Top 9 Living History Museums in the United States

February 18, 2020  - by 

The best living history museums in the United States immerse visitors in the everyday life experiences of people from the past. Visit these top destinations, and step back in time.

A living history museum is no ordinary museum. They bring the past alive by recreating the sights, sounds, aromas, and even tastes of the past. The experience is akin to stepping onto a movie set or traveling back in time.

Across the United States and beyond, living history attractions such as the ones listed below open windows into local history and cultures spanning more than 500 years. Choose one near you, or travel to one that celebrates your family’s culture or speaks to your interests.


Cherokee Heritage Center, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

The Cherokee Heritage Center transports guests into the everyday life of Diligwa, a 1710 Cherokee village.

Cherokee Heritage Center, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

This indoor and outdoor experience features nearly 20 wattle and daub structures set in a detailed historical landscape, with a primary council house, a summer and winter house, a corn crib, and more. Alongside is a museum that preserves the genealogy of the Cherokee people and tells the powerful story of the Trail of Tears.


Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg creates an entire British colonial city from the 1700s.

Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Stroll historical avenues—or travel them in a horse-drawn carriage. Talk with staff who portray various historical figures, and ask the master tradespeople and apprentices about their handiwork. Feel the political tensions of the time as they are reenacted at the governor’s mansion. You can even enjoy dining on a colonial-era menu and spend the night in a canopied bed.


Conner Prairie, Fishers, Indiana

A family-friendly destination, the living history museum Conner Prairie is all hands-on history!

Woman at Conner Prairie, Fishers, Indiana, a living history museum
Derek Jensen, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/, minor edits

At a recreated Lenape camp, enter a wigwam, throw a tomahawk, and learn about fur trading. An 1836 Prairietown neighborhood bustles with hardworking artisans, settlers, and heritage varieties of livestock. Visit an Indiana town from 1863, where smoke still rises from a Civil War raid. Gather supplies for the wounded, or join military drills. Feeling brave? Lift off the ground in an 1859 helium balloon.


Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, Virginia

The Frontier Culture Museum recreates the Old World and New World environments of people who migrated to colonial Virginia.

Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, Virginia. Landscape of the living history attraction
Woody Hibbard, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, minor edits

Visit reimagined immigrant homelands of England in the 1600s, as well as Ireland, Germany, and West Africa in the 1700s. Explore reconstructions of Native American dwellings in the 1700s and European settlements from the 1740s, 1820s, and 1850s. Highlights include an Irish forge, an early frontier schoolhouse, and a log church.


Genesee Country Village and Museum, Mumford, New York

The Genesee Country Village and Museum brings together 68 buildings, heirloom gardens, and fields of livestock to recreate a working historical community. Visitors progress through three distinct eras: early settlement (1790–1820), the village (1830–1860), and the city (1860–1900).

Genesee Country Village and Museum, Mumford, New York

Explore homes and businesses tended by costumed interpreters, try your hand at historic games and crafts, or watch artisans at work. Come during the summer to witness 19th-century vintage baseball games in the replica 19th-century stadium.


Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

The open-air Greenfield Village celebrates historical American ingenuity and perseverance on its 80-acre campus.

Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

Witness common tasks on a 19th-century working farm or in the Liberty Craftworks, where you’ll find several kinds of mills, a machine shop, printing office, and more. Peek into the workshops of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright brothers, and see how lives changed as technologies changed. A favorite thing to do here is to take a ride in a restored Model T car!


National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

At the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, immerse yourself in the experiences of enslaved African Americans, refugees from slavery, and those who acted against slavery.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Everett Collection / Courtesy Everett Collection – stock.adobe.com

Engage with storytelling and hands-on activities that recount the experiences of those who resisted slavery during the mid-1800s. Immerse yourself in stories you see recreated on film in an experiential theater. Peer into an actual slave pen used to imprison enslaved people in the early 1800s. 


Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The 17th century comes alive at Plimoth Plantation, where visitors witness interactions between two cultures: the native Wampanoag people and English immigrants who were trying to establish a coastal settlement.

Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts

See the reconstructed Mayflower II ship docked on the waterfront. Visit with Native guides—some descending from those early residents—at a Wampanoag home site. Or visit others in the English village who play the roles of Plymouth colony residents. Try old tools and artisanal techniques in the Craft Center, explore the working gristmill, or see historical livestock breeds.


Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine, Florida

Fountain of Youth is a living history museum that commemorates the history of the oldest successful European settlement in the continental United States.

Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, St. Augustine, Florida

Visit a painstakingly reconstructed Timucuan village, and learn about those who lived here when Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s. Step into the Franciscan mission building, modeled after the 1587 original from local materials. Stand in the shade of the Spanish watchtower, listen to the roar of a cannon firing, see antique firearm demonstrations, and watch a blacksmith creating Spanish colonial-style iron goods.


Ready to learn how your own family history fits into these fascinating stories from the past? Discover what your heritage is by searching your surname. Or, if you already know your heritage, learn more about it using FamilySearch’s country pages.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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Comments

  1. Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts
    Old World Wisconsin, Eagle Wisconsin
    Both are better than half the ones in this list.

  2. I’m surprised that Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, or Mystic Seaport in Connecticut didn’t make the list. I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.

    1. Doug, Old Sturbridge Village was on my list but I ran out of room! I haven’t been to Mystic Seaport. I hope readers will use this comments section to add positive suggestions about additional living history attractions they’ve visited and loved.