The Best Military Towns in America
In the spirit of Veterans Day, here’s our salute to 10 cities that honor our nation’s military history. And in the spirit of conflict avoidance, we're going in alphabetical order: Military branch rivalries may be friendly, but—as anyone who's ever been to an Army-Navy game knows—they run deep. So read on, from Annapolis to West Point, then pick a place to let your patriot flag fly.
The United States Naval Academy, where future Navy and Marine Corps officers have been schooled since 1842, gives good tour. A guided walk around the gorgeous, Chesapeake Bay-adjacent campus—known, with admirable military understatement, as the Yard—steeps you simultaneously in Beaux-Arts architecture and military history. Go at midday if you can: The “noon meal formation,” when 4,500 crisply uniformed, drum-accompanied cadets march off to lunch, is stirring. There are two options for grabbing a quick bite on the grounds (for you, no marching required): The Drydock Restaurant serves sandwiches, pizzas and salads, or try the The Alley's signature cream of crab soup at the prestigious Naval Academy Club. Less than a mile away, you'll find the Maryland Statehouse, the nation's oldest continuously working state capitol building, and the only one to have served as the U.S. capitol, too: The Continental Congress met here from late 1783 to mid-1784, when George Washington tendered his resignation as general of the Continental Army, and nine state delegations ratified the Revolutionary War-ending Treaty of Paris. Now, wandering the city's historic neighborhoods takes you right back: Annapolis claims more 18th-century brick homes than anywhere else in the U.S.
Joint Base Charleston makes its namesake a decidedly 21st-century military town. But history buffs flock to Charleston for the centuries-old military sites: When Confederate soldiers opened fire on Union-occupied Fort Sumter in 1861, the deadly Civil War was on. The fort, now a national monument, is reachable only by ferry, and though tours are pretty short—you’ll spend around on hour at the site—try to squeeze in some time at the instructive little museum. Back on the mainland, check out the fort from The Battery, a seawall and promenade where Charlestonians watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter back in the day—and where modern visitors peacefully stroll past grand pre-war mansions. In fact, to go peak Charleston, pair your Fort Sumter views with provisions from the nearby historic Charleston City Market (bless your heart, you deserve a country ham biscuit or pimento cheese sandwich from Callie's)—and a bench in the Battery's oak-shaded White Point Garden. (Even in November, the average high is still close to 70 degrees.) Another stop for military history buffs: the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, where you can explore the nooks and crannies of the behemoth WW II aircraft carrier USS Yorktown. A smaller (approach with caution, claustrophobics) but equally educational destroyer and submarine are also available to tour.
Colorado Springs, CO
The local stretch of the Rockies (think Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods) ain't bad, but the 17-spire Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy is the star attraction on campus, and the most visited man-made tourist attraction in the state. One look around and you'll see why not just military buffs—but also architecture buffs—love the award-winning Modernist icon. Go soon though: The interior is already closed for a major renovation, and at some point in the coming months, a hangar will go up over the site until late 2022. As you stroll the Academy grounds, keep an ear out for planes overhead—you may be lucky enough to catch a training exercise. Near the north gate, get up close and personal with Diamond Lil, a B-52 bomber that saw action in Vietnam. And while the visitor center does its usual thing (maps and t-shirts aplenty), it also has a fun mock-up of a cadet dorm room—the belly of Diamond Lil might just be more spacious. Don’t miss the newly reopened planetarium, with its live feed from the largest publicly accessed telescope in Colorado. Aviation enthusiasts should add two more stops: Colorado Springs is also home to the National Museum of WWII Aviation and the Peterson Air & Space Museum, both deserving of (at least) a fly-by. Last, while no one's suggesting you forgo a certain local mega-brand's brewery tour, know that the veteran-owned, troop-supporting Red Leg Brewing Company has a beloved craft beer tap room with a different food truck parked outside nightly.
Ah, Hawaii, land of idyllic beaches, starry-eyed honeymooners—and 11 historic military installations. Pearl Harbor is the big kahuna of them all, so center your tour on Oahu and head to the island’s south shore (technically, Pearl Harbor is about eight miles outside Honolulu), site of the Japanese attack that plunged the U.S. into World War II in 1941. Pay your respects at the USS Arizona Memorial, which sits over the sunken battleship, then head to the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park to learn about the "silent service," and USS Missouri, where Japan surrendered in 1945. You should also wander through the enormous airplane hangars of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, on Ford Island in the center of the harbor (still an active military base), to get a sense of the naval air power that led the country to victory. In Waikiki, the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii chronicles the history of warfare in Hawaii. Afterward, stop by the Hale Koa military hotel, where civilians are welcome at the Barefoot Bar. (You have to be active duty or a veteran to overnight at the resort.)
Famous Fort Knox, more formally known as the U.S. Bullion Depository, keeps more than half the country’s gold reserves in its fortified vault—some 4,600 tons’ worth of glittering bars. The Treasury Department, which runs the place, understandably takes a dim view of tourists traipsing about. But you can catch a glimpse as you enter the adjacent Army base on your way to the General George Patton Museum, where you'll find a replica of the vault. (You have Hollywood to thank: "This is the actual model of the Bullion Depository as seen in the motion picture Goldfinger," a plaque reads.) Beyond that, however, the museum's emphasis is more military than monetary, with plenty of Patton memorabilia, including, of course, a tank or two. While you’re in town, make time for the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, because even here, there's military history: Hillerich & Bradsby Co. (the Slugger's manufacturers) made equipment for the armed forces during both World Wars and now makes baseball and softball bats for the troops. For lunch with a side of nostalgia, have a seat at the Brown Hotel, where Louisville’s signature "Hot Brown" sandwich was created in the ‘20s. And if you're a whiskey drinker, well, we hope you can stay for a while.
The Blue Angels—who've given you heart palpitations if you’ve ever seen them flying upside-down, 18 inches apart, at an airshow—train at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, as do pilots for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The station’s National Naval Aviation Museum is hard to miss—there's an F-14 Tomcat atop a pylon out front—but the big draw is the chance to watch the Angels (formal name: U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron) conduct practice sessions. Worth hovering over your keyboard for: one of the coveted 43 tickets on each fly date to access the museum’s rooftop viewing area. The museum itself also warrants a few hours, both for the replica of the 8,000-square-foot aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and the opportunity to let your blood pressure settle down to normal levels—perhaps at the Cubi Bar Café, a duplicate of the legendary Cubi Point Officers’ Club in the Philippines. Later, amble out onto the bluff that overlooks Pensacola Bay, where diamond-shaped Fort Barrancas took fire in the Civil War. Some say Barrancas, rather than Charleston’s Fort Sumter, actually suffered the war’s first shots. (Those people tend to be Floridians.) Explore the fort’s underground tunnels, drawbridge, gun turrets, and four-foot-thick brick walls to get a feel for early military engineering.
San Diego, CA
SoCal surf town meets military hub, San Diego is home to more than half of the Navy’s ships and a third of the active duty force of the Marines. Fleet Week (Nov. 4-12) is an all-out, red-white-and-blue tribute to our service members, with tours of Navy and Coast Guard ships, art exhibits, outdoor concerts, and a parade on Nov. 11. Regardless of when you visit, see the retired aircraft carrier USS Midway—a museum docked on the city's waterfront, where you can take a seat inside dozens of restored aircraft. Or down a Dramamine and go for a spin in a flight simulator. You'll also want to hit Balboa Park, San Diego’s unofficial museum central (and just a gorgeous hangout), where you’ll find the San Diego Air & Space Museum, a trove of military history. And the Cabrillo National Monument is a great place to watch warships and submarines come in and out of San Diego Harbor. Meanwhile, at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar (cue Top Gun theme), you’ll find the delightfully named and nicely curated Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. If you’re truly obsessed with Goose, Maverick, and Iceman, don't miss Kansas City Barbeque, aka the Great Balls of Fire joint.
If you think about it, Washington is full of military sites: The White House is home to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The vice president lives at the Naval Observatory (or at least on the grounds). The Washington Monument honors our first president—but he’s our first president because he was the commander who secured our young nation’s independence. Visit the DC area with an eye toward our service members and veterans—and understanding their actions and sacrifices—and you'll have a whole new perspective on the capital. Not to be missed (but only a few of the local sites that pay tribute to our armed forces): the Marine Corps Memorial, a gigantic version of the iconic WWII photo of troops planting the American flag on Iwo Jima; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known simply and affectingly as "The Wall," inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 fallen service members; and Arlington National Cemetery, former site of Robert E. Lee's Union-confiscated plantation, now one of the most haunting and memorable graveyards you will ever have the honor to visit. For an evocative taste of history, have a candle-lit dinner at Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria. The restaurant, a National Historic Landmark that dates to 1770, has been feeding American veterans since before they even were technically American (think George Washington).
West Point, NY
On a promontory overlooking the mighty Hudson River sits the nation's oldest military installation: West Point dates back to the Revolutionary War, when George Washington considered this the most strategically important site in the nation—and the traitorous Benedict Arnold, who seems to have had the same take (but very different motives), tried to sell the place to the British (bad move, Benedict). After the war, President Thomas Jefferson transformed the military post into a training ground for future Army officers—the United States Military Academy West Point—and since 1802 the school has turned out a long list of luminaries, among them Presidents Eisenhower and Grant, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Desert Storm leader General Norman Schwarzkopf, and beloved Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (just to point out that not every graduate ends up career military). Among the highlights of the tour, which begins at Thayer Gate: the chapel (oddly, home to the world's largest pipe organ in a religious structure), the academy’s parade field, and spectacular Hudson River overlooks with the Catskill Mountains for a backdrop. Also on the grounds is the very worthwhile West Point Museum, the nation's oldest military museum, with more than 60,000 artifacts (plus gift shop, natch). Across the Hudson, in FDR's hometown of Hyde Park, is the CIA—not that CIA, but the almost-as-iconic Culinary Institute of America—a school with longstanding links to West Point. In fact, CIA started with the goal of training returning WW II veterans for restaurant careers. Be sure to tour the campus and eat in at least one of its four restaurants, which range from super casual to brush-up-on-your-French.