Massachusetts is steeped in a rich history, from the Pilgrims’ harrowing struggle for survival at Plimoth Plantation to the battle of Lexington and Concord that marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. A visit to one of Massachusetts’s many historic sites is a fun way to gain a greater understanding of our nation’s past and its connection to the present.
Many of the Commonwealth’s most important historic landmarks can be found in the state park system overseen by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), including the century-old Schooner Ernestina in New Bedford and the Holyoke Heritage State Park, which features exhibits about the town’s paper-manufacturing past. It’s easy to explore Massachusetts historic sites, comprised of parks, forests, beaches, buildings, monuments, and reservations.
Heritage Trails are a great way to dig deep into Massachusetts history. The Freedom Trail is a brick pathway that starts in the Boston Common and meanders its way through the city, passing 16 sites key to the American Revolution, like the location of the Boston Massacre and the Paul Revere House. Similarly, the Irish Heritage Trail travels through some of Boston's oldest neighborhoods and passes 20 public landmarks that honor famous Irish politicians, artists, matriarchs, and war heroes.
Meanwhile, the Black Heritage Trail begins on Boston’s Beacon Hill and focuses on the historic sites of the 19th-century African-American community, like the African Meeting House where Frederick Douglass often gave speeches. Further afield, the African-American Heritage Trail on Martha’s Vineyard showcases the African-American history of the island.
Anyone interested in learning about the area’s infamous witch trials of the 1600s should head north of Boston to visit the Salem Witch House, the home of witch trials judge Jonathan Corwin and the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the trials, and follow the Salem Heritage Trail, which also provides insight into the town’s 1626 founding and its rich sailing tradition.
Museums and Historic Sites
Those with a political bent can learn about some of America’s most influential leaders at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, the John F. Kennedy Birthplace National Historic Site in Brookline, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, or the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum on Cape Cod.
Meanwhile, military history buffs have plenty of options to explore. Just outside of Boston, the Bunker Hill Monument – across the street from which is the Bunker Hill Museum – commemorates the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. Nearby floats the U.S.S. Constitution; first launched in 1797, “Old Ironsides” is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. In the western part of the state, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site marks the nation’s first armory, upon which U.S. Armed Forces relied for nearly 200 years.
While Massachusetts may be best known for its many Revolutionary War sites, it's also rich in Civil War history, from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Boston Common to the John Brown Bell, taken by a Union Army unit in 1862 from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The bell has remained in the city of Marlborough since 1892.
The other revolution Massachusetts is famous for – the Industrial Revolution – is preserved at the Lowell National Historical Park and Boott Cotton Mills Museum, which features the original looms used by immigrant labor of the late-19th century, and the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, through which the Industrial Revolution Heritage Trail runs.
Since a number of famous authors called the Bay State home, Massachusetts features a number of attractions that will appeal to bookworms, including Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and Edith Wharton’s Estate and Gardens, which provide glimpses into the life of these great writers. And no literary tour would be complete without a visit to the Ralph Waldo Emerson House and Henry David Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond.
Lighthouses, once welcome beacons for sailors lost at sea, now serve as reminders of the robust nautical history of coastal Massachusetts. Boston Light on Little Brewster Island in Boston, the oldest lighthouse in America, was established in 1716; and Highland Light on Cape Cod, built in 1857, still shines its beam 174 feet above sea level. These and many other historic lighthouses dot the Massachusetts seaboard and are waiting to be explored.