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Massachusetts has been one of the most important states in the country since the Pilgrims first arrived and settled in Plymouth in the early 17th century. Since then, countless significant events throughout history have taken place in Massachusetts.
Year after year, visitors to the state flock to its many historic sites to learn more about these events that helped to shape the country as we know it today. Here are our top 20 historic sites in Massachusetts!
In the early 17th century, the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Massachusetts and founded one of the first English settlements in what would later become the United States of America. The settlement of Plymouth was named after the Pilgrims’ departing location in England. After local Native Americans helped the Pilgrims achieve their first harvest following a harsh winter, Plymouth became the site of the first Thanksgiving celebration.
Plymouth is proud to showcase its history as “America’s Hometown” with museums, monuments, and other historic sites. Exhibits at Plimoth Patuxet Museums include reproductions of the Mayflower ship and Plimoth Grist Mill. The living history museums recreate the average lives of the indigenous Wampanoag people at Historic Patuxet and the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims at the 17th-Century English Village. Plimoth Patuxet Museums also hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day buffet, perfect for visitors wishing to immerse themselves in the time period.
Read Next: 10 Fun Things to Do in Plymouth, MA
Adams National Historical Park
In the city of Quincy, a suburb of Boston, is Adams National Historical Park. Dedicated to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the second and sixth Presidents of the United States respectively, this 13-acre park is open to the public for both self-guided tours and tours conducted by NPS Rangers.
The park features the homes and birthplaces of both Presidents, the home of four generations of the Adams family, and the Stone Library owned by the family. The park’s website boasts that “ninety-nine percent of the objects associated with the family are original artifacts.”
John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum
While the Kennedy Compound is unfortunately private property and cannot be visited by the public, the nearby John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum is open to visitors with any amount of interest in American history. The museum chronicles the legacy of the Kennedy family with special exhibits dedicated to Robert F. Kennedy, the wife and children of JFK, and the impact that the former president has continued to have on world leaders since his assassination in 1963.
The family’s lasting influence on politics, advocacy, space travel, and more is emphasized across the museum exhibits, and guest books allow visitors to read and write about their experiences and memories of the Kennedy family.
Flying Horses Carousel
Located in the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, the Flying Horses Carousel is the country’s oldest operating platform carousel. It was constructed in 1876 by the Charles W. F. Dare Company and is one of the only surviving Dare carousels today. The Flying Horses Carousel has been operating in its current location since 1889 and is now a National Historic Landmark.
In 1692, the city of Salem experienced an infamous bout of mass hysteria leading to the condemnation and persecution of those accused of witchcraft. Today, much of Salem’s identity has been built around the witch trials, drawing in tons of tourists each year. There are so many great things to do in Salem, but the city’s history makes Salem’s historic sites a must-visit.
The Witch Trials Memorial is dedicated to the 20 victims who were executed during the trials, and within walking distance is the Charter Street Cemetery, where you can find the graves of several people associated with the trials. There is also the home of one of the judges involved in the trials, known as the Witch House, as well as the Rebecca Nurse Homestead, the home of one of the trials’ victims.
Check out our guide to fun and free activities in Salem for more!
Bunker Hill Monument
The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17th, 1775, as one of the deadliest battles of the American Revolutionary War. Although it was not considered a victory for the colonists, the battle proved they could hold their own against British forces. In 1842, the Bunker Hill Monument was erected to honor the battle’s casualties and remind us of the event.
The monument is a 221-foot structure with an observation deck that can be reached by climbing the 294-step spiral staircase, giving visitors an incredible view of Charlestown and Boston. Along with the monument itself, the site also consists of a statue of Colonel William Prescott and a small museum with artifacts from the battle.
In 1969, passenger Mary Jo Kopechne drowned after a car driven by Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy drove off Dike Bridge and plunged into the water. This fatal accident, the “Chappaquiddick incident,” became national news, costing Kennedy his chance of ever becoming President.
Since then, tourists often travel by ferry or bike to see the bridge, which now has safety railings. Despite being a beautiful vacation spot, the island of Chappaquiddick is still remembered for the accident today and continues to draw curious visitors even 50 years later.
Emily Dickinson Museum
As one of the most well-known and influential American poets in history, Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems in her lifetime. She serves as an inspiration for feminist artists through today, and her work continues to be widely studied in American literature.
The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst includes her birthplace and home (“the Homestead”) as well as the next-door home of her brother and his family (“the Evergreens”). The museum holds four distinctive tours, the “first professionally-designed interpretive exhibit,” a restoration of Dickinson’s bedroom, and nearly 8,000 objects and artifacts related to Dickinson.
Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory
The oldest continuously operating weather observatory in the country, the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, opened in 1885 via the hard work of aspiring meteorologist Abbott Lawrence Rotch. It is home to the oldest continuous record of weather in North America, as well as the location of the strongest wind gust ever directly measured and recorded.
The observatory is considered a monument to the development of meteorology in America and today hosts lectures, workshops, and programs for anyone interested in the science of meteorology.
Henry David Thoreau wrote his popular memoir Walden while living in Walden Woods in the town of Concord from 1845 to 1847. The book would go on to become a prime example of transcendentalism, and the pond would go on to become a popular tourist attraction as part of the Walden Pond State Reservation, a National Historic Landmark. Apart from its historical and natural significance, Walden Pond is known as a great swimming, hiking, fishing, and cross-country skiing location.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site
Salem Maritime National Historic Site was the first National Historic Site in the United States and features 9 acres of historic attractions to visit, including a replica of the 1797 Friendship and an original surviving lighthouse at Derby Wharf.
This historic site displays “over 600 years of New England’s maritime history” and, as a National Park, is totally free, making it the perfect attraction for anyone in Salem who is not as interested in the dark history surrounding the city.
Lizzie Borden House
If you’re interested in the true crime side of history, the Lizzie Borden House in the city of Fall River is a must-visit. In 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were killed in a brutal unsolved axe murder. Their daughter, Lizzie, was tried and acquitted for the murder, but many still speculate that she was indeed responsible for the killings.
The house has since been converted into a bed and breakfast that is believed to be one of the most haunted locations in New England, if not the entire country, hosting both daily house tours and nightly ghost hunts.
Lexington and Concord
The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first armed engagements of the American Revolution, described as the “shot heard around the world.” Minute Man National Historical Park memorializes that day in 1775 with nearly a dozen preserved witness houses, a single grave from 1792, multiple battle site explorations, and the eponymous Minute Man statue.
Among the witness houses you can find The Wayside, once home to several authors including Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the years before the Civil War, this house also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Paul Revere House
Originally built in 1680, the Paul Revere House is a national historic landmark and the only home that is on the Freedom Trail, memorialized for the years it housed one of the famous historical figures from Revolutionary War history, remembered for his “Midnight Ride.” It is also downtown Boston’s oldest building, with 90% of the structure original to the home! Tours are self-guided, displaying this beautifully preserved, centuries-old home as it would have been during Paul Revere’s time there. There are even still pieces in the home that belonged to the Revere family.
Motif No. 1
Known by some as “the world’s most celebrated fishing shack,” Motif No. 1 was built in the 1840s but has been venerated and lauded by the masses who have chosen to sketch and paint its likeness over the course of the last century. Its rusty red color does make for a truly distinctive image as it perches on the edge of the harbor, surrounded by the water and fishing vessels that have defined this maritime community for centuries.
One of the neatest beach towns in the Bay State, Rockport is also home to one of the oldest art colonies in the country, so spend some time exploring all there is to see and do in this little seaside town. There are plenty of great options for where to stay and eat while in Rockport, but if you’d like to stay somewhere with a connection to a little American literary history, consider a stay at Emerson Inn!
America’s oldest public park, Boston Common was created in 1634 as a common space for public events and commerce. Today, it is an idyllic outdoor respite and Frog Pond at the Common is a four-season Boston destination as a place to enjoy the fresh blooms of spring, to cool off in the summer with a Spray pool, to peep fall foliage in the autumn, and as an ice-skating winter wonderland when the snow starts to fall. It is also home to several historical monuments such as the Crispus Attucks Monument, the Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial, the Founders Memorial, and many more.
USS Constitution Museum
The USS Constitution Museum preserves and displays materials and artifacts related to the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the US Navy and the world! The USS Constitution Museum (just a 3-minute walk from the ship) has engaging and interactive exhibits that serve as testaments to the storied past of Old Ironsides, so named due to its seemingly impenetrable oak hull that protected so well from enemy cannon fire. Even more interesting, the USS Constitution is still actively commissioned, with an active crew of sailors that serve aboard and proudly care for this ship that is often referred to as America’s “Ship of State,” educating the thousands of visitors that make their way aboard each year to see this naval treasure for themselves. You’re also just about a 10-minute walk from Tatte Bakery & Café, one of the coolest coffee shops in the city, so keep that in mind while you’re in the area!
Dating back to 1636, Harvard University is the oldest university in the United States of America, and one of the most prestigious schools in the entire world. Take a campus tour, in person or virtual, to become privy to some of this world-class institution’s traditions, facts, and myths about the grounds, the buildings, the events, and all of the people that have called Harvard home over the years.
There have been many impressive minds who have graced its halls over the centuries, from the highly credentialed and awarded faculty to the students who go on from Harvard to be the leaders of tomorrow. Plus, it is also home to several museums, including the Harvard Museum of Natural History, one of the best museums in Boston.
Old Sturbridge Village
Old Sturbridge Village is the largest outdoor history museum in the Northeast, providing a wealth of historical information on what life was like in early 19th-century New England. This working village contains a school, store, bank, homes, meetinghouses, mills, and shops being attended by costumed historians that contribute to the immersive education that visitors to Old Sturbridge Village receive. You’ll find demonstrations for skills like straw braiding, clothing refurbishing, and animal husbandry that give a closer look at how people in early 19th-century rural New England would have met their needs at this must-visit museum.
Faneuil Hall Marketplace
Completed in 1742, Faneuil Hall Marketplace is the historic site of many spirited discourses in pre-Revolution politics, referred to both as the “Cradle of Liberty” and the “Meeting Place of the Patriots.” Samuel Adams made his impassioned arguments against the Tea Tax at Faneuil Hall, leading to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Today, the hall is full of shops, dining, and performances on its cobblestone promenades as it continues to be the bustling hub of activity for Bostonians that it has been since its earliest days. A visit to Faneuil Hall is included in this Food and History Freedom Trail Walking Tour, too, one of the best walking tours in Boston.
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Amy is the founder of New England with love. A proud Vermonter, she hopes to share her love of New England and help you find the best adventures in the region. Amy is also blogger/founder at Two Drifters, where she writes alongside her husband about romantic and couples travel, relationships, honeymoons, and more. When not working on websites, Amy is probably reading, cuddling with her husband and cats, & drinking a maple latte.