Even an ardent student of history may not be aware of the fact that the United States has had nine official capitals since we first started our great experiment in democracy. If you are a fan of historical facts, you probably knew at least a few of them: Philadelphia, New York and Annapolis. But, in fact, there have been 9 official seats of government in our 243 years of existence and today I want to recognize all of them.
1. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The City of Brotherly Love has actually been the official U.S. capital on several different occasions, starting when it was the home of the Continental Congress. It once again served as the U.S. capital while our permanent one was being built in Washington, DC.
A couple of years ago I returned to Philadelphia to spend a couple of days and joined a tour around some of the city’s most important sites. Spending a few hours walking around Old City, I learned a lot even though I had considered myself to be fairly well versed in early American history. It was the ideal way to visit some of the country’s most important sites from the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to Independence Hall and many, smaller stops in between. The story of Philadelphia truly is the story of America, and it’s important that every visitor to the city absorbs as much of it as possible.
2. Baltimore, Maryland
In 1776, British troops began to close in on Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee to Baltimore. Since it’s in my home state of Maryland, I’ve certainly visited Charm City a time or two and have come to really appreciate it over the years.
My first memory of Baltimore was of a young kid, there on a short vacation with my family. The only thing I remember is the Inner Harbor and the world famous National Aquarium, which is why I was so happy to experience it again more than 30 years later. The Inner Harbor was perhaps the best idea the city has ever had, this pedestrian friendly waterfront features lots of options for food, shopping and sightseeing. What I think is the star of the experience is the National Aquarium. Routinely listed as one of the best in the country, this massive aquarium first opened its doors back in 1981, and while it still bears the design marks of the early 80s, even today it’s a fun place to spend a few hours. From the standard tour featuring every kind of water dwelling creature you could imagine, to special exhibits like the new one about Australia, there’s always something new to see and do here. Next to the aquarium is another fun site, the Historic Ships in Baltimore. Featuring 4 historic vessels, it’s a great way to learn more about maritime history.
3. & 4. Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania
To be fair, Lancaster was the capital for only a day, but York held the title for about 9 months in 1777-78. Both cities find themselves in a great part of Pennsylvania, what many call Amish country.
Two hours from the Washington, DC metro region, less than three from New York City and a veritable stone’s throw from Philadelphia, the Lancaster and Hershey regions of Pennsylvania are amongst the most convenient in this part of the country. While Hershey could easily complete your short break or even a longer stay, there’s a lot more to see and do in the surrounding areas including a personal favorite, Amish country and the Strasbourg Railroad. Strasbourg is one of the few operating steam locomotives in the country, and visitors get a taste of the grand era of railroading when they visit. At the heart of the attraction is taking a ride on the train itself. The tour into the farmlands of Pennsylvania takes about an hour round-trip and is a fun way to get out and see more of the surrounding countryside. Plus there’s the thrill of being in a steam train, which is really what drew me there in the first place. In addition to the train there’s also a train museum, with many examples of classic trains on display. You’ll see a lot of families at Strasbourg, but from my experience it’s also great for adults without kids.
5. Princeton, New Jersey
For a few months in 1783, the American government once again had to flee Philadelphia, but this time due to frustrated Continental Army soldiers demanding back pay. So, the delegates temporarily relocated to Princeton. I’ve never been, but it looks like a lovely place.
6. Annapolis, Maryland
Practically in my backyard, I find myself in Annapolis at least once a week and while it’s a lovely city, most people don’t know that it too was once a capital of the United States. I consider myself somewhat well versed in American history and was surprised at the importance Annapolis had in the formation of the country. I had no idea that it was the American capital from 1783-84; I had no idea that all the early Presidents spent a considerable amount of time in the city and I had no idea the Treaty of Paris was ratified in the state house in 1784.
Walking tours are a great way to learn about a new city and Annapolis is no exception. Given its age, there is a long tradition of ghost stories in and around town so we jumped on a ghost tour to learn about the city’s history in a different way. Annapolis Ghost Tours runs one of the highest ranked tours in the world, giving guests the option of a traditional ghost tour or a haunted pub crawl.
7. Trenton, New Jersey
Barely a capital, Trenton was home to the Congress of Confederation for just a month and not much happened during this time when the Founding Fathers met in a tavern. I’ve never been to the New Jersey state capital but, like Princeton, I imagine that I’d enjoy spending a couple of days exploring the historic city.
8. New York City
For five years, the American government met in New York City and it was during this time that many important developments took place. It’s where the Constitution was ratified and where Washington took the oath of office as the first American President. Of course, New York today is one of the world’s most popular cities to visit and there are any number of ways to occupy your time during a trip, including stopping by the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.
An entire day could be spent roaming the battle deck, marveling at the planes and even seeing a space shuttle up close and personal. This really is one of those museums perfect for just about everyone; just give yourself enough time to see it all.
9. Washington, DC
Finally! The one capital that everyone should know and my hometown, the District of Columbia. In 1800, Washington officially became the capital of the country and hopefully it’s the last. It’s also, I think, a fun city to visit – especially if you know where to go and what to experience.
Our nation’s capital, all of the important monuments and memorials are found here, many of which line the beautiful National Mall. Also along the Mall are some of the best museums in the world, the always free to enter Smithsonian Institution museums that cover everything from American History to Air and Space and some smaller, more unusual ones as well. But we’re not just about museums and monuments, in recent years the city has seen a shift in demographics and old neighborhoods have come back to life. Explore new restaurants and bars in Barracks Row or head to Georgetown to do some high-end shopping. DC is also well located, an easy drive, bus or train ride from Philadelphia and New York so there’s really no excuse NOT to visit the capital city region.