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How to Explore a Historic City

Travel offers adventure, stimulation, and a spirit of freedom.  History gives us inspiration, comfort, and a sense of connection.  When you put them together, it’s magic.

That’s why it’s so rewarding to discover a new place through its past.  Unique culture, human stories, and quirks and charms come to life through centuries-old architecture, inspiring monuments and memorials, and fascinating museum collections.

But it can be hard to know where to begin.  After decades of history travel, I’ve put together this list of 20 ways to explore a city’s history.  Not every city will have all these options, but most will have many of them.

Visit the local tourist office.

Virtually all cities have tourist offices, where you can pick up maps, reserve tours, and obtain inside information from locals.  They should be able to give you the scoop about everything else on this list.  They can also advise you about local customs.  They also have Web sites that you can use to plan activities before you leave for your trip.

Take a walking tour.

The best way to get to know a city is on foot.  Many cities have complimentary walking tours for newcomers.  I once joined a fascinating walking tour of Temple Square in Salt Lake City.  Bigger cities often have a variety of paid tours as well, including history tours, food tours, and even ghost tours.  Colonial Williamsburg has several, some led by costumed interpreters portraying historical figures like James Madison or the Marquis de Lafayette.

Take a trolley tour.

Some cities have trolley tours with several stops.  Usually your ticket allows you to hop on and off as you please throughout the day.  I once enjoyed a beautiful summer afternoon on the Salem, Massachusetts, Trolley, which covers eight miles during a one-hour narrated tour and allows daily on-off privileges at 14 stops.

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Take a riverboat tour.

Cities with central rivers often offer boat tours.  This is a fun way to get your bearings.  The most memorable I’ve taken was  along the Seine in Paris.  My late mother and I floated down the River, looking from the Right Bank to the Left, spotting sites like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and of course the Eiffel Tower.

Stroll the waterfront.

Most thriving cities have been built near water.  That’s because water is necessary to sustain life.  And it was for a long time the most efficient means of transportation.  There’s a rawness about city waterfronts.  And since the waterfront’s location doesn’t move over time, you can look out and see what people hundreds and thousands of years ago saw, as they looked for signs of storms or watched for ships coming in to port.  Often there are historic districts with preserved buildings or museums that teach the significance of the waterfront and its events.  The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum celebrates one of the most storied moments in American history.

Stroll the historic district.

A historic district, sometimes called an Old Town, is a defined section of a modern city that preserves a bygone era.  They usually have a quaint yet elegant aura, with early architecture rising above brick or cobblestone streets.  The premier example is Colonial Williamsburg, but cities from my home of Alexandria, Virginia, to San Diego, California, have Old Towns.

Tour the fort(s).

Early settlers built forts.  They served as important military defenses.  And they frequently acted as trading centers as well.  Built to convey power, they exude a simple grandeur.  Many are open today as tourist sites.  They provide a unique look at the different cultures that have clashed in a particular area.  They typically have several rooms and buildings outfitted as they would have been at a particular point in time.  Frequently there are weapons demonstrations as well.  They’re great for simply walking around outdoors.  And since they’re frequently built on coasts, they can offer spectacular waterfront scenery.  The most fascinating one I’ve explored is Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York, which has been held by France, Britain, and America.

Stroll the public square.

Almost every city has some sort of square, a gathering place for the local community.  They are usually dotted with shops and restaurants.  Often they host the local municipal hall, and boast a central fountain, monument, or a statue.  Many in Europe are hundreds of years old, and in America they became common with 18th- and 19th-century urban planning.  Each has its own unique history.  St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City with its soaring central obelisk is one of my favorites.

Tour a local museum.

Nearly every city or town has at least one local museum or history center.  These can be excellent places to learn about an area’s heritage through art and artifacts.  One of the best is the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; a visit there is like poking through New England’s attic.

Visit the park(s).

Many parks exist on historically significant sites.  But even those that didn’t host major happenings often have statues, plaques, or other memorials to locally important people and/or events.  Among the most elaborate is the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which boasts the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the U.S. Capitol Building.

See the iconic structure.

Lots of cities have iconic landmarks, like a unique skyscraper.  It can be a witness to its own era.  But as these one-of-a-kind structures can dominate a city’s modern landscape, they also become a source of local pride and familiar comfort.  The classic example is the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  I climbed the structure while being pelted with icy rain on a cold day, and it was worth it.  I was on vacation from job I hated, and it was wonderfully freeing to look out at the city of Paris and feel lifted above the world and its work-day woes.

Tour the political building(s).

Capitol buildings, parliament houses, and residential palaces are centers of power that tell the unique political history of a place.  They also tend to be architecturally imposing.  Paintings and statues celebrate local heritage.  There are often tours where you can hear historical anecdotes and see the chambers where great events were decided.  I have been to the White House many times, and it is always elegant and comfortingly grand.

Visit a historic church.

Basilicas, cathedrals, and other significant churches rank among the world’s most magnificent architectural feats.  They display stellar craftsmanship and house spectacular works of art.  They’re at once peaceful and inspiring.  I’m grateful to have explored the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which houses the spots where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

Tour a historic home.

Historic homes show how people lived their daily lives in times gone by.  These usually require guided tours, which often come with personal anecdotes highlighting traditions of the past.  Many have intriguing architecture and spectacular gardens as well.  George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia, offers a look at the life of America’s first president; it sits on a spectacular spot on the Potomac River.

Visit an archeological site.

There’s something deeply connecting about exploring the ruins of an ancient place where sophisticated cultures flourished and then faded away.  Some archeological sites are open to the public and let you walk in the footsteps of people from earlier times and picture how they lived.  The most extraordinary dig site I’ve ever visited is at the Magdala Center in Israel.  Based on its location on the Sea of Galilee, it’s all but certain that Jesus preached at the first-century synagogue unearthed there.

Stroll botanical gardens.

Botanical gardens preserve the history and culture of a place through their displays of native flora.  They also bring a sense of peace and calm while inspiring viewers with their vibrant colors, Fibonacci sequences, and landscaping touches like elegant bridges and sparkling waterfalls.  Many are spectacular year-round, while others are at their glory in the warmer months.  For scope, variety, and near-perfect weather, I recommend The Huntington gardens in San Marino, California.

Shop the public market.

Getting to know a place is a total-sensory experience.  Public markets run by locals for locals can offer a glimpse into a city’s authentic culture.  Beyond showcasing the offerings of local artisans and food vendors, these places are community hubs.  You can learn a lot about a culture by visiting where the locals shop and eat.  And you can learn which foods have shaped the region’s cuisine.  You can also support small businesses and contribute to the local economy by shopping there.  One of my favorites is the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, where I bought the freshest za’atar I’ve ever tasted.

Dine at a historic restaurant.

Restaurants that have played a role in history make you feel like you’re a part of that history too.  Taverns can be a kind of time capsule, reminding us of how people used to eat.  Some elegant restaurants have invented now-classic dishes.  Many have hosted major figures in history.  And sometimes momentous events have taken place at their tables.  My favorite is Antoine’s in New Orleans.  It’s where Oysters Rockefeller was invented.  But for me it’s a special place where I started to feel alive again after my parents died.

Visit a cemetery.

Local cemeteries tell snippets of a city’s story.  A large monument often means a person made significant public contributions, in ways ranging from art to military service.  I once visited Edgar Allen Poe’s tomb on a memorable Hallowe’en in Baltimore.

Choose your hotel wisely.

The right hotel can be a real asset to any trip.  Especially in a historic city, it’s worth skipping a rental car and booking a hotel with a central, walkable location.

There are several people who can help you get the most out of your visit:  The check-in agent should be able to give you a map and make general recommendations for things to see and do.  The concierge can give advice based on your interests and preferences and book even hard-to-get tickets and reservations.  The doorman can point you in the right direction, whether toward the old cathedral or a new café.

And a good bartender can give you an insider’s perspective about what’s really unique and little-known.  They also have great stories.  I like to stop by the bar during happy hour and get recommendations and insights from the bartender when he’s not busy.  (Be sure to tip well.)

It’s even better if the hotel has its own history.  There are lots of historic hotels with walkable locations.  Some of my favorites are:

Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, Massachusetts

 

Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, South Carolina

 

The Drake in Chicago, Illinois

 

The Monteleone in New Orleans, Louisiana

 

Casa Monica in Saint Augustine, Florida


Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C.

Bon voyage!  

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