It’s one thing to read about World War II or the Cold War. It’s another to see the very table where future president Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and other world military leaders plotted plans for the D-Day invasion or to come face-to-face with a piece of the dismantled Berlin Wall.
As treasure troves of personal mementos and historic national artifacts, America’s presidential sites offer rare glimpses into the intimate lives of our presidents. In doing so, they also offer insights into our country’s story and, in particular, defining moments in our nation’s history.
Thinking of creating a travel itinerary that dives deep into U.S. presidential history? Here are just a few of the many sites your group may enjoy exploring.
Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home
The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, features 25,000 square feet of all-new exhibit space that spotlights Eisenhower’s accomplished life, from his farm beginnings and West Point career to his pivotal command role in World War II and his presidency and postpresidency years, via engaging, interactive displays.
Popular exhibits help explain the global scope of World War II and Eisenhower’s role in leading the Allies’ D-Day invasion, as well as his devoted partnership with his wife, Mamie.
The campus features 22 acres and five buildings, including Eisenhower’s boyhood home, which exists in its original location and still features many of the family’s own furnishings, and the picturesque Place of Meditation, a chapel-like structure where Eisenhower, his wife and their son, Doud, are buried.
The library’s holdings encompass some 26 million papers, more than 330,000 photographs and 70,000 artifacts covering all aspects of Eisenhower’s personal life and career. In one critical, handwritten document preserved there, dubbed the “In Case of Failure Note” by historians, Eisenhower assumes full blame if the D-Day invasion were to fail.
“It’s one of my favorite pieces,” said Dawn Hammatt, the site’s director. “I think it really speaks to the character of this man.”
Though he was a celebrated military tactician, Eisenhower famously said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” words that are emblazoned on a wall of the museum. Exhibits speak to Eisenhower’s steadfast belief that to have peace, you must promote prosperity across the globe.
“We end the exhibit with a quote from him, speaking to America’s youth, addressing what it is to be a good citizen,” Hammatt said. “We lean on his own words to tell his story, as much as possible.”
Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Simi Valley, California
Situated on 300 acres in Simi Valley, California, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum celebrates the life and career of America’s 40th president and serves as the final resting spot of President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan.
“We are the largest presidential library both in size and in number of visitors,” said Melissa Giller, chief marketing officer for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. “We like to say that our museum isn’t just about Ronald Reagan; it’s about the presidency as a whole and American history as a whole.”
Visitors can walk through Reagan’s Air Force One, proudly displayed in its own pavilion. The plane was used by seven presidents, though Reagan flew on this particular plane the most, Giller said. While in the pavilion, guests can grab a snack at the Ronald Reagan Pub, a transported, authentic Irish pub that Reagan visited while traveling in 1984.
The museum also includes a Marine One helicopter used by President Lyndon Johnson.
“This was the helicopter that took President Johnson to the White House for the first time as president after he was sworn in following the assassination of JFK,” said Giller.
Other museum must-sees include a full-scale replica of Reagan’s Oval Office and a piece of the Berlin Wall, a tactile piece of history that takes visitors back to Reagan’s famous June 1987 “Berlin Wall Speech,” in which he urged then-Soviet Union Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Guided audio tours of the museum share details about the exhibits, which chart Reagan’s career pivot from acting to politics and his rise from California governor to the White House, through the actual voices of the president and his wife, Nancy Reagan.
In addition to its permanent Reagan-centered exhibits, twice each year the museum hosts special traveling exhibitions on other topics, from the Titanic to Pompeii to Abraham Lincoln.
The next special exhibition, “FBI — From Al Capone to Al-Qaeda,” is set to run July 2021 through January 2022. It will share insider history of the FBI through several key cases, including first-person accounts by lead agents and central artifacts from their investigations.
George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
College Station, Texas
A trip to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, provides a window into a life of service to the country.
Exhibits chart Bush’s journey from serving as one of America’s youngest naval aviators of World War II through his career as a congressman, United Nations ambassador, U.S. diplomat to China and director of the CIA, and culminating in his eventual rise to the vice presidency and the presidency itself.
The museum also spotlights the strong, lifelong partnership between George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who are both buried on the grounds.
“Visitors see what strong character President Bush had and the values he stood for,” said David Anaya, director of marketing and communications for the Bush library and museum. “He really had an amazing life and legacy. His accomplishments as a businessman, as a politician, as a father and as a president offer a little bit of a blueprint for how to live a successful life.”
Popular exhibits include a replica of Bush’s Oval Office, where visitors can snap pictures of themselves at the executive desk. The museum is also home to a TBM Avenger aircraft similar to the one Bush flew during the war and a piece of the Berlin Wall — apt, since the wall came down during Bush’s presidency.
The museum’s thousands of photographs, artifacts and personal letters offer rare insights into Bush’s long public career, as well as his personal devotion to his wife and family. The museum’s audio tour adds additional richness to the exhibits, since narration is often in Bush’s own words or the words of his family members.
“These are exhibits that you want to spend some time with and really enjoy,” said Anaya. “It’s like reading a really good book, and it’s easy to get lost in them.”
While in the area, groups can make plans to visit other attractions in College Station, including the Museum of the American GI and the Texas A&M University Art Galleries.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
Little Rock, Arkansas
The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, celebrates the life and legacy of the 42nd president.
The Clinton archives are home to more than 2.6 million photographs and 78 million pages of official records, and the museum’s collection preserves more than 100,000 objects, including many items given as gifts to Clinton by other global heads of state and by ordinary Americans.
Visitors can enjoy close-up looks at a presidential limousine and replicas of Clinton’s Oval Office and Cabinet Room. The third floor “Early Years” exhibit traces Clinton’s youth in Arkansas, his marriage to Hillary Rodham Clinton and his years as Arkansas governor, and the extensive timeline on the second floor includes the daily schedule for all eight years Clinton held office.
While in Little Rock, groups should explore the nearby William E. “Bill” Clark Presidential Park Wetlands, where pedestrian trails and elevated walkways offer panoramic views of the Arkansas River.
Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation
Medora, North Dakota
As the future home of the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Medora, North Dakota, already boasts plenty to explore, particularly for those interested in Roosevelt’s life and legacy.
Though he was a native New Yorker, Roosevelt fell in love with the beauty of the Badlands following a hunting trip there in 1883. He sought refuge in Medora in 1884 following the death of his wife and mother, and he later credited his “strenuous life” as a rancher in North Dakota for helping prepare him for the presidency.
“He wrote in his journal that the light of his life had gone out, and he returned to the Badlands area to rebuild himself and become a cowboy,” said Kaelee Knoell, marketing manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.
Medora serves as the main entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where visitors can enjoy camping, hiking and exploring the rugged North Dakota landscape much as Roosevelt himself did. The rustic Maltese Cross Cabin, now near the park visitor center, was once used by Roosevelt as a temporary home.
The city is also home to the long-running Medora Musical, an outdoor summer stage show that pays tribute to Roosevelt and life in the West, and to celebrated Roosevelt re-enactor Joe Wiegand, who brings the 26th president to life six days a week, June through September.
Groups may want to book a stay at Medora’s historic Rough Riders Hotel — named for Roosevelt’s famed cavalry unit in the Spanish-American War — where the lobby library is devoted to Roosevelt’s life and presidential legacy.