A fantastic way to peer into the past, presidential libraries are an immersive experience into a brief time in America’s history and the administration that was in charge at the time. From mementos to memos, political and personal artifacts of our nation’s leaders are on display at presidential libraries across the country. TravelAwaits writers share their favorite experiences at each one below.
1. The Hoover Presidential Library
West Branch, Iowa
“While the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum includes a look at his failed presidency during the Great Depression, his dedication to addressing world hunger before and after his presidency led me to view Hoover differently. Hoover’s values were always dedicated to the betterment of others. As World War I broke out, he helped rescue 120,000 Americans, getting them home from Europe.
Realizing he wanted a career in public service, Hoover accepted a role with the European Relief Council in 1917, arranging for food and supplies to get to about 10 million Belgians, who relied on those imports for survival. Afterward, President Woodrow Wilson asked Hoover to lead the U.S. Food Administration, overseeing the production, distribution, and conservation of food in the United States. Following World War II, President Harry S. Truman recruited Hoover to address global hunger issues. The two leaders developed a friendship that lasted beyond Truman’s presidency.” — Tim Trudell
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum
Hyde Park, New York
“Perched above the Hudson River, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum lies approximately halfway between New York City and Albany in the quaint upstate New York town of Hyde Park. Not only was FDR born in Springwood, the family’s beautiful three-story Italianate mansion, but as ‘the Summer White House,’ it hosted famous guests like Queen Elizabeth and Sir Winston Churchill.
Start at the visitor center, where you can get your Passport to Presidential Libraries stamped. Then explore the presidential library that tells not just the story of FDR’s presidency, but also the many contributions of his wife, progressive First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Be sure to tour Springwood and the carriage house before pausing at the Roosevelt graves in the rose garden to pay your respects to the power couple who successfully steered the nation through the Great Depression and World War II.
3. Harry S. Truman Library And Museum
“Truman entered politics under the mentorship of Tom Pendergast, the local mover and shaker who purchased the Pabst Brewing Depot and converted it to offices (and maybe bootlegging!). Located 20 minutes outside of Kansas City in Independence, Missouri, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum covers Truman’s early political career as well as his time as president. The history collection alone contains some 30,000 pieces. There are special exhibits dedicated to Truman’s most difficult decisions, including his decision to deploy the atomic bomb. Romantics will appreciate the 1,300 or so letters that Truman and his wife, Bess, exchanged during their courtship.” — Vanessa Chiasson
4. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, And Boyhood Home
“The hometown of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abilene is now home to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home. Having undergone a major renovation in 2019, the museum complex now features even more exhibits and displays about the 34th president and World War II hero. Plan to spend two to four hours exploring the museum, library, childhood home, and meditation chapel, where President Eisenhower and his wife are interred.” — Tim Trudell
5. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library And Museum
“Few museums have surprised me as much as the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. I was afraid that it would be a sad, solemn building, but instead, I found beautiful architecture, wonderfully friendly staff, and creative displays. A small display on Kennedy’s childhood is followed by a film detailing his early political career. Together, they do a great job of explaining who the late president was and the social and economic conditions of his time. The main part of the museum, which showcases Kennedy’s presidency, pays homage to the style and media of the early 1960s. Kennedy’s untimely death is addressed in just one small exhibit — the focus is squarely on his life and presidency. Before you leave, be sure to consult your map so that you don’t miss the large section of the Berlin Wall that is permanently on display.” — Vanessa Chiasson
6. Lyndon B. Johnson Library And Museum
“The Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum, a 10-story limestone tower on 30 acres at the University of Texas Campus in Austin, features a colossal staircase leading to the Great Hall of the library and a mural of photos of LBJ with prior presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy.
Listen to LBJ’s historic, recorded phone conversations with Jackie Kennedy on December 2, 1963; with Martin Luther King on November 25, 1963; and more. Permanent exhibits include LBJ’s Vice Presidency, the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and his Great Society and Vietnam. See the Space Exhibit; as Senate Majority Leader, LBJ was the architect and sponsor of NASA. Visit the Civil Rights exhibit featuring Johnson’s signing into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Learn about the ‘Johnson Treatment,’ where he leaned into your space as he intimidated, convinced, and persuaded his constituents.
Don’t miss the 10th floor — the top floor of the library — where you’ll find the replica of LBJ’s Oval Office and Ladybird’s office, plus a film and exhibit of family life in the White House featuring former first daughters Luci and Lynda.” — Janie H. Pace
7. Richard Nixon Presidential Library And Museum
Yorba Linda, California
“The life and times of Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, are preserved at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in the former orange groves of sunny Southern California.
Open seven days a week, this 9-acre compound in Yorba Linda includes the Museum, the Research Room that’s open to the public, the Garden available for weddings and other events, the Army One helicopter, Nixon’s birthplace, and the graves of Richard and his wife, Pat.
Tours of the helicopter and birthplace are available but may be closed due to excessive heat, inclement weather, or COVID-19.
Set amongst stunning gardens designed by Pat Nixon, the modest Nixon boyhood home reveals an intimate view of his Quaker upbringing. My career highlight was photographing a wedding in the garden and chronicling this memorable event for the bride and groom.
The Nixon Library is a tremendous historical resource, both in person and online, and a picturesque destination.” — Julie Diebolt Price
8. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum
Ann Arbor And Grand Rapids, Michigan
“Grand Rapids is home to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, the presidential museum and burial site of President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty Ford. President Ford was the first to separate the two major functions of presidential libraries. The library is located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, his alma mater. The museum is in Grand Rapids, his former congressional district.
The museum holds 20,000 artifacts from the president’s life and career. There is also a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, furnished as it was during his presidency. Special exhibits explore the 1976 Bicentennial and Mrs. Ford’s role, activities, and interests during her husband’s presidential term.
History buffs will enjoy numerous other exhibits, including a holographic tour of the White House. You can learn what a day in the Oval Office was like and get the lowdown on Watergate through presentations, galleries, and a display of the burglary tools used for the break-in. There’s also a section of the Berlin Wall in the museum’s lobby.” — Sue Reddel and Diana Laskaris
9. Jimmy Carter Library & Museum
“History often looks down on one-term presidents. I suppose the general perception is that if you’re not popular enough to be elected to a second term, you aren’t as successful as those leaders who are given four more years in office. Political pundits, historians, and everyday Americans often debate Jimmy Carter’s merits as president. But regardless of how you assess his performance in the White House, it’s hard not to admire his many accomplishments in the four decades since he left it.
When you visit the Jimmy Carter Library & Museum in Atlanta, you’ll see displays about the big challenges he faced in office, including the energy crisis, Middle East peace negotiations, and the American hostage crisis in Iran. But you’ll also be impressed by his commitment to peace, human rights, fair elections, and other social welfare causes that earned him the United Nations Human Rights Prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And that is why the Carter Library is one of my favorites.” — Sage Scott
10. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum
Simi Valley, California
“I loved visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum in Simi Valley, California. The place is literally bursting with exhibits and displays showing the life, marriage, fatherhood, and careers of the nation’s 40th president. A few of my favorites were the love letters between him and Nancy, the segment of the Berlin Wall, and the beautifully set table, ready for an important state dinner. You can also see a replica of the Oval Office, just like it was when Reagan was in office. Something that sets the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum apart from the others is being able to tour Air Force One, which served seven U.S. Presidents. There are also other vehicles from Reagan’s years in service, including a presidential limousine and secret service Suburban.” — Melody Pittman
11. George H.W. Bush Presidential Library And Museum
College Station, Texas
“The George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and burial place exist on a 90-acre site of the west campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. The plaza adjoins the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center and The Bush School of Government and Public Service.
On the plaza stands a magnificent work of art, The Day the Wall Came Down by Veryl Goodnight, a 1996 statue of horses leaping over pieces of the actual Berlin Wall, depicting the wall’s fall in 1989, while Bush was President.
I have a picture talking on the phone at the President’s desk in the replica of the Oval Office.
The Union Pacific Railroad donated the #4141 locomotive to the library. It participated in the Bush Funeral Train on December 6, 2018. On December 2, 2019, a life-size bronze statue of Sully — the President’s service dog during his final six months — was unveiled at the site.
In addition to serving as the 41st President, Bush served as the United Nations Ambassador, CIA Chief, and Vice President under Ronald Reagan. He died November 30, 2018, seven months after Barbara died on April 17. They celebrated 73 years of marriage.” — Janie H. Pace
12. William J. Clinton Presidential Library And Museum
Little Rock, Arkansas
“When we completed our Tennessee RV road trip and slipped into Little Rock, Arkansas, we chanced upon an imposing edifice. It was my first ever visit to a presidential library. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum sits adjacent to the Arkansas River and the beautiful historic bridge that spans it.
I was inspired so much that we proceeded to visit a small and beautiful stone home in Fayetteville, two and a half hours away. It was the very first home — and where they were married — of Bill and Hillary while they were professors at the University of Arkansas. Bill Clinton’s boyhood home is in Hope, Arkansas.” — Carol Colborn
13. George W. Bush Presidential Library And Museum
The George W. Bush Presidential Library And Museum covers his presidential term from January 20, 2001 to January 20, 2009. The most emotional historical display at the museum is 9/11: The Steel of American Resolve, which documents the terrorist attacks, President Bush’s leadership, and America’s resolve during the days after.
I recommend visiting the museum during the Christmas holidays when you can see the museum dressed to the nines, with elaborate decorations from the White House days. One of the past exhibits that I most enjoyed was Portraits of Courage, featuring 66 full-color portraits and a mural painted by President Bush of U.S. military members who served our nation since 9/11 with an inspiring story of each person written by the President. The book captures the portraits and the stories.
Coming March 3, 2022 to January 8, 2023, is the exhibit Liberty & Laughter: The Lighter Side of the White House, which showcases how humor has continued to be an essential component of American democracy. Examples show how the presidents employed comedic relief when addressing the media.