Historic Places

How to Have a Great Historic Site Visit

Winterthur, a historic house and decorative arts museum in Wilmington, Delaware.
If you enjoy jaw-dropping architecture, significant collections of fine and decorative arts, and historical artifacts, you may want to visit some historic sites.

Historic house museums and other places of national or historic importance are frequently open to the public for touring. Historic sites are fun because they give you the rare opportunity to feel as though you’re truly inhabiting an earlier time. They’re some of my favorite places to experience. Most of what you did to have a great museum visit still applies here, but keep a few other things in mind, too.

  • Research tours and times. Unlike museums, many historic sites don’t allow you to simply buy a ticket and walk through at your own pace. In order to visit, you absolutely have to take a tour. Tours are often only given at specific days and times, and they can fill up quickly. Therefore, I would strongly recommend buying your ticket in advance.
  • Don’t touch! Everybody knows that you can’t touch the artwork in a museum. But in a historic house where rooms are often set up as though people still live there, it can be easy to get confused. Enjoy that feeling of stepping back in time, but refrain from sitting on the chairs. Many houses also ask you not to touch or lean on the walls.
  • Know your limitations. The typical historic site was built in the days before elevators and ADA rules. Many sites work actively to be as accessible as possible, but they’re often restricted in how much they can do with a particular space. A lot of tours involve stairs, walking on uneven pavement, etc. If you have physical limitations, ask in advance what accommodations are available.
  • Go outside. Many historic homes have beautiful gardens and other outdoor attractions. Taking time to enjoy these will truly enrich your experience.
  • Find out what else is going on. Many sites offer exhibitions of art, antiques, clothing, or historical memorabilia. These are usually included with your tour admission ticket. Some are great, and others are just ok, but all are worth checking out.
  • Added 6/9/18: Work your angles. Professor William R. Cook, an expert in medieval churches, strongly recommends that you look at churches from a variety of different angles. He says that you notice different details and discover striking new views when you take the time to walk around the church and look up, down, across, and sideways from all over the building. According to Cook, most churches have something spectacular to offer from every possible point of view, and his photographs prove this is true. I bet it’s equally valid for non-church buildings, too. Check out Prof. Cook’s courses The Cathedral and The World’s Greatest Churches (my sources for this advice) from The Great Courses.
Union School
A sweet little 19th-century schoolhouse in New Jersey. It’s now a house.

Bonus: Not all historic places require an admission ticket. That’s because many old buildings are still in use as restaurants, hotels, shops, houses of worship, and so much more. Do a little research in your area, and you may find that you walk past historic landmarks every day. As long as you’re careful not to trespass, you can visit many of these places quite easily.

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