5 Great Maritime Museums in the U.S.

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Americans are not famous for their seafaring ways, certainly not like the Vikings. Yet the U.S. boasts a rich maritime history, from the arrival of the earliest settlers and the westward expansion across the Great Lakes to the U.S. Navy’s role as the world’s leading naval power. There are many outstanding maritime museums around the country, exhibiting and protecting a vast array of artifacts. If you’re a history buff, you will appreciate the following sites … even if you don’t know the difference between port and starboard.


5. Columbia River Maritime Museum (Astoria, Ore.)

A U.S. Coast Guard exhibit shows the difficult conditions in the Pacific Northwest. © Ryan Stavely

The Columbia River played a vital role in settling the Pacific Northwest. Many of those early mariners met a terrible fate; some 2,000 large ships have sunk near the mouth of the Columbia River alone. The Columbia River Maritime Museum recounts the history of this “Graveyard of the Pacific” area — along with the region’s more beneficial history — with exhibits and other attractions. The most visually stunning exhibit shows a Coast Guard vessel making a daring rescue in treacherous conditions.


4. National Museum of the Great Lakes (Toledo, Ohio)

The bridge of the SS Col. JM Schoonmaker, on display at the National Museum of the Great Lakes. © Joanna Poe

Although this museum has only been open since 2014, it already has some hard-core fans; in a 2017 USA Today Readers’ Choice Award contest, this facility rated as the No. 2 attraction in Ohio, behind only the Toledo Museum of Art but ahead of the famous Cedar Point amusement park. The role the Great Lakes played in the early settlement of the U.S. is often overlooked. From their earliest history to their current roles in shipping and providing recreation and drinking water for millions of Americans, the National Museum of the Great Lakes covers all the bases.


3. Historic Ships in Baltimore

The USS Constellation is the centerpiece of the Historic Ships in Baltimore museum. © Nfutvol via Flickr

Located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, this unique museum consists of four different historic vessels: the USS Constellation, the USS submarine Torsk, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney, and a lightship, the Chesapeake. Built in 1854, the Constellation is the last sail-only warship built by the U.S. Navy. The Taney is the last ship still afloat that fought in the attack on Pearl Harbor. All of the ships are within walking distance of each other, and adult tickets for tours of all four ships are a very reasonable $18.


2. Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum (Charleston, S.C.)

The USS Yorktown, centerpiece of the Patriots Point complex. © James Williams

There are many decommissioned warships docked at ports around the U.S. now serving as floating museums. Our personal favorite in modern naval ship tours: The Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Charleston, S.C., where you can tour the USS Yorktown, the nearby submarine USS Clamagore, and the destroyer USS Laffey.

Probably the most famous decommissioned ship museum is the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex in New York City (Will Smith’s character hit golf balls off the aircraft carrier Intrepid in the 2007 film I Am Legend). In addition to the famous aircraft carrier that served in the Pacific in World War II, the Intrepid is also now the home of the Space Shuttle Enterprise.


1. National Museum of the U.S. Navy (Washington, D.C.)

An F4U-4 Corsair fighter plane suspended above a World War II exhibit. Credit: U.S. Navy

The collection of items and exhibits in this museum spans from the Navy’s earliest days in the late 18th century to the modern fleet. While the military achievements of the service are celebrated in books and films, the museum also explores other aspects of the Navy’s contributions, from the recovery of spacecraft and astronauts to humanitarian missions. One caveat: Since it’s located on an active military installation, the Washington Navy Yard, visitors must present ID and get clearance for a pass.


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