For travelers interested in exploring the past, these five locales offer a bevy of historic sites.
Travel destinations for history buffs
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
What you’ll find: French colonial architecture nestled among gleaming skyscrapers. The city’s opulent Central Post Office, finished in 1891, is a period classic, its vaulted interior adorned by huge, hand-painted maps. But the French influence is perhaps best experienced in Ho Chi Minh City’s vibrant café culture.
Don’t miss: Still known to many locals as Saigon, the city looms large in the American memory for its pivotal role in the Vietnam War. The War Remnants Museum offers an opportunity to contemplate the brutal conflict’s legacy from a Vietnamese perspective. The same goes for the Cu Chi Tunnels, an elaborate underground network used by Viet Cong guerrilla forces during the war.
If you have time: If you’re tired of dodging the city’s ubiquitous motorbikes, join them, by taking a Vespa tour with one of the city’s many touring companies.
What you’ll find: Tranquil seaside towns and rolling farmlands belie the fact that Normandy has been the stage for some of the biggest dramas of world history: the launch of William the Conqueror’s army, Joan of Arc’s trial, and the landing of WWII’s Allied Expeditionary Force. The Caen Memorial museum is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the D-Day beaches.
Don’t miss: The Bayeux Tapestry, one of the great works of Anglo-Saxon and medieval art, can be seen at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. An embroidered cloth nearly 230 feet long, it tells the story of William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In Rouen, the medieval capital of Normandy, travelers can experience the life of Joan of Arc in a newly opened museum.
If you have time: The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is precariously perched atop an island half a mile from the mainland. Tidal patterns turn the surrounding bay into a salt marsh for part of the day, adding to the island’s mysterious and magical air.
What you’ll find: The boundaries of South America’s oldest continuously occupied city still follow the outline of the ancient imperial capital of the Incas. When Spanish conquerors arrived in the 16th century, Cuzco’s main square was converted into the Plaza de Armas, where you’ll find the iconic Cathedral Basilica, built on top of an Incan holy site.
Don’t miss: Machu Picchu, the ancient city miraculously untouched by Spanish conquest, is one of the most important architectural sites in the world. Believed to have been the home of Incan monarchs, Machu Picchu’s 20 acres are studded with temples and terraces. Book early: Only 2,500 people are allowed in per day.
If you have time: Rugged, outdoorsy types can hike the four-day Inca Trail, while textile aficionados should check out the Center for Traditional Textiles, which includes a museum of Peruvian weaving and a carefully curated shop.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
What you’ll find: Orville and Wilbur Wright chose North Carolina’s barrier islands to attempt the world’s first powered flight because of the steady breezes and soft, sandy beaches. But the region is also soaked in maritime history. Nineteenth-century lighthouses dot the 200-mile-long string of islands, and it’s estimated that some 1,500 ships have sunk in the treacherous waters. Adventurous travelers can book a shipwreck scuba dive with one of the region’s many diving outfits.
Don’t miss: The Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates the triumphant 1903 flight, complete with a life-size replica of the original aircraft. Explore the legacy of less fortunate pioneers on Roanoke Island, the site of England’s first North American colony, whose settlers’ fate remains unknown to this day. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island showcases salvaged relics from the deep.
If you have time: Embrace your inner pirate at Teach’s Hole on Ocracoke Island, a museum and pirating gift shop near the site of Blackbeard’s final battle in 1718.
Cape Town, South Africa
What you’ll find: Founded in 1652 by the employees of the Dutch East India Company as a way station for ships traveling to Southeast Asia, Cape Town is known to many in South Africa as the Mother City. Spectacular beaches and a waterfront nightlife beckon travelers, as do the vineyards of nearby wine country.
Don’t miss: Robben Island, where former South African President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years before the fall of apartheid, has become hallowed ground. The island has served as a prison since Dutch settlers arrived in the mid-17th century, also functioning at various times as a military base, a mental institution, and a leper colony.
If you have time: The Cape of Good Hope has been a waypoint for modernera sailors since Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias first rounded it in 1488, and it continues to insp ire modern travelers. The rugged, windswept views are well worth the hour’s drive from Cape Town. ■