The 10 Best U.S. Cities to Visit If You Love Old Houses
Whether you're into history, architecture, or photography, you'll love these destinations.
With the rise of television shows like HGTV's Home Town and Instagram accounts like Cheap Old Houses, historic homes have become an interest for a much wider and younger demographic than in the Bob Vila days of the '80s and '90s. For those of us who don't have our own old house (or who just have an obsession!), planning trips to locations with a wealth of history and historic homes is a must. Sure, a destination needs to check off all the regular vacation boxes—nice accommodations, good weather, delicious food, and activities—but only certain locales offer house museums, quaint residential streets to explore, and unique architecture. We consulted with travel experts to compile a list of the best U.S. cities to visit if you love old houses. Keep reading to plan your next trip.
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Newport, Rhode Island
To call the historic residences in Newport "houses" would be a gross understatement. The coastal Rhode Island city is known for the Gilded Age mansions that once served as summer getaways for tycoons from New York and Philadelphia, most notably the Vanderbilts. (You may have heard that much of HBO's hit show The Gilded Age was filmed in these exact mansions.)
Today, 11 of these opulent homes have been preserved and are open to the public for tours through the Preservation Society of Newport County. Trudy Coxe, the CEO and executive director of the society, says the one can't-miss home is The Breakers. "No one in Newport ever outdid this 138,000-square-foot summer 'cottage' for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, Alice." It has 70 rooms (including an imposing great room with 50-foot ceilings), 27 fireplaces, and marble everywhere.
For landscape architecture lovers, The Elms is a must-see. The Classical Revival gardens feature marble pavilions, fountains, and incredible elm trees.
Another fun way to view the historic mansions is the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, a National Recreation Trail along the ocean from which you can see both the house museums and gorgeous private homes (do note that some sections are rocky and are more of a hike).
And in Newport's main downtown area, meander the residential streets to see 18th-century clapboard houses in a nautical setting.
Old Town Alexandria, Virginia
Across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. is Alexandria, Virginia, which was founded in 1749 by Scottish merchants. It's perhaps best known for being the adopted hometown of George Washington, but as Visit Alexandria notes, there is also a dark side to its past, as it "served as one of the largest domestic slave trading ports in America."
All of this history is on view in Old Town Alexandria, a nationally designated historic district along the river. Brick-lined streets and cobblestone alleys are lined with adorable Georgian- and Federal-style homes (more than 200 structures were built before 1820), and there are 140 sites tied to the country's first President, according to Visit Alexandria.
If you're on the hunt for that one amazing Instagram photo, Rebecca Doser, director of communications at Visit Alexandria, says to head to the Spite House. At seven feet wide, it's the skinniest house in the U.S. "Visitors can pose with arms wide in front of the doorway or capture Spite House squeezed between its white and red neighbors from across the street," suggests Doser.
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Charleston, South Carolina
This list would not be complete without Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of U.S. historic preservation. Liza Holian, marketing and communications manager at the Historic Charleston Foundation, notes that "the history of Charleston spans over 350 years," making it one of the oldest cities in the country.
As Holian explains, you can see homes dating to the 1700s along Tradd Street, or you can check out the waterfront mansions along the Battery. And while you're wandering, you'll find helpful "historic plaques and markers."
For a quintessential photo, head over to Rainbow Row, a stretch of pastel-colored homes on East Bay Street near the Battery. Or you can go to the Pink House on Chalmers Street. The bubblegum-hued home is the oldest in the city and is made more photogenic by the cobblestone street it resides on.
Another site Holian says not to miss is the Nathaniel Russell House Museum. "The entire house has been restored to its 1808 glory, with each piece of furniture and China carefully curated to the most historically accurate interpretation."
Within a short drive of Charleston are several plantations. You can take tours of the beautiful grounds, but, most importantly, you'll learn about the lives of the slaves who lived and worked there. Some of the most popular are Magnolia Plantation, which was founded in 1676 and has stunning romantic gardens, Middleton Place, home to America's oldest landscaped gardens, and Boone Hall, perhaps best known for its allée of oak trees and being featured in The Notebook.
St. Augustine, Florida
We'd be remiss not to include the oldest city in the country. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spanish settlers, and today has seven National Register Historic Districts. "The City of St. Augustine has a very strict preservation policy in place that protects the architecture that makes this one of the most beloved historic cities," explains Barbara Golden, the communications and PR manager at Florida's Historic Coast.
Golden notes that the Lincolnville neighborhood has the largest collection of historic homes. According to Florida's Historic Coast, Lincolnville was founded in 1866 by newly freed slaves and later played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement.
In the downtown historic district, you can meander along side streets (which include the country's oldest street and its most narrow) and see Spanish-style architecture, as well as the Oldest House Museum.
Like Newport, St. Augustine has its own Gilded Age history. Visitors can experience this at the Lightner Museum, the former site of the Hotel Alcazar resort, and the Villa Zorayda Museum, the one-time winter residence of a Boston millionaire who modeled his home after the Alhambra Palace in Spain.
History lovers also have the chance to spend the night in a historic home. "The St. Francis Inn is the oldest inn in St. Augustine, and it's still in operation!" notes Betsi Hill, travel writer and founder of Betsi's World. She also suggests The Collector Inn and Gardens, "nine buildings dating back to the 18th century [that] display the founder's vast collection of art and antiquities."
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Established by French colonists in 1716, Natchez is the oldest city on the Mississippi River. "The city itself has more than 1,000 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including over 40 authentic pre-Civil War homes and Victorian buildings all around town," says Caroline Rogers, an account coordinator at the Lou Hammond Group, which represents Visit Natchez.
Though the area is certainly walkable, you can opt to take the National Park Service's (NPS) driving tour of Civil War sites, which they estimate takes about 75 minutes. As Rogers notes, some of the sites you'll see include the Auburn Museum & Historic Home, a Greek Revival residence that's the oldest home in Natchez, and Magnolia Hall, "which dates back to 1858 and is the last mansion built downtown before the Civil War."
New Orleans, Louisiana
It's hard to compare New Orleans to any other city in the U.S., which is why it's that much more exciting to visit and experience its Creole culture and Spanish and French influences.
The city on the Mississippi River is probably best known for the French Quarter, the main tourist area that contains the infamous Bourbon Street. According to the French Quarter Management District, this area's architecture has more of a Spanish influence, with its signature wrought-iron balconies and courtyards.
The other popular area to see historic homes is the Garden District, which is lined with stately mansions. Christopher Falvey, the co-founder of Unique NOLA Tours, says some of the can't-miss sites here are the Buckner Mansion (of American Horror Story fame), the architecturally unique Monroe Adams House, the Walter Grinnan Robinson House (known for its two-story curved verandah), and the Brevard House (the former home of author Anne Rice).
A more off-the-beaten-path activity is walking around to see New Orleans' famous shotgun houses. The design of these tiny homes came from Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). After the Haitian Slave Revolt in 1804, "thousands of free people of color migrated to New Orleans," explains Falvey's Unique NOLA Tours. You'll find them concentrated in the Irish Channel and the Esplanade Ridge neighborhoods.
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There's a lot more to do in Louisville than drink bourbon and attend the Kentucky Derby, and one of these attractions is checking out historic homes. "Just south of downtown, Old Louisville is known for having the largest contiguous collection of Victorian-era mansions in the United States," notes Jordan Skora, marketing communications manager at Louisville Tourism.
Skora says one of the best ways to experience the city is by booking a walking tour through Louiseville Historic Tours. "The 90-minute tour will showcase a variety of building styles including Châteauesque, Richardsonian-Romanesque, Italianate, Victorian Gothic, and Queen Anne architecture." You can also opt for the night-time Ghost Tour, "which talks about some of the more haunted dwellings."
Several historic homes are available for interior tours, too. Skora points out Locust Grove, which "preserves a 1792 mansion, outbuildings, and 19th-century farmstead" and educates about the enslaved African Americans that once lived there. Jocelyn Xamis Wolters, a preservation and co-founder of the travel site Wolters World, suggests the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum. "This castle-like home is a wonderful introduction to the Victorian architecture of the city and an example of Richardsonian Romanesque at its best," she says.
There's plenty to do in the state capital of Ohio—see a Buckeyes game, walk around the Scioto Mile, get lunch at the North Market. But old house lovers will want to make a beeline for German Village.
Just south of downtown Columbus, this historic neighborhood was built by German settlers in the mid-1800s and has more than 1,000 buildings. According to Leah Berger, PR manager at Experience Columbus, "[the] lovingly restored brick houses, shops, streets, and sidewalks are full of historic charm." Each June, you can look inside some of these homes on the German Village Society's Annual Haus Und Garten Tour.
Another fun (and tasty!) way to explore German Village is on a food tour. Not only will you get to sample German fare, but you'll learn about the cultural and architectural history of the neighborhood.
Berger also suggests visiting Victorian Village, "a largely residential area right outside of the buzzing Short North Arts District known, as its name suggests, for outstanding Victorian architecture." She says the most notable home is the Sells Mansion, "known locally as the Circus House as it was built by one of the brothers who owned the Sells Circus."
About three hours northwest of Chicago, near the Wisconsin and Iowa borders, is a charming small town you'll want to know about. "Galena is a postcard vacation for history lovers and luxury vacation seekers alike. The historic downtown architecture has been 80 percent preserved and the hilly scenery along the Mississippi River creates a picture-perfect view," say Alex and Geoff Arroyo-Karnish, former Manhattanites who moved to the Illinois town in 2019 to manage a historic inn and now own and operate the Galena Bakehouse.
Start by walking along Main Street, which feels like stepping back in time. Then, Alex and Geoff suggest the one-hour trolley tour, which takes you through Galena's historic district. They say you must also visit the Grant Home, the 19th-century residence of the 18th U.S. president, Ulysses S. Grant. "Grant lived in Galena pre-war while he worked in his father's leather store. After the war, the entire town gifted him a furnished home which you can tour today," they explain.
Pacific Grove, California
For a west coast old house experience, drive along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway until you reach Monterrey. "The oceanfront town, and its neighboring Pacific Grove, are filled with ornate Victorians and detailed Queen Annes. Sit on the front porch of a historic inn while you watch the seals bob in and out of the ocean!" says Cristiana Peña, social media manager for CIRCA Old Houses.
Pacific Grove was founded in 1875 "as a Methodist Christian Seaside Retreat," according to the Heritage Society of Pacific Grove. At the time, "sections of the city were subdivided into 30′ x 60′ lots to be used as tent sites for seasonal (summertime) visitors." Over the years, many were converted to fully-walled, year-round homes that you can see today.
Lindsay Horton, social media specialist and founder of Social Monterey, notes that Pacific Grove alone has over 1,350 historic structures and says the perfect way to learn about some of them is by foot. "The Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce has created the Pacific Grove Walking Tour featuring 13 historic homes and businesses, while the Heritage Society of Pacific Grove has a self-guided tour featuring 350 historic homes in 11 of Pacific Grove's oldest neighborhoods."
For a unique place to stay, John Steinbeck's former cottage is available to rent (for a 30-night minimum) on Airbnb, shares local resident and author R. M. S. Thornton. It was built in the 1920s in the traditional tent style, and Steinbeck lived there in the 1940s.