12 Days of Travel Themes: Historic Destinations

Last Updated on December 24, 2020 by Janet Frost

My 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 stifling battlefields, odd utopian settlements and opulent historic mansions. My brother and I liked to moan and groan about these travels, but today I can see the imprint they left. I find some historically relevant stop on every trip. Many of my destinations are entirely about the history. 

Today, our 3rd installment of the 12 Days of Travel Themes we will explore creating travel itineraries around historical sites.

Let’s Go Learn Things……about the Past!

National Historic Sites

historic destinations are great sites to build a trip around

Every country proudly preserves its historic sites. If willing to do a little digging, you can uncover nuggets of history on any trip anywhere. Investing time and effort into exploring the historical and cultural sites of a region, truly 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 by, a poignant paying of respects, or a haunting walk through humankind’s mistakes. Many sites include museums and docent led tours.
Whatever setting you choose, take your time, absorb the lessons history can teach.

Many U.S. historic sites are part of the National Parks system. 

Go! Learn more about National Historic sites:
National Historic Trails
National Historic Sites


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, 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.  So much carnage, for so many weeks, over such a small group of hills. Brings home the perpetual futility of war.

There are 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

Living History

Living history
Farm wife watches as the farmer heads back out to the fields after the midday meal. Living History Farms in Des Moines, IA

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. Jamestown has ongoing archaeological research with fascinating new details every season.  Education is their primary focus, with life-long learners of any age their target.

IPlan to hit these during shoulder seasons and you will find them wonderfully less crowded.

Go! Learn Things at a Living History Park:
Iowa: Living History Farms
Indiana: Conner Prairie
Wisconsin: Old World Wisconsin
Illinois: Naper Settlement

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.
  • Route 66 is over 2400 miles of retro Americana. It runs east and west across the southern United States.

Go! Learn Things on the Historic Santa Fe Trail

Historic Homes/Mansions/Castles

living history at Naper Settlement
Martin Mitchell Mansion home of George Martin the stone quarry owner

Preserved historic 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 a 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 reveal.

  • 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. 

Go! Learn Things at the Hearst Castle

Cultural or Heritage Travel

Salt River Annual PowWow in Arizona

Whether seeking your own “roots” or the culture of peoples long gone, it is fascinating to visit these historic sites.

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.

Go! Learn Things from these Heritage posts…
O’Odham heritage in Salt River
Navajo Weavers communicate their heritage
Mesa Verde Country
The Wild West

Be sure to subscribe to the blog and follow all the 12 Days of Travel Themes.

Day 1: Culinary Tourism
Day 2: Fairs and Festivals
Day 3: Historic Destinations
Day 4: Museums
Day 5: Boozy Trips
Day 6: Get Outdoors
Day 7: Agritourism
Day 8: Urban Adventures
Day 9: Scenic Road Trips
Day 10: Literary Travels
Day 11: The Arts
Day 12 : National Parks

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