America's Most-Visited Monuments
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.
No. 1 Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 5,971,220
More visitors come to the iconic statue of Honest Abe than to any other monument in the country. Admittedly, sculptor Daniel Chester French’s 19-foot-high seated statue of President Abraham Lincoln is a striking masterpiece, in a Neoclassical temple that mimics the Parthenon. This is also where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech to 200,000-plus onlookers on August 28, 1963. You can stand on the spot where Dr. King said those words and look out towards the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol beyond. It’s the most dramatic view in the nation’s capital. nps.gov/linc
No. 2 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 4,020,127
The monument is deceptively simple: two long walls of black granite in the shape of a V. On each wall is inscribed the names of the nearly 60,000 men and women who gave their lives, or are missing in action, in America’s longest war, which ended in 1975. (Names continue to be added as remains are found in Vietnam to this day.) Designed by artist Maya Lin and erected in 1982, the two walls are angled to point to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Watching visitors trace the inscriptions with a fingertip—and maybe even discover a loved one’s name—makes it one of America’s most poignant monuments. nps.gov/vive
No. 3 World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 3,752,172
The war that tested the mettle of “The Greatest Generation” continues to resonate. Broadcaster Tom Brokaw coined that phrase—and was a major force behind the construction of this memorial (as was actor Tom Hanks). It was dedicated only on May 29, 2004, making it one of the country’s newest monuments. There are 56 granite pillars, each 17 feet high, surrounding a central plaza and the Rainbow Pool. Panels depict scenes related to the war, including Pearl Harbor, Rosie the Riveter, and D-Day. wwiimemorial.com
No. 4 Statue of Liberty, New York/New Jersey
Annual Visitors: 3,749,982
No monument conveys the idea of America better than the Statue of Liberty. It was a beacon of hope for the millions of immigrants who sailed by it as they approached nearby Ellis Island. The 152-foot statue—a gift from France to celebrate a shared belief in freedom and liberty—was designed by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi with the engineering help of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel. Unveiled on October 28, 1886, it still welcomes nearly 4 million annual visitors. nps.gov/stli
No. 5 Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia
Annual Visitors: 3,572,769
The 2,000-pound Liberty Bell was commissioned in 1751 for the Pennsylvania State House and intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the decision by the colony’s governor, William Penn, that colonists had a right to govern themselves. The famous crack occurred when the bell was being tested. It was recast, hung in Independence Hall, and rung to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in 1776. Today it’s enshrined in a 13,000-square-foot glass gazebo, directly across from the Hall. If you don’t feel like waiting in the typically long line, you can see it through the windows. nps.gov/inde
No. 6 Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 3,073,430
The Korean War may be referred to as “the forgotten war,” but this memorial draws millions of veterans and their families every year. It’s a singular remembrance that opened in 1995 to honor those who fought from 1950 to 1953. Surrounding a circular "Pool of Remembrance" and a triangular "Field of Service" are the chillingly lifelike statues of 19 infantrymen. There is also a 164-foot-long black-granite wall that depicts others who went to war, including nurses, chaplains, airmen, and gunners. nps.gov/kowa
No. 7 FDR Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 2,309,708
The 7.5-acre FDR Memorial commemorates the tenure of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with an unusual layout: four “galleries” that represent different terms in FDR’s presidency from 1933 to 1945. Fountains are everywhere, recycling 100,000 gallons of water every minute, and the use of water nods to FDR’s personal battle with polio and use of restorative waters—not to mention the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority that he created. Take off your shoes and get your feet wet—it’s allowed, and certainly welcome on a hot day in the capital. nps.gov/frde
No. 8 Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis
Annual Visitors: 2,259,017
This is the official name for St. Louis’s most recognizable landmark: The Gateway Arch, which rises 630 feet as designed by Modernist architect Eero Saarinen. It not only underlines the city’s role in the Westward Expansion of the United States (the Lewis and Clark Expedition began and ended here, in the early 19th century), but it also acknowledges Thomas Jefferson’s initiative in opening the West. nps.gov/jeff
No. 9 Mount Rushmore, Keystone, SD
Annual Visitors: 2,081,722
No matter how many times you’ve seen Mount Rushmore—whether in commercials, on postcards, or in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant actually clambers over the monument—it’s still surreal and special when you spy those four towering heads in person. The visages of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are 60 feet high, carved on a mountainside by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers over 14 years. nps.gov/moru
No. 10 Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 1,945,696
In a columned rotunda styled after the Pantheon in Rome stands a 19-foot-high bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, whose achievements include authoring the Declaration of Independence and serving as George Washington’s secretary of state, John Adams’s vice president, and America’s third president. Built on land reclaimed from the Potomac River, the Jefferson Memorial was laid out by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had all the trees cut down between the memorial and the White House so that he could glimpse it whenever he desired. nps.gov/thje
No. 11 World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Oahu, HI
Annual Visitors: 1,694,896
The National Park Service’s official name for this monument may not sound familiar, but it commemorates a day that lives in infamy—December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack. The USS Arizona Memorial is anchored in the harbor, where it sank in less than 10 minutes; the remains of many of the 1,177 people who died on the ship lie inside. All told, 21 ships and 320 aircraft were destroyed or damaged, and 2,390 lives were lost. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan and, several days later, on Germany and Italy, officially entering World War II. nps.gov/valr
No. 12 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 1,490,358
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was dedicated in August 2011, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The monument, set on four acres of land surrounded by D.C.’s famous cherry trees, is simple and powerful: a 28-foot-6-inch-tall statue of Dr. King in a business suit, arms folded, stands front and center. Metaphorically, he’s meant to be the “Stone of Hope,” between two enormous background pieces, representing the “Mountain of Despair.” But in reality, the design has drawn criticism from poet Maya Angelou and other prominent figures, landing it among the world’s most controversial monuments. mlkmemorial.org
No. 13 National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City
Annual Visitors: 1 million-plus
Twin Memorial pools placed in the footsteps of the fallen World Trade Center Towers are the understated yet moving linchpins of America’s newest memorial, unveiled on September 11, 2011, by President Barack Obama. The names of those who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels alongside the pools, which are filled by waterfalls. Architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker created the design a decade after the September 11 tragedy, the largest loss of life from a foreign attack on American soil. It’s still a fresh wound; more than 1 million people visited in the first four months. 911memorial.org
No. 14 Fort Sumter, Charleston, SC
Annual Visitors: 857,881
The war between the North and the South—a.k.a. the Civil War—holds an endless fascination for many Americans. Nearly 900,000 come across Charleston Bay every year to pay their respects at Fort Sumter, and those numbers may swell in the next few years with ongoing commemoration of the war’s 150th anniversary. It was here on April 12, 1861, that Confederate forces began a 34-hour bombardment of the Union fort, which ceased when Union forces surrendered. For the next four years, the Confederate Army occupied Fort Sumter, arguably the most powerful symbol of southern resistance. nps.gov/fosu
No. 15 Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego
Annual Visitors: 813,374
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was a Portuguese explorer working on behalf of Spain when he became the first European to sail the coast of what is now California in 1542. Fair enough. But we suspect that the fact that his statue is at the tip of the Point Loma Peninsula, 422 feet above sea level, has something to do with its popularity. This is a prime vantage point for watching Pacific gray whales migrate from the Arctic Ocean to Baja California between December and March. nps.gov/cabr
No. 16 Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, FL
Annual Visitors: 741,038
St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest continuously occupied city, and Castillo de San Marcos is America’s oldest and best-preserved masonry fortification. Built between 1672 and 1695, this 17th-century fort has a drawbridge and a 40-foot-deep dry moat, with cannons positioned in each corner. Never taken in battle, it has survived assaults and violent storms for more than three centuries. The prison cell and the views of Matanzas Bay from the ramparts are highlights. nps.gov/casa
No. 17 Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Baltimore
Annual Visitors: 641,254
It was here, at the Battle of Baltimore, that Americans reclaimed their independence from the British in the War of 1812. The star-shaped fort has not changed much in the past 200 years, and overhead flies a U.S. flag that measures 30 by 42 feet—the very star-spangled banner seen in the dawn’s early light. From June through August, visitors can assist in the changing of the flag ceremony, here in the birthplace of the National Anthem. nps.gov/fomc
No. 18 Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ
Annual Visitors: 573,727
A castle in name only, this is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in Arizona. The two stone pueblos were built in the 12th century by the Sinagua people and abandoned by them by the early 14th century. This is an elaborate multistory, multiroom dwelling plastered with adobe—a medieval high rise nestled into a limestone cliff. President Theodore Roosevelt recognized it as one of the country’s first National Monuments, in 1906. nps.gov/moca
No. 19 Fort Matanzas National Monument, St. Augustine, FL
Annual Visitors: 570,695
Established in 1565, St. Augustine was on the front lines of warring European nations fighting for a share of the New World. To protect the city, Fort Matanzas was built by the Spanish in 1740 to withstand a British attack. It later fell to the British in 1763, became Spanish property once again in 1784, and did not become American until 1821. Perhaps more than any other monument, Fort Matanzas epitomizes the long struggle for control of North America. nps.gov/foma
No. 20 White House, Washington, D.C.
Annual Visitors: 570,057
This monument preserves centuries of history while continuing to function as the president’s residence and work place. This 132-room Neoclassical mansion remains the only private residence of a head of state that opens its doors to tourists for tours—and for free. Plan well in advance to get a firsthand look at the Green, Red, Blue, North, and East rooms and other spaces used by every American president since John Adams in 1800. Kudos to Thomas Jefferson, however, for first welcoming the public in 1805. whitehouse.gov