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10 Experts Pick U.S. Historic Places That Are Actually Worth Visiting

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

As the summer vacation season begins, TIME History asked prominent experts in American history to recommend a historic place to visit, and compiled their picks here. Unsurprisingly given the course of American history, the Civil War looms large on this list, but it is by no means the only moment that lives on in the landscape. Some of the suggestions on the list are easily recognizable, in which case the experts’ insights can help visitors see a familiar place in a new light, and others are more off the beaten path, offering a chance to learn about a historical figure or event that is no less important for being less talked about. Happy trails.

President Lincoln’s Cottage, on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, in Washington, D.C., was where Lincoln spent about a quarter of his Presidency, during summers, including some of the most important moments of those crucial years, such as planning the Emancipation Proclamation. By the end of the 20th century, the neglected house was being used for government office space, after which it was lovingly restored to look the way it did when Lincoln sought quiet refuge here during the Civil War.

Michael Beschloss, presidential historian

The Lincoln Memorial is one of the most beautifully designed, deeply moving places in the world, a testament to the power of one man’s words — and energy — to change things for the better.

— Ken Burns, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and co-director with Lynn Novick of The Vietnam War, which will air on PBS in September.

Beaufort, S.C.: In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama designated Beaufort a National Landmark devoted to the history of Reconstruction, the pivotal era that followed the Civil War. It was in Reconstruction that the laws and Constitution were rewritten to try to create a society based on equal rights regardless of race, and when interracial democracy for the first time flourished in this country. The emancipated slaves took important steps toward enjoying genuine freedom, but eventually progress was thwarted and reversed by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In the Beaufort area, buildings and monuments still stand that exemplify the history of Reconstruction — the Penn Center, where northern women set up a school to educate the freed people; the home of Robert Smalls, the area’s longtime black political leader; plantations where African-Americans acquired land; and other sites. In Beaufort, visitors can learn about what might be called the first civil rights era, a period of our history most Americans know little about but whose struggles over equality and freedom resonate today.

— Eric Foner, historian and author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize

The Black Heritage Trail in Boston: I love to put on my walking shoes and step into history via this walking tour of the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood now called the North Slope, which tells a different, less familiar story about Boston as the “birthplace of freedom.” The trail includes numerous sites from the turn of the 19th century through the Civil War years. Tourists visit the African Meeting House, where black Bostonians worshipped God as well as held protest rallies for integrated education and the abolition of southern slavery, the Abiel Smith School, the city’s only school for black children until the mid-1850s, and the houses of black and white Bostonians who hid and protected fugitives from southern slavery. The artistically breathtaking moment for me is the sight of the magnificent bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Tears often swell in my eyes when I listen to the park ranger describe this stunning memorial to the white Union officer Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment of African American soldiers, the Massachusetts 54th. I imagine myself among the throngs of onlookers on May 28, 1863, as the 54th marched down Beacon Street. Tourists come away from the Black Heritage Trail with the recognition that this Boston “birthplace of freedom” forged a new path in America toward greater liberty and justice for all.

—Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University

Gettysburg, Penn.: The battlefield is in great shape, very beautiful, and very, very moving. Visiting the site of Pickett’s Charge is most moving, an infantry charge across an open field. Try to put yourself in that situation: If you were engaged in that charge, how would that have felt? To me, it just defies the imagination, but that’s just the way they did war back then and what they were called on to do that day.

—Erik Larson, author of bestselling narrative nonfiction books, including In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin and The Devil in the White City.

Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail: Outside Glenwood Springs, Colo., just off the I-70, is the site of the “South Canyon Fire” around Storm King Mountain. There is a monument to the 14 firefighters who were killed in the blowup in 1994; they were mostly from Prineville, Ore. Of all the places I have ever gone and hiked and thought about things, in my judgment, that’s just the most intense place to go. Firefighters from all over the world come and leave things in memory of these kids. When you go on the hike, you can see some of the impacts of the fire. Really important decisions about firefighting — why firefighters were sent in when they should never have been sent in; the proper chain of communications and weather [forecasting] — a lot of that stuff came out of this fire. There are a lot of small western towns in the American west, where [being a smokejumper] is a really important summer job. That can be college tuition right there. And it forms a sense of teamhood and camaraderie and self-esteem, so it raised a very big set of questions that are uncomfortable. But it also raised questions that I’m not sure we’re thinking enough about: where we live and how we live, and about our responsibility to others. [For background] you can read Fire on the Mountain by John Maclean, son of the famous Western writer Norman Maclean.

—Patty Limerick, the Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she is also a professor of history.

Shiloh in western Tennessee is a beautifully preserved battlefield in a rural area that may not get as much visitation as its importance deserves. It’s very little changed from the way it was more than 150 years ago, partly because it’s so far away from many urban centers. It’s the site of a crucial battle in April of 1862, the largest battle fought by Ulysses S. Grant before the Vicksburg campaign. This was a Confederate counteroffensive to try to regain what they had lost in Tennessee, and it was successful on the first day. Grant was surprised by the attack, and it drove the Union forces back to the Tennessee river with their backs to the river. But Grant never contemplated the possibility of losing, and the next day, he led a counter attack which won the battle for the north. The Confederates were forced to retreat. There were larger battles later in the war, but that was the first real mass bloodletting. It was a wake-up call for both sides that this was not going to be a quick or easy war. Grant was criticized for having been surprised and for the large number of casualties; 13,000 who were killed, wounded or missing. But Lincoln stuck with him. He said, “I can’t spare this man; he fights!” A kind of major factor in the ultimate Union victory was Lincoln’s willingness to stick with Grant when a lot of other people said Grant should have been fired. But Lincoln kept Grant in command, and the rest is history, as we know.

James M. McPherson, historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning history book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.: known as Cedar Hill, this is the final home of the great orator, abolitionist, newspaper editor and diplomat who escaped from bondage at age 20 and spent the next few decades trying to end slavery. After that was accomplished, he agitated for equal justice and opportunity for the emancipated. He was also a lifelong champion of the rights of women, especially their right to vote. Douglass lived at Cedar Hill from 1878 to 1895. While there, he served as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, Chargé d’Affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti. The home preserves his legacy while interpreting the story of the African American and the American experience in the late 19th century. It was recently restored to its original glory and is a must-visit for anyone traveling to the District of Columbia.

Edna Greene Medford, professor of history at Howard University

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.: Having worked for the last 10 years on a film about the Vietnam War, I’ve come to understand that the Vietnam Wall is one of the most sacred places in America. It embodies all the complexities of this moment that we still don’t truly understand. When it was first built it was criticized for being degrading, for being a “wall of shame,” and I think the exact opposite has proved to be the case. It’s an extraordinary work of art and a place that represents the best of us, and also a way to remember a tragic event. I think every American should visit the wall. It works on you very deeply — it’s a physical experience walking through the space that Maya Lin created, a space that’s evolved as people have visited and left their own memorials, and you experience it along with other people visiting. There’s a sense of respect and quiet meditation that happens there and that’s rare in our very busy world. On some deep level it’s a representation that war is tragic and that sometimes it happens and we have to do our best to remember it honorably, and that’s what that place does. How we remember and what we remember is almost as important as what happened.

— Lynn Novick, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and co-director with Ken Burns of The Vietnam War, which will air on PBS in September.

Hiwassee River Heritage Center in Charleston, Tenn.; The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Venore, Tenn.; Red Clay State Park in Cleveland, Tenn.: These sites in the Southern Appalachia region are all within a few hours of each other and are all connected to Cherokee Removal. The Hiwassee River became the border between the United States and the Cherokee Nation; after the Treaty of 1819, Cherokees gave up significant amounts of land despite the fact that they had sided with the U.S. during the war of 1812. Less than an hour away is Red Clay State Park, which is on the Georgia-Tennessee State Line. Because of its location, when the Georgia state legislature made it a crime for the Cherokee Nation to operate its government within the boundaries Georgia claimed, the Cherokee people went to Red Clay to carry out governmental activities. About an hour away, there is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. Sequoyah was a War of 1812 veteran who fought under Andrew Jackson and an illiterate Cherokee man who invented a language and ornate script that’s ultimately used during the era of removal and is still used today.

This is a moment when federal government puts money into a civilization policy — the idea that Cherokees were capable of participating in the American project, but that that they had to make certain standards of civilization, which meant converting to Christianity, speaking English, being literate, transforming their gender norms. The irony, however, is that literacy in Cherokee was higher than literacy rates in the U.S. at time of the forced removal. Sequoyah ended up leaving to go West before forced removal, so on the one hand, he was resisting the colonists’ civilization project, yet he continued to be a conciliatory figure and worked to resolve differences between the two sides once forced removal happens.

—Julie Reed, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, professor at history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and author of Serving the Nation: Cherokee Sovereignty and Social Welfare, 1800-1907 who has also written about Cherokee historic sites in the upcoming book Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory

Correction: The original version of an item in this list misstated the nature of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was an infantry charge, not a cavalry charge.

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