Counting Down America’s Best Cities for History Buffs
When you’re exploring our nation’s capital, suggests one historic-tour guide, don’t miss the chance to tour the Pentagon, explore the tucked-away Theodore Roosevelt Island—or stand in a parking garage in Arlington, VA.
“Many people don't realize that the ‘Deep Throat’ garage—where Mark Felt met with Woodward and Bernstein—is still a working parking garage in Arlington’s Rosslyn neighborhood,” says Andrew Terranova, concierge at Philadelphia’s Hotel Monaco, and the guide for the nearby Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour. “A historic marker has been placed outside. ”
No doubt, history can live on in the most unlikely locations—even in stately, landmark-filled cities such as Washington, D.C., and Philly, which both made the top five for historic significance among Travel+Leisure readers.
In the most recent America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 38 metropolitan areas for such cultural attributes as their art galleries, live music and architecture—and also how well they have preserved their pasts.
Certainly, some of the top 20 winners have provided the settings for various chapters in U.S. history, but the definition of “historic” need not be limited to monuments and museums. In some of the top 20 cities, you can step into another era just by pulling up a stool in the pub where Paul Revere used to be a regular, by checking into the hotel where famed gangster John Dillinger was captured, or by catching a concert where Elvis first performed for a crowd.
That offers a nice cover for anyone who likes to balance museum visits with historically legit downtime. “It’s more than the original buildings and period characters,” says Terranova. “It’s truly the spirit of the city. Sometimes you can’t touch it—it’s just a feeling.”
No. 20 Portland ME
July 4 has double meaning for many Portland locals: it’s also the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1886, which was not even the first time the city was nearly destroyed. Even so, Portland still charms readers with its nearly four-century-old charm—like the Portland Observatory tower and the Breakwater Lighthouse, nicknamed the Bug Light for its diminutive size. Architecture fans will also want to check out the gambrel-roofed Tate House Museum, once home to an 18th century Navy captain, and built just far enough from downtown to survive the city’s various disasters. To sleep in a historic spot, stay at the Portland Regency Hotel & Spa, which celebrates its national-guard past through its Armory Lounge, where you can pair your lobster stew with one of the city’s highly ranked local beers.
No. 19 Houston
When you talk history in Texas, it’s hard to avoid the Alamo, the site of the famously losing battle in San Antonio. But Houston gets dibs on the triumphant ending of Texas’ clash with Mexico: the San Jacinto Museum of History marks where the war for independence was won in 1836, less than two months after the Alamo. Houston also houses a large piece, literally, of American history: Battleship Texas, which served in both World Wars, is now a museum anchored in La Porte. To toast the Lone Star State, order a glass of Cab at downtown’s Public Services Wine and Whisky, located in the 1884 Cotton Exchange building; the city also claimed victory in the this year's survey for its interesting wine bars.
No. 18 San Francisco
The City by the Bay’s historical significance goes well beyond the Beats and hippies: the Presidio military outpost dates back to the Spanish era, and the Officers Club, which started in 1776, has recently opened as a museum (including restaurant Arguello, whose menu nods to California’s Mexican roots, with shrimp al ajillo and cinnamon-chili-chocolate truffles). To relive the city’s colorful 20th century history, take a Wild SF Walking Tour—like one covering the Beat Generation’s old stomping grounds and the artists of the Mission District—or sip a “house cappuccino” (an Irish coffee laced with brandy, from Prohibition days) at North Beach counterculture hangout Tosca Café. Spiked or not, San Francisco also easily made the top 20 for its coffee.
No. 17 Minneapolis/St. Paul
Readers were enamored of the Twin Cities for their natural wonders, one of which has given Minneapolis a place in literary history: Minnehaha Falls is immortalized in Longfellow’s poem Song of Hiawatha, about a tragic Native American princess. On the sweeter side, the Twin Cities have a solid claim on their top-five ranking for bakeries: the Mill City Museum, comprised of ruins, was once the largest flour mill in the world, and reveals how the flour industry affected this Midwestern metropolis. For a fresh-baked experience afterward, indulge in some macaroons or chocolate meringues at local favorite Salty Tart.
No. 16 Pittsburgh
The Rust Belt city made the top 20 thanks to its heady (and sometimes downright heavy) industrial past: you can explore the Machine Room at the Duquesne Incline and see cargo-hoisting gear from the 1870s, while the Senator John Heinz History Center offers a new exhibit dedicated to the life of pickle-and-ketchup mogul H.J. Heinz. Beyond just condiments, Pittsburgh embraces its top-10-ranked sandwich history, like the storied cole-slaw-and-fries-topped wonders at Primanti Bros. Readers gave the Steel City the highest praise, however, for its sports fans: baseball tourists won’t want to miss the Clemente Museum, dedicated to the former Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player, which is housed in a historic fire station in Lawrenceville.
No. 15 Memphis
In terms of music history, one could argue that the Independence Hall of rock ’n’ roll sits at Levitt Shell: Elvis Presley opened for Slim Whitman here in 1954, in what music historians call the first-ever rock concert (you can still catch free shows here year round). For some sit-down Elvis history, eat at one of his favorite haunts, The Arcade, which serves peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and is one of the oldest restaurants in the city. For a heart-stirring afternoon, you can also wander the 80-acre Elmwood Cemetery, on the National Register of Historic Places, which is the resting place of veterans from every American war.
No. 14 Kansas City
Step inside what may be the oldest building in Kansas City and, as luck would have it, you’ve arrived at a bar. (KC also made the top 10 this year for its cocktail lounges.) Kelly’s Westport Inn, a good place to drink local Boulevard beer, was once the site of a trading post on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails—and once had the cachet of being owned by Daniel Boone’s grandson. Even though this meat-lover’s city won the survey this year for barbecue, you can find fancier cuts of beef at Pierpont’s, the steakhouse named for railroad mogul John Pierpont inside Union Station. The Beaux Arts train station is a magnet for history buffs, architecture geeks, and trainspotters alike: when it opened in 1914, it was the second-largest station in the country. Readers also gave Kansas City props for keeping itself up: it ranked in the top 10 for feeling clean.
No. 13 New York City
Readers seem to given the Big Apple higher marks for its forward-looking culture, ranking it at No. 1 for both cutting-edge art galleries and theater. But if you haven’t taken the ferry out to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in a while, it’s time to head back: the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration (previously known as the Ellis Island Museum) re-opened in May, including the new Peopling of America Center, which extends the story of immigration under the green lady. To experience a unique piece of the city’s theatrical history, go see a concert at the recently reopened Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, which has been restored to its chandeliered, 1929 décor. New Yorkers love a good makeover, ranking at No. 1 for their sense of style.
No. 12 Tucson
The Arizona city offers a mix of Native American, Spanish colonial, and Old West history: You can walk through the ornate Mission San Xavier del Bac, known as the “White Dove of the Desert” or, on Saturday mornings, explore the Mission Garden, a recreation of the city’s birthplace, now featuring heritage trees and ancient varieties of corn and beans. For a historically colorful hotel stay, book yourself at downtown’s Hotel Congress, built in the 1920s and the site of gangster John Dillinger’s capture. The hotel’s Cup Café is a favorite with local foodies, with its curried cauliflower tacos and smoked ribs with prickly-pear slaw.
No. 11 Honolulu
It’s hard not to be moved by this Hawaiian city’s place in American history when you visit Pearl Harbor, but no other American city can boast a royal heritage quite like Honolulu. Go downtown to explore Iolani Palace—once home to Polynesian monarchs King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani—or head out the Pali Highway to see Queen Emma Summer Palace (she lived here from 1857 to 1885). Less regal but no less historic is the Kaniakapupu ruins, which was once King Kamehameha II’s summer home, found along a hike near Luakaha Falls. Locals seem to love any excuse for a brisk walk: They ranked in the top 10 for being athletic.
No. 10 Atlanta
Atlanta is a hotbed for civil rights history, thanks in part to two native Georgians: the Carter Center adjoins the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, while the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site features both King’s birthplace and his home church. Adding to the educational mix these days is the Center for Civil and Human Rights, just a year old, which is running an MLK exhibit through this summer. Atlanta doesn’t forget its strong Southern women, either: At Margaret Mitchell House, you can see where the author wrote Gone With the Wind, and you can experience one of the last “tea rooms”—the term once used for women-owned restaurants—at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, a classic in Midtown. Try the peach cobbler, and you’ll see why Atlanta also ranked at No. 6 for its baked goods.
No. 9 Albuquerque
The Pueblo-Spanish-style architecture tells you a lot about the history of this New Mexico city, whose San Felipe de Neri church dates back to the 1700s. Readers also applauded the city for its quirky locals—like the one who carved the Virgin de Guadalupe into a tree stump by the church’s parking lot—but also its rich cuisine, ranking it in the top 10 for coffee, wine, and even pizza. Some restaurant and nightlife settings are historically rich, too: Old Town’s La Placita (known for its fabulous sopapillas) is housed in an 18th century building that has been a fort and a mercantile store, while Casa Esencia, a hacienda built in the 1780s, now houses an elegant nightclub (it’s not too elite, though: the city ranked at No. 2 for feeling un-snobby).
No. 8 Nashville
Certainly, the Tennessee city has some solid presidential history, by way of The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s plantation home. But plenty of travelers no doubt come here to explore music history. At Historic RCA Studio B, you can see where Elvis recorded most of his catalog, and where Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers have all laid down tracks. Country music purists will also want to check out The Belcourt Theatre, in Hillsboro Village, which was home to the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930's, and now shows art films. To glimpse some of the city’s highbrow past, go to Belle Meade Plantation, known for raising thoroughbred race horses, and which now offers both an on-site winery and Southern-style pimento-cheese burgers (another category in which Nashville made the top 10).
No. 7 Baltimore
The national anthem has two special connotations in Charm City: it gives Orioles fans at Camden Yards a chance to yell “O!” in booming unison, and it’s given Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine extraordinary significance (the fort helped defend Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song). The city is also home to its own Washington Monument, the first one built for the father of our country; this July 4, it will celebrate its bicentennial and reopen after a huge renovation (visitors can now climb its 228 steps). To delve into the city’s literary history, order a drink at The Horse You Came In On, the last place where native son Edgar Allen Poe was seen alive in 1849.
No. 6 Providence
The city founded by iconoclast Roger Williams (after he got kicked out of Massachusetts) has preserved plenty of its centuries-old appeal. You can stroll past 18th century homes on Benefit Street’s Mile of History, or get lost in the city’s more contemporary credits: Providence is the birthplace of H.P. Lovecraft, a founding father of science fiction, who will be celebrated at this summer’s NecronomiCon festival and has inspired his own beers at Narragansett Brewery. Foodie-friendly Providence (which placed in the top 5 in 10 culinary categories this year) also scored at No. 1 for its diners, and no wonder: according to an exhibit at the city’s Culinary Museum, Providence is also the birthplace of the iconic eateries, including local favorite Seaplane Diner.
No. 5 New Orleans
As the No. 1 city for offbeat locals and the No. 2 city for interesting architecture, New Orleans has only gotten better with age. Take Jackson Square’s iconic St. Louis Cathedral—the oldest continually-operating cathedral in America—or fine-dining legend Antoine’s, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. The city also won the survey for its watering holes, and some of the most classic bars hold their own history: Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar on Bourbon Street boasts of being one of the oldest bars in the U.S. (and once acted as a smuggling post), while the rotating Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone has attracted such literary icons as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty.
No. 4 Boston
The city where patriots dumped tea in the harbor in 1773 was a shoo-in for the top 5, thanks to its wealth of history-steeped locales—from Faneuil Hall and the Bunker Hill Monument to the JFK Presidential Library and the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute of the Senate. Walking the museums and the Freedom Trail does work up an appetite, though: to refuel and call it historical research, go to Green Dragon Tavern, which once counted Paul Revere and John Hancock as regulars, and where “by land or by sea” now means a choice of fried shrimp or steak tips marinated in Guinness. The locals, meanwhile, ranked in the survey’s top five for brains, but the bottom five for friendliness.
No. 3 Charleston
It’s not just that colonists first settled the city in the 1670s, or that nearby Fort Sumter saw the start of the Civil War. Charleston—with its cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages—made the top 3 because it continues to feel like a quaint time capsule. The newest piece of living history is the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which focuses on the lives of the slaves who worked here (and is also home to a six-century-old oak tree). Charleston makes it easy to eat, sleep and shop in the past, too: the city placed at No. 2 for antique décor (like the reproduction Battery Benches from George C. Birlant & Co.), and one of the chicest places to stay is Zero George Street, comprised of five historic homes. Charleston also ranked in the top five for notable restaurants, like McCrady’s, a Georgian mansion where George Washington once dined, and which now offers a low-country-meets-postmodern-gastronomy menu from James Beard Award-winner Sean Brock.
No. 2 Philadelphia
The City of Brotherly Love won the silver for its timelessness—after all, even if you saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall on a school trip a long time ago, they’re always worth another visit, especially given the historic district’s ongoing additions of roaming storytellers. History buffs will also love the revamped Benjamin Franklin Museum, the National Constitution Center and the President’s House (a recreated look at the one-time home of Washington and Adams, when Philly was the nation’s capital). To get a more exclusive look at Independence Hall, take the Independence After Hours tour, which includes dinner at City Tavern and an appearance by Thomas Jefferson. Philly also scored well for its craft beers, like those found at Independence Beer Garden, conveniently located across the street from the Liberty Bell.
No. 1 Washington, D.C.
Our nation’s capital easily topped the list, acting as a treasure trove of American history while constantly writing new chapters, too. The newest perspective on our nation’s past is at the National Museum of American History, which debuts this summer a section on American ingenuity, from Thomas Edison to video game pioneers. If you didn’t book a White House tour in time for your visit (think 6 to 12 weeks ahead) you can always peruse the recently renovated White House Visitor Center, home to such artifacts as the desk FDR used during Fireside Chats. Both sights have no admission fee—a big reason D.C. also ranked at No. 1 in the survey for free attractions. To soak up history while you sleep, stay at The Mayflower Renaissance, once a regular lunch spot for J. Edgar Hoover, and home to Harry Truman for the first 90 days of his presidency.