opulent while others are dramatically spartan. Many times the “castle” of a tycoon becomes a colossal mistake. But I love them all for the secrets of men’s hearts that they share.

  • Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. FL. Flagler, the railroad tycoon of course built an opulent abode.
  • Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, WI was the summer retreat of Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne.  See my post here.
  • Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany sits amidst gorgeous and iconic scenery but the building itself was never fully completed and became an unhealthy obsession of an unstable monarch.
  • Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, WI was the home of Capt Frederick Pabst a Great Lakes ship captain who married into the brewing family of Philip Best. This home built in 1890’s represents the Gilded Age of America and the Brewing Industry of Milwaukee. See my post here.
  • Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California was the opulent home of William Randolph Hearst, media tycoon of the 1930’s and 40’s.  Learn more from our post here.

Finding Your “Roots”/Ancestral or Heritage Travel

Personal DNA

This year’s heavily advertised Christmas gift has been a DNA kit. Nat Geo offers one, through Salt Lake City offers a kit and has long been the genealogy source in the United States.  It seems a natural progression to move from identifying your ancestral heritage to visiting said region.  My Mother-in-law is first generation Norwegian.  Her parents both immigrated to America from Norway in the 1920’s.  We contacted  distant cousins, still living in Bergen, Norway, and put together a once in a lifetime trip to western Norway.  Our trip was filled with meeting relatives and visiting ancient family farms, villages and stave churches.

The popular drama series Vikings on The History Channel has piqued interest in these early marauding peoples. Viking historic destinations include:

Closer to home in North America, the heritage and culture of our indigenous peoples are important to acknowledge and explore in a respectful manner. The Southwest has many opportunities to learn about the Navajo, Hopi or Pueblo nations. Heard Museum in Phoenix is an extraordinary place to start. See my post on the Heard Museum here.

Additional Resources

Many of my fellow bloggers have some wonderful posts about historic destinations and hidden gems.

Route 66  by David and Angela. Follow along on their road trip earlier this fall at

Two Lane Hidden Gems by Theresa L. Goodrich you can find her book and posts at Drive By Towns.

Explore a Frank Lloyd Wright home with Suzanne Stavert of Adventures of Empty Nesters

Discover New Ulm, Minnesota a German-heritage community with The Walking Tourists

Other Historic Destinations posts on Go Learn Things

Wade House Stagecoach Hotel

Conner Prairie

Old World Wisconsin

Hearst Castle

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