13 glorious and historic American estates worth a visit

From a French-style chateau in North Carolina to the Ernest Hemingway house in Florida, there’s an estate for every history buff in your family.

Nemours Mansion is located in Wilmington, Delaware. Robertlylebolton | Flickr

“To us, our house had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.”– Mark Twain

Fall vacations call for scenic tours and perhaps a little bit of history. What better way to learn about the founding fathers, our great authors, or the industry titans of long ago than to actually pay a visit to their homes? From lavish aristocratic country homes to the domiciles of America’s most eccentric writers, these residences will tickle the fancy of just about any American history, architecture, or gardening enthusiast.

All of these homes are open to the public and offer the chance to shed our 21st century shells and experience what life might have been like for the occupants of these majestic spaces.

Ernest Hemingway House, Florida

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Ernest Hemingway’s Home Museum in Florida. Gala Images | Alamy

Celebrated American author Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline fell in love with Key West and purchased this Spanish Colonial property in 1931. The house was in disrepair, but they restored it and added an in-ground pool, which was notoriously expensive and the first of its kind for hundreds of miles. Key West figured prominently in Hemingway’s work during the time they resided here, including To Have and Have Not, a novel about Key West during the Great Depression. Hemingway’s personality is still evident throughout the house, whether in the trophies collected during his African safaris or the descendants of his beloved cats, which still roam the property. Today, the Ernest Hemingway House remains the largest residential property on Key West Island.

Monticello, Virginia

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Monticello is Thomas Jefferson’s former home and plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. H. Mark Weidman Photography | Alamy

Thomas Jefferson crafted many things, from the Declaration of Independence to the University of Virginia. So, too, did he craft nearly every aspect of his plantation home at Monticello. From the design of the house itself in 1769 (at the tender age of 26), to the subsequent expansion and remodel in 1796 and the terraced 1,000-square foot vegetable garden planted with his favored vegetables and herbs, each facet of Monticello is a living testament to Jefferson (who is also buried here). The house and gardens offer plenty to explore, and Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia narrates an engaging guide for young visitors.

The Breakers, Rhode Island

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The Breakers, located in Newport, Rhode Island. Pictureclara | Flickr

An illustrious home in the Vanderbilt family, known for their industry in steamships and later railroads, is The Breakers. In 1893, Cornelius Vanderbilt (George’s older brother) commissioned an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo to be built in Newport. Visitors can buy combined tickets to visit this glitziest of the Newport summer “cottages” as well as nearby Newport Mansions, including Marble House and The Elms.

Mark Twain House, Connecticut

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Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Jeff Schultes | Shutterstock

Samuel and Olivia ‘Livy’ Clemens were involved in every aspect of the design and construction of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. Built in 1874, this 25-room home is where Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) wrote and published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The museum located on-site offers visitors the chance to learn more about Twain, his family, the house itself and his legacy.

Hearst Castle, California

13 of America’s most interesting historic homes

Neptune pool at Hearst Castle, California. Anders Blomqvist | Getty Images

Finished in 1947, Hearst Castle is the sprawling and ornate manse of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst worked with architect Julia Morgan, the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture from the famed Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to design this unbelievably vast and ornate retreat in San Simeon. The extravagant 165-room structure and 127 acres of manicured gardens, terraces and pools also serve as a stage for Hearst’s legendary art collection.

Hills and Dales Estate, Georgia

13 of America’s most interesting historic homes

Hills and Dales located in LaGrange, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Hills & Dales Estate, A Historic Property of Fuller E. Callaway Foundation

Hills and Dales is a sprawling 13,000-square foot house in LaGrange, Georgia, with extensive gardens that are considered by many to be one of the finest examples of 19th century boxwood gardens in the country. The home is still owned by the fourth generation of the Callaway family, who built it in 1916. Make note of the religious symbols and motifs incorporated into the original Sarah Ferrell garden design, as she believed gardens should be a reflection of faith.

Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana

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A view down an oak-lined road to Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana. Philip Gould | Getty Images

This majestic antebellum sugar plantation on the banks of the Mississippi was originally built in 1837. Visitors will be wowed by the incredible eponymous display of live oak trees leading up to the “big house” that pre-date the home itself. Highlights of Oak Alley Plantation include the exhibit on slavery in the reconstructed slave quarters, the blacksmith shop, the sugarcane exhibit and the chance to relax and enjoy a refreshing mint julep on the back porch after your tour.

Mount Vernon, Virginia

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Mount Vernon was the plantation house of George Washington. Carolyn M Carpenter | Shutterstock

On the banks of the Potomac lies Mount Vernon, the plantation house of the first president of the United States, George Washington and his wife Martha. Originally built by George’s father Augustine in 1735, the house was expanded by George upon his acquisition of it in 1754. Visitors can explore the mansion, extensive gardens, George Washington’s tomb, the distillery and gristmill, the slave memorial and burial ground, a pioneer farm and the George Washington museum.

Oheka Castle, New York

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Aerial view of Oheka Castle. Courtesy of Oheka Castle

On the highest point in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, financier and philanthropist Otto Hermann Kahn built Oheka Castle (the name is an abbreviation of his own) as a lavish summer playground where he entertained royalty, heads of state and movie stars. This French-style chateau epitomized the glitz of the Gilded Age of the 1920s, and many claim it was the inspiration for Gatsby’s abode in the Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby. The property is now a hotel and popular wedding venue, but visitors can also take guided tours.

Old Westbury Gardens, New York

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Old Westbury Gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the former home of the John S. Phipps family. Ann E Parry | Alamy

Located about 20 minutes from Oheka Castle, Old Westbury Gardens is the Charles II-style mansion that was home to John S. Phipps, a U.S. steel magnate, and his British wife Margarita Grace Phipps. John had this stately home built in 1903, as he promised Margarita a home in the United States that would be reminiscent of her family estate in Sussex, England.

Nemours Mansion, Delaware

13 of America’s most interesting historic homes

Nemours Mansion is located in Wilmington, Delaware. Robertlylebolton | Flickr

Built by American industrialist, financier and philanthropist Alfred DuPont, Nemours Mansion was a gift to his second wife Alicia. Nemours pays homage to the French style that so enamored Alicia, and this palatial property in Wilmington, Delaware also boasts breathtaking, manicured French gardens that are the largest formal ones of their kind in the country. Note: Nemours is only open from May–November.

Vizcaya, Florida

13 of America’s most interesting historic homes

Vizcaya is located in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami. Jpck | Flickr

A stunning example of Italian Renaissance architecture and gardens, Vizcaya is the former villa and estate of James Deering (of the Deering-McCormick Harvester fortune) in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami. Built in 1910, Deering wanted Vizcaya to evoke a sense of foreign mystery—and he went so far as to name it for a mythical explorer. Today, visitors can enjoy its 34 decorated rooms, 10 acres of formal gardens and its extensive European and American art collection.

Biltmore House, North Carolina

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The historic Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is the largest private home in the U.S. Education Images | Getty Images

In 1888, George Vanderbilt became enchanted with the Blue Ridge Mountains and decided to build a grand country home in the area. The result is the Biltmore House, a 250-room French-style chateau that remains one of the largest residential architectural projects ever attempted. Visitors can take one of several tours of the breathtaking property, including the winery, the dairy, the grounds and the spectacular, fully-decorated house itself, complete with a soaring banquet hall, 65 fireplaces, indoor pool and bowling alley.

Amy Cojac Andrews
Amy Andrews

Amy Cojac Andrews is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and New York City. She writes about luxury and family travel for Ciao Bambino and other publications.

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