American monuments you shouldn’t miss
Together, these spots tell a substantial part of United States history
With more than 200 years of history, there’s no shortage of American monuments to explain and memorialize the nation’s history and culture. Are they all worth a stop? Sure. But most of us don’t have the time for that. Certainly not in one trip, anyway. For anyone who is looking to prioritize, we’ve got some suggestions about what to see and what to skip until next time.
Monuments in the Washington D.C. area
No surprise here. Anyone who is interested in visiting historic American monuments shouldn’t miss the nation’s capital. Sure, it is possible to visit heritage sites including Arlington National Cemetery and any/all of the War memorials. There is also the iconic Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson’s former home of Monticello, and George Washington’s Mt. Vernon.
Interestingly, because Washington is the site of actively functioning legislative and governing activities, there are plenty of fully functioning sites to explore. Think of Congress, The Supreme Court (you can even go to lunch there), and The White House (arrange for visitor passes well in advance). While these places aren’t commemorating something that’s happened in the past, they’re embodying something that’s ongoing. It makes them even more satisfying to visit.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
From America’s earliest days, immigrants who moved here from other countries have influenced history and created many of the structures that modern Americans depend upon. In the late 18th century, this influence was celebrated with the acquisition of the Statue of Liberty.
As many Americans were taught in school, the statue was gifted to the United States by France and placed next to Ellis Island, the structure that served as an intake processing center for European Immigrants after a transatlantic journey from their home countries. Viewing the statue and touring Ellis Island allows visitors to become more connected with this experience.
Appomattox Court House
The Appomattox Court House, the place where the Civil War formally ended, well deserves its place on this list. In and of itself, it is a gorgeously preserved historic site, but while you’re there you’ll be informed to consider the course of the war itself, its causes, and how thoroughly these issues were resolved by the end of the war. While it is the site of the closing of one part of history, it is undoubtedly the launching point for the next era.
The St. Louis Gateway Arch
The St. Louis Arch is a masterful example of architecture, built large enough to be seen from the interstate and other highways that weave through St. Louis. If you can stop, it is well worth the time to step out of your car and experience this monument from a closer vantage point.
Almost nowhere else in the country does a better job of explaining U.S. Westward Expansion than the St. Louis Gateway Arch
The arch is best approached on foot through the park that surrounds it, where you’ll see exactly how its gleaming metalwork rises into the sky. Have your camera ready because this approach is likely to inspire lots of photos. In addition, the arch’s visitor’s center provides a range of information on both how it was built and what it stands for. It can be hard to find anywhere that does a better job of explaining westward expansion, the theme the art was designed for, to a wide-ranging audience.
The site of the Battle of Little Bighorn
Located in Montana, the Battle of Little Bighorn is the site of one of the most classic battles of the American Indian West. It was a surprise and devastating loss for the United States Cavalry, led by infamously arrogant George Armstrong Custer who died in the battle.
A visit to this battlefield showcases the beauty of Montana as much as it provides tactical details on the American Indian wars. Try to schedule it for a day or a time when you or your group can experience it with few others present. It is one of the eeriest monuments in the country. The presence of the battle there is almost palpable.
New Orleans’ Preservation Hall
Lots of locals don’t appear to think highly enough of this one-room music hall that’s more than a century old and still hosts multiple shows from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band each night. To some, the venue and the short music show is a sanitized, overly simplified representation of the rich music history in their city. However, it’s worth it because it is where everything started. Make it a part of your visit to a city with something to thrill every sense.
Jazz music fans shouldn’t miss this stop when they’re in New Orleans, it will set the stage for the rest of their trip.
Pay the small cover charge to make the short show part of your night. Not only can you say that you’ve checked it off your list, but keep it in mind as you compare it to other shows, club music, and street performances you’re bound to see on your trip.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
- June 17th, 1885: The Statue of Liberty arrives home | History 101
Learn something about the history of the Statue of Liberty before you visit it.
- April 9th, 1865: General Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox
Boost your knowledge about this dramatic moment in American history.