With eccentric owners, breathtaking architecture and charm oozing from every corner, historic homes connect us across time. These tangible reminders of a place’s past tell stories not just with guide narration but also using people’s senses as they see, touch, hear and smell the house. Travelers seek out cities with distinctive character. Without historic homes, many cities start to look alike. The cities that best preserve their past stand out for many groups. Newport, Rhode Island, opened up many of its mansions from the Gilded Age for tours. Charleston, South Carolina, placed an incredible 97 properties on the National Register for Historic Places. The result in these cities and others is an increase in crowds eager to experience these authentic destinations.
Newport, Rhode Island
What does inexhaustible wealth look like? Groups can see for themselves at the Gilded Age mansions of Newport. America’s wealthiest families flocked to the compact seaside village to build lavish homes referred to as “summer cottages.”
Anything but quaint, these opulent homes along 10 Mile Ocean Drive and Bellevue Avenue offer picturesque ocean views and contain architectural marvels designed to awe. Groups should plan time to walk along Cliff Walk, a stunning public trail between the Atlantic Ocean and some of the most famous mansions, such as the Breakers, Rosecliff and Marble House.
Constructed by the Vanderbilt family, the Breakers holds 70 rooms decorated in elaborate marbles and mosaics. The home offers a Beneath the Breakers Tour, which reveals how the home functioned from an engineering perspective.
Each mansion has distinct architecture styles, stories and themed tours. Rosecliff served as the shooting location for several films, such as “The Great Gatsby” and “27 Dresses.” The Elms features a Servant Life Tour for the less-than-glamorous viewpoint of those working behind the scenes.
Closer to downtown, Newport’s historic homes reach even further back into history. On walking tours, visitors see many preserved Colonial homes. For smaller groups, the Hunter House is one of the most well-known examples of a Newport Colonial home open for tours.
Grand mansions bought with oil money showcase the abundant wealth of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Golden Age. In 1901, oil was discovered near the town, leading to an oil boom that lasted almost 30 years. Gothic and Art Deco mansions highlight the ostentatious attitude of the era.
Tours of Tulsa explore Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Craftsman and Italian Renaissance buildings downtown and in historic neighborhoods. Known as Black Gold Row, the Maple Ridge neighborhood maintains some of the most extravagant homes built by oilmen in the 1920s.
Instead of keeping the mansions in the family, several of Tulsa’s most glamourous homes were transformed into museums to turn the Oil Capital of the World into a cultural center. The Philbrook Museum of Art originated with oil baron Waite Phillips. Phillips built the 72-room Italian Renaissance home on 23 acres that included formal gardens cascading down the front of the house. After he donated the home in 1938, the multimillion-dollar mansion was transformed into an art museum.
The Gilcrease Museum also offers an art collection in a former oilman’s home. Thomas Gilcrease collected Native American art before donating the museum. The museum holds one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of American West art.
Charleston, South Carolina
To feel immersed in the timeless aesthetic of Charleston, groups can ride in a horse-drawn carriages past one historic home after another with Palmetto Carriage Works. With the city’s cobblestone streets, gas-lit alleys and numerous historic homes, carriages seem to fit better than cars.
Colonists first settled Charleston in 1670. Because the city managed to save so many of its gorgeous historic homes, the South Carolina city feels like a living-history museum. Groups can choose a walking tour to soak in the grandeur of each building.
The Joseph Manigault House is a favorite tour for its ornately designed fireplaces, period furniture and winding staircases. Named for a wealthy rice planter, the 1803 stately brick structure is an architectural gem saved from destruction by locals who turned the doomed home into an attraction.
Also on historic Meeting Street stands the striking Nathaniel Russel House. Constructed by a slave trader seeking to display his prominence in the city with remarkable architecture, the home features a free-flying cantilevered staircase and lavish furnishings. Groups can also hear the story of the slaves who resided in the home.
The Aiken-Rhett House reveals how the home changed since the early 1800s when South Carolina’s governor lived there. The grand home remains one of the only houses that retains access to the slave quarters and carriage house.
New Orleans Plantation Country, Louisiana
There were two different kinds of life experiences on the Mississippi River plantations of Louisiana: that of an owner and that of a slave. Groups can view both lifestyles at the 10 plantations open for tours between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Known as the New Orleans Plantation Country, the area showcases 10 plantations that, though close to each other geographically, differ greatly in experience.
Due in part to the Civil War, few areas boast as many preserved plantations as the New Orleans Plantation Country. New Orleans, the fourth-largest city in the country in 1860, emerged mostly intact from the war. This helped the area’s plantations survive wartime destruction and financial collapse.
Among the most iconic plantation images in the area is the quarter-mile of 28 giant live oaks leading to an imposing Greek Revival mansion at Oak Alley Plantation. Visitors often recognize the plantation from its appearances in various movies and television shows.
Groups can sip mint juleps while admiring the home’s lush 1839 interior features, shimmering chandeliers, hardwood floors and lush grounds near the mighty Mississippi River. Tours that relate the history of the owners and their slaves can be combined with a traditional Cajun and Creole meal at the plantation’s restaurant in a 19th-century cottage.
Other tours also weave firsthand accounts of slavery into their plantation story. They include the Destrehan Plantation, Laura: A Creole Plantation and the Whitney Plantation. The 1700s Destrehan Plantation tour explores existing slave cabins. One of the site’s outbuildings has a museum dedicated to an 1811 slave revolt.
Old and new go hand-in-hand in Milwaukee. Many of the city’s brand-new buildings stand next to century-old structures restored as historic sites. Groups can choose from several ways to explore the city’s historic homes, including Historic Milwaukee’s themed neighborhood tours and Gothic Milwaukee’s downtown walking tours.
One of the Wisconsin city’s most celebrated homes, the Pabst Mansion served as the home of Frederick Pabst, president of the Pabst Brewing Company. The 1892 home is known as one of the finest examples of Gilded Age architecture in town. Its interior Victorian decor creates a historic backdrop for the mansion’s many events, such as wine tastings and twilight tours.
The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear went from use as a single-family home to a doctor’s clinic to Avrum Chudnow’s law office. Chudnow avidly collected memorabilia from the 1910s through the 1940s. The collection grew to more than 275,000 items now displayed in rotating themed exhibits at the museum.
The Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum and Charles Allis Art Museum each feature different architectural styles with extensive art collections. Groups can not only tour but also interact with the city’s historic homes at experiences such as an afternoon tea at the Schuster Mansion, a Murder Mystery performances at the Brumder Mansion and full moon tours at the North Point Lighthouse.