Destinations: 51 Historic Downtowns

From's Quarterly Digital Magazine - More

The United States of America is a young country when compared to the antiquities of the Old World. Even so, each city and town across the nation has a fascinating story just waiting to be told. Like a patchwork quilt, each town echoes the heritage of its first settlers who brought their particular architecture, churches, food and customs; yet the towns became uniquely American as outside influences - like other inhabitants, climate, natural resources - prevailed.

From river cities to desert outposts, from fertile agricultural lands to mining towns, the historic downtowns reflect the variety of cities and towns found in the United States. Some of the following 51 cities were among the very first settlements in the country, but each of these have very different roots. Other cities have a more recent historic timeline but still represent iconic American stories.

Each of the following entries provides a short history of the city and then describes things that today's visitors should plan to see and do. Walking tours of historic sites, seeing architecture, watching historical re-enactments, visiting museums including living history museums, going to festivals and events, shopping and dining are great ways to experience the historic downtowns.

Have a great TRIP!

Childersburg, Alabama
Founded: 1540

Childersburg is home to the first recorded cave and one of the oldest continuously settled communities in the United States. Spanish Explorer Hernando Desoto led his expedition into Alabama in 1540. The Coosa people represented the Muscogee Native Americans in Alabama then. The Coosa chief welcomed de Soto at a ceremony near their ancestral cave Kymulga, now DeSoto Caverns. Childersburg today offers a warm and friendly community with unique places to shop and dine. Its backdrop is the Caverns and the Coosa River nestled in mountain foothills.

Photo courtesy: DeSoto Caverns Park
Childersburg, AL

Scottsboro, AL
Scottsboro, Alabama
Founded: 1819

There is a cornerstone holding together the states of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. This God given and breath takingly beautiful spot of land is held together by the soft whispers of the earliest native Americans, the battlefield blood of sons from both sides of a young nation at war with itself. Local memories are stamped indelibly in our minds about those that have toiled the sandy loamed fields, harvested timbers never seen by man, and tamed a river like no one has ever done before. Where is this special place? It's the heart of the southeast: Jackson County, Alabama.

Helena-West Helena, Arkansas
Founded: 1833

One of the oldest communities in The Natural State, founded three years before Arkansas became a state, Helena was a booming river town. The Beech Street Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The District features exposed brick streets and a variety of historic homes. Architectural styles range from Colonial Revival and Queen to Craftsman. Historic Cherry Street has a variety of great shops and restaurants.

Helena, AR

Napa, CA width=
Napa, California
Founded: 1847

One of the world's Great Wine Capitals quickly grew in population and stature with the introduction of the steamboat on the Napa River from San Francisco in 1850 and the Napa Valley Railroad in the 1860s. Today, Napa is a popular destination known for fine dining, wine bars, tasting rooms, luxury hotels and spas. Napa's historic districts showcase fine examples of Victorian commercial and residential architecture.

San Diego, California
Founded: 1769

Photo courtesy of John Bahu.

The birthplace of California and the state's 2nd largest city, San Diego was founded when the Spanish established the first California mission in the area known today as Old Town. Maintaining an authentic atmosphere, Old Town invites visitors and locals into cantinas, restaurants, boutiques, museums and historic sites. Other popular historic areas include the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District, developed in 1867, and Balboa Park, built in 1868. Photo Courtesy of John Bahu.

San Diego, CA

Lewes, DE
Lewes, Delaware
Founded: 1631

Photo courtesy of

Known as the first town in the first state, Lewes was originally settled by Dutch colonists. The Historic District showcases a variety of buildings and architectural styles including the oldest structure in Delaware built around 1665. The District, maritime and other museums, the historic ships in Lewes Canal, restaurants, shops and inns are within easy walking distance of each other.

St. Augustine, Florida
Founded: 1565

Having celebrated its 450th anniversary in September 2015, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States. With so much colorful history, visitors explore more than 60 historic sites, attractions, architecturally-rich buildings; such as: Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum and the Fountain of Youth.
St. Augustine, FL

Alpine Helen, Georgia
Founded: 1857

Once home to Native American Cherokee Indians, later European settlers came to White County, Georgia for gold and timber. Today, Alpine Helen is Georgia's 3rd most visited city. People come for the Blue Ridge Mountain setting and the Southeast's finest Bavarian Village - achieved in 1969 by a community-wide zoning & recreation effort to give an Alpine look to the town! With quaint hotels, cobblestone walkways, unique shopping & dining, it is a glimpse of Alpine Germany in Georgia!

Alpine Helen, GA

Sandy Springs, GA
Sandy Springs, Georgia
Founded: 1821

To discover the history of Sandy Springs, you must travel to the heart of the city. Heritage Green is home to the original springs, as well as a museum located in the repurposed Williams-Payne House. Explore a series of rotating exhibits, and learn the unique history of our community.

Cedar Falls, Iowa
Founded: 1845

Originally named Sturgis Falls for the family of the first permanent residents, Cedar Falls was renamed due to its proximity to the Cedar River when it was purchased from the Sturgis family in 1850. Visitors to today's historic downtown area are treated to six consecutive blocks of locally owned restaurants, shops and historic landmarks. One is the Blackhawk Hotel which is the oldest continuously-operating hotel site in Iowa and the longest continuously running hotel west of the Mississippi.
Cedar Falls, IA

Springfield, IL
Springfield, Illinois
Founded: 1821

Originally a pioneer settlement with fertile soil, Springfield soon became the Illinois capital in 1837 with the help of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Today, visitors walk the streets where the nation's 16th president lived for most of his adult life and tour the only home that he ever owned. The four-block 1860s neighborhood surrounding Lincoln's home includes a variety of historic exhibits.

Indianapolis, Indiana
Founded: 1821

Photo courtesy of Conrad Piccirillo.

A planned city near the White River from the start, Indianapolis was designed to become the capital of Indiana with Monument Circle being the city's center. Today's downtown area offers numerous attractions, museums, restaurants, shops, sports venues, the Cultural Trail and is second only to Washington DC for its collection of monuments and memorials.

Indianapolis, IN

Harrodsburg, KY
Harrodsburg, Kentucky
Founded: 1774

Photo courtesy of

The first permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains and the oldest town in Kentucky, Harrodsburg presents history, architecture and culture. Things to see include: Old Fort Harrod, a full-scale replica of the fort built in 1774; Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, the 3rd largest Shaker community in the country on 3,000 acres; downtown historic district featuring preserved buildings dating to the 1880s.

Somerset, Kentucky
Founded: 1798

Visit Lake Cumberland in Somerset-Pulaski County, an area steeped in history! After enjoying a day of boating or fishing, immerse yourself in walking tours and museums that tell our story, from downtown Somerset to Mill Springs Battlefield. And join us every fourth Saturday April-October as we celebrate classic cars at Somernites Cruise Car Show!
Somerset, KY

Natchitoches, Louisiana
Founded: 1714

The oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, Natchitoches is the original French colony in Louisiana. Retaining the French influence, the 33-block National Historic Landmark District features guided streetcar tours, carriage rides and walking tours along brick streets lined with restaurants, shops, art galleries and museums. Along the nearby Cane River are historic sites, Creole plantations and museums.

Natchitoches, LA

Plymouth, MA
Plymouth, Massachusetts
Founded: 1620

Photo courtesy of Tim Grafft/MOTT

One of the oldest permanent settlements in the United States, Plymouth was founded by the Pilgrims from the Mayflower. They are said to have first landed at the site of Plymouth Rock. Today, visitors may go whale watching, watch cranberry harvests, enjoy watersports or visit historic landmarks such as the Pilgrim Hall Museum, the oldest continually operating museum in the United States, and Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum.

Salem, Massachusetts
Founded: 1626

Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Tourism

On the North Shore of Massachusetts, Salem became the center of the Salem Witch Trails of 1692 and, in the eighteenth century, a major maritime trade center. Today, visitors find a variety of restaurants, shops and historic sites including: Peabody Essex Museum, maritime museum founded in 1799; Salem Witch Museum; the Custom House where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlett Letter; the House of Seven Gables Settlement.
Salem, MA

Hannibal, MO
Hannibal, Missouri
Founded: 1819

Photo courtesy of Missouri Division of Tourism

This river town served as a docking port for boats traveling the upper Mississippi River, and by 1860 Hannibal was the 2nd largest city in Missouri. During this time, Hannibal's most well-known citizen, Samuel L. Clements, known as Mark Twain, was living the adventures he would later write about. Today, travelers tour the home where Twain grew up, explore the cave and other adventures from Twain's books and walk the streets where Twain walked as a boy.

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri
Founded: 1735

Photo courtesy of Missouri Division of Tourism

Visitors to charming Ste. Genevieve have the opportunity to explore Missouri's oldest town, originally part of French territory in North America and settled by French Canadians. The rare French colonial influence is evident through the architecture found in this town as well as in Quebec and Normandy, France. Favorite things to do are touring the preserved historic homes, shopping and visiting restaurants, wineries and microbreweries.
Ste. Genevieve, MO

Jackson, MS
Jackson, Mississippi
Founded: 1821

Jackson is the perfect place to find big-city amenities with a small-town appeal. Whether you have an appetite for the succulent southern cuisine, the music that will feed your soul, or the arts to give your creativity a feast, you can find it all here in the City with Soul!

Ridgeland, Mississippi
Founded: 1855

Ridgeland's Old Towne District is a quaint, picturesque retail community and neighborhood, just moments away from major thoroughfares and the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. Luxurious spas are just steps from chic local boutiques, eclectic restaurants and unique gift shops. After you've shopped til you're ready to drop, rest up in one of several hotels located nearby before doing it all over again the next day!
Ridgeland, MS

Boone, NC
Boone, North Carolina
Founded: 1872

Downtown Boone, with its restaurants, galleries, and boutiques, retains the nostalgic feel of the town's early days, while the architecture of Appalachian State University serves as a modern backdrop for this popular mountain playground. With a 40-foot climbing wall in the middle of downtown, there's adventure around every corner.

Fontana Village, North Carolina
Founded: 1942

Fontana Village was originally built as a town for the workers and their families who came from all around the country to construct the Tennessee Valley Authority Fontana Dam (over 6,000 folks). Construction of Fontana Dam began in 1942 and was completed in 1944. The dam was built to provide power for the war effort at the Oakridge, TN Nuclear Facility and to alleviate seasonal flooding in the greater Tennessee River Valley. Today, the property has grown popular as a family resort with over 100 cottages and a lodge. Recreation and beauty abound in the foothills of The Great Smoky Mountains!
Fontana Village, NC

Gastonia, NC
Gastonia, North Carolina
Founded: 1877

Located west of Charlotte, Gaston County is a terrific place offering visitors a variety of attractions including museums, botanical gardens, extreme sports, hiking, parks, art and history, dining and entertainment. Stop by the visitor's center, exit 26 off of I-85 for a FREE Visitors Guide.

Swedesboro, New Jersey
Founded: 1638

Photo courtesy of Borough of Swedesboro

Founded by Swedish and Finnish settlers, today's walkable downtown area of Swedesboro offers a variety of unique shops, restaurants and historical sites. Some popular historic stops are the Van Leer/Mortenson Log Cabin, one of the country's oldest existing log cabins; Trinity "Old Swedes" Church, founded in 1703; and historic Swedes Inn, a restaurant built in the 1770s.
Swedesboro, NJ

Acoma, NM
Acoma, New Mexico
Founded: 1200

Photo courtesy of National Trust for Historic Preservation

Believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States, visitors to this this historic pueblo village ride to the top of the 367-foot sandstone mesa where they meet Acoma residents who lead guided tours of Sky City. The guides share Native American history and culture passed down for centuries. Tours include houses, San Esteban del Rey Mission, Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum.

Santa Fe, New Mexico
Founded: 1607

Photo courtesy of

Known as the nation's oldest capital city and the oldest city in New Mexico, Santa Fe was founded by Spanish colonists in 1607. Preserving and blending Native American, Spanish and Anglo cultures, the city enjoys a rich cultural heritage that attracts tourists. Santa Fe showcases various architectural styles, historic buildings, pueblo communities, cultural activities, art galleries and museums as well as an array of cuisines and shopping opportunities.
Santa Fe, NM

Virginia City, NM
Virginia City, Nevada
Founded: 1859

Once called the richest city in America, Virginia City was a boomtown following the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit in the U.S. Many buildings and homes in the wealthy new city were made of brick and included gas and sewer lines. The historic character of Virginia City remains today with its board sidewalks, saloons, casual restaurants and museums.

Hudson, New York
Founded: 1662

Dutch settlers purchased Hudson land from Mohican Indians in 1662; whalers and seafaring men from New England bought the land in 1783. As more settlers arrived, mainly Quakers, the city was chartered in 1785, making it the third city in New York. Today, the beautifully retained architectural heritage represents styles from three centuries. These historic buildings are home to elegant bed and breakfasts, antique shops, art galleries, restaurants, theaters and nightspots.
Hudson, NY

Edmond, OK
Edmond, Oklahoma
Founded: 1889

Much of Oklahoma was settled through a uniquely American series of land runs. The railway stations and their vicinities were prime points, and Edmond Station was among the top sites for runs. April 22, 1889 marked the first of the Great Oklahoma Land Runs. At 12:05 pm the surveyors began laying out the Edmond town site. From that original survey, we have what remains today as a vibrant, unique and eclectic shopping district...Historic Downtown Edmond, Oklahoma.

Denmark, South Carolina
Founded: 1830s

This small town designated Harrison's Crossroads is worth the stop. You will find the home gallery of national artist Jim Harrison, Caroline's Collection of antiques housed in the 1923 AT&T building, a Mennonite bakery and a hardware store that sells everything from lumber to fine china. As you stroll the town, notice the hand painted wall bulletins. These are part of the Denmark Sign Project, an indoor-outdoor community display of early 20th century advertising.
Denmark, SC

Landrum, SC
Landrum, South Carolina
Founded: 1880

Antiques make up a substantial portion of Landrum's downtown commerce. It stands to reason that a respect for the sale of "fine old things" would exist among this historic community. Everything from antique jewelry to 15-foot tall stained glass windows salvaged from an old church are available.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Founded: 1901

A Past as Fascinating as Our Present
The history of Myrtle Beach is among the most fascinating and colorful in America, with stories of newfound wealth in the rice, farming, lumber, and railroad industries. In the early 1900s, Myrtle Beach's first beachfront hotel marked the beginning of a the area's tourism economy, where 17.2 million visitors are now welcomed each year.
Myrtle Beach, SC

Manning, SC
Manning, South Carolina
Founded: 1785

The Manning Commercial Historic District is significant architecturally as an intact collection of buildings associated with the governmental and commercial growth and development of Manning as the county seat for Clarendon County from ca. 1890 to 1958. The district is also architecturally significant as an example of the commercial development and evolution of a small southern agricultural center during the first half of the twentieth century. As a county seat town, Manning's downtown is dominated by its 1909 Neo-Classical, red brick courthouse set at the center of a landscaped courthouse square. As with many such towns in the rural Southeast, Manning's commercial district is characterized by one- and two-part commercial block buildings, many of them brick, that were constructed during the late Victorian and early twentieth century period.

Yemassee, South Carolina
Founded: 1769

Originally home to Yamassee Indians, the quaint small town also has strong Revolutionary and Civil War roots. More than 500,000 Marine recruits passed through the Yemassee depot on their way to Parris Island and architect Frank Lloyd Wright built Auldbrass just outside of town. In September, Yemassee's small town charm is celebrated during the annual Shrimp Festival.
Yemassee, SC

Deadwood, SD
Deadwood, South Dakota
Founded: 1876

Photo courtesy of Deadwood Chamber & Visitors Bureau

During the gold rush in the northern Black Hills of South Dakota, Deadwood attracted gold miners, outlaws, gamblers and gunslingers including Old West legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen. Today, visitors are entertained by re-enactments, historic sites, museums, rodeos, casinos, parades and concerts.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Founded: 1783

Pigeon Forge doesn't have a downtown in the traditional sense, but it does have a heart, the Old Mill, which has been a community gathering point since 1830. It operates commercially today and is the core of the Old Mill Square retail and dining complex. Today's tourism-driven city attracts 10 million guests a year, and many bask in the heritage the Old Mill represents.
Pigeon Forge, TN

Sevierville, Tennessee
Sevierville, Tennessee
Founded: 1795

Founded in 1795, Sevierville is Tennessee's eighth oldest town. A member of the Tennessee Main Street program, downtown Sevierville is home to boutiques, a museum and bustling cafes. Snap a photo with the bronze statue of Sevierville's hometown superstar, Dolly Parton, and learn more by picking up a historic walking tour brochure.

Big Spring, Texas
Founded: 1919

Big Spring, The county seat of Howard County, is known as the "Crossroads of West Texas" and downtown Big Spring has seen major revitalization due to the restoration of the historic Hotel Settles. Shop the many boutiques and stores during the day and then wander over to the Pharmacy Bar or Settles Grill at night.
Big Spring, TX

Bryan-College Station, TX
Bryan College Station, Texas
Founded: 1859

Located just 5 miles from Texas A&M University, Downtown Bryan is the intersection of local art and life. Home to numerous restaurants, boutiques, concert and event venues, and art galleries, Downtown Bryan is the perfect place to spend a night out, a weekend away, or even settle down. Standing tall on Main Street for more than 100 years and serving the entertainment needs of generations, the Queen Theatre is an iconic symbol of Historic Downtown Bryan. This grand lady with her rotating crown and neon-lit Art Deco facade has a rich heritage reaching back to the founding years of Bryan.

Del Rio, Texas
Founded: 1883

Del Rio is near the Rio Grande and Lake Amistad. While visitors enjoy fishing and watersports, heritage travelers find historic buildings, art galleries, museums including Val Verde Winery - oldest winery in Texas; Whitehead Memorial Museum - western museum complex consisting of 21 exhibits; Val Verde County Courthouse - built in 1887; Laughlin Heritage Foundation Museum - preserving the heritage of Laughlin Air Force Base; Paul Poag Theatre with its 1940s Art-Deco facade.
Del Rio, TX

Frisco, TX
Frisco, Texas
Founded: 1904

Once only a stop along the historic Shawnee Trail cattle drive in the 1800's, in the 21st century, Frisco, Texas has evolved into one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. Experience Frisco's rich history at the Frisco Heritage Museum, or shop unique boutiques along Frisco's Historic Main Street.

McKinney, Texas
Founded: 1849

The picturesque downtown square in McKinney, Texas, conjures feelings of nostalgia and provides a feast for the senses and a variety of fun events. An eclectic mix of shops and eateries provide a backdrop of lively music, conversation, and tantalizing aromas, the perfect ambiance for making memories with family and friends.
McKinney, TX

Odessa, TX
Odessa, Texas
Founded: 1881

Experience mid-century nostalgia as you take a stroll through Downtown Odessa. Catch a black and white movie at the historic Ector Theatre or explore the surrounding unique shops, boutiques and delicious eats. With beautiful accommodations and delicious dining, Downtown Odessa is the destination to enjoy the best of culture and cuisine.

Plano, Texas
Founded: 1840

Plano's downtown may look historic, but don't let that deceive you. The urban dining scene has a cool vibe and plenty to keep you busy. If shopping is on your must-dos, unique boutiques selling a variety of goods from handmade jewelry to antiques are also on the street. So go to now. We can't wait to connect with you.
Plano, TX

Hampton, VA
Hampton, Virginia
Founded: 1610

Photo courtesy of Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau

Hampton is home to many "firsts" including the oldest continuously occupied English-speaking settlement in the United States, the landing point of the first recorded Africans brought to English North America from Angola in 1619 and a safe haven at Fort Monroe for freedom seekers during the Civil War. Visitors to Hampton today find historic sites, museums, galleries, shops and restaurants within this urban waterfront village.

Jamestown, Virginia
Founded: 1607

Photo courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation

After sailing more than four months, the men aboard the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery ships founded America's first permanent English colony in 1607 near the Powhatan Indians. Today, located near the original settlement, Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum with artifact-filled gallery exhibits and outdoor historical interpretations including full-size replicas of the ships which visitors may explore.
Jamestown, VA

Green Bay, WI
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Founded: 1634

Photo courtesy of Greater Green Bay CVB

Originally established as a small trading post in 1634, Green Bay is Wisconsin's oldest city. The abundance of natural resources and area's waterways led to the city's growth and prosperity. Today, visitors to Green Bay enjoy parks, theaters, museums, wineries as well as attractions related to the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is the smallest city to host a National Football League team and the Packers, founded in 1919, are the only NFL team to be owned by its fans.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Founded: 1833

The first settlers to Milwaukee were from New England and other Eastern States, but the city grew quickly with immigrants from Germany, Poland, Italy and other European countries. Their heritage is evident today through the variety of large annual festivals, specialty foods and beverage including brewery tours and corner taverns.
Milwaukee, WI

Beckley, WV
Beckley, West Virginia
Founded: 1850

Located in the heart of Southern West Virginia, Beckley is home to charming shops, antique stores, restaurants, epic annual festivals, and The Raleigh Playhouse & Theatre. Mountain State adventure lies just outside of town: ATV, hiking and biking trails, zip-lines, championship golf, and boating - it's all here and steeped in southern charm and hospitality.

Huntington, West Virginia
Founded: 1809

Nuzzle a llama. Celebrate Appalachian heritage in a variety of historic museums. Tour a hand-blown glass factory. Ride a wooden coaster at a 100 year-old amusement park. Catch a show, have a great meal, visit unique shops and soothe your spirit in this Appalachian town, nestled along the magnificent Ohio River - Where Heritage Comes Alive!
Huntington, WV

Reprinted from's Quarterly Digital Magazine.

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