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Capitalize a trip

Courtesy Visit Topeka

In 50 cities and towns throughout the nation, important business gets done behind the ornate walls of statehouses and capitol buildings. While governors and legislators wrestle with the minutia of budgets, bills and amendments, visitors on the outside are having a blast exploring the history and modern flavor of America’s capital cities.

One of the best ways to get to know a state is to visit its capital, where there’s plenty to see beyond the statehouses.

Bismarck, N.D.

Residents of Bismarck take pride in the features that are present in their state Capitol as well as the features that are absent.

“It’s an art-deco style building that doesn’t have a dome,” said Camie Lies, communications manager at the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The first capitol actually burnt down during the Depression, and we didn’t have a lot of money to rebuild it. So they figured a dome would be wasteful.”

Groups can tour the 19-story Capitol, known as the Skyscraper on the Prairie, and then the governor’s mansion, which is on the Capitol grounds. Also on the property is the North Dakota Heritage Center, the state’s history museum. The center just began a $52 million expansion, which will be finished in early 2013.

“You will see a large mastodon there,” Lies said. “And there are pieces of an actual mummified dinosaur that we found in southwest North Dakota. It’s really neat, because you can actually see the skin and scales.”

Charleston, W.Va.
Visiting the Capitol complex is only the beginning of a group tour experience in Charleston. In addition to seeing the statehouse, groups can visit the governor’s mansion and the West Virginia Culture Center, which sit on the Capitol grounds.

“The cultural center has all sorts of displays and a store with West Virginia products,” said Patty Bradley, CEO of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Downstairs is the state museum, which is a walk through time in West Virginia, starting from the prehistoric age.”

The state museum underwent a $17 million renovation last year. Highlights of the museum include a re-created section of a coal mine that guests can walk through, as well as a country store and malt shop and a series of exhibits about the Civil War experience in the state.

For another taste of West Virginia flavor, groups can visit Capital Market, which is housed in a historic railroad station.

“In harvest season, you can buy just about any fruit and vegetable you want,” Bradley said. “Inside, they have a fine Italian restaurant, a fresh deli-style meat market, a seafood restaurant and fresh organic produce. There are lots of West Virginia products there.”

Topeka, Kan.
A tour in the capital of Kansas includes art, history and a touch of fine food. In the 1866 Capitol, an ongoing renovation has brought some historic artwork back into the spotlight.

“The Senate and House chambers are worth stopping to see,” said Shalyn Marsh, communications and marketing manager at Visit Topeka. “In the renovation, they uncovered some murals that had been covered up for years. And the Capitol is home to the infamous ‘Tragic Prelude’ mural — the one with the abolitionist John Brown painted larger than life.”

Topeka is home to the Kansas Museum of History, where an exhibit called “150 Things I Love About Kansas” celebrates the state’s sesquicentennial this year.

Another museum, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, uses an old elementary school building and modern interactive exhibits to tell the story of the struggle for desegregation of America’s schools.

Visitors will also find some tasty activities in Topeka. One popular stop is Hazel Hill Chocolates, where groups can watch fudge-making demonstrations and sample homemade candies.
Marsh also suggests a visit to PT’s Coffee.

“It’s a local coffee roasting company that was named Roaster of the Year by Roaster Magazine in 2009,” she said. “They have a huge warehouse that groups can tour and learn about the process of roasting coffee.”

Harrisburg, Pa.
Many tourists travel to central Pennsylvania to visit the chocolate-themed attractions in Hershey. But nearby Harrisburg is rich in history, as well as cultural and outdoor opportunities.

The Capitol is among the most popular visitor attractions in Harrisburg, with a series of historic artwork detailing the state’s past.

“They’re called the Moravian Tiles,” said Candice Fry, manager of group sales for the Hersey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau. “Throughout the Capitol, they tell the story of Pennsylvania, the legislature and how the government was formed.”

Another visitor favorite in Harrisburg is the National Civil War Museum. This 10-year-old museum sits in the middle of a city park and invites visitors to learn about the Civil War from the perspective of both Union and Confederate experiences.

Because the area is so close to Gettysburg, numerous exhibits and artifacts draw special attention to the Civil War battles that took place in central Pennsylvania.

From there, groups can proceed to the State Museum of Pennsylvania, which houses dinosaur bones and artifacts from Native American villages, among many other items.

For a more laid-back experience, the Pride of Susquehanna offers a number of riverboat cruises for groups.

“It’s one of those big paddle-wheel boats,” Fry said. “They can do a dinner cruise, as well as murder mysteries or pirate cruises.”

Montpelier, Vt.
Montpelier, the small capital of a small state, combines both history and recreation in its group tour offerings.

Groups start at the statehouse, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2009. Tours at the statehouse include a number of rooms — the Senate chamber, House of Representatives, governor’s office and Cedar Creek room — that are used for important official and ceremonial functions. Along the tour, visitors see artwork, chandeliers, furniture and other items dating back to the mid-1800s.

Next door to the statehouse, the Vermont History Museum occupies a historic building and presents an exhibit called “Freedom and Unity: One Ideal, Many Stories.”

The multimedia exhibit traces Vermont’s history from the 1600s to the present and includes items such as a full-sized Abenaki wigwam, a re-created historic tavern, a railroad station with a working telegraph and an early 20th-century living room outfitted with music and magazines from the World War II period.

Groups can learn all about Vermont’s famous maple syrup at Montpellier’s Morse Maple Farm, where the Morse family has been producing syrup for six generations. The farm’s outdoor farm life museum shows some of the early tools and techniques used to tap maple trees and produce syrup; the Woodshed Theater, made from sugar wood, has a video that shows the modern syrup-making process.

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.