Every country has icons that become associated with the land and national identity. As America has grown and expanded over the past several hundred years, different buildings and landmarks important to American culture have been developed. Some are testaments to human engineering and creativity, while others celebrate the history of this relatively new nation. The good news for travelers is that many of America’s famous monuments can be seen in a few specific cities.
New York City
For a quick dose of 1920s style and unforgettable views, New York City is the place to go. Many of the buildings still proudly display their original architecture and design, creating a sort of time capsule that can be experienced by simply walking down a street. Whether it’s Broadway or the latest business at the Rockefeller Center, there’s always something happening in the Big Apple. Tourists can take in a show, browse an art gallery, or take a closer look at some of America’s most famous landmarks.
Empire State Building
Few buildings in New York City are as iconic as the Empire State Building. This 103-story skyscraper was built in 1931 on Fifth Avenue. The building is known for its use of Art Deco architecture (a design style developed during the 1920s) and for its 86th-floor observation deck, a popular spot for tourists. It was the first building to have more than 100 stories, and until the construction of the World Trade Center in 1970, it was also the tallest building in the world.
The Chrysler Building
The Empire State Building isn’t the only example of Art Deco architecture in New York. The Chrysler Building, built in 1930 in Manhattan, is 77 stories tall and remains a beautiful example of Art Deco. Until the construction of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building was the tallest in the world. It was specially designed by William Van Alen to look lighter than it was, with corners made out of glass.
- The Chrysler Building (PDF)
- Images of the Chrysler Building
The Statue of Liberty
One of America’s most beloved monuments sits on Liberty Island in the New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty, built in France in 1886, is a symbol of freedom recognized around the world. The Statue of Liberty was actually a bit of a “garage project” – after construction was postponed multiple times, due to various civil and national wars, the completed figure had to be shipped overseas in several pieces while the United States worked on a pedestal to display the statue. The Statue was designed and sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi.
- Statue of Liberty National Monument
- Statue of Liberty: A Symbol of Friendship
Unlike the previous items on the list, the Rockefeller Center is actually comprised of 19 different buildings. It was built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, in 1939. The buildings, which were constructed using the popular Art Deco style, were rented out to different tenants. Today, the Rockefeller Center is home to the Radio City Music Hall and NBC Studios.
- The Skyscraper City: Rockefeller Center
- The Building of Rockefeller Center
Located on the east coast of the United States, Washington, D.C., is America’s figurative heart. This city houses the three main branches of the American government, America’s national museums, and many historical monuments. One place in particular, the National Mall, comprises almost every monument of interest. The National Mall is particularly lovely in the spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom along the Mall’s walkways, but no matter the time of year, the monuments are always impressive.
The White House
The President of the United States, while in office, is given a special place to live and work. That place, known as the White House, was built in 1800 by James Hoban. The White House has 132 rooms, some of which, like the Oval Office, function as the official workplace of the President and government advisors. The White House has been burned down and rebuilt twice (once in 1814 and once in 1929), but fresh coats of white paint keep it looking as bright and new as ever.
While the President and his advisors work chiefly in the White House, the rest of the American Government meets in the U.S. Capitol Building. The U.S. Capitol was built in 1800 to provide a place for the U.S. Congress to meet and debate. The Capitol sits on the eastern edge of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and stretches over more than 16 acres of land. It was designed by William Thornton, a man who, after a brief career as a doctor, would go on to become one of America’s best architects.
The Washington Monument
The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is home to many monuments and memorials, but none quite as visually arresting as the Washington Monument. This tall, thin structure was completed in 1885 as a monument to the contributions and memory of the first United States President, George Washington. It was the world’s tallest such structure until the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and is made completely out of stone. The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, and visitors can ride an elevator up to an observation deck to enjoy the high view.
- 5 Facts About the Washington Monument
- Why is the Washington Monument Two Different Colors?
- Washington Monument, D.C.
The Pentagon is a building shaped like the geometric pentagon, and houses the U.S. Department of Defense. It was built in 1943 in Arlington County, Virginia, in response to World War II and the need for a larger space for the Department of Defense. A full walk around the building would cover a mile and a half, and the U.S. Capitol Building could easily be garaged in any one of the five sides that make up the Pentagon. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the west side of the Pentagon had to be repaired, but the damaged offices were rebuilt and reopened in 2002.
The Lincoln Memorial
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous U.S. Presidents, known for his actions during the Civil War of 1861. To honor his memory and his work, the Lincoln Memorial was constructed on the National Mall in 1922, and remains one of the most popular tourist attractions today. Built to resemble a Greek temple, this Memorial has become a common place for speeches and gatherings. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech regarding racial equality on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The Jefferson Memorial
One of the most important documents in America’s history was written by a farmer’s son who grew up working in a barn, surrounded by the forests of Virginia. This man, Thomas Jefferson, was honored in 1934 for his work as President and chief author of the Declaration of Independence with the Jefferson Memorial. The Jefferson Memorial, located on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., contains a bronze statue of Jefferson. The statue looks directly across the Tidal Basin at the White House, where he used to live and work.
Other Famous Landmarks
Not all national landmarks are grouped in the same large, bustling cities, of course. Sometimes, tourists will have to travel past barns, farmland, and the occasional river in order to reach a building or monument. Most of the landmarks already addressed are located along the eastern coast of the United States. Visitors who spend their time exclusively along the Atlantic may be missing out, however, because some truly remarkable gems of architecture and design wait on the western seaboard and elsewhere in America.
The Sears Tower
On America’s northern border, the Willis Tower (formerly and still commonly known as the Sears Tower) stretches 108 stories into the air. It was built in Chicago in 1973, and until 1998, claimed the title of the tallest building in the world. The Willis Tower was constructed by the Sears and Roebuck Company as a headquarters for their business. Today, the tower is occupied by United Airlines and lines of tourists on their way up to the observation deck.
Seattle Space Needle
Occasionally, buildings created for a World’s Fair have ended up as one of the world’s most distinctive structures. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France is one example; the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington is another. The Space Needle was built for the 1962 World’s Fair by John Graham and Edward Carlson. The Needle’s main function, as it was in 1962, is as an observation deck and a rotating, glass-walled restaurant.
Visitors to St. Louis, Missouri, will be unable to miss the massive silver arch that sits alongside the Mississippi River. The Gateway Arch was built in 1963 by Eero Saarinen, and still holds fast to the title of the world’s tallest arch. The arch was created to celebrate the expansion of the United States to the western edge of the continent, and is highly praised for its careful mathematical design. There is an observation area for visitors at the top of the arch, which is 630 feet high. It’s illegal to fly planes under and through the arch, but several daredevils have tried!
- History of the Gateway Arch
- Facts About the Gateway Arch (PDF)
- Background and Facts on the Gateway Arch (PDF)
Golden Gate Bridge
On the far west side of America, in the heart of San Francisco Bay, the great Golden Gate Bridge connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County to the north. The bridge, built in 1937, has been universally praised for both its beauty and its construction. Until 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The name of the bridge is derived from a comment made by John C. Fremont, who observed that the then-open strait was a “golden gate” to trade with Asia across the Pacific Ocean.
- How Did the Golden Gate Bridge Get its Name?
- The Story Behind the Golden Gate Bridge
Many monuments are located in or near large cities. Mount Rushmore doesn’t follow this pattern, opting instead for a mountainside in South Dakota. Mount Rushmore is a monument carved directly into the natural mountain. The monument is composed of the faces of four U.S. Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. While the monument remains a popular tourist attraction, there is controversy over the fact that the land was seized from the Lakota tribe, and the mountain of Mount Rushmore itself was historically sacred to the tribe.