We like to think of the three-day Memorial Day weekend as a time to get away.  This year, why not drive away to one of the places that have a tie to the theme or origins of Memorial Day itself.  Memorial Day began as a way to remember the fallen from the Civil War.  While many large cities and national historic site are logical destinations to remember the day, you may not have thought of these destinations, some of which have a right to claim to be the place where Memorial Day began, and some of which offer special events on Memorial Day Weekend.

Think South…

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston South Carolina Pineapple Fountain in Historic Waterfront Park

Charleston may take pride of place as the first community to have a Memorial Day celebration on May 1, 1865.  The day was invented by freedmen of the South who felt it right to create a place in which to honor the Union dead who had died while prisoners of war in Charleston.  They tidied up the burial grounds, a former horse racetrack which is now known as Hampton Park, for the first Memorial Day. It is a quiet park nowadays.  If you have never been to Charleston you will want to see the famous sights including Charleston’s Waterfront Park, Market Square with its many shops, and Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.  If you’ve seen these sights and want to see something new to you, try The Center for Birds of Prey to admire an American Bald Eagle up close and personal, Middleton Place Plantation with its tidal marshes, extensive grounds and what The Garden Club of America has called “the most important and most interesting garden in America,” and the Powder Magazine, restored to its 1700s glory where every Saturday you can experience “The Gentleman Pirate” a play about Stede Bonnet. Arrrr!  Charleston is a beloved driving destination for people up and down the eastern seaboard.  Plan ahead to dine at our favorite restaurant, Magnolias, the Charleston original filled with charm and wonderful Southern food, where reservations are a must.

Think North… 

Waterloo, New York

Henry Wells, a pharmacist in Waterloo first mentioned the idea of a day to honor the patriotic dead of the Civil War in 1865.  His idea was shared with Gen. John B. Murray and led to the first Memorial Day celebrations in Waterloo in 1866.  Official recognition of Memorial Day as such, by Gen. John A. Logan, the first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868, in what is known as General Order No. 11, established a national Decoration Day or Memorial Day.  President Lyndon Johnson officially designated Waterloo as the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966.  A visit to Waterloo would take you to the National Memorial Day Museum, housed in the William H. Burton House, an imposing red brick Italianate style Victorian mansion.  Nearby, enjoy a stroll along the Cayuga/Seneca Canal.  You can also give your taste buds a treat at the Muranda Cheese Company tasting room, and soak-in the history at the Peter Whitmer Log House where in 1830 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally organized.  For sheer elegance, visit one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, Rose Hill Mansion, and then relax at The Billsboro and other area wineries.  Nearby Seneca Falls is the birthplace of the American women’s rights and women’s suffrage movement.  The Women’s Rights National Historical Park including the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, all await your visit there.

Think Peaceful…

Maytown, Pennsylvania

A photo posted by Brian W (@anamphoto77) on

Maytown is a delightful village in western Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,  off the beaten track of many of the other notable sites in the area.  For a quiet and quaint weekend, Maytown and environs is worth the drive.  Maytown is noted as the birthplace of 19th century politician Simon Cameron, who served in Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet.  Locally, Maytown residents say it is the place where Memorial Day began, but these convictions do not show up in current accounts of the origins of the holiday.  Maytown is a picturesque collection of pretty homes, log, stone, red brick and white clapboard dating from the 1700s to  late 19th century. An annual Memorial Day parade that evokes a time gone by in a real Main Street USA, is held in the blocks surrounding the Center Square, to mark the historic connection.  This year, the Maytown Memorial Day Parade begins at 5 p.m. on Monday, May 26.  While you are there, visit the Donegal Springs and historic Donegal Presbyterian Church with its Witness Tree around which the congregation pledged to support the American War of Independence.  The river towns also deserve your attention: Columbia the gem of the Susquehanna with its National Watch And Clock Museum, and Marietta, with its splendidly restored homes.  Cross the river from Columbia to Wrightsville via the old bridge, and you can see the stone piers of the older bridge which was once the longest covered bridge in the world until it was burned in 1863 to prevent Lee’s troops from advancing east, this precipitated the battle of Gettysburg. Once you are across the river, several great dining options away, including John Wright Store and Restaurant, The Burning Bridge Tavern, and the beautiful 1721 Accomac Inn (the first and third of these both have sweeping river vistas).  Then, follow the west bank southward to the quaint and quirky Indian Steps Museum filled with Native American treasures.

Think Colorful…

Seattle, Washington

Seattle Skyline at Night

Seattle’s Northwest FolkLife Festival is the nation’s biggest free Memorial Day Weekend music festival and more.  It all happens in Seattle Central on May 23-26.   The 43rd annual Northwest Folklife Festival is a combination of music and dancing, storytelling and art from all the people of the Pacific Northwest. It is a weekend of sharing in traditions from the cultures represented throughout the region. Each year has a theme; this year it is “Washington Works”, telling aspects of occupational folklore in the Northwest.  It is a great way to enjoy contemporary vibes, live performances, visual arts, and hands-on activities. There are more than 7,000 performers, dancers, workshop and crafts leaders, food vendors, and more.  The Festival programming begins at 11am and concludes at 10pm from Friday until Sunday. The Festival runs from 11am until 9 pm on Memorial Day itself.  Printed guides are available on line or at many Seattle libraries, or by visiting the Folklife offices at 158 Thomas St, third floor, in Seattle. All venues at Seattle Center are wheelchair accessible.  If that is not enough for one weekend, there are other Seattle sights you might want to include such as: Pikes Place Market, the Chihuly Garden and Glass, and the 360 degree views from the top of the symbol of the city, the mod Space Needle from the 1962 World’s Fair.

Think Tasteful…

Cincinnati, Ohio

Downtown Cincinnati at Night

Taste of Cincinnati in Ohio, is the nations’ longest running culinary arts festival.  This is its 35th year, when Downtown Cincinnati is dedicated to a celebration of food.  The event takes place throughout Memorial Day Weekend: Saturday and Sunday, May 24 and 25, 2014, 12 noon to 12 midnight; Monday, May 26, 2014, 12 noon to 9 pm. on six blocks of Fifth Street, from Race Street to Broadway, in and around Fountain Square and its cluster of Downtown hotels  “Taste” is one of the biggest street festivals anywhere, as the more than 500,000 visitors sample the many flavors of the region. It is considered by many the USA food event of the year.  “Taste” is all about food, from appetizers to desserts, with prestigious food awards given every year in every category.  Better yet, you can be your own judge of these wonderful taste sensations. “Taste” it is not only about food, there is music in the air, thanks to the live concerts offered continuously throughout the weekend.  And the cost cannot be beat: it’s free!  So consider making The Queen City on the Ohio River your Memorial Day destination.  Like Rome, Cincinnati is built upon seven hills.  While in town, you might enjoy visiting the historic half-timbered Rookwood Pottery Building, up high on Mount Adams.  You would not go wrong by seeing the wonderful animals of the Cincinnati Zoo or enjoying the masterpieces at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, both are consistently top-ranked world-class destinations.  The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is also a unique and compelling must-see.

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Originally published May 19, 2014. Updated May 25, 2016.