Virginia is for all kinds of lovers, but history lovers in particular will find plenty to rave about in the Old Dominion. As the first United States Colony, often referred to by the nickname “Mother of Presidents,” Virginia’s historical sites are portals to yesteryear. Here are 15 of the must-see historical sites for any trip to the state.
Virginia is known as the “Mother of Presidents” because it is the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents (more than any other state), ranging from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson. Not only did these presidents leave their mark on the country, their estates offer some of the most interesting and well-preserved sites around. Take Mount Vernon, for instance, George Washington’s home and estate. Owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, the estate and museum aim to preserve Washington’s legacy and educate the public about his life and service.
Monticello, made famous by Hamilton’s first rap battle in which he tries to convince Thomas Jefferson to create a national bank… just kidding! (But seriously, go check out Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” soundtrack in its entirety for a wonderful overview of Virginia history and its Founding Fathers). Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is one of the third president’s many architectural masterpieces. The plantation house began as a project when TJ was only 26, but he would spend much of the next forty years reconstructing various aspects of it. It is owned by the Thomas Jefferson foundation, whose mission is to “preserve and educate” about the “interest, talents, ideals, ambitions, and realities of its creative and complex owner.”
James Madison’s 2,650-acre estate houses President Madison and his wife, Dolly. Today, it is open every day of the week to further its mission “of engaging the public with the enduring legacy of Madison’s most powerful idea: government by the people.” Declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Places, it is now owned by The Montpelier Foundation. A major renovation recently completed, making Montpelier worth a revisit.
The Jamestown settlement was the first British colony in North America and Preservation Virginia in partnership with Colonial National Historical Park preserves its legacy today. Historic Jamestowne is a 22.5-acre plot of land where the original James Fort were found. Visitors can relive the early days of colonial life and wonder what it might’ve been like as an intrepid explorer off to a brave new world.
The entire city of Colonial Williamsburg is an incredible historical site well worth a day trip. “The entire colonial town stays in character 24 hours a day–shop keepers, townsfolk, children at play, farm families, marching militia, tavern folks—encouraging you to immerse yourself in the lifestyle of the 18th century.” While Busch Gardens and Water Country USA are short jaunts away, a day spent in Colonial Williamsburg adds a little culture to an afternoon of joy rides.
St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, is the site of Patrick Henry’s historic “Give me liberty, or give me death!” speech. It took place at the second Virginia Convention, where important revolutionary figures such as George Washington, Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson were there to hear it. “The speech ignited the American Revolution, making St. John’s a must-see landmark for anyone interested in the universal struggle for human rights.
John Marshall, the fourth Supreme Court justice and “Greatest Man Never to be President” lived in this Richmond mansion for 45 years. Marshall is known for such landmark decisions as Marbury v. Madison, which formed the basis of judicial review, essentially allowing the Supreme Court to rule a law unconstitutional. The estate is now a museum owned by the city of Richmond.
The Cape Henry Lighthouse was the first federally funded lighthouse and stands near the “First Landing” site where English settlers came ashore. Completed in 1972, it was authorized by George Washington and overseen by Alexander Hamilton (who, we’ll remember from our new favorite musical, see above, was the founder of the coast guard). It is one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in the country and now stands across from a modern cast iron lighthouse. Visitors can climb to the top and look out over the Cape.
More Civil War battles took place in Virginia than anywhere else in the country. One can find signposts designating battles almost anywhere in the state, but one of the most important battles was the Battle of Manassas. The Manassas Battlefield was “where the first clash of armies during the Civil War took place.” Follow the trail to see the fort and various interesting sites along the way.
No Civil War retreat is complete without visiting the site where it all began, or the site where it all ended. The memory of the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse is preserves the site of the battle as well as the courthouse where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Several houses along the 1.5-mile loop have historic significance as well.
The Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781, when General Washington led the American Continental Army to a resounding victory against their British foes. Today, the American Revolution Museum marks this site. This multi-media museum tells the story of the Revolution in new ways.
Old Town Alexandria is one of the oldest towns in America, and with its proximity to the capital easily became an early haunt for the Founding Fathers. Whether you’re strolling down the sidewalk or sitting by the harbor, you can be sure history occurred all around you. Stop in at Gadsby’s Tavern for a nightcap, and imagine the presidents of yore doing the same.
Founded on May 13, 1864, the Arlington National Cemetery just across from Washington D.C. is the final resting place for warriors from the American Civil War all the way up through our most recent conflicts. In 2013, Congress passed a law to spend $84 million to “plan, design and construct” space for new graves. The 71 sections of the cemetery honor as many military personnel as possible, including soldiers but also nurses who died serving their country. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is on the grounds, too.
Known as “the Birthplace of Country Music,” music historians and aficionados flock to experience the history of this unique town. “Ralph Peer, a New Jersey record executive, came to Bristol in 1927” and ended up recording 76 songs that formed the basis from which all future country music is derived. Check out The Birthplace of Country Music Museum for a fully immersive experience.
At only 353 people, Fincastle, Virginia, is one of the smaller cities on the state, but its historical significance can’t be understated. It served as “the last outpost before the Western frontier.” Thomas Jefferson designed the courthouse, which still houses incredible public records of the founding period. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark started their journey to explore the Louisiana Purchase from Fincastle.