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15 Best U.S. Landmarks for Families | Family Vacation Critic

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Big Kids: 7-9 • Tweens: 10-12 • Teens: 13-17

15 Best U.S. Landmarks for Families

See recent posts by Karon Warren

We all do it: Upon hearing the name of a specific city, we immediately picture an equally specific landmark. But did you know you can visit and explore many of these landmarks? In fact, they make great highlights to any family vacation. Here, we’ve compiled what we think are the 10 best U.S. landmarks. Try to include one on your next family getaway!

Written by Karon Warren


Statue of Liberty, New York

Standing tall on Liberty Island in New York Harbor, Lady Liberty greets visitors from near and far with her majestic stance, lighted torch and stone tablet. A gift of friendship from France, the Statue of Liberty took her post in 1886. Today, she stands as a symbol of freedom and democracy.

Families can check out the statue as part of one of the many harbor cruises available (think Grey Line Tours), which will take you near Liberty Island and provide plenty of photo ops. However, to really experience this national treasure, book a cruise and tour through Statue Cruises, where you sail to Liberty Island and climb 354 steps to check out the view from atop the statue's crown. In addition, every ticket to Liberty Island includes a stop at Ellis Island, where visitors can explore the American Family Immigration History Center and search for their ancestors using the interactive database. The Statue of Liberty is open seven days a week, but check the Statue Cruises Web site for specific dates and times of available excursions.

NOTE: The Statue of Liberty is currently undergoing extensive interior renovations, so crown tickets are not available at this time.

Nearby Hotel: New York Marriott Marquis

Washington Monument, D.C.

NOTE: The Washington Monument is currently closed due to damage sustained in the Aug. 23, 2011, earthquake. Check the Web site for the latest information on tours and tickets.

Situated in the corner of a right angle between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, the Washington Monument is easy to spot in downtown D.C. Dedicated in 1885 and opened to the public in 1888, the Washington Monument stands at 555-feet, 5 1/8-inches tall, with walls constructed of white marble, blue gneiss and granite.

For those who prefer to admire it from afar, you can snap some photos of the monument from the National Mall. However, the more adventurous won't be able to leave without enjoying a view from the top. Doing so means climbing 896 steps. No, not really. An elevator takes visitors to an observation level, where they can take in panoramic views of the nation's capital.

The monument is open for visitors from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily. While free tickets for same-day visits can be obtained at the Washington Monument Lodge along 15th Street starting at 8:30 a.m., these tickets sell quickly. It's recommended that you pay a small fee and reserve timed-entry tickets in advance. Otherwise, you might miss your chance to fully explore the monument.

Nearby Hotel: Omni Shoreham Hotel

The Gateway Arch, St. Louis

There's no missing the famous arch standing high above St. Louis. Reaching a height of 630 feet, this iconic symbol has reigned over St. Louis for more than 40 years. The Arch pays homage to Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis' role in the westward expansion of the United States. Impressive from the bottom looking up, it's even more stunning to see the view from the top looking down.

A four-minute journey takes visitors to the apex, where they can walk along the observation area, take in the views and snap unforgettable vacation photos of downtown St. Louis, the Mississippi River and the neighboring state of Illinois. Hours for the Arch are seasonal, so check the Web site for current operating hours during your visit. While entrance into the Gateway Arch is free, there is a cost for tram tickets to the top of the interior. Purchasing tickets in advance is recommended.

Nearby Hotel: Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

While the Golden Gate Bridge serves as a necessary thoroughfare across the Golden Gate Strait, it also serves as one of San Francisco's most visited tourist attractions. Built between 1933 and 1937, the bridge spans 1.7 miles, and the main towers stretch 746-feet above the water. It is a striking fixture when seen from a distance, and quite the architectural marvel when viewed up close.

Guests of San Francisco can admire the bridge from one of the parking lots on either side of the bridge, but a better option is to take a stroll through the groomed gardens on the southeast side of the bridge. Additionally, there are a number of walking, biking and hiking trails on the south side of the Golden Gate, all free of charge. Visitors can get even closer by actually traversing the bridge on one of two sidewalks.

NOTE: Due to ongoing maintenance and construction projects, access to sidewalks may be restricted. For the most up-to-date access information, visit the Golden Gate's Web site prior to your visit.

Nearby Hotel: Argonaut Hotel

Space Needle, Seattle

Featured in seemingly every story, music video, TV show or movie set in Seattle, the 605-foot Space Needle is a lasting symbol of the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair. Its futuristic design was in line with the fair's theme of "Century 21." Today, the Space Needle is synonymous with Seattle, and serves as the city's No. 1 tourist destination.

When visiting the Space Needle, guests must purchase tickets to the observation deck. A 43-second elevator ride whisks passengers up 520 feet to the observation deck, where they can take in 360-degree views of the Seattle area. For a more leisurely visit, consider a meal at the SkyCity Restaurant, which revolves around the structure at 500 feet above ground level.

Although this landmark is open year-round, there are occasions when it closes for special events, holidays and/or maintenance, so check the Space Needle Web site before planning your visit.

Nearby Hotel: Hotel Monaco Seattle

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, S.D.

Seemingly off the beaten path, Mount Rushmore rises high above the Black Hills of South Dakota. Carved into a mountain of Harney Peak granite, the four presidents -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt -- were chosen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, as he felt they represented the first 150 years of American history. Although the project began in 1927, it suffered numerous funding challenges, which stretched the work for 14 years. It was completed in 1941, and quickly became one of the country's top tourist destinations.

During a visit to Mount Rushmore, visitors can enjoy a 30-minute guided tour along the Presidential Trail to the base of the mountain as they learn about the natural and cultural history of Mount Rushmore and its surroundings. A 15-minute Sculptor's Studio Talk delves into the tools and techniques used in the carving of the sculpture. Weather permitting, you can also enjoy a 45-minute evening program, which takes place in the park's outdoor amphitheater. Those interested in the Black Hills and the American Indians who called this area home will enjoy the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village in the first section of the Presidential Trail. An audio tour is also available for rent.

Due to its location, the summer months are Mount Rushmore's busiest tourist season, though the memorial is open year-round with the exception of Dec. 25. While it's free to enter the park, there is a fee to park your car.

Nearby Hotel: K Bar S Lodge

Hoover Dam, Nevada-Arizona Border

Built between 1931 and 1936 to stem the flow of the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam was constructed for a variety of purposes, including flood control and water storage for irrigation and hydroelectric power. Standing 726.4-feet tall from foundation rock to the roadway atop it, Hoover Dam contains 3.25-million cubic yards of concrete. Today, it attracts visitors who want to see its magnificent architecture firsthand.

Guided tours of both the dam and the adjacent powerplant are offered year-round with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Summer is the busiest time of year for Hoover Dam, and January and February are its slowest months. Visitation hours change with each season, so before heading to the dam, check its Web site for a current operating schedule, as well as limitations on vehicle access.

Nearby Hotel: Desert Rose Resort

Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles

Erected in the hills surrounding the City of Angels in 1923, the Hollywood Sign quickly became an icon in American pop culture. However, its original intent was to boost real estate sales for a suburban housing development called Hollywoodland, owned by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. The original $21,000 billboard consisted of 13 letters, each 30-feet wide and 50-feet tall. Although it appeared solid, each letter was actually comprised of 3-feet-by-9-feet metal squares held together with scaffolding, pipes, wires and telephone poles.

After the Los Angeles development became a casualty of the Great Depression, the city acquired Hollywoodland's property in 1944. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce removed the letters spelling "land," and repaired the sign. The sign received official landmark status in 1973 from the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Board; in 1978, the old sign was completely scrapped and replaced with a modern structure made of concrete, enamel and steel.

Today, the Hollywood Sign stands on Mount Lee, which is not accessible to the public. If you want to get a postcard-quality shot of the sign, head to one of two sites: Griffith Park Observatory or the Hollywood & Highland Center.

Nearby Hotel: Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Hollywood Walk of Fame

Empire State Building, New York

Standing at an impressive 1,453-feet, 8 9/16-inches tall, the Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue is one of New York City's most iconic landmarks. Construction began in 1930 and progressed quickly, with the building officially opening on May 1, 1931. Two observatories were included among the 103 floors, the first on the 86th floor and the second on the 102nd floor. At 1,050-feet up, the 86th Floor Observatory is probably the most well-known, due to its 360-degree outdoor deck. It also includes indoor viewing galleries, so you can visit in rain or shine. The 102nd Floor Observatory is an indoor viewing area 1,250-feet above ground.

Guests can visit the Empire State Building year-round, both day and night. Hours are 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, with the last elevator ascending at 1:15 a.m. Tickets are required to access either or both observatories; to enhance your visit, you also can rent an audio tour. Prior to going up to the observatories, visitors are subject to security screening similar to that at airports. Visit the Empire State Building's Web site for detailed information on guidelines and restrictions.

Nearby Hotel: Casablanca Hotel

U.S. Southernmost Point, Key West, FL

Key West, Fla. isn't the end of the Earth, but you'll reach the southernmost point of the continental United States when you stop at its landmark. To commemorate this momentous occasion, visitors can snap their photo next to the colorful Southernmost Point marker in Key West. The City of Key West erected the concrete marker in 1983, which also marks the distance to Cuba: 90 miles (which is actually an approximation).

The Southernmost Point is situated on the corner of South and Whitehead streets, just a few-minutes' walk from downtown Key West and most of the city's major attractions. The bonus for families? There's no cost to visit, nor is there a limit on visiting hours, though you'll definitely want to see the landmark during daylight hours. However, the Southernmost Point is crowded throughout the day, so it's best to stop by early in the morning. Capturing a snapshot as the sun rises definitely makes for a memorable photo!

Nearby Hotel: Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa

St. Louis Cathedral - New Orleans

In the heart of New Orleans" French Quarter, the St. Louis Cathedral serves as a scenic backdrop to Jackson Square. Although New Orleanians have worshipped in churches on the same site since 1727, the current cathedral was not constructed until the 1850"s. Since that time, many parishioners and visitors have entered its doors. In fact, the cathedral continues to hold mass every day with special holiday services. In addition, many choose the cathedral as the venue for their weddings. As such, visitors are welcome anytime, but they must be mindful of those who have come to worship and pray.

There are two onsite gift shops where visitors can purchase religious and spiritual items, giftware, and keepsake gifts. While there is no charge to visit the cathedral, donations are welcome to sustain the ministry of the cathedral and to support the cathedral upkeep and maintenance.

Nearby Hotel: Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, Nev.

Watch a TV show, movie or documentary filmed in Las Vegas, and you"re sure to see the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign. With its bold colors and neon hues, it signifies all the glitz and kitsch that Sin City offers. Located at 5200 Las Vegas Boulevard South, it sits at the start of the notorious Las Vegas Strip just south of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. The sign, which cost $4,000 to build and install, was created in 1959 by Betty Willis, an employee of Western Neon Company. It became so popular that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 1, 2009.

To visit the sign and get a photo commemorating the trip, visitors can park in an adjacent lot free of charge. NOTE: You can only enter the parking lot when traveling south on Las Vegas Boulevard, heading away from Mandalay Bay and toward the Las Vegas Outlet Center. Otherwise, you will need to make a U-turn past the sign and come back to the parking lot.

Nearby Hotel: Mandalay Bay Hotel

Cloud Gate (The Bean) - Chicago

Sitting upon the AT&T Plaza in Chicago"s Millennium Park, Cloud Gate arches 33 feet into the air. Nicknamed “The Bean” due to its shape, Cloud Gate is the creation of British artist Anish Kapoor, and is his first public outdoor work installed in the United States. Taking inspiration from liquid mercury, Cloud Gate is forged of polished stainless steel plates that provide crystal-clear reflections of both the city"s famous skyline and the many tourists that clamor around it trying to snap a photo of themselves in the sculpture.

Visiting Cloud Gate is as simple as visiting Millennium Park, which is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. There is no admission fee.

NOTE: After getting your photo at Cloud Gate, head to nearby Grant Park to see the Clarence F. Buckingham Memorial Fountain. Open seasonally (spring to fall) from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., this impressive fountain puts on a water display every hour, on the hour, for 20 minutes. Beginning at dusk, lights and music accompany the water display.

Nearby Hotel: Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile

The Alamo - San Antonio

The Alamo opened in 1718 as the San Antonio de Valero, the location of a Spanish mission serving local indigenous people. Many were looking for protection from hostile tribes, as well as converting to the Catholic faith. The original buildings, the Long Barrack and the church, have been onsite for nearly 250 years, although both have undergone renovations. In the ensuing years, the site served many purposes and became a stronghold during the Texas Revolution, which led to the 1836 battle for which The Alamo is remembered. Although outnumbered, the Texas defenders refused to surrender, giving the ultimate sacrifice in defense of The Alamo. It is this historic event that earned The Alamo"s reputation as hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.

The Alamo welcomes visitors free of charge year-round (excluding Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with summer hours until 7 p.m. A 45-minute audio tour is available for $7 per person. Guests can also take the guided Official Alamo Battlefield Tour for $15 per person.

Nearby Hotel: Hyatt Regency San Antonio

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

No one can mistake the breathtaking colors and walls of the Grand Canyon, located in the northwest corner of Arizona near the Utah and Nevada state lines. Reaching one mile deep into the earth"s surface, the Grand Canyon stretches 277 river miles long and spans 18 miles across. Named a National Park in 1919, Grand Canyon National Park welcomes nearly five million visitors every year. They come to view the immense canyon, hike its trails, take mule trips down into its bowels, explore it by water on either the Colorado River or Diamond Creek, and camp within its walls.

When visiting the South Rim, plan a stop at the Desert View Watchtower located at the eastern end of the South Rim. Designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter and built in 1932, the Watchtower provides magnificent views of the Colorado River, Chuar Butte and Cape Royal in the North Rim. The Watchtower is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Nearby Hotel: El Tovar

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