Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US. Photo: Knowinsiders.
Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US. Photo: Knowinsiders.

Despite being a relatively young nation, America has witnessed more than its fair share of fascinating history. It’s been shaped and reshaped by a tumultuous and remarkably diverse past that spans the entire gamut, from indigenous settlements and colonial conquests, to the civil war and fight for independence, to the impact of waves of immigration and varied cultural influences emanating from all four corners of the globe.

What’s more, this nation’s storied past is laid out in spectacular glory at every turn you take, nowhere more so than in its dozens of history-filled cities. Admire the grandeur of centuries-old colonial architecture. Marvel at monuments, tour inspiring museum collections, and learn about America’s evolution through its streets, homes, and landmark sites.

For those who love nothing more than discovering a new place through it’s past, dont' forget to check out top 10 best historic cities in the US:

1. Washington D.C., District of Columbia

2. Williamsburg, Virginia

3. Savannah, Georgia

4. Charleston, South Carolina

5. St Augustine, Florida

6. Boston, Massachusetts

7. Santa Fe, New Mexico

8. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

9. New Orleans, Louisiana

10. San Antonio, Texas

1. Washington D.C., District of Columbia

Washington D.C., District of Columbia. Photo: Americansky.
Washington D.C., District of Columbia. Photo: Americansky.

For a melding of both past and living history, one need look no further than Washington, D.C. The capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. is full of ornate old buildings that are still where the country’s laws are made, and great debates are held. For example, the neoclassical United States Capitol Building was completed in 1800 and has since expanded as the number of legislators has grown. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives operate out of the Capitol Building’s various wings. While in D.C., also make sure to visit Lincoln’s Cottage, the place where President Abraham Lincoln lived at the height of the Civil War.

The nation’s capital offers an unparalleled insight into American history in all its glory and complexity, with an enviable collection of world famous monuments, landmarks and museums attracting millions of visitors from across the globe. Most of D.C.'s big name sights are concentrated along The Mall, where you can pay visit to the Washington Monument, Capitol Building, The White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnams Veteran Memorial.

Many of the city’s famous Smithsonian museums also teem with history, providing a tantalising glimpse into everything from the history of food and popular entertainment, to colonial era agriculture and African American culture, all of it completely free. History enthusiasts won’t want to miss The National Museum of American History, which presents a sweeping and in-depth view of the country’s past through a collection featuring more than 3,000 artefacts, including the famed Star Spangled Banner.

Beyond the high profile attractions, Washington is a city of distinctive neighbourhoods, many of which harbour fascinating histories of their own. Scattered throughout the city are self-guided Neighbourhood Heritage Trails that provide the perfect means of exploring some of the lesser known, yet still hugely rewarding museums, historic houses and storied pasts that these areas have to offer.

Suggested holidays: Self-Drive America & Canada Historic Highways is a wonderful itinerary encompassing all those “must-sees” of eastern USA and Canada from Quebec City to Niagara Falls, including the beautiful coastline of New England and a two night stay in DC. We can book you a simple city break to enjoy all the sights or you could twin it with another city such as New York. Or you can enjoy the benefits of a Tour Director who’ll ensure you get the most out of your holiday on an escorted tour such as Great Eastern Cities.

2. Williamsburg, Virginia

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Williamsburg, Virginia. Photo: americansky.

Founded in 1632 between the James and York rivers, Williamsburg was the capital of the Colony and Commonwealth of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Colonial Williamsburg, the city’s restored historic area, and nearby Yorktown and Jamestown teem with heritage sites. The former vividly recreates life in the 1700s. It’s the world’s largest living history museum and has won numerous awards for its meticulous recreation and immersive experiences. It also takes an unflinching look at the story of enslaved, free African-Americans and indigenous people.

Keep an eye out for the famous Wren building, the Capitol Residence and Governor’s Palace, as well as the Bruton Parish Church. The area is also filled with traditional shops, craft, cooking and farming demonstrations, and plenty of taverns and coffeehouses where you can sample popular eighteenth century dishes. Beyond the theatrical recreation, the town of Williamsburg itself is also well worth exploring. One notable attraction is the prestigious College of William and Mary, the second oldest college in America, and boasting an impressive list of alumni that includes three US presidents.

Suggested holidays: Self-Drive Colonial America is a journey of discovery through the most interesting historical locations in eastern USA, and the Historic Highlights escorted tour features two nights in Williamsburg allowing plenty of time to learn all about life in Colonial Willamsburg and also includes a very pleasant evening in a charming local tavern.

Summers are beyond humid - so plan accordingly to limit outdoor activities to early morning or late afternoon; hit the museums and indoor attractions during the height of the day.

3. Savannah, Georgia

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Savannah, Georgia . Photo: americansky.

Referred to as “The Hostess City of the South,” Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia and has a long and colorful history that attracts millions of visitors each year. From cobblestone streets and public parks to some of the most unique Antebellum architecture of the South, Savannah is an old beauty that has aged with grace.

Established in 1733 when General James Oglethorpe and 120 fellow passengers on the ship Anne landed on a bluff along the Savannah River, Oglethorpe named the 13th and final American colony Georgia after England’s King George II. Savannah became the first city of this new land.

Upon Oglethorpe’s foresight, the city of Savannah was laid out in a series of grids allowing for wide streets and public squares. Considered America’s first planned city, Savannah had 24 original squares with 22 still in existence today. A few decades after the founding of Savannah, it proved a strategic port city in the American Revolution and during the American Civil War. In 1778, the British took Savannah and held it until 1782. Eventually, a land-sea force of French and American troops reclaimed the city’s independence. After this turbulent time, Savannah saw a long period of agricultural flourish.

With rich soil and a favorable climate, Savannah and its surrounding land became home to cotton and rice fields as plantations and slavery became highly profitable systems. And the invention of the cotton gin on a nearby plantation meant that the city rivaled Charleston as a commercial port.

Today, Savannah is Georgia’s fifth-largest city and third-largest metropolitan area. It is an industrial center, important Atlantic seaport and one of the busiest tourism destinations of the Southeast. Through wars, fires, widespread disease and the threat of demolition, Savannah has remained a cultural and historical hub of the South.

4. Charleston, South Carolina

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Photo: historyfangirl.

In Charleston, the history is as deep and rich as a serving of homemade perlou. And just like the famous Lowcountry rice dish, the city’s flavors get more interesting with every bite.

Charleston has long drawn travelers to its balmy terrain along the mid-Atlantic coast. In fact, it drew some of the very first cross-Atlantic travelers—English colonists, who established “Charles Town” back in 1670. The roots of their influences remain, as do traditions of African Americans, whose Gullah culture is distinct in the region and infused into local food, farming, crafts, and music.

Notable historical events in Charleston include being held by the British during the Revolutionary War from 1780 to 1782, firing the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, and a devastating earthquake of magnitude 7.6 in 1886. Three historical sites that every visitor should check out Fort Sumter which was the site where the Civil War began and the Old Exchange which has been used as a customs house, post office, city hall, military headquarters, and today a museum.

These days, Charleston is a favorite for weekend getaways, often prompted by hankerings for coastal seafood, barbeque, biscuits, and other South Carolina staples. Between meals, though, await discoveries of Charleston’s enduring, complex history; its contemporary arts; its parks and beaches; and its timeworn architecture and secret alleyways.

GETTING THERE

It’s just short of a five-hour drive from Atlanta into downtown Charleston, half of it along I-20 and half on I-26. Route 52, Route 78, and Route 17 (aka the Savannah Highway) are smaller highways that all lead into town, too. Charlotte, North Carolina, is just over three hours of drive time, passing through Columbia, the South Carolina state capital. Flying into Charleston International Airport (CHS) is easy too, with direct flights from most major U.S. airports as well as London Heathrow and Punta Gorda (seasonally).

5. St Augustine, Florida

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Photo: floridaforboomers.

Famous for being the oldest city in the country, St. Augustine is absolutely the perfect place for anyone who appreciates history. The city is located along the east coast of Florida just about 45 minutes south of Jacksonville, and a little over an hour north of Daytona Beach.

Established by the Spanish in 1565 and commonly referred to as the “Old City”, St. Augustine is the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in the US, predating the landing of the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock and the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by several decades. Unsurprisingly, then, this city is steeped in history, and visitors are spoilt for choice with the array of top-notch museums, inspiring monuments and authentic colonial architecture on offer.

Signs of its long history and varied cultural influences are evident at every turn, and there’s no better place to soak it all in than the 144-block National Historical Landmark District. The city’s original settlement at the Mission de Nombre de Dios, as well as the seventeenth century fort of Castillo de San Marcos, serve as striking reminders of the Spanish colonial era. Many historical landmarks also date back to the 1800s, when the city underwent a renaissance under the guidance of Henry Flagler, giving rise to the impressive Flager College and the beautifully restored Casa Monica hotel.

Once you’ve toured the historic streets, there are several informative museums where you can deepen your knowledge of St. Augustine’s storied past. The Lightner Museum, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum and Lincolnville centre all host evocative collections helping to bring the past to life, whilst themselves being housed in attractive historical buildings.

In addition to being a great location for history buffs, St. Augustine is also filled with tons of culture, great shopping, unique places to eat, and two really wonderful retirement communities. If you are passionate about any combination of those things, the Nation’s Oldest City could be a great option for your retirement!

6. Boston, Massachusetts

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Acorn Street, Beacon Hill, Boston MA. Photo: flickr.

It would be hard to get more historical in America than with a visit to Boston. This New England city was described by John Winthrop, the former governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, as a “city on a hill” for other cities around the world to emulate back when the New World was really new—think 1620. Along with the history-packed Freedom Trail, Boston is also home to the gravesites of notable patriots, such as Paul Revere, and is the site of Faneuil Hall, where figures like Samuel Adams gave speeches advocating independence from Great Britain.

Boston is a treasure trove of American history, and there is quite simply no better place to learn about the fascinating stories surrounding the founding of the nation and its fight for independence. Emblems harking back to the city’s illustrious past are evident all around. When touring the city, be sure to keep an eye out for the nation’s first college (Harvard University), its first public school, oldest public library, earliest subway system, and first public park.

First time visitors will want to head straight for the Freedom Trail, a sightseeing route which guides you seamlessly between sixteen of the city’s standout historical sites, ranging from The Old State House, Faneuil Hall and Paul Revere House, to Copp’s Hill Burial ground, Bunker Hill Monument and USS Constitution. Wind your way through the city’s atmospheric cobblestone streets, pay homage to one dramatic landmark after another, and marvel at the striking blend of old and new architecture in the downtown area. Along the way, you’ll pass through the North End district, a little slice of Italy, whose authentic cafes provide the perfect excuse to refuel with coffee and pastries.

Suggested holidays: There are plenty of direct flights to enjoy a few days in this charming city where we have a lovely choice of hotels. Alternatively combine a stay in Boston with New York or hire a car and get out into the beautiful New England countryside on one of our self-drive itineraries. Or you’ll find Boston featured on several of our escorted tours including this gorgeous one Boston, Cape Cod & the Islands.

7. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Photo: Getty.

One of the oldest sites in what is now the United States, Santa Fe was settled by the Spanish in the 15th century. The look hasn’t changed much in parts of the old city either; the area features Pueblo adobe architecture that dates back to the time when Navajo Native Americans co-existed in the city with the Spanish. Another historic site to visit is the San Miguel Mission church, also known as the San Miguel Chapel, which dates back to the 1600s.

Originally home to Pueblo peoples between 1050 to 1150, the scenic city of Santa Fe was overtaken by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta in 1609 to 1610. The oldest capital city in North America, it has the country’s oldest church (San Miguel Mission) and public building – the Palace of the Governors, which was built in 1610 (it's currently closed for renovations). The New Mexico History Museum is attached and the place to unearth the area's far-reaching history. The 19th-century Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, pictured, is another Santa Fe landmark.

Canyon Road, the epicenter of Santa Fe's artistic culture, is the first and last stop for most visitors. But while the commercial galleries and public museums found there often steal the thunder of the historic monuments, you must still check out Plaza sites like the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the Palace of the Governors. For a little living culture, support the local commerce at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. And if you arrive wanting fresh air, the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains are great for hiking, skiing, horseback riding and biking.

8. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Photo: historyfangirl.

It was the original capital of the early United States, thanks to its roughly halfway point between the Southern and Northern states, and it is the city where the Constitution, Articles of Confederation, and Declaration of Independence were all drafted.

Philadelphia plays a significant role in American History. William Penn founded the city in 1682, and, about 50 years later, the city hosted the first Assembly meeting to discuss the rights of the colonists. In 1776, Philadelphia became the “Birthplace of America,” thanks to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The city’s shipbuilding industries supplied the Allies in World War I, but Philadelphia was also a center of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919—over 500,000 citizens contracted the deadly disease.

New developments, such as the Philadelphia Navy Yard and Center City, have helped to revitalize the area, which is now home to more than 1.5 million residents. The city rejoiced when the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl. For visitors, a perennially popular destination is the statue of Rocky Balboa, depicting the fictional boxer, arms outstretched, at the top of the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum. Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone, famously runs up the 72 steps to train for a fight in the 1976 movie, "Rocky" (and in sequels). Now the stairs to the museum are simply known as the "Rocky Steps."

The city grew in size and prestige during the Gilded Age, as wealthy suburbs sprouted along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad. During the 1870s, the first U.S. zoo and the Centennial Exhibition fair opened in Philadelphia.

9. New Orleans, Louisiana

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
Photo: jenonajetplane.

Since its establishment as a French colony in 1718, New Orleans has witnessed some fascinating episodes in history, changing hands multiple times through Spanish conquests and the Louisiana Purchase. This has given rise to what is arguably the most interesting and eclectic collection of historic architecture in the US. History buffs should delve right into exploring the charming colonial heritage of the French quarter. Follow this with visits to the striking St. Louis Cathedral – the oldest church structure in America – and with a stroll around the Garden District, home to an amazing collection of lavish antebellum mansions.

Signs of the past can be found at every turn, including in many of the city’s eateries and watering holes. Pay a visit to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, home to one of the oldest bars in the US, or feast on French-Creole cuisine at fine dining establishment Antoine’s, which has been in operation for nearly two centuries. When you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, New Orleans has no shortage of other diversions, ranging from mouth-watering soul food, to authentic live jazz venues and some of the liveliest nightlife in the country.

As well as oodles of European-influenced architecture and Southern charm, the swinging city has an impressive musical heritage – it was, after all, the birthplace of jazz. Taking in live music at a jazz bar where it all began on Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny district, just east of the French Quarter, is a quintessential New Orleans experience. But be sure to check where’s open and book ahead. Food is also part of the city’s fabric – feast on Creole and Cajun classics in one of the century-old institutions in the French Quarter (most are reopening).

Suggested holidays: We have a great choice of hotels in New Orleans and there’s so much to do in and around the city you can either enjoy a long weekend here or a week or more. We can twin New Orleans with another city such as Nashville, Chicago or New York. You could embark on a road trip of the historic south on the Jazzy Jambalaya Adventure. Or join one of our most popular escorted tours - Tastes and Sounds of the South, which includes 3 nights in New Orleans, as well as time in the beautiful plantation mansions of the south, plus visits to the music cities of Memphis and Nashville.

10. San Antonio, Texas

Top 10 Best Historic Cities In The US
San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Shutterstock.

San Antonio was founded as a Spanish mission in 1718 and became the first civil settlement in Texas in 1731.

Famously, San Antonio is home to the Alamo. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836 was a pivotal part of the Texas Revolution, in which American settlers in Texas rose against Mexico. While the Mexican army won the battle, the siege marked the founding of the Republic of Texas, which was eventually annexed by the US. Visiting the Alamo is a must when in San Antonio.

Additionally, four other missions are open to visitors within the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves Mission Concepción, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. Visitors can follow a trail through all five missions, beginning at the Alamo.

San Antonio is unmatched as a destination for learning about fascinating Texas state history, from its Native American occupation, to colonial conquests and the fight for independence. Locals harbour a strong sense of pride surrounding their city’s history and the old battle cry “Remember the Alamo” is a phrase still commonly heard and seen engraved on memorabilia. In addition to the Alamo there are numerous other inspiring colonial Spanish missions scattered throughout the city well worth exploring. Collectively, these form part of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, which was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015 owing to its exquisitely well-preserved buildings.

Other historically significant sights to delve into include the elegant San Fernando Cathedral, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, a handful of insightful museums, as well as the highly prized River Walk replete with historic treasures and authentic architecture. In recent years, the riverside has undergone significant renovation. And now there’s certainly no better place to soak in the heritage of this city than with a stroll beside the waterway, or to unwind after a day’s sightseeing at one of the many enticing sidewalk cafes artfully shaded by colourful umbrellas.

Suggested holidays: This big hitting motorhome itinerary includes San Antonio, historic Route 66, plus the spectacular national parks of Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains Texas to Las Vegas via Big Bend & the Grand Canyon by Motorhome. Or for those who prefer the comfort of a hotel, this flydrive holiday includes the best of Texas - Self-Drive Talkin' Texas.
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