As a country, the United States has a compelling story. Built by settlers looking for a new start, religious groups looking to escape persecution and adventure-seekers looking for a new place to explore, the country grew from a series of independent colonies into a world power unlike any other this world has ever seen.
That story is told in thousands of museums and historic sites in large cities and small towns across the country. As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., sits at the center of much of the story.
But, for a truer sense of seeing history where it happened, it’s best to step out and see the many places where history was written. These 10 sites — many of which have no admission fee — should provide travelers with an overview of the places, people and events that helped transform the country into what it is today. How many have you visited?
1. ‘One giant leap for mankind’
Kennedy Space Center | Cape Canaveral, Florida
President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 promise to put “a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” changed the direction of the Cold War. By decade’s end, the country sent Apollo 11 to the moon. From the powerful Saturn V rockets that propelled the Apollo missions to the moon to the space shuttles that for three decades ferried astronauts to and from orbit, Kennedy Space Center has been at the forefront of human space travel for the past five decades. Admission is $50 for adults and $40 for children. For information, visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com.
2. 17,000 years of human civilization
Ocmulgee National Monument | Macon, Georgia
Long before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Native Americans built great civilizations, and that is immediately apparent at the 702-acre Ocmulgee National Monument. Mississippian people arrived at this site, situated on the east bank of the Ocmulgee River, around 900 and thrived until about 1600. They built mounds for their elite, and visitors can today explore the mounds and an on-site museum to see first-hand what life was like before Europeans began settling the area. Admission is free. For information, visit www.nps.gov/ocmu.
3. Let freedom ring
Independence Hall | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The great American Experiment traces its humble origins to this Georgian style structure located in what is today the heart of Philadelphia. There are arguably few buildings in the country — and even the world — that are as consequential as Independence Hall. It was here the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and ultimately adopted. And, walking in the steps of the nation’s founding fathers will give visitors a new perspective on the country’s earliest days. Day-of tickets are free, but advance reservations, which are encouraged, cost $1.50. For information, visit www.nps.gov/inde.
4. Remember the Alamo
The Alamo | San Antonio, Texas
What the Alamo lacks in size, it makes up for in legend. As the country expanded westward, the stage was set for a collision course among the powers looking to settle untapped land. The Alamo became a symbol of that fight. From Feb. 23 until March 6, 1836, more than 180 Texans — or Texians — repelled an attack by Mexican President General Antonio López de Santa Anna. They were ultimately defeated and killed. The former mission — often called the “Shrine of Texas Liberty” — remains a point of pride not just for Texans, but also for Americans as a whole. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.thealamo.org.
5. Start of the Civil War
Fort Sumter | Charleston, South Carolina
An unresolved question about slavery came to a head in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, and the Civil War that ensued forever changed the direction of the country. Although South Carolina seceded from the union in December 1860, the federal government retained control of Fort Sumter. But the Confederate troops occupying Charleston wanted a federal surrender. When that didn’t happen, they fired upon the fort, signaling the start of the bloodiest war this country has ever fought. Admission to Fort Sumter is free, and cruise tickets cost $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and $12 for children. For information, visit www.nps.gov/fosu.
6. The wild, wild West
OK Corral | Tombstone, Arizona
In the decades following the Civil War, Americans packed up their wagons and moved west. As precious metals were discovered, boomtowns like Tombstone cropped up. The lawlessness that ensued is the stuff of legend. Movies such as “Tombstone” ensured this small southern Arizona mining town would be remembered generations later. But a visit to the “Town Too Tough to Die” reveals a much more complex and convoluted history. Admission is $10. For information, visit www.ok-corral.com.
7. Gateway to America
Ellis Island | New York, New York
In the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants came to America by the boatload. So many of the men and women who came to the country looking for a new life passed through New York Harbor and Ellis Island. Ellis Island affords visitors the chance to retrace the footsteps of the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. The ferry is $18 for adults, $14 for seniors and $9 for children. For information, visit www.nps.gov/elis.
8. World War II
Pearl Harbor | Honolulu, Hawaii
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, stunned the country and assured the United States’ entry into World War II. Decades later, Pearl Harbor remains one of the most moving sites in the country. Seeing the remains of the USS Arizona is a powerful experience and a poignant way to pay tribute to the more than 2,400 men who perished on that fateful day and the tens of thousands who gave their lives defending the country during World War II. Tickets are free, but reservations are urged. For information, visit www.nps.gov/valr.
9. I Have a Dream
Martin Luther King Jr. National Landmark | Atlanta, Georgia
Today, Martin Luther King Jr. may best be remembered for his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” but he can trace his roots to Atlanta. Born there in 1929, King served as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The 35-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site preserves his legacy. In addition to King’s boyhood home and Ebenezer Baptist Church, visitors can visit the gravesites of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Admission is free. For information, visit www.nps.gov/malu.
10. The miracle of flight
National Museum of the United States Air Force | Dayton, Ohio
The Wright Brothers’ work to develop the first planes didn’t just transform how people traveled; it changed how wars were fought. That is quickly apparent at this Air Force Museum located in the Wright Brothers’ hometown. The museum, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is home to more than 360 aircraft and missiles, from examples of ones the Orville and Wilbur Wright flew more than 100 years ago to Air Force One on the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the most modern stealth jets of today. Admission is free. For information, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.