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History, it’s said, happens everywhere. But some locations abound with sites of particular significance. In the United States, New England is home to numerous “firsts” and “oldests.” While many sites are household names (the Liberty Bell, Plymouth Rock, and Independence Hall — to name a few), history buffs will find even more to discover at these lesser-known (and less-crowded) attractions. For your next trip to New England, here are eight places you should consider exploring.
Fairbanks House, Massachusetts
Jonathan and Grace Fairbanks settled in the town of Dedham, Massachusetts (then called Contentment), and began construction on their home in 1637. Today, Fairbanks House is the oldest-known timber structure surviving in North America, and a remarkably well-preserved record of early colonial architecture. While the museum’s interior is fascinating, don’t miss a tour of the kitchen garden, which contains more than 30 culinary and medicinal herbs that were invaluable to early settlers. After remaining in the family for eight generations, Fairbanks House officially became a museum in 1904, and is open for tours from May through October. A virtual 3D tour of the property is available here.
White Horse Tavern, Rhode Island
Built as a private residence in 1652, Newport’s White Horse Tavern started serving guests in 1673 and now holds the title of America’s oldest operating restaurant. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the red clapboard building has seen countless pints hoisted in front of its cavernous fireplaces, and was once owned by a notorious pirate. Today, the tavern still serves its famous Narragansett Bay oysters and other farm-fresh local fare.
Madame Sherri’s Castle, New Hampshire
A seamstress-turned-socialite, the notorious Madame Antoinette Sherri is featured in enough tales of scandalous bootleg liquor-fueled parties and dealings with Al Capone to fill a book. What’s left of her Jazz Age legacy are the ruins of the castle she constructed in the southwest corner of New Hampshire. The costume designer and con artist entertained lavishly at the fantastic chalet, hosting celebrities and scandalizing her neighbors in the quiet village of Chesterfield. The structure burned in 1962, but the ghostly remains (including a stone staircase rising into the sky) and surrounding forest are still a favorite among photographers.
Cliff and Jewell Islands, Maine
Getting to remote Cliff Island is an easy feat: The Casco Bay ferry makes the one-hour crossing from the city of Portland several times daily. (Before leaving Portland, don’t miss Maine’s oldest lighthouse.) Once on the island, visitors will find a time capsule of unpaved roads and homes for the approximately 60 year-round residents. There are no hotels on Cliff Island, but you can get a lobster roll and an ice cream cone each summer at the island’s only café. To explore the World War II fortifications of nearby Jewell Island, you’ll need your own boat. The infamous pirate Captain Kidd had one, and legend has it that he buried treasure along these remote and rocky shores.
Griswold Inn, Connecticut
George Washington may not have slept here, but the general and first American President definitely dined at this historic restaurant and hotel in Essex — as did other luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Mark Twain. Founded in 1776, the inn was captured by the British during the War of 1812 and survived Prohibition by turning a blind eye to bootleggers while keeping the local sailing community well-lubricated and happy. Today, the Griswold Inn offers 34 rooms, a restaurant with classic New England cuisine, and a 1735 schoolhouse-turned-taproom offering an assortment of now-legal spirits.
Pine Hawk Site, Massachusetts
Native Americans were here long before Europeans “discovered” North America — in 1999, municipal excavations in the city of Acton revealed a remarkable record of human habitation dating back more than 7,000 years. The Pine Hawk site is now recognized as one of the oldest archaeological troves in New England, with more than 3,000 artifacts. It and other sites in the Merrimack Valley can be explored on the Native American Trail.
Mystery Hill, New Hampshire
Contrary to popular rebranding, Mystery Hill isn’t really “America’s Stonehenge.” The stone structures at this roadside attraction also weren’t created by aliens, nor ancient Phoenicians, nor 11th-century Irish monks. (Archaeologists believe most of them were put in place by former owner William Godwin.) None of this, however, should dissuade history buffs from popping in when visiting the area — the site is both a fascinating relic of Native American and colonial architecture and an informative glimpse into how people shape historical sites to fit their own fancies and narratives.
Boston Light, Massachusetts
The oldest lighthouse in North America, Boston Light was first built in 1716 before it was blown up by the British during the Revolutionary War. Its replacement was constructed in 1783. (New Jersey’s Sandy Hook Lighthouse has been standing since 1764, so it’s now technically the oldest.) Standing on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, the structure casts its beam an incredible 27 miles into the North Atlantic. Although now automated, Boston Light is the only permanently staffed lighthouse in the United States.