The Best Living History Museums in the US

Last updated 17th July 2018

History is a subject that children sometimes have a hard time grasping — probably because they are so good at living in the moment. It can be difficult for them to visualize what life was like 10 years ago, let alone 200 years ago. Living history museums are a wonderful way to bring history to life for a firsthand look at what life was really like years ago. These museums give children an interactive and playful glimpse into the past.

Genesee Country Village and Museum
Mumford, New York

This museum earned the bragging rights of being the largest living history museum in New York State and the 3rd largest in the country. Located in upstate New York in the town of Mumford, about 20 minutes west of Rochester, this museum is comprised of 68 buildings separated into three time periods. The Pioneer Settlement with buildings dating from 1790-1820, Center Village with buildings from 1830-1860 and the Gas Light District with buildings from 1860-1900. The museum hosts several events during the year such as a Civil War reenactment and encampment, 1812 Weekend, Celtic Faire and Wilder Weekend. Wilder Weekend is a unique event that focuses entirely on the Little House on the Prairie series and has a guest celebrity from the original TV show.

Admission: Adults $18, Seniors $15, College Student (w/ ID) $15, Youth (4-17) $10, Children (3 and younger) Free

Old Sturbridge Village
Sturbridge, Massachusetts

Located in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, this living history museum has 40 historic buildings that show life in New England in the 1830s. Visitors are asked to silence their cell phones when they enter the village to preserve the feeling of being in the time period. Although the museum is centered around life in the 1830s, there are buildings from a much earlier period such as the Fenno House, the oldest house in the museum dating back to 1725. Guest have an opportunity to take their visit even further by staying overnight in the village with the “blacksmith” and his family. The experience has guests dress in period clothing and participate in chores and work to get a truly authentic taste of what life was like.

Admission: Adult $28, Seniors $26, Youth and College Students $14, Children (under 4) Free

Mystic Seaport
Mystic, Connecticut

Mystic allows visitors to experience life in a seafaring village in the 1800s. Home to 17 historic vessels, its collection includes the Charles W. Morgan, which is the oldest commercial ship that remains afloat. This ship is a whaling vessel originally launched in 1841. Visitors can explore and learn about the different vessels housed at the museum as well as have the opportunity to sail aboard one of them down the Mystic River. The historic village has 41 buildings that are all related to maritime culture of the 1800s. There is also a children’s museum for kids 4-7, where budding sailors can try their hands at all the fun activities of ship life in a replica ship play area complete with bunks and a galley.

Admission: Adults $28.95, Seniors $26.95, Youth (4-14) $18.95, Children (3-Under) Free

Polynesian Cultural Center
Oahu, Hawaii

This exceptional cultural experience is located on the north shore of Oahu. Visitors can explore six different island cultures: Hawaii, Aotearoa, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga. Each area has its own village with activities and demonstrations such as tiki carving, fire making, spear throwing and canoe paddling. Learn to hula, start a fire with 2 sticks, watch your kids try to pole fish and enjoy traditional dancing and music all day long. Each village offers guests a chance to experience what island life was like prior to western influence. Guests can also enjoy an authentic luau with a buffet serving delicious island cuisine. Culminate your amazing day with the show Ha: Breath of Life. This is a fun and immersive journey into Polynesian culture that your family won’t soon forget.

Admission: Prices vary by dining packages and excursions. However, the basic package with villages, show and Island Buffet is: Adult $89.95, Children $71.96

El Rancho de Las Golondrinas
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Get an authentic taste of what life was like during the earliest settling of New Mexico. Visitors can see firsthand the Spanish, Mexican and Native American influences on the culture and how people in the 18th and 19th centuries lived in the southwest. This museum is the original site of a residence that served as a trading post and a resting point for those traveling on El Camino Real from Santa Fe to Mexico City. Some of the 35 buildings in this museum date back to the early 1700s, while others were brought from different parts of New Mexico. There are 10 festivals held at this museum every year, such as the Spring and Fiber Fest, Viva Mexico Fiesta, Panza Llena and the Spirit of New Mexico’s Past that offer an even more in-depth look at life in the old southwest. Food service is only available during festival weekends; however, patrons are encouraged to bring their own lunches and enjoy them in the museum’s picnic area.

Admission: Adult $6, Seniors $4, Teens (13-17) $4, Children (12-under) Free

Admission on festival weekends vary per festival

Plimoth Plantation
Plymouth, Massachusetts

Visit not only an authentic re-creation of the village built by the pilgrims that landed at Plymouth, but a village of the Wampanoag Indians who helped the pilgrims when they arrived in the New World. Spend a day wandering around these two villages interacting with staff dressed in clothes from the long ago era and get a feel for what life was like back when the first Thanksgiving occurred. The Mayflower II (a full-size replica of the actual Mayflower) is currently being restored in Mystic seaport but will return to the museum in 2019. This museum also boasts a collection of rare breeds of 17th century farm animals, such as Milking Devon Cows, San Clemente Island Goats, Wild Swine, Wiltshire Horned Sheep and Dorking Fowl that they are attempting to repopulate.

Admission: Adults $28, Seniors $26, Children (5-12) $16, Under 5 Free

Colonial Williamsburg
Williamsburg, Virginia

This museum is the largest living history museum in the world. Colonial Williamsburg shows life at the birth of America. Although visitors do not have to purchase a ticket to walk through the town, visit the shops or eat in the taverns, they cannot enter or tour the historic buildings, gardens, see the tradesmen at work or watch the live demonstrations without one. This is a fully immersive experience where visitors can observe almost every kind of trade shop — from the shoemaker to the silversmith — that were necessities to the people who lived here 300 years ago. Enjoy a relaxing wagon ride through the historic streets or stay onsite in one of six hotels that offer accommodations for every budget. When nighttime rolls around, the fun continues with dramatic performances, concerts and magic shows. Families can enjoy participating in a kid-friendly ghost walk or watch the trial of a pirate or witch in which the audience can weigh in on the judgement.

Admission: Adult $40.99, Youth (6-12) $20.49. Evening entertainment is an additional cost.

Old Cowtown Museum
Wichita, Kansas

The Cowtown Museum represents a frontier town on the Chisholm Trail between 1865 and 1880. There are 54 historic buildings separated into different sections like the Residential Street, Industrial and Business Center, Buffalo Hunter and Trader area and DeVore Farm. The first business in the frontier was hunting and trading, and the museum has an excellent representation of what this life entailed. One of the buildings in this area, The Heller Cabin, is renowned for being one of the best intact structures from its time period. Families can pose for an Old West photo together, watch a gunfight on Main Street or take a wagon ride around the town.

Admission: Adult $9, Senior $8, Youth (12-17) $7, Kids (5-11) $6

By Kimberly Crawford