Which former president greets nearly six million people a year? Well, it’s not George W. Bush or George Washington, but if you guessed Abraham Lincoln, you’re correct. The Lincoln Memorial is America’s most popular monument by far.
It’s certainly not the only one of America’s most-visited national monuments to be located in our nation’s capital; you can check several off your to-do list with a vacation to D.C. Yet there are noteworthy monuments across the country, from Charleston to St. Louis to San Diego, that make an easy weekend getaway or road trip. Most are free, and they can be profound gathering places, even for events that happened more than a century ago.
Patriotism is a dominant theme among these monuments, as is remembrance of wars. But our list also contains surprises, such as a remote anthropological site and Castillo de San Marcos—hardly a household name. The better-known Little Bighorn Battlefield, site of Custer’s Last Stand, didn’t make the cut, even with 312,000 visitors in 2011. Nor did Grant’s Tomb, which had a third as many visitors, or the venerable Washington Monument, which was closed for repairs from earthquake damage in August 2011.
Each of these monuments acknowledges part of our collective heritage as Americans. Their visitor numbers reflect our priorities as travelers and citizens—as well as the curiosity of foreign tourists. Why not see them for yourself?
The Methodology: The National Park Service defines national monuments as being intended to preserve a nationally significant resource. This broad definition includes wilderness areas such as Muir Woods, fossil sites, historic forts, ruins, statues, the battlefield at Gettysburg, and buildings such as Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot.
While these are all extraordinary sights, we narrowed our focus to the more commonly understood concept of monuments as statues, buildings, or other structures erected to commemorate a famous or notable person or event. For 2011 visitor statistics, we turned to the National Park Service, which manages many monuments and keeps accurate counts. In other cases, we relied on the administrators of a given monument or memorial to provide visitation numbers.