Get Real When You Travel by Finding Local History

Colonial Williamsburg History is Served blog post screenshot

A destination’s food is a big part of its history and authenticity – Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia “History is Served” blog post screenshot

There is a lot of chatter these days about authenticity and experiential travel; one of the easiest ways to ensure that you have a memorable time in a destination is to seek out its history.

Not just going to the local museums, although that helps a lot.

Otherwise, how would you see gems like a collection of vintage 1920s gas-powered lawnmowers, or the bulbous glass oddity below, both at the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Center.

Local rural history in a minnow catcher Pittsburg TX rural heritage museum (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A minnow catcher (bait for fishing) at the Pittsburg TX Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Center (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

If you pay attention when you travel, you’ll find local history all around, even under your nose in the world’s busiest airport.

While doing some speaker planning ahead of the Real Places heritage tourism conference, I began thinking of ways to build the richness of historical context into every trip.

Here are a few ideas….

Stay in Historic Hotels & Lodging

Bathroom sink in the Welsh Room at the Hotel Pattee in Perry Iowa photo by Sheila Scarborough

Bathroom sink in the Welsh Room – every room is different – at the 1913 Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I confess, I’m not a very selective hotel person. I usually just want a decent place to stow my luggage, sleep, and shower. Location and walking distance proximity to the sights and public transportation drive most of my bookings, not brand.

That said, if you can arrange your travel budget to include an historic hotel, the atmosphere will add so much to your sense of visiting a particular place, not Anycity, Anywhere.

In Mississippi, for example, the elegant downtown King Edward Hotel in Jackson (now a Hilton Garden Inn) is stunning AND affordable. For a totally different experience, try a stay in converted Delta sharecropper shacks at the Shack Up Inn or Tallahatchie Flats.

Mayo Hotel lobby, Tulsa, Oklahoma (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The lobby of the 1925 Mayo Hotel in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. There’s a rooftop bar, too. (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The historic Gage Hotel is pretty much the entire reason I drove to Marathon in far western Texas, and I’ve been plotting a return trip ever since standing on the hotel grounds and looking up at a sparkling night sky.

Western swing: the lobby of the historic Gage Hotel in tiny Marathon, TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Western swing: the lobby of the historic Gage Hotel in tiny Marathon, TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

An excellent resource for finding such lodging is the Historic Hotels Worldwide group, and the U.S. National Trust Historic Hotels of America.

Eat & Drink a Town’s History

The bar at the Continental Club on South Congress Ave in Austin TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The bar at the Continental Club on South Congress Ave in Austin TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

You need meals when you travel, so you might as well pick interesting eateries.

Be ready to look for such local food in some unusual places. For example, the best fresh Hawaiian poke always seems to be found way in the back of a ramshackle store that’s been there forever.

Line up several places to taste-test different versions of local delicacies; the Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail makes it easy to find your favorite classic rice-stuffed sausage, or try all the Beer City USA craft beers with the Grand Rapids, Michigan Brewsader Passport.

Local Louisiana cooking spices and sauces at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Local Louisiana cooking spices and sauces at Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point near Lake Charles LA (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Don’t forget libations.

I don’t know which preservation genius came up with the U.S. historic bars blog post series, but they ought to get a raise.

Your definition of “historic bar” can be rather elastic, too. It does not have to be fancy at all. I have fond memories of moderately divey Grandpa-went-there places like community stalwart tg’s restaurant and pub in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and East Austin’s late, lamented Longbranch Inn (where my own grandfather went after a day working on the railroad.)

Walk or Drive Through Local History

Near the Colonial Parkway scenic bway heading for the golf course at Kingsmill, Williamsburg VA (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Near the Colonial Parkway scenic byway heading for the golf course at Kingsmill, Williamsburg VA (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

When you plan a trip, poke around to see if there are any heritage highways or historic trails nearby.

In a country like Greece, for example, it’s easy to walk through thousands of years of Greek history, including a mountain monastery you can only reach on foot. Who wouldn’t want to travel at least a portion of something like the Silk Road that knitted together multiple human civilizations?

Everyone knows about Route 66 in the U.S., but also look for driveable remnants of the Lincoln Highway and Bankhead Highway that preceded it.

Sign in Rentiesville a blues stop for Oklahoma Tourism state Music Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Sign in Rentiesville OK – a blues stop for the Oklahoma Tourism state Music Trail (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

For more ideas, see our list of unique U.S. historic and scenic trails, plus famous scenic drives in the U.S. (which includes the centuries-old Natchez Trace.)

Read Those Historical Markers & Signs

Fannie Lou Hamer historical marker Ruleville Mississippi (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer’s historical marker in Ruleville, Mississippi (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Yes, I have become my mother.

I stop for historical markers, and if I don’t see any around me, I look for them using the Field Trip app, which pulls from a large historical marker database. On one trip, the app even told me that I was near an historic WPA outhouse (latrine).

Although I never could find it or the marker for this piece of Hutchinson, Kansas toilet history, I always think of it whenever my kids complain that markers are boring.

Bonnie and Clyde ambush site historical marker near Gibsland LA (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Bonnie and Clyde ambush site historical marker near Gibsland, Louisiana (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

How do you incorporate interesting historic discoveries in your travels? Let us know in the comments!

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