Museums & Historical Places
Here are reviews for some of the museums and historical sites I've visited. I've tried to give more opinions than facts because you'll learn things about them if you go. I am not a historian; just a guy who enjoys going to nerdy places.
Questions, comments, agitations, praises, or newer information? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
San Antonio, Texas
Like its story, The Alamo itself is rather unimpressive. Located in the middle of a city and not the middle of a desert like I'd imagined, this monument is a true testament to the short, pointless battle fought there in the 1800s. Like many people, I'd been told throughout the years to 'Remember The Alamo'. I never really knew why and I still don't. It's small enough to finish in thirty minutes and if you go the self-guided route (which is free), you can be done in less time. San Antonio is a cool city with some nice things to see, including the pretty but touristy Citywalk along the city's eponymous river, so check The Alamo off your list and explore the rest of the city.
San Francisco, California
Most of us had heard the name Alcatraz and its stories growing up. Al Capone's incarceration, the escape attempt, and of course the movie The Rock. The island can easily be seen from the mainland so take some time to marvel at it from Fisherman's Wharf or thereabouts. Because it is an island, the only way there and back is via ferry. Since there is a limited number of visitors per day, it's recommended to book in advance. Here is a good place to put your trip together.
Everything about the island was a cool experience. The view of it, the view from it, the ferry rides, the audio-guided tour. And, of course, the prison itself. You'll learn all about its history, why an island was chosen for its location, who "lived" there, and many other things. Definitely put it on your list while in the Bay Area.
American Museum Of Natural History
New York, New York
The most iconic part of this museum is weird, philosophically. Why does joy come from looking at dioramas of situations that possibly existed during long-lost civilizations? I don't know why but I do know that it's cool to see. In the Hall Of Mammals and the Hall Of Ocean Life, dioramas and replicas are abundant, most-notably the herd of wooly mammoths and life-sized blue whale hanging from the ceiling. I remember being awed by these as a kid and that feeling has not disappeared. And there are dinosaur fossils! But the best part for me is the Rose Center For Earth & Space, because I am a space junky. The Scales Of The Universe exhibit is equal parts interesting and humbling. A huge model in the middle represents our Sun and planetary neighbors. Scale models surrounding this display show how big and more-often small our place in the universe really is. Follow this to the Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway for a journey back in time to the beginning of everything, if that's indeed how everything began.
As a general non-fan of crowds, I find it difficult to decide when to go. School field trips occupy weekdays while tourists flood it on weekends. Be prepared for these crowds and some screaming children but spend as much time as you can at exhibits that interest you.
There are many other exhibits, including rotating temporary ones, that could easily fill a day or more of visitation. "Suggested" admission is $22 but if you can't pay that much (or are a cheap jerk), give what you can. If you will be in NYC for many days, this museum is included on the City Pass which also gives you access to other places and deals around the city.
American Sign Museum
This museum is nice if you really like signs. In this case, I mean road signs, storefronts, and other various advertising media. It was interesting to see the evolution of signs through the decades and trends. Metal signs, neon lights, loud colors, funny characters- you'll be shown a plethora of each. I felt the amount of written history was lacking but then I wondered how much history could be written about signs. One cool part of the tour was looking into the area where they restore the signs from rusty or damaged to nice and presentable. The $15 entrance fee was a bit high for what I got out of the experience but I'm glad I went. I walked the building myself but guided tours are available at certain times and included with the entrance fee. That would probably have made up for the history I felt was lacking. Oh well. If you have curiosity and a little time to kill before leaving Cincinnati, check it out.
San Diego, California
This is a huge park just northeast of downtown. One could easily spend a day exploring the park while not even getting to its museums, theaters, gardens, and whatever else lurks within. The most famous area is the San Diego Zoo, which I did not visit, but I imagine there are many animals doing everyday things in quasi-natural environments.
The highlight of the park for me was the Museum Of Man- an anthropology building partly housed in California Tower, which can be climbed, for a fee of course. The museum's exhibits are varied: In my two visits, I've seen displays about the Mayan civilization, the history of beer, and a particularly interesting exhibit about cannibalism.
Restaurants also run loose in Balboa Park. The only one I went to was Prado, which I'd recommend for good food and atmosphere but would suggest wearing something other than a banana-duck T-shirt.
Asheville, North Carolina
When I visit Asheville, I go primarily for the beer. If beer is not your thing but walking through a massive house which was once owned by an extremely wealthy introvert is, Biltmore Estate is for you.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Alabama was pretty much the epicenter of the civil rights movement. It's where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat and Martin Luther King, Jr. led his nonviolent march. This specific spot in Birmingham is across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb planted by the KKK infamously exploded and killed four young girls while injuring dozens of others. That was a huge event which helped get the Civil Rights Act passed.
The Institute itself is nicely laid out. Placards and dioramas display important events affecting black people during the 1950s. There is a free tour available or you can learn at your own pace, which I did. Outside, I was approached by an older man who simply wanted to shake my hand and thank me for going to the Institute, which was obviously very important to him. It was humbling and a fascinatingly calming way to enter the building.
If you have even a passing interest in American history and/or civil rights, this is the place to see it at its heart.
Buffalo Trace Distillery
Producers of my favorite bourbon, Buffalo Trace has been in the business of distilling for over 200 years. Their website boasts and the tour explains how it was able to remain open and make whiskey during Prohibition, the true Dark Ages. The property is massive so wear comfortable shoes. And arrive early so you can indulge in some of their delicious on-site barbecue at the Firehouse Sandwich Stop. Your tour group might get quite large (mine had to be split in two) but you'll get a great chance to see the sights, smell the smells, and ask questions about their wonderful history. You'll learn about the founding of Buffalo Trace, see the bottling process as its being done, and find out what separates bourbon from other whiskies (and no, it's not location). Like any good tour, this one ends with whiskey sampling. You can get a small pour of three of their award-winning whiskies, which are all flavorful yet distinct from each other. If you have money to burn, the gift shop can help you with that. From there, head back to Louisville, Cincinnati, or wherever your travels take you.
For my full write-up about this place (with lots of cynicism), check out my blog entry.
Run by the ministry Answers In Genesis, the Creation Museum displays dioramas and information about the events written-about in Genesis, the Bible's first book. AiG believes that everything in Genesis factually happened and the museum does not long for demonstrations to prove it while debunking Darwin's evolutionary ideas. I love philosophical debate but that's not what this site is for.
Whether you're a skeptic, believer, or somewhere in the middle, consider touring this museum over the nearby Ark Encounter (also run by AiG), a museum housed in a replica of Noah's Ark. I've not yet visited the latter so I can't comment on it but the reviews I've read have not been favorable. I advise for one and not both because the entrance fees will add up quickly.
Eastern State Penitentiary
When it opened in 1829, it was the world's most expensive prison. It's been deserted (by inmates) for a long time, but you can explore the grounds, which have held up surprisingly well amid the fun city of Philadelphia. There are several ways to see the penitentiary, so check out their website to pick which one interests you most. It's easy to get lost among the numerous rooms and corridors so I suggest getting an audio guide and letting Steve Buscemi's voice (along with actual inmates) take you on the journey.
There is no proper parking lot so finding a place for your car can be something of a pain. Their website explains it well but parking along the bordering streets is probably your best bet. Some spaces have time limits so watch out.
And look at the picture of the penitentiary from above before your visit then again after you've experienced it.
Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
Note that this place is not the actual distillery, which is part of Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, KY. But it is a great experience. Evan Williams was Kentucky's first commercial distiller of bourbon, along with being a successful businessman and politician. Along this tour, you'll learn about the man, his vision, and how his bourbon became the second-best-selling in the USA. You'll see some videos, tools of the trade, and end up in the tasting room. Definitely get a sample of their Red Label bourbon, which is only available in the gift shop and in Japan, which is the world's second-highest consumer of bourbon. Who knew!? The Red Label is very good but I couldn't convince myself it was good enough for the sticker price.
I would recommend this very interesting experience even for those fools who abstain from alcohol.
Los Angeles, California
Firstly, visiting the observatory is free. Exciting! But like the Bronx Zoo on free days, it comes with a price. You'll have to deal with lots of people, many of which shouldn't be allowed in public, let alone a center for scientific education.
The place is big, so give yourself time. There are various exhibits and shows throughout the day. And like any good observatory, it has public viewing nights and star parties! You might ask, 'How could I see the sky? Los Angeles is so bright and smoggy.' While you're not incorrect, they somehow make it work.
There are two main ways to get to the observatory- park and hike a long way uphill or take a shuttle. I parked and hiked, so let me know if you do the shuttle.
The observatory is located within Griffith Park, which is also home to the Los Angeles Zoo, golf courses, and an ancient Greek-style theater. You can see the Hollywood sign from the building, as well as too many people taking selfies with it in the background.
Absolutely go to this place, just be prepared for walking and lots of people.
San Simeon, California
Along the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway), avoid the CHP (California Highway Patrol) and check out this historic site. A tad south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, it was a residence of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and part of it is still sometimes occupied by his descendents, such as the famous and infamous Patty Hearst. Tours of the property run year-round and vary by area and times of day. I took the Winter-only Holiday Twilight Tour, which ran at night to showcase elaborate Christmas decorations throughout the rooms. Said rooms were grand in scale and ornately decorated. The history of the castle is littered with stories of celebrities and politicians who were invited by Hearst and treated with the utmost sophistication. He imported relics from all over the world to give his estate a widely-cultured feel. For anyone turned-off by WRH because of the portrayal of him in Citizen Kane, know that the film's character was only loosely-based on Hearst and is not considered to be very accurate, though the movie itself is great!
Most tours are $25 and reservations should be made online because they fill up quickly and the Visitors' Center doesn't offer much for those who have to wait. All tours leave from the VC via shuttle up a windy path, which is cool and terrifying to traverse at night. Also, set aside enough time to watch Building The Dream, a 45-minute film that teaches about the property's history. Viewing that is not necessary to enjoy the tour but it was a great introduction with facts not shared along the tour.
International Civil Rights Center & Museum
Greensboro, North Carolina
Are you familiar with the peaceful sit-in protest at a Woolworth restaurant in 1960? If not, a group of college students were refused service at the restaurant because their skin was black. They were asked to leave but chose to remain seated, quickly attracting support from the community along with some decidedly unwanted attention. Now that location is this museum. You can even see the original counter and stools where the protest took place.
The museum proudly displays the history of that event and everything that led to it. There are also exhibits about social/racial injustice from all over the world. A guide will lead you through the main exhibit while the rest are for self-exploration. It's a very good museum in the middle of downtown Greensboro.
There are obviously similarities between this place and the museum in Birmingham (see review seven segments above this one). The main difference is geographical and what occurred in their respective areas. My recommendation is to visit both.
Jack Daniel's Distillery
First off, you don't go here to get drunk. You go to learn about history. Jack Daniel was arguably the world's most famous distiller. Find out why his Tennessee Whiskey is not considered a bourbon (and no, not because it's made outside of Kentucky). Watch the on-site processes they use to make their own barrels and charcoal. See the actual safe Jack kicked that ultimately led to his demise. Possibly even more impressive, the plot of land is enormous and buildings on it are huge. Part of my tour was seeing a "small" barrel-house which held 40,000 barrels. And there are around 87 barrel-houses on the property. You'll also learn how placement of the barrels determines which variety of Jack will result- black label, Gentleman, Single Barrel, etc.
If you're spending several days in Nashville (which you should do), designate one afternoon for this tour and three-hour roundtrip (and try to ignore racism in the sign for Kim's Klassy Kuts along the way). The guide I had was larger-than-life and absolutely rocked a huge beard and overalls. Don't expect to get him but I'm sure all the guides are equally entertaining and informative. And like I said earlier, don't think you'll get drunk at the distillery. The rumor about Lynchburg being a dry town is 100% true and it is heartily enforced. Enjoy and appreciate the tiny samples at the tour's end and save the drinking for when you get back to Nashville. Certainly no dry law there.
A unique place which features a historical museum alongside current studies with modern equipment, Lowell Observatory is a great place to visit. The most famous fact about it is that everybody's favorite former planet, Pluto, was discovered there. Part of touring the ground will certainly include information about that, along with a to-scale display of our solar system.
There are day and evening tours and shows available. I've been to many during most of their opening hours and any time would be great to visit, though the night offers a special feeling and sometimes stargazing. The observatory has a large staff but most of the tours and such are run by local college students who are scientists or on their way to becoming such. They are knowledgeable, friendly, and patient with dopey questions.
Museo Nacional de Antropología
(National Museum Of Anthropology)
Mexico City, Mexico
This place is enormous. Too big, I would say. I take in museums without inspecting each artifact but I didn't even get through half of it after several hours.
That said, definitely go to this museum when visiting CDMX. If you can, set aside two days to explore both floors. You'll get extensive information about the Aztecs and other pre-conquistador cultures along with many large rooms with impressive displays on all sorts of topics.
Aside from the size, my complaint is that only some of the descriptions for pictures and artifacts are in English as well. I say go with all or none. The main displays have been translated so at least there was that. And do you really need to understand a paragraph about a ceramic bowl?
It's downtown right in Chapultepec Park. Worried about the cost of a two-day visit to Mexico's largest and most popular museum? Don't be- It's free! Even if you had to pay, odds are it would be very inexpensive. For more on that, read my article about visiting Mexico City. Salud!
Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA)
New York, New York
Maybe I don't "get" modern art but I definitely hate it. Amorphous sculptures and brightly-colored everyday items just don't do it for me. And don't even try to tell me there's a deeper meaning to scribbles or a wreath of light bulbs. The only time I went to this museum was for an exhibit about Icelandic musician Björk. I was not surprised that it was disappointing. I think she is brilliant but this showcase was not and I can't imagine she was very involved with it. It deceptively began with a really cool two-walled music video then went along a maze of rooms each containing 2 or 3 pieces of Björk memorabilia while listening to an abstract story about some little girl. I wrote about this specific experience to warn all of you to avoid MoMA, unless vagueness and pretension turn you on. The ticket for the Björk exhibit included access to the rest of the museum, which was equally disappointing except for Van Gogh's Starry Night, which should absolutely be in his museum in Amsterdam. Disappointing place. I blame Andy Warhol. There are much better museums in New York.
National Museum Of Nuclear Science & History
Albuquerque, New Mexico
This is an impressive museum about nuclear energy and its various uses, including supplying power and causing mass destruction. While the history is good, it tends to focus on the latter of the two things I stated. Letters to and from J. Robert Oppenheimer abound in the story leading up to the production and eventual implementation of the atomic bomb. There are even replicas of Big Boy and Little Boy, the bombs used to annihilate Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively.
The museum was most interesting in that I left with a lot of knowledge but also a degree wonder why such innovative science had to be used for destruction and sadness for the lives which were lost. Visit, learn, contemplate. It's an interesting experience to have in the state where the first nuclear bomb was tested about 200 miles to the south.
There's also a cool little exhibition about movies related to nuclear energy (the highlight being an actual Delorean) and an interactive puppet of Albert Einstein.
National Civil War Museum
Arguably the best museum about the American Civil War, this place strives to present as many facts as possible without being biased for or against the Union or Confederacy. In very short summary, it tells the tale of how slavery came to the United States and how the issue became so contentious that we had to go to war with ourselves. There are many informative displays and historical artifacts to give the visitor a real insight to what life was like in those days.
The museum is housed specifically in Harrisburg because of its importance as a supply center for the Union but was never taken by the Confederacy. There was also an important military training camp nearby.
If you're an American history fan or simply think you don't know enough about the Civil War, this museum is for you.
Senator John Heinz History Center
John Heinz was more than a pioneer in the condiment industry. It was actually his father who made ketchup go mainstream. But this John was a politician in Pennsylvania and loved his hometown of Pittsburgh, which is why the museum was dedicated to him.
Inside, you will see many fun displays, including a giant ketchup bottle made from regular ketchup bottles and other exhibits which are related to Pennsylvania but not red goop. You will see the largest collection of sets and props from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the history of the Civil War in a much more condensed display than the museum above this snippet, and a random exhibition filled with random 'Special Collections' of things.
Attached to the history center is the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Did you know that American football traces its roots back to Pittsburgh? Well you do now! There is also memorabilia from various local teams.
So set aside several hours to learn many things about a wide variety of topics. This place just might be my favorite museum.
Roswell, New Mexico
(where else would it be!?)
Is it corny/cheesy? Of course it is! It's about UFOs!!! But this museum is definitely well-done and I left wondering what was real and what was not. There are plenty of goofy displays featuring our general description of aliens (ovoid heads, big eyes, etc.) but outnumbering those are countless articles and interviews about mysterious events in Roswell and other places around the world. There's a lot to read and one could easily spend hours here. One aspect I thought was interesting was the random articles debunking common myths about sightings and abductions. The museum wants visitors to believe but they also want to get rid of nonsense. If you find yourself getting too wrapped-up in the phenomena, a loud crash can be heard every few minutes along with four animatronic aliens moving around. This place takes its content seriously but has fun with the idea itself.
Winchester Mystery House
San José, California
This is a gigantic mansion which was built from a modest eight-room house by widow and firearms heiress Sarah Winchester. Today, the estate has 160 rooms and covers 24,000 square feet. The immense size isn't the only or most interesting aspect of the building though.
The story goes something like this- After her young daughter and husband died (separately), Sarah went to a medium in Boston who "channeled" her dead husband. The medium claimed that he wanted Sarah to move out west and begin building a massive house for the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. She did exactly that, and supposedly construction went on around-the-clock for about 38 years, until Sarah's death.
Sarah wasn't a trained architect but she drew the construction plans herself, which included many curious designs, such as séance rooms and stairs which lead directly to a ceiling or outside. There are windows and doorways throughout the interior of the seemingly nonsensical house.
However much of the story is true, the house remains as described. It's now owned and run by a private company which offers year-round tours, seasonal and nighttime tours, and even a wedding venue. It's a bit pricy at $40 for the regular hour-long tour but a second hour can be added on for $10 more, which I'd highly recommend. They have many tours throughout the day to cater to smaller groups and both guides I had were excellent. One told me that part of her initiation was that she was placed inside the house and had to get out in less than an hour. Sounds easy but wait until you see this place.
Also, Winchester House is allegedly haunted by the spirits mentioned earlier. A horror movie called Winchester (which was partly shot in the mansion) is worth a watch, though I'd recommend doing so after visiting and getting a real feel for the house itself and its history.
Yuma Territorial Prison
Just inside Arizona's southwestern border from California, this historical monument looks a little too nice to be a prison… from the outside. There are palm trees and green grass and whatever else tropical people enjoy. Its first "inhabitants" were the people who actually built the prison. Many of these inmates described the prison as Hell because of the desert heat and lack of air conditioning (it operated 1876-1909, after all). The cells (some of which you can enter) look as uninviting as you'd expect. The "dark cells" were for solitary confinement. The prison has an interesting history and even a graveyard on-site if you feel like freaking yourself out.
The entrance fee is only $6 and one can easily stay for a few hours, making it a great way to spend a late-morning or afternoon. Don't forget to look at the posters from films which were shot at and/or about Yuma, such as 3:10 To Yuma. And take a mugshot of yourself at their little dress-up corner!
Below is a list of natural places I've been to and would recommend for you to visit. Their respective websites will give you much more information than I could but if you'd like to know about my experience specifically, e-mail me at email@example.com.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Camelback Mountain, Arizona
Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico
Meteor Crater, Arizona
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Painted Desert / Petrified Forest, Arizona
Ramapo Reservation, New Jersey
Tongass National Forest and Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska