Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

American Icons: More Than a Photo Op

They are the icons of achievement, sites that every traveler recognizes as symbols of Americana. But when was the last time you stopped at one of these American icons for more than just a picture?

Your travelers may already have checked off on their lifetime travel lists sites like Mount Rushmore or the Liberty Bell. A well-traveled group has perhaps seen the monuments of Washington, D.C.; the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; and the Alamo in San Antonio. But if you’ve made only brief stops at these landmarks, you’re missing some of the best of what they have to offer.

The great images of Americana offer some great experiences for groups. Each of those famous attractions has a story to tell and shares that story with curious travelers in a number of ways.


Gateway Arch

St. Louis

It’s difficult to visit St. Louis without at least seeing the Gateway Arch: The monument to westward expansion dominates the city’s Mississippi riverfront and downtown skyline. And although many groups take photos there, and some take the tram ride to the top of the arch, there’s a bevy of other experiences awaiting as well.

The official name of the arch is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and that National Park Service site also includes a theater, two museums and a riverboat operation.

“There’s a wonderful Museum of Westward Expansion,” said Donna Andrews, director of public relations for Explore St. Louis. “It’s the size of a football field, underneath the Gateway Arch. It chronicles 100 years of history, from 1800 to 1900. And there’s a hidden treasure there: the world’s largest collection of Indian peace medals.”

In addition to those Native American artifacts, museum visitors can see a lot of items related to Lewis and Clark’s expedition. There’s more about the Corps of Discovery in the on-site Imax theater, where a film gives an overview of the team’s epic quest to survey the American West.

Also at the site, the Old Courthouse Museum preserves the historic building where several significant trials took place.

“They have restored courtrooms and re-enactments, and there is storytelling that goes on in there,” Andrews said. “Groups can take tours through the Old Courthouse and learn the stories, including the Dred Scott slavery trials that took place there. They have a courtroom restored to look exactly like it did during the Dred Scott trial.”

Groups looking for another perspective on the monument should also take a Gateway Arch riverboat cruise.

“It’s part of the national monument,” Andrews said. “They take a 45-minute cruise up and down the Mississippi River, giving you a unique perspective on the St. Louis skyline.”

The monument grounds are now undergoing a revitalization project. When the work is completed in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the arch, the grounds will have convenient pedestrian access to downtown.


Independence National Historical Park


The Liberty Bell might be the most iconic historical image in downtown Philadelphia, but the Independence National Historical Park encompasses much more than the bell. This 55-acre park, nicknamed “America’s Most Historic Square Mile,” is also the site of Independence Hall, where the Continental Congress drafted the Declaration of Independence, as well as several museums.

Groups often start in the Independence Visitor Center to get an overview of the site and then proceed with tours of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center. From there, they can participate in special ranger-led programs throughout the park, visit the Benjamin Franklin Museum.

Those daytime activities are only the beginning, though. Various organizations in town offer interesting ways to experience downtown Philadelphia at night.

“Independence After Hours starts with a period dinner at City Tavern; then you sneak into Independence Hall after hours,” said Crystal Hayes, senior tourism communications manager for Discover Philadelphia. “You walk in on a few signers of the Declaration debating the final wording. It’s a cool sneak peek into something that visitors don’t typically get to see because it’s not open to the public.”

Another evening option is Liberty 360, a program run by the Historic Philadelphia organization. That summertime program uses an interactive history display, a light show and voiceovers to tell the story of America’s independence using buildings and interpreters around the historical park.

For a more exciting angle on the area’s history, consider taking your group on a Tippler’s Tour.

“You’re tippling — going to bars in historic Philadelphia with historical interpreters,” Hayes said. “They give you behind-the-scenes information and tell you what was going on in those places during Colonial times. You’re learning about Colonial brews and the drinks they would have imbibed during that time.” — 

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.