The Twelve Most Historic Cities in the United States

Updated on September 21, 2017
Vintage houses along St. Augustine's St. George Street.
Vintage houses along St. Augustine's St. George Street. | Source

1. St. Augustine, Florida. Founded by the Spanish in 1565 St. Augustine is the oldest European-founded city in the United States (continuously inhabited) and its historical charm clearly highlights this proud fact. Entire streets are lined by buildings constructed in the 17th and 18th century and the large Spanish forts of Castillo de San Marcos, in the city, and Fort Matanzas, a few miles down the coast, are reminders of the importance of this city on the northern frontier of Spanish America. The city also claims to have the oldest house in the United States, now a much-publicized private museum run by the St. Augustine Historical Society and open to the public. These claims are always debatable but the house is worth the visit for those interested in history. The house, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, dates to 1723 which clearly would not make it the oldest unless you add the qualifier of an original, European-built structure. But the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts has a more solid claim to this title, dating to 1637. Still, the houses of Acoma and Taos Pueblo in New Mexico outdated all by a couple hundred years at least.

Whether historic or not, all buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico are built according to the adobe-hacienda code.
Whether historic or not, all buildings in Santa Fe, New Mexico are built according to the adobe-hacienda code. | Source

2. Santa Fe, New Mexico. It took a few tries to get this city permanently established in 1608 by the Spaniards but the good location was no secret to the Pueblo Indians who had occupied the area from 1050 to 1150. The historical integrity of the city is noticed immediately as all the buildings, including the Walmarts are built to code in the unique hacienda-adobe style. Many of the buildings you see are original, especially in the downtown area, or at least built over the foundations of originals. San Miguel Chapel, constructed in 1610, is reputed to be the oldest church structure in the United States. The Governors Palace is another outstanding historical feature of the city and is easily located in the historic downtown area.

The Paul Revere House in Boston, c. 1680. Reputedly the oldest house in the city.
The Paul Revere House in Boston, c. 1680. Reputedly the oldest house in the city. | Source

3. Boston, Massachusetts. Boston traces its beginnings to 1630 when Puritan colonists from England. Its long pedigree, at least by American standards, carries over into the city’s historic buildings and neighborhoods. Old cemeteries, such as the Old Granary and Copps Hill Burial Grounds, are seen from busy sidewalks and beautiful colonial architecture is dwarfed by modern skyscrapers, such as the Old State House which dates to 1713 and is considered the oldest public building in the city. The best way to experience Boston’s history is to follow the Freedom Trail which is free and well marked along the city’s sidewalks. The Trail starts near the State House, another architectural marvel designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1798, and winds its way through the North End and across the Charles River to the Bunker Hill Battlefield monument. Along the way you will also notice the King's Chapel, built between 1749 and 1754 by Peter Harrison. This stone building has a long history, first established in 1688, the current structure was built over the older wooden building.

The State House, Annapolis, Maryland, c. 1772.
The State House, Annapolis, Maryland, c. 1772. | Source

4. Annapolis, Maryland. Annapolis has the oldest original state capitol building still in use by a legislature. Referred to locally as the state houseit dates to 1772 and it has the largest wooden dome construction without nails. Ok, how many wooden domes are there in the nation let alone nails used or not. That’s just for starters. Founded in 1649 by Puritan exiles the city is the home to the U.S. Naval Academy which was founded in 1845. While the buildings don’t predate its establishment they are an interesting collection of grand works, and tours of the Naval Academy are given to the public. Perhaps more interesting are the distinguished graduate sailors and marines that the Academy has graduated. The city has no less than 29 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places many of them finely preserved homes that are built in Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles. The Colonial Annapolis Historic District is a showpiece and contains 120 18thcentury buildings. The location close to both Washington, D.C. and Baltimore make it very accessible if not a little crowded with tourists at times.

The Old Courthouse, New Castle, Delaware, once served as the state capitol.
The Old Courthouse, New Castle, Delaware, once served as the state capitol. | Source

5. New Castle, Delaware. Just south of Wilmington is the unexpected town of New Castle. New Castle dates to 1651, when it was founded as an outpost of the Dutch West India Company under Peter Stuyvesant. It’s even older if you factor in its previous settlement as a Native American village. It’s still a small town but the old assortment of architecture is astounding for a city (town) of its size. The cobblestone streets around the town green at once a reminder of medieval England. Start at the Old New Castle Courthouseon Delaware Street, which served as the old colonial capitol and first state capitol of Delaware. Dating from the late 18thcentury the spire on this building was used as the center for measuring the 12 mile circle which formed the arced state line between Pennsylvania and Delaware. There are a number of old houses, especially those that line the Green. The oldest dwelling in the town dates from about 1700 and it’s known as the Old Dutch House. In nearby Wilmington is the oldest church in the state, the Old Swedes Church, or HolyTrinity Church founded in 1699. Not to be confused with the Old Swedes Church in Philadelphia, the one in Wilmington is said to be the nation’s oldest original church building still standing. It is built atop the foundations of Fort Christina, a Swedish fort, founded in 1638.

Maybe the best known historic structure in the United States: Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
Maybe the best known historic structure in the United States: Philadelphia's Independence Hall. | Source

6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Similar to many colonial cities, Philadelphia’s beginnings were marked by false starts. The official founding of the city as we know it today began with William Penn’s 1682 ambitious grid-lay out that still marks the modern foundation of the city’s planning. However, a little know fact is that there were colonists who inhabited parts of what is today’s Philadelphia as early as 1637 with the arrival of the Swedes who established a colony along the Delaware south of the Schuylkill River. The Dutch arrived soon after and by 1655 gained administrative control of the region. Today’s best known reminder of this early period is manifested in the still extant Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church founded in 1677. It remains the oldest church in the state of Pennsylvania. The city’s history needs no special introduction. Its central location midway between north and south made it an early capital of the United States from 1790-1800. Before this it was the major meeting place of the various Continental Congresses and it was in Philadelphia where the greatest of American documents were penned and put into law: the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Beyond the lettered history that this city fostered, the number of extant historical buildings in Philadelphia is astonishing and it even eclipses Boston in this regard. Vintage historic buildings from the colonial period, for instance, are located in so many areas of the city – in places that were established as separate towns and villages before they were merged with the growing urban metropolitan area. Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and Manayunk, for instance, all have blocks of houses and buildings that are well-preserved. In this respect, the city’s architectural and breadth scope is unique. In addition there are dozens of old colonial mansions that dot the hills above the Schuylkill, such as Lemon Hill (c. 1800), a federal-style mansion, and Strawberry Mansion (c. 1789) to name a few. The old plantations on which these houses sat became the foundations of Fairmount Park. Whole blocks of vintage row homes can still be seen in Society Hill and even older row homes, which date to the early 18th century, can be found along Elfreth’s Alley. The Georgian style Independence Hall (1732-1753), which once served as the capitol on the United States, is the centerpiece of the city’s old quarter and a block or two away are some classic Greek Revival buildings that are now preserved as part of the Independence National Historical Park.

The pastel-colored historic buildings make Charleston's streets colorful.
The pastel-colored historic buildings make Charleston's streets colorful. | Source

7. Charleston, South Carolina. No discussion of America’s historic cities is complete without mention of Charleston. Established in 1670, although a little northwest of the present location, today’s city was built starting in 1680 and named for the King of England and was known as Charles Town. Its cosmopolitan status was established early and it was the 5th largest city in North America in 1690, a mere twenty years after its settlement. It became well-known for trade and a hub of the rice and indigo markets that South Carolina cultivated. At the beginning of the 19th century it had the largest and wealthiest Sephardic Jewish community in North America. Consequently there are a number of Jewish temples in the city that date to colonial times and are among the oldest in the country. Well known is the Orthodox synagogue and KahalKadosh Beth Elohim Temple that dates to 1749. Huguenots and Roman Catholic communities also have a long history in this city that showed an unusual amount of tolerance for religious beliefs. The city’s streets and parks are not much changed from these colonial days. Beautiful Georgian homes still line many of the streets and walking the streets is like walking into old colonial America. Spires from the various churches in the city punctuate the skyline and many date to colonial days. Not to be missed is The Battery, the public park that is situated against the waterfront. Another interesting sight in the city is The Citadel, or the Military College of South Carolina, and its one-of-a-kind checkerboard courtyards among its barracks. State-funded, it was established in 1842. Finally don’t forget to take a chartered ferry to Fort Sumter which guards the bay. It was here that the first shots of the Civil War were fired as Confederate soldiers attempted to take this Federal stronghold in April 1861.

Colonial Legislature (Capitol).  Historic Williamsburg, Virginia.
Colonial Legislature (Capitol). Historic Williamsburg, Virginia. | Source

8. Williamsburg, Virginia. Founded around 1699 Williamsburg grew out of the failed experiment at Jamestown, the first colonial capital of Virginia. Jamestown's poor location along a swampy bottom-land waterfront made maintenance of this well-known settlement dubious from the start in 1607. Poor fresh water sources, Indian attack, awful humidity, and finally Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 contributed to its demise less than a century after its iconic founding in 1607. Williamsburg quickly filled this void as it was located a mere 7 miles away. Originally known as Middle Plantation, Williamsburg's location was considered more suitable because it sat on high ground on a narrow neck of land between the York and James Rivers - better for defense against Indian attack or the Spanish. It also had better fresh water sources located away from the brackish backwater that easily infested and infected Jamestown. Middle Plantation had been around since 1632 but the need to move the colonial capital and the newly established College of William and Mary (c. 1693) underwrote the renaming of Williamsburg (after King William III), complete with newly laid out set of streets. Today's Wiliamsburg bears all the hallmarks of the original planned capital. The exquisite Governor's Palace and Colonial Legislature (capitol) are perhaps the showpieces of what you see today: an ultra-scrubbed historical Disneyland called 'Historic Williamsburg'. Few of the showpiece buildings, such as the capitol and Governor's Residence are originals. Those burned down long ago. What you see today was rebuilt, albeit faithfully, by the Rockefeller Foundation, and remains a private theme-park for the historically-minded. Even the famous Wren Building at the College of William and Mary burned down a couple times and the version one sees today dates to after the Civil War. The Bruton Parish Church building, on the grounds of Historic Williamsburg, is open free-of-charge, and dates to 1715. It remains an active Episcopal parish. The College of William and Mary, the South's only institution of higher learning for some time, and the second oldest college in the United States after Harvard eventually pumped out three US presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Tyler. Other famous alum include Chief Justice John Marshall and Henry Clay along with 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Looking down one of New Orleans old quarter streets towards the business dictrict in a pre-Katrina photograph.
Looking down one of New Orleans old quarter streets towards the business dictrict in a pre-Katrina photograph. | Source

9. New Orleans, Louisiana. Surprisingly most of the famous historic architecture you seen in this unique city is of Spanish pedigree despite its more common association with the French. New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company but was ceded to Spain in 1763. The buildings from the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, were built during the Spanish occupation. By 1801 the city found itself back in French hands only to be sold by Napoleon to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is not to be missed for its unusual architecture and cultural backdrop. Worth seeing in the area is the Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans between the United States and Great Britain. Also not to miss in the city is the Garden District, an incredible collection of historical homes which began around 1832 and a hallmark of the city's burgeoning prosperity brought about by the commercial traffic along the Mississippi River. The Garden District is bounded by St. Charles Ave., 1st Street, Magazine Street, and Toledano Street, and has arguably the nation's best and most concentrated collections of antebellum mansions.

The Concepcion Mission in San Antonio, Texas, c. 1731, part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
The Concepcion Mission in San Antonio, Texas, c. 1731, part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. | Source

10. San Antonio, Texas. Unlike most of the other cities and towns listed here San Antonio, along with Santa Fe, is not a coastal city. Established in 1718 around the Alamo Mission, the future location of the city was first visited by the Spaniards in 1691. The Spaniards established a mission, known as San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) here by 1718 because they sought to establish a presence in the region as a bulwark against colonial France. Not coincidentally New Orleans, founded by the French, was established the same year. The most famous of the city’s sights can be seen in a long, well-planned day. The River Walk, Alamo, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park are the best preserved historic sites in the city and should not be left out of any itinerary.

Antebellum mansion, Savannah, Georgia.
Antebellum mansion, Savannah, Georgia. | Source

(11). Savannah, Georgia.This is the state’s oldest city established in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe. Its streets, laid-out in a perfect grid, represent an excellent example of early colonial city-planning. The city’s downtown is one of the largest National Historic Landmark districts. The city’s squares, numbering 22, are what make it unique. When the city was laid-out in 1733 it was designed around four open squares, anticipating room for growth and expansion of the grid. By 1851 the city had expanded to as many as 24 squares but since then three have been demolished in urban revival schemes. Of those three, one was restored in 2010. The squares are actually parks shaded by oak and palmettos, and many have fountains and monuments. It’s really a unique arrangement. Forsyth Park is a 30 acre park established in the 1840s and contains a beautiful water fountain built in 1858. Of the city’s park, this is perhaps the best know. It also has Confederate monument which is in the center of the park. Not to be missed is River Street, which has a number of old 19th century cotton warehouses that have been refurbished into shops and restaurants. Nearby Fort Pulaski, a national monument in of the National Park Service, is a masonry fort that overlooks the mouth of the Savannah River on Tybee Island. Construction of this moated fort was completed in 1847 and it sustained heavy damage by Union forces during the Civil War, when it was temporarily occupied by Confederate soldiers.

12. Richmond, Virginia.

Richmond has the history but what remains from its colonial past needs some extra effort to find. Its connection with the Civil War, too, would be more obvious if parts of the city had not been burned to the ground in the closing days of that watershed event. Today's city got its start as a modest but not unimportant fortified settlement along the James River in 1612. The settlement was informally known as Fort Henrico and was established to provide shelter and protection from the Powhatan Nation and built at the farthest navigable point along the river, the Fall line. Fort Henrico was destroyed and most of its inhabitants killed by the Powhatans during the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609-1612). It was not until 1737 that the modern city of Richmond was surveyed and incorporated in 1742. It was named after Richmond, England, which overlooks the Thames. The view of the James was very similar to the view of the Thames from Richmond, hence the naming of the city. Richmond was further enhanced in stature when the capital was moved there from Williamsburg in 1780. The state capitol completed in 1788 and co-designed by Thomas Jefferson still stands as a remarkable example of Classic Revival architecture. It was inspired by the Maison Carree in Nimes, France, a building visited by Jefferson during his tenure as U.S. Minister to France. Even older is St. Johns Episcopal Church built in 1741, a great example of colonial architecture. It was here that, according to tradition, Patrick Henry uttered his famous "give me liberty, or give me death!" The history of this city continues like a layer cake with colorful personalities such as Edgar Allen Poe contrasting with industrious people such as Maggie L. Walker. The city was also the second and final capital of the Confederacy (unless you count Danville, Virginia) but not before it saw Governor Thomas Jefferson flee on horseback from the British who sought him as a treasonous high-value-target during the War of Independence. Not to miss in the Richmond area are the numerous historic plantation houses between the city and the peninsula. Among the most unique, and closer to Norfolk than Richmond, is Bacon's Castle (c. 1665), one of the few remaining examples of Jacobean architecture outside of England.

Old Scottish Rite Temple, often mistaken for former state capitol building. Guthrie, Oklahoma. c.1919.
Old Scottish Rite Temple, often mistaken for former state capitol building. Guthrie, Oklahoma. c.1919. | Source
The Mystery Tower in Newport, Rhode island.
The Mystery Tower in Newport, Rhode island. | Source

Honorable mentions:

Newport, Rhode Island. It would be awkward not to include Newport in this list and it’s no less deserving than the other cities. Newport’s small size is also another reason to add it to the list as it’s easy to see in one day and very walkable. This old colonial coastal town was established in 1639 as a splinter group of religious dissenters further splintered and ended up here. Since Rhode Island was founded on principles of religious toleration, Newport has an interesting history and the oldest synagogues in the United States, the Touro Synagogue, built between 1759 and 1763. Another interesting site is the Mystery Tower, or Newport Tower, whose origins are still debated. Some speculate it is a vestige of a lost Norse settlement and dates to the end of the first millennium. More concensus indicates it's a colonial windmill dating from about 1670. Nobody knows for sure. In addition to these sites other places worth seeing in the city are the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, whose painters include original Gilbert Stuart portraits. It is said to be the oldest public library still in existence in the United States, found in 1747. The Cliff Walk is also worthy of a stroll and along it you can view the various Gilded Age mega-mansions built by barons such as the Vanderbilts. The most famous of these is The Breakers (1895), which is open for tours. Fort Adams State Park, a gigantic fort that guards the headlands overlooking Narragansett Bay, is among the finest historic forts in the country. Finally the Old Colony House, or Old State House, or Newport Colony House, is a finely built Georgian style government building completed in 1741. Tours area available but the schedule is odd.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This is New Hampshire's second oldest city after Dover. It is also, not surprisingly, the state's former capital. Settled in 1623 Portsmouth has a number of historic houses that reflect different periods of architecture. The Strawbery Banke, the original name given to the settlement of Portsmouth, is a ten acre area with houses that date to 1695. Many have period furnishings. Other historic homes in the city include the Georgian-style Warner House (1716) (fee), the Moffatt-Ladd House (1716) (fee), the Wentworth-Gardner House (1760) (fee), the Georgian Governor John Landgon Memorial (1784) (fee), and the John Paul Jones House (fee). The city is compact and small enough to walk with only a population of 21,000. Fort Constitution in nearby New Castle dates to 1791 and is one of the oldest federal forts (coastal defenses) in the United States. The nearby Portsmouth Naval Base hosted the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905 which ended the Russo-Japanese War and earned Teddy Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation.

Guthrie, Oklahoma. Oklahoma was designated Indian Territory until the Great Land Rush opened it up to settlement in 1889. Canon-shot echoed across prairies on April 22 of that year and with it the Great Land Run saw a tsunami-like flood of people charge across the borders to lay claim to a parcel of land. Guthrie's origins predate this event by a couple years as a railway junction in 1887 but the Land Run gave they city further impetus and an overnight population of 10,000. Guthrie's central location flagged it as the administrative center, or capital, of the new territory, but Oklahoma City soon eclipsed Guthrie in influence with a growing farming industrial base and as a railroad hub. Today Guthrie is a charming city of 10,000 with a beautiful collection of Victorian era buildings and a strong sense of its importance in the state's history.

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