Many travelers hear the words “national park” and immediately imagine vast expanses of land with no people around for miles.
But there’s much more to America’s National Parks Service than destinations such as Joshua Tree and Yellowstone.
Quite a few of the country’s designated parks and historic sites are in urban sections of the USA, making them easy to fit into a city weekend break or to access without a car.
There’s even a clue in the logo of the NPS – it’s shaped like an arrowhead, which is intended to represent history.
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, New York City
What better place to begin our tour of urban national parks than the home of the man who created the Parks Service as we know it?
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, America’s 26th president, was born in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan.
Although the house is on the same spot where Roosevelt grew up, it has been renovated and changed several times over the years.
Luckily, many original objects and pieces of furniture are still here thanks to the family’s preservation efforts, so it’s possible to walk from noisy Union Square to a home in 19th-century New York in about 10 minutes.
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, 28 E 20th St, New York, NY 10003, +1 (212) 260-1616
Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts
Commonly referred to as the Boston Freedom Trail, this park is a collection of key historic sites throughout a whopping 47 acres of the city.
Some of the sites are among the most iconic in US history, including the Old North Church (where Paul Revere hung his lights to warn that the British were coming), Faneuil Hall, the Charlestown Navy Yard and the Bunker Hill monument.
You can visit the sites separately or as one walking tour, but a word of advice: If you’re looking for the Bunker Hill monument, don’t try going to Bunker Hill – the battle bearing its name was mostly fought on neighboring Breed’s Hill.
Boston National Historical Park, Building 5, Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, MA 02109, +1 (617) 242-5601
Gateway Arch National Park, St. Louis
Formerly known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, this silver arch swoops over St. Louis’ skyline and is one of America’s most recognizable symbols.
The arch, designed by Eero Saarinen, pays tribute to the United States’ expansion westward.
But the days of clunky Lewis-and-Clark animatronics and enormous taxidermied bison are over.
A significant modernization of the park’s museum was completed and unveiled in summer 2018, with new interpretive exhibits including Native American perspectives and new pathways making it easier for visitors to access the park on foot or by bike.
Gateway Arch National Park, 11 N 4th St, St. Louis, MO 63102, +1 (314) 655-1600
The National Mall and Memorial Parks, Washington, DC
Welcome to “America’s front yard.”
The 146-acre expanse in the District of Columbia is home to some of the country’s most famous and important sites, from the White House to the Capitol.
You could easily spend a week straight just exploring the Mall, both indoors and out – favorites include the Lincoln and Washington memorials, the Smithsonian Museums (including the breathtaking National Museum of African American History and Culture) and the annual beauty of cherry blossom season.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks, 900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington, DC 20024, +1 (202) 426-6841
San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is home to the only tropical rainforest in the US National Parks system (that would be El Yunque), but you don’t even have to stray far from the hotels and nightclubs of Old San Juan to learn about history.
Built in the 1500s by the Spanish, the structures comprising the San Juan National Historic Site were part of a fortification for the island.
The best-known of the group is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, usually just called “El Morro.” The mix of architecture, history – it was the site of attacks by the English and Dutch, then used as a military base by the Americans in World Wars I and II – and beauty make it an exceptional place to visit.
San Juan National Historic Site, 501 Norzagaray Street, Castillo San Cristobal, San Juan, PR 00901, +1 (787) 729-6777
Independence National Park, Philadelphia
Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States, and Independence National Park is sometimes known as “America’s most historic square mile.”
Within that square mile is Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, as well as the famous Liberty Bell.
The fundamental principles of democracy pair nicely with an on-site tavern designed to look like a popular one where politicians such as John Adams hung out in the 18th century. We can’t promise the beer recipes are historically accurate, though.
Independence National Park, 143 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, +1 (215) 965-2305
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Honolulu, Hawaii
December 7, 1941, was the day of the attack on the USS Arizona at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II.
Now, visitors travel by boat to the floating white memorial designed by Austria-born, Hawaii-based architect Alfred Preis, which is particularly symbolic since he was held as an “enemy combatant” by the US government because of his birth country.
The shape of the memorial is tall on the sides and lower through the middle to represent America’s highs before and after the war.
World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, 1845 Wasp Blvd., Honolulu, HI 96818, +1 (808) 422-3399
Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York City
The Statue of Liberty, full name “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” is arguably the most famous symbol of the United States.
She was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and gifted to the United States in 1886.
Now, travelers can visit Liberty Island to climb up to the top of the statue’s pedestal or her crown and be inspired by the words of the poet Emma Lazarus – “give us your poor, your weak, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – on a tour led by a park ranger.
Statue of Liberty National Monument, Liberty Island, New York, NY 10004, +1 (212) 363-3200
Alamo Mission, San Antonio
Originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo was one of a string of missions built by the Spanish to convert the locals to Catholicism.
However, it’s best known these days for being the site of a battle, where Texan soldiers – including the famous Davy Crockett – fought during the Mexican-American War.
Because of its historical and cultural significance, the Alamo and the surrounding missions are also a UNESCO World Heritage site – and they’re right in downtown San Antonio.
The Alamo, 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, TX 78205, +1 210-225-1391