Written by Jamie Beckman
The greater New York area is filled with lots of American and cultural history, with everything from vast estates to Walt Whitman's birthplace all within an easy drive. The best part? You can get to all these destinations on one tank of gas (or less).
180 Little Neck Rd
Why Go? Lush, 43-acre rolling grounds overlooking the Long Island Sound, a newly renovated 60-foot planetarium, and William K. Vanderbilt II’s art and artifact-filled museum and mansion are all part of the experience at the Vanderbilt Museum, which Vanderbilt himself built in 1922 for his family and friends to enjoy. “He went around the world collecting artifacts to build his own museum,” said Lance Reinheimer, executive director of the museum. “It’s pretty much left the way it was when he passed away in 1944.”
Insider Tip: During the holidays, visitors can take a special “twilight tour” of the mansion in the evening when it’s decorated for Christmas. Dates are Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 26-28, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Must Do: Check out Vanderbilt’s intricate world-class dioramas. Three include specimens like iguanas from the Galapagos Islands (back when you could bring items back from the islands), one is dedicated to the Cuban rain forest, two are Canada-themed, and two focus on the sea. Keep your eyes peeled for the 3,000-year-old mummy Vanderbilt bought in Cairo in the 1930s.
The Fine Print: The museum’s fee is $7 for general admission. Be aware, however, that mansion tours and planetarium shows are $5 extra.
246 Old Walt Whitman Rd.
Huntington Station, NY
Why Go? Go back in time and see the home and surroundings that inspired one of America’s greatest poets, Walt Whitman, who changed poetry forever with his use of free verse. He was born in a single room and lived in that house until he was four-years old, coming back at as a teenager to teach school. “We all know that our early years are formative," said Executive Director Cynthia Shor. “We’re imprinted with nature, and our psychology and our social nature is influenced by where we are born.”
Insider Tip: The birthplace’s backyard is on Route 110, so it can be difficult to find. Look for the little dog leg off the highway and follow the historic site marker signs.
Must Do: Look for the desk he used when he was a schoolteacher. He came back to Long Island to teach after working as an apprentice to a lawyer and a printer in the big city.
The Fine Print: Seniors, veterans, and students all get discounts on the $6 admission.
517 E 233rd St.
New York, NY
Why Go? A National Historic Landmark, the Woodlawn Cemetery is the final resting place of a veritable who’s-who of famous New York artists, businesspeople, architects, and entertainers, including philanthropist Augustus Juilliard and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Grand mausoleums, sculptures, and cultivated landscapes dot the property, which visitors can see (and touch) via an audio tour, a pre-arranged group tour or a leisurely stroll. “You’re really in a space where the greatest figures of the 19th and 20th century not only are at rest, but those same figures have their works and accomplishments right there for people to experience,” said Cristiana Peña, director of programs at the Woodlawn Cemetery and Conservancy.
Insider Tip: The oldest part of the cemetery begins at the northeast Webster Avenue entrance — ideal if you want to see old New York, with monuments belonging to families such as the Colgates and the Macys. The Jerome entrance features notable people from the Gilded Age, when bigger was better and the city was bursting with money. The two entrances are less than a mile apart, so you can easily do both in a day.
Must Do: Check out the “Jazz Corner,” home to jazz legends including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Max Roach, and Illinois Jacquet.
The Fine Print: Don’t be afraid to pull out your smartphone and document the experience. Broadcasting your visit on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram is very much encouraged at the cemetery. Use the Twitter handle @WoodlawnConserv to let your followers know you’re paying your respects to the greats.
210 Boston Post Rd.
Why Go? Visit a symbol of a changing America at the boyhood home of noted abolitionist and founding father John Jay, the first Supreme Court Justice. You can see firsthand the handiwork of Jay’s son, Peter Augustus Jay, who built a mansion on the property, and hike one of the trails that wind through the center’s surroundings.
Insider Tip: The 23-acre center regularly has history-focused presentations.
Must Do: Take in the details of the 1838 Greek Revival mansion, which is being painstakingly restored, with pediments and Corinthian columns constructed to match the original building. Peter Jay built the house on top of his father’s and grandfather’s house, right down to reusing original timbers and nails. The structure is thought to be symbolic of the rise of America as a powerful nation.
The Fine Print: House tours are free for kids up to age 12. General admission is $7; students and seniors pay $5.