Inna and I really enjoy history, and one of the best things about travel is experiencing history in person. Europe in particular is amazing for history, but so were several other places we visited, like India, Southeast Asia, and the eastern United States. And so, here are the most powerful history destinations we visited on our trip.
“If you only visit one US battlefield, visit Gettysburg.” That’s what our Airbnb host in Richmond told us, and she was right. Gettysburg was astounding, with tributes to literally every brigade that fought here. The battle itself was pivotal, and learning about it on the battlefield was like a history lesson come alive. And then, of course, there’s the Gettysburg address, which has its own memorials and tributes. Incredible.
All three 9/11 sites, USA
These sites were tough, but worth the visit. The horror and heroism that happened that day, and how much it changed the course of history, is astounding, and it was powerful and cathartic experiencing it in person.
The Statue of Liberty, USA
The US is the land of immigrants, and neither of us (Inna especially, she literally is zeroth generation) would be here if it wasn’t. Visiting the Statue of Liberty was so powerful; we can only imagine how it must’ve felt to someone who gave up everything to come here, not knowing what to expect or what was to come.
Gettysburg was like a history lesson come alive and this was even more so, with one 2.5 mile stretch home to so many revolution stories, stories that actually happened but are so famous they’ve entered the realm of folklore. Some of these stories include: “one if by land two if by sea”, “don’t shoot till you see the whites in their eyes”, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, and so much more.
Even after leaving the US, we continued visiting US history sites. One of the most important, not just for US but all modern history, is Normandy Beach. The bunkers here still exist, as do the trails up the beach, and again, one can only imagine what it must’ve been like to have been there that day. The nearby American Cemetery, where many of the fallen soldiers were buried, was also a powerful site.
Florence bursts with Renaissance history, whether it’s museums filled with art, the Medici villa, or even the specific spot Michelangelo stood where he admired a Donatello statue and was inspired to become sculptor. We visited all of these places, and in doing so saw some incredible art, including: Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s Annunciation, and more. Everything here was so incredible, and inspiring, and beautiful.
We could fill this entire list with Italy destinations, but for us, number two goes to Ravenna, a small city not far from Florence. It was here that Rome finally fell (the capital bounced around in the empire’s final years) but even more interesting: the Christian Holy Trinity concept was developed here. The history that accompanied this development was fascinating, all the moreso because this city is filled with buildings and art from that time period.
The Secret Annex, Netherlands
Unfortunately, despite its significance, the Secret Annex is not as powerful as it should be. This is primarily because it was insanely-crowded when I visited, but also because everything inside the Annex has been removed. That being said, having read Anne Frank’s diary, it was definitely powerful visiting the attic where it took place.
Old Town Prague, Czechia
Other cities have some aspects that are medieval aged, but in Prague pretty much all of city center is. As a result, being in this area feels immersive, like actual medieval times (good medieval, as in a romanticized kind, not a dirty or diseased one). Inna and I loved this, although we were sad to find that the city is losing this feel to an overwhelming amount of tourism. Thankfully, it can still be felt at night.
Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, Poland
Krakow is home to one of the holocaust’s most infamous ghettos, concentration camps, Schindler’s factory, and lots of pre-holocaust Jewish history. Additionally, an hour away is the holocaust’s most infamous death camp. We visited all these sites minus the death camp, as we had visited death camps before and weren’t up for another one at this point on our trip. Even without the death camp, this visit was intense.
Museum of Terror, Hungary
This museum was unique in that it combined Nazism and Soviet era communism into one subject. We’d never seen that done before, although based on our knowledge of the subjects, it certainly makes sense. More than anything else, the feel of this museum was compelling. The exhibits were interesting, but they were presented in a way (with music, lighting, and sound) that made them feel so much more powerful than they otherwise would. Almost like the feel of terror, which is what this museum is about.
I never considered Chernobyl a history site, but my guide presented it as such and I’m glad he did. He was so passionate about everything that happened here, not just local actions or the response (or lack of response) of the government. Our guide went into how Chernobyl changed the entire world view of nuclear technology, pushing forward disarmament and even hastening the end of the Cold War. Fascinating!
National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, Ukraine
This museum was surprisingly compelling. The exhibits were powerful, and this despite them not being in English (only a summary of each room was). Part of the power came from the museum being Ukrainian, not Russian, since Ukraine is currently in danger of war with Russia. This power also came from Inna’s ancestry: several of her family members participated in the battles this museum was documenting.
Babi Yar, Ukraine
I don’t know what got to us more, that so many Jews were massacred here, or that locals weren’t allowed to memorialize them for decades, until after the Soviet Union broke up. I mean, I do know because of course it’s the former, but the latter is so infuriating. The world is filled with bad people, the ones who oppose them are supposed to be good. If only it were that simple.
Forts in India
Historically, minus a brief interlude with England, most of Indian history doesn’t expand beyond the subcontinent. But the subcontinent’s history is incredibly deep and even though we weren’t familiar with it we still enjoyed visiting. The forts in the north in particular were spectacular; they were the biggest forts we even ever seen, and the architecture and artifacts that filled them were grand.
Hoi An used to be one of the greatest trade cities in Asia and it was also one of the only cities spared during the Vietnam War. The result is an incredible ancient town, one that we just loved. My personal favorite was the Japanese bridge, and Inna loved the historic homes, where we could see and experience was it was like to live in Asia hundreds of years ago.
This was another great Vietnamese history site, one that was mostly spared during the Vietnam War. I’d never been to an Imperial city before (Inna had food poisoning so she didn’t go) and it was fascinating, filled not just with temples and art and gardens, but also a fortress, a moat, and even a tennis court (1800s Vietnamese rulers were very interested in western sports). So cool!
The Vietnam War is everywhere in Vietnam; it permeates the country unlike any event has effected any other country we visited. Everywhere we went (except Hoi An and select nature destinations) the war was there, whether it was museums in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi, the Vietcong headquarters in the Imperial Citadel, machines of war in Hue, bomb craters at My Son, and so on. We also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, the My Lai memorial, and even met veterans of the war, like Mr. Chang, a Vietnamese American who wasn’t allowed to return home after the Vietcong won the war. He currently gives Cu Chi Tunnel tours and was one of the best, rawest, and most honest tour guides we’ve ever had while traveling.
Visiting S21 and the killing fields was so powerful. Neither Inna nor I had ever visited a genocide site outside of the holocaust, and it was striking seeing what happened here. What was most striking was how similar it was, and also how fresh and recent. Our tour guide survived the genocide, but her dad and some of her siblings did not. She gives tours to educate others, and she teared up when she gave ours.
Southeast Asia is filled with ruins, but most feel more like sightseeing or religious destinations, not history. Not Ayutthaya though, for Ayutthaya wasn’t a religious site, it was the largest city in the world. Imagine in a couple hundred year visiting the ruins of New York City, Rio de Janeiro, or Tokyo; that’s what visiting Ayutthaya is like today.
The former British Empire (New England, Canada, Ireland, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and very briefly Indonesia)
Traveling the world, you really appreciate how vast the British Empire was: minus Vietnam and Thailand, we couldn’t escape it! It was fascinating seeing the English influence everywhere, whether it was architecture, sports, cuisine, public transit, language, or, most noticeably, driving on the wrong side of the road.
The former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and parts of Ukraine)
In addition to the British Empire, we found ourselves traveling most of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well. Here it was all about the Habsburgs. Learning about that dynasty, particularly their influence on European politics, art, and architecture, was fascinating, especially since I never learned about them in history class.
Honorable Mentions: the rest of our top ten US history destinations, Versailles, Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter, Kiev’s Central Square, Odessa’s Catacombs, castles throughout Central Europe, various other sites in Southeast Asia (Sukhothai, Angkor, Yogyakarta Palace), the former French Empire (Vietnam), Oceania’s WWI memorials, city palaces in India, and a lot more.