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A Traveler’s Guide to the 20th century

Sometimes, exploring history is the most fun when you remember experiencing the events firsthand.

From the golden era of Americana in the 1960s to the thrill of the space age, the excess of the 1980s and the technological revolution of the 1990s, the last half of the 20th century saw monumental events and cultural shifts that changed the face of America. Today, travelers young and old can live — or relive — this history at various attractions around the country.

To help inspire you in your history and heritage travel planning, we’re taking a brief walk through each decade from the 1950s through the 1990s and highlighting historical sites, architectural achievements, presidential history and pop culture phenomena that will help your travelers remember the tragedies and triumphs of these times.

The 1950s: Age of Americana

The heyday of muscle cars, the zenith of postwar prosperity and the dawn of the television age make the 1950s an iconic period in American history. And the seeds of some coming cultural movements were planted in this period as well.

Historic Happenings: Though we remember the 1960s as the era of civil rights, one of the seminal steps in that movement took place in 1954 when the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education. Today, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, preserves the elementary school at the heart of that case and is filled with displays and media educating visitors on the ruling and its role in the greater civil rights movement.

Presidents and Politics: Dwight Eisenhower, a triumphant World War II general, served as president throughout most of the 1950s and presided over an era of wealth and infrastructure expansion. Groups can relive Ike’s successes and learn more about his personal life by visiting the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas.

Architectural Achievement: Though Frank Lloyd Wright had been a famous architect for decades, his design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York wowed the nation when the building was completed in 1959. Critics called it “the most beautiful building in America,” and it continues to serve as a symbol of Wright’s genius and the height of midcentury American architecture.

Pop Phenomenon: Movie tycoon Walt Disney made a splash in entertainment and travel when he opened the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, in the summer of 1955. And though the park has grown and changed quite a bit since then, visitors can enjoy some of the spirit of the ’50s with original rides and attractions such as Main Street USA, the Jungle Cruise and the Mark Twain Riverboat.

The 1960s: Winds of Change

As baby boomers began to come of age in the 1960s, they ushered in sweeping cultural, political and societal changes that would shape America for decades to come. And some of the pivotal events of this time still resonate in the memories of those who lived through them.

Historic Happenings: Though there was plenty of controversy in the 1960s, America came together and rallied around the Apollo missions that put men on the moon for the first time in history. Today’s travelers can see the Historic Mission Control Room, where the Apollo missions were run, as well as numerous other space-age artifacts, on a tour of Space Center Houston in Texas.

Presidents and Politics: Youthful and charismatic, John F. Kennedy represented the hopes and dreams of many young voters when he came into office as president. But the nation stood still in horror when he was assassinated in 1963. Today, history buffs and conspiracy theorists alike can take Kennedy-themed tours in Dallas, where they see the book depository, the parade route and the infamous “grassy knoll” that were pivotal in the final moments of Kennedy’s life.

Architectural Achievement: Completed in 1962, the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is a soaring, stunning example of modern architecture in the space age. Groups can see the chapel inside and out during tours of the academy.

Pop Phenomenon: The Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969 came to represent the cultural identity of an entire generation and saw performances by some of the greatest musicians of the day. Travelers can see the festival grounds for themselves and perhaps even relive their own memories of the event by visiting the Woodstock Museum on Bethel Woods in Bethel, New York.

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.