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American Icons

American history is a tapestry of enthralling stories, many commemorated by landmarks dotted across the country.

Adding these places to a group itinerary brings the past to life and checks off travel bucket list items left and right. These are some of the sites where American history unfolded, where feats of engineering were achieved and where American icons, both heroes and villains, lived and died.

Here are five geographical features, buildings and monuments across the United States that tell travelers great stories.

Ford’s Theatre

Washington, D.C.

On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife were enjoying a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. During the last act of the play, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer, snuck into the president’s box and shot Lincoln before jumping down onto the stage below and yelling “sic semper tyrannis,” or “thus always to tyrants.” Lincoln died from his wounds the following morning at the Petersen House across the street. It’s a story many Americans know, but a visit to Ford’s Theatre brings history to life.

“They definitely will get a full experience of who Lincoln was as a person and a statesman, as well as what was happening in the U.S. to cause this assassination,” said Heather Williams, group sales manager at Ford’s Theatre. “To see the theater and be in a space that is very conceptual to most people is very moving.”

The theater, which was restored as a historic site and working theater in the 1960s, is located in downtown D.C., close to the National Mall and many other museums at the heart of the American story. It’s as much a museum as it is a theater and admits groups of all sizes every 30 minutes for a self-guided experience. The presidential box is staged to look like it did the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Groups can also hear a short presentation from a park ranger (the theater is a National Historic Site) or watch a short play. Afterward, groups can head to the Petersen House to see where Lincoln died.

Since Ford’s is still a working theater, groups can see performances there.


Memphis, Tennessee

Behind gates adorned with musical notes sits the stately, sprawling Graceland mansion. Music legend Elvis Presley bought the home in 1957. The walls of Graceland saw the rest of Presley’s life play out, from recording parts of two albums there to starting a family to his death in 1977. The iconic singer was known as the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” and his contributions as both a musician and cultural phenomenon have lasted generations. Today, groups can tour Graceland for a dose of nostalgia and a tribute to the King.

“You walk in through the same doors he brought baby Lisa Marie home through,” said Alicia Dean, marketing promotions and events specialist at Elvis Presley Enterprises. “You’re taking a step back in time and truly walking in his footsteps. The home is definitely unique and special because Elvis lived there, but it’s a pilgrimage to so many people, from Elvis fans to music lovers and people who love history.”

In addition to the original mansion, Graceland is now part of a campus that includes the Elvis Presley Memphis Entertainment Complex and a hotel. Groups can tour the mansion, see Presley’s automobiles and private jets, and peruse museum exhibits detailing Presley’s life and career. Tours of Graceland are offered with a variety of different packages, with an ultimate VIP experience (including a private tour guide and other add-ons) available for groups of up to 12.

Groups can eat at any of the four restaurants on-site to try some of Presley’s favorite foods and even stay at the hotel for the ultimate Graceland experience.

Hoover Dam

Boulder City, Nevada

Constructed in the 1930s by damming the Colorado River at the Black Canyon, the Hoover Dam was considered an astonishing feat of engineering. At the time of its construction, it was the tallest dam in the world at 726 feet. The dam took five years and the combined workforce of six construction companies to build, and the concrete is still curing to this day. Constructing the dam was dangerous work, and about 100 workers died building it. Lake Mead, created by the dam, is one of the largest reservoirs in the world and provides power, irrigation water and flood control for the region. The dam is still impressive to behold today, and because of its storied history and its impact on the region, it remains a highly visited tourist attraction.

Groups can experience the dam with an official tour from the Bureau of Reclamation. They can see the historic tunnels and ride an elevator to the top, and even view the river from inside the dam. These tours are offered daily on a first-come, first-served basis and frequently sell out, so arriving early is recommended.

As an alternative, visitors can explore the dam from the water with a tour operator such as Lake Mead Cruises. Viewing the dam from the sparkling blue waters of Lake Mead onboard the Desert Princess, a three-level paddle-wheeler, is an exceedingly popular way to experience the dam and its surrounding scenery. Brunch, dinner and sightseeing cruises are offered.

No matter which tour a group takes, a visit to the Hoover Dam promises a glimpse at its impressive architecture and the beauty of the Southwest.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Black Hills, South Dakota

Just 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, visitors to the Black Hills of South Dakota will find Crazy Horse Memorial carved into the side of a mountain. This massive monument is still a work in progress, but that doesn’t make it any less worth the journey. The memorial honors Crazy Horse, a famous Oglala Lakota war leader who played a key part in fighting against the U.S. government in the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Crazy Horse was killed by the U.S. military while resisting imprisonment in 1877, and his name became synonymous with the plight of Indigenous people and striving to preserve traditions of Native American life. Plans to build the memorial were in the works as early as the 1930s, when Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear contacted renowned sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to build a monument to Native Americans. Though Ziolkowski died in 1982, work on the monument continues. The finished product will depict Crazy Horse riding a horse emerging from the mountain’s stone and is slated to be 641 feet by 568 feet.

After stopping at the welcome center, which has three museums detailing the story behind the memorial and its carving, groups can ride up the mountain to stand next to the completed face of the Crazy Horse carving. It measures 87.5 feet tall, approximately 27 feet taller than the heads on Mount Rushmore.

Groups can also stop at Laughing Water restaurant, which serves Indigenous fare, such as Indian Tacos. A visit to Crazy Horse Memorial helps fund the ongoing project.

Alcatraz Island

San Francisco, California

Just over a mile offshore in San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island is a 22-acre island famous for once housing a maximum-security federal prison. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary operated as a prison from 1934 to 1963. With its list of notorious and particularly unruly prisoners (including Al Capone) and its setting on an island only accessible by boat and surrounded by frigid, violent waters, it captured Americans’ imaginations and was deemed “inescapable.” However, 14 separate escape attempts were made at various times, and three prisoners who attempted to escape were never officially found.

Today, Alcatraz Island is a major tourist attraction in the San Francisco area, drawing about 1.5 million visitors annually. It’s operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Ferries to the island leave every half hour from the mainland, and tours of the island are primarily self-guided, with audio narration in multiple languages available to accompany the tour.

Exhibits throughout the ruins of the prison let groups walk in the footsteps of its past inmates and educate them about the country’s prison system.