10 Best West Coast Cities For History Buffs To Add To Their Bucket Lists

The East Coast gets all the credit for being a place where history comes alive. But just because the early parts of American history took place on one coast doesn't mean the other coast doesn't have just as much to offer. Much of the history on the West Coast has to do with pioneering, frontier life, mining, and life in hostile terrains like the desert.

From places you've undoubtedly heard of, like San Diego or Anchorage, to little spots along the way, like Steilacoom, you'll learn so much about the history of these places. On top of that, you'll learn more about the country's history and life long before the colonists came to the continent.

What you get from a historic West Coast adventure, though, more than anything, is remarkable natural environments all around you. Besides the countless beaches and outdoor adventures, the western part of the U.S. also has much more excellent weather year-round. There are no nor'easters here!

San Diego, California

As the oldest U.S. settlement in California, San Diego has much history to share with visitors. This city is not only the oldest U.S. settlement in the state but also one of the oldest of the country's settlements on the whole West Coast. You can get a feel for this history at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where many artifacts and buildings from 1821-1872 remain. Old Town is considered the birthplace of California.

Given San Diego's unique position near the bottom of the state, the city is rife with Mexican culture and cuisine. Old Town is where many of these traditions flourish. So while you're learning about the history of California, you can do so with some of the best mezcal north of Mexico.

The Old West is also known for its iconic mission buildings. Father Junipero Serra founded the very first California Spanish mission in 1769 near what is now San Diego. Between this location and the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, you'll gain a significant understanding of how the colonialist missionaries tried to develop the area — for better or worse.

Astoria, Oregon

Like San Diego, Astoria is also the oldest established U.S. town in its state. As the oldest town in Oregon, Astoria has a rich history to explore. This coastal town is beyond gorgeous and was part of Lewis and Clark's renowned exploration of the West. The duo arrived in the area in the winter of 1805-06 and settled at Fort Clatsop.

When Astoria was formally settled in 1811, it became the first permanent settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. The settlers were sent to the area by merchant John Jacob Astor, and Astoria became a hub for fur and other trading. Astoria quickly became a vital piece of American commerce between its trading heyday and fishing village reputation.

Now visitors can enjoy the stunning Victorian homes, museums, forts, boutiques, and the flourishing craft beer scene. Astoria holds tight to its past in its aesthetics and historical sites, though it is also a modern city.

San Jose, California

Although it wasn't the first settlement in California, San Jose was the state's first incorporated city. It even was the state capital for a brief period of time. The city has changed in the few centuries since its founding; several historical sites exist, including missions from the religious folks who settled there. While you can glimpse early frontier life in San Jose, there are also ways to experience even earlier history.

Like in much of the country, Native Americans resided in the area by the thousands. Many people who lived in the San Jose area are of the Ohlone nation. One way to learn more about the Ohlone is by visiting Alum Rock Park in San Jose. Not only is this park full of state and native history, but it is also the oldest municipal park in California.

Much of California's history shimmers in the myth and mystique of the Gold Rush. But even before the hills were alive with the sound of miners, San Jose was the site of the first major mining operations in the state. Castillero and New Almaden were California's first significant mines, thanks to the Ohlone, who told settlers about the land's precious ores.

Anchorage, Alaska

West Coast states like California and Arizona are well known for being some of the hottest places in the U.S. However, Alaska doesn't fit that archetype. It's often forgotten in West Coast considerations, but Alaska is also a coastal state. And if you're feeling adventurous, you need to get out to the historical city of Anchorage.

On top of being one of the most beautiful places in the country, Anchorage is full of some of the most unique history in the country as well. This city is in the Dena'ina Ełnena, the home of the Dena'ina Athabascan people and the village of Eklutna. Some of the ways you can appreciate and learn more about these Native people is to visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Anchorage Museum while you're here.

Not to take away from the countless natural wonders Alaska has to offer, Anchorage is one of the cultural centers of the state. From here, you can learn how Alaska has contributed to the U.S. long before its founding and what it will offer for centuries.

Tombstone, Arizona

Nothing says Western historical town like a Wild Wild West town. Tombstone is the perfect spot for history buffs who love the cowboy aesthetic. It isn't a ghost town by any means, though it's close enough to some actual ghost towns to keep your historical side satiated. When it comes to towns that exemplify the Old West, you don't get much better than Tombstone. After all, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp both spent time in this town.

Though not a living history museum per se, Tombstone is still like walking into a John Wayne movie. Known as the "Town Too Tough to Die," Tombstone has survived two catastrophic fires that took out much of the town, which was rebuilt within months of each disaster.

Fans of the Wild West genuinely need to visit this historic town. The museums and sites that make Tombstone unique include the Boothill Graveyard, where many cowboys who died in the OK Corral gunfight are buried, and the Gunfighter Hall of Fame.

Joseph, Oregon

Several spots on this list have plenty of Native American history to impart, though Joseph in Oregon is different. It is different mainly because it was named for Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe. Chief Joseph was born in 1840 and named Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain or Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt until he took his father's name, who had converted to Christianity.

Settled in the Wallowa mountain range, Joseph is lush with panoramic vistas and incredible nature, unlike anything you've seen. Sometimes called the "Little Switzerland of America," you'll understand how the town is reminiscent of the Swiss Alps.

This is also where you'll find Oregon's most extensive natural wilderness: the Eagle Cap, home to over 530 miles of hiking trails. After you're done exploring the history of Joseph, you can spend the entire trip just exploring the Eagle Cap. If you'd rather stay inside and learn about the outside, visit the Wallowology Natural History Discovery Center instead.

Steilacoom, Washington

Nestled along the stunning Puget Sound, Steilacoom is the oldest town in Washington. This incredible little historical town will teach you so much about the region. Though if you get bored, you can always enjoy the incredible nature around you — are you getting this theme of the Pacific Northwest yet?

This area around Steilacoom was settled in 1851 by Captain Lafayette Balch. "A New England native, the shoreline reminded Balch of his home town in Maine," writes the Steilacoom Chamber of Commerce. A few short years later, Steilacoom was officially incorporated in 1854. Then it became home to several important sites on the coast, including the first public library in the territory and the first school district in the county.

While Steilacoom is still a tiny town along Puget Sound, it has done a lot to keep its history alive. Learn more about how it developed at the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association and the Steilacoom Tribal Museum and Cultural Center. There aren't many formal museum attractions to see here, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy the serenity of The Sound.

Genoa, Nevada

If you want a historical point of view of Nevada with all the glitz of Las Vegas, go to Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. If you want to taste what developing this desert landscape was like for U.S. pioneers, head to Genoa. Around the time Captain Balch was settling Steilacoom in Washington, John Reese and his cohorts were building a trading post in what would become Genoa. This adorable town sits at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Genoa is home to Mormon Station State Historic Park, which celebrates Nevada's first settlement in 1851. While the small town has blossomed throughout the many decades since its founding, Genoa also has much of its historic charms. If you want a taste of what makes Genoa special, consider visiting at the end of September during the Genoa Candy Dance Arts and Crafts Faire. The fair was founded in 1919 and visitors can purchase homemade candy while perusing one of the region's best craft fairs.

Vancouver, Washington

While Vancouver was the first settlement in Washington, it's important to remember: "Prior to the introduction of white settlers to the area currently known as Clark County, this land was cared for by indigenous peoples for thousands of years," as the City of Vancouver Washington Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services explains. 

Vancouver was founded in 1824 and named after Captain George Vancouver (who is also the namesake of Canada's Vancouver). Fort Vancouver National Historic Site remains the city's most prominent historical site, though there are several other places that history buffs need to visit. Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition noted that the area was the best place to settle west of the Rocky Mountains.

One of the more unique locations to visit is Pearson Field and Air Museum. Pearson Field is one of the oldest working airports in the country with its first plane landing in the early 1900s. Here aerial aficionados can see historic airplanes at the museum including a full-scale replica of a World War I bomber. Admission is free and you'll learn about some of the famous pilots who came to Pearson including Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh.

Benicia, California

Last, though certainly not least, is the "jewel of Solano County," as it's described by the official website for the City of Benicia, California. Benicia, founded in 1849, is rumored to have been the starting point of the Gold Rush phenomenon. Legend has it that the gold found at Sutter's Mill was gossip at a bar in Benicia, prompting the mad rush for the valuable ore elsewhere in the state.

This city is petite, though centrally located. It is the perfect place to explore, especially if you want to see other parts of the state as well. Benicia is between San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Sacramento. In addition to its roots in the Gold Rush era, Benicia is home to some of the most significant artistic communities in the Bay Area.

There are several museum sites in Benicia, and the city is flush with historical gems. You can visit historic mansions in all their splendor, the famed Clock Tower Fortress, and even the Southern Pacific Train Depot.