This summer, introduce your kids to some of our nation’s most influential leaders like Lincoln, Kennedy and Reagan. These commanders in chief—like all presidents—navigated complex questions and kept America true to its pursuit of freedom, liberty and justice for all.
You’ll be happy to know that today’s presidential museums and monuments eschew musty rooms packed with old furniture and instead focus on interactive exhibits, public art installations and even the chance to climb aboard Air Force One. Here are our picks for the best presidential sites—including libraries, museums and more—that will inspire everyone in your family.
Lincoln Memorial and President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C.
Although President Abraham Lincoln spent much of his life in Springfield, Illinois, some of his most famous sites—the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall and President Lincoln’s Cottage—can be found in Washington, D.C.
One of the most famous monuments in the country, the temple-like Lincoln Memorial is sure to leave a lasting impression on little ones and teens alike. Modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, the monument features 38 columns and three chambers, which house inscriptions of Lincoln’s inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address, murals and, of course, the imposing statue of Lincoln himself. The views from the memorial are spectacular: Gaze across the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and the Capitol building beyond.
Lincoln’s Cottage, where he and his family spent summers during the Civil War, now functions as a “museum of ideas,” commemorating some of President Lincoln’s most important decisions—including the Emancipation Proclamation—which were made there.
Plan your trip: Official Tourism Site of Washington D.C.
President William McKinley Sites in Niles and Canton, Ohio
Photo courtesy of the McKinley Memorial Library
President William McKinley, our 25th president, was born in Niles, Ohio, and lived in Canton (about an hour’s drive away) for most of his adult life. There are several sites dedicated to him in both cities, including his presidential library and museum, birth home and grave site.
Niles is home to The National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Museum, the McKinley Memorial Library and the McKinley Birthplace Home and Research Center, which is a replica of the house where McKinley lived with his family until the 1840s. The McKinley museum has many items, such as objects from McKinley’s presidential campaign, on display.
The McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton houses Discover World, an interactive science center; a historical library; a planetarium; and the presidential museum dedicated to McKinley, making it chock-full of entertaining and educational activities for the whole family. Exhibits include “The Street of Shops,” a full-size replica of an historic town, plus hundreds of images and objects, including many from the Civil and Spanish–American wars, which tell the story of President McKinley’s life and career.
McKinley’s tomb is also in Canton and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. His wife and two of his children are also interred at the elaborately domed mausoleum.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California
Photo courtesy of The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute
Located 30 miles from Los Angeles on a hill with sweeping views, the Reagan Library is one of Southern California’s most beautiful and unique destinations.
Highlights include the Air Force One Pavilion, which contains an actual aircraft that flew seven U.S. presidents, a full-size replica of the White House Oval Office and a piece of the Berlin Wall. There’s also an exhibit dedicated to the history of the Secret Service. The Reagan Museum showcases hundreds of artifacts from the 40th president.
Outside, the grounds replicate the White House South Lawn, and there are memorials to the president and his wife, Nancy, who are both buried there.
Lesson-plan resources: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum offers resources for educators, including curricula and an educators’ blog.
Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota
Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism
The ultimate tribute to our most influential presidential leaders, this famous national memorial carved into the South Dakota peak of Mount Rushmore incorporates the faces of 4 presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Surrounded by the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, the imposing monument took 14 years to carve into the mountainside. A highlight is walking the Presidential Trail to get up close to the sculpture and spot wildlife such as mountain goats, yellow-bellied marmots, three species of frogs and various birds.
Nearby, Rapid City features sculptures of every single president, each carved by a different artist and placed in various spots around the city. Walking maps of this so-called City of Presidents are available.
Lesson-plan resources: Mount Rushmore National Memorial offers a variety of lesson plans covering topics such as math, preservation and design.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, Massachusetts
Photo courtesy of the JFK Library Foundation
Set on the Boston waterfront on a 10-acre park, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was designed by famous architect I.M. Pei and contains three theaters and 25 multimedia exhibits.
Visitors will learn about Kennedy’s life, legacy and leadership, and children will especially enjoy the “Lift-off! The U.S. Space Program” exhibit. The impressive display on Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy highlights her significant achievements as first lady and includes several items of her clothing.
Summer is an ideal time to visit with kids of all ages—picnics on the grounds are welcome, and from May to October, President Kennedy’s sailboat Victura is on display.
Lesson-plan resources: The JFK Library has extensive curricular resources and professional development materials as well as materials on civic education and the Civil Rights era. You can also sign up for the library’s newsletter.