Larry Bleiberg, Special for USA TODAY
History is best understood by walking the ground where it happened, says filmmaker Ken Burns. 'You feel the presence of what went on before. We go to these places because we're aware that the ghosts and echoes of an almost inexpressibly wise past summon us.' Burns, whose new seven-part documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, airs on PBS stations beginning Sept. 14, shares some favorite U.S. history sites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Mark Twain House, Hartford, Conn.
Visitors to Mark Twain's house can sense the author's presence, Burns says. 'You walk into the room and you can almost see the cigar smoke. You feel that if you just moved fast enough you could see the white haired man.' The home's Texas Deck porch is where Twain wrote much of Huckleberry Finn not in Hannibal, Mo., he notes.
Bucket list tip: Head next door to tour the home of another notable writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Yosemite National Park, California
The park, which Burns considers 'the most beautiful place on Earth,' played a key role in our nation's attitude toward conservation. This year celebrates the 150th anniversary of the act signed by Abraham Lincoln that first preserved the area. It demonstrated that while our still-young country didn't yet have great cities or cathedrals, it had unparalleled natural beauty, Burns says. 'It was the Declaration of Independence applied to a landscape,' Burns says.
Bucket list tip: Hike to Vernal and Nevada falls and feel the power of the cascades. 'You can get close and get in the roar and spray of them.'
French Quarter, New Orleans
Visitors can feel cultures clashing, meeting and merging in this focal point of American history. Visit to see New Orleans' architecture, its wrought iron fences, and the Mississippi River 'bringing all the foods and products of the hinterlands out to the Gulf of Mexico,' Burns says. 'It's not about gaudy Mardi Gras. It's the Grand Canyon of American history, a station of the cross if you're American and want to know its history.'
Bucket list tip: The French Quarter is meant to be explored by foot. Burns suggests starting in Jackson Square, then working your way through tiny streets and alleys by shops and galleries.
The Brooklyn Bridge, New York
It's remarkable enough that John Roebling's span over the East River is still in constant use more than 130 years after it opened, but it also shows the energy, optimism and creativity of the age. 'It's one of the most gorgeous pieces of art and architecture of the 19th century,' Burns says. 'In an age where most buildings were three or four stories, to have a place where seagulls flew beneath you was a thrill.'
Bucket list tip: By all means walk across the bridge. Starting from Brooklyn offers a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline.
Springwood, Hyde Park, N.Y.
To get to know Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Burns considers the 20th century's most important president, you have to visit his home, located along a scenic stretch of the Hudson River. 'It's where he spent all his summers. It's where he came to recuperate. It's where his family had the fondest memories of being together,' he says. Exhibits at Springwood address the leader's polio. 'You'll also see the braces he had to wear, the arcane torture devices, almost something from the Inquisition, and see his wheelchair.'
Bucket list tip: Make sure to visit Top Cottage, where England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. Open May through October.
America was shaken to its roots at what Burns calls 'the greatest battle ever fought on American soil,' when more than 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or went missing. 'It was so traumatic for the nation that four months later, Lincoln would go on to give the most famous speech in U.S. history, doubling down on the Declaration of Independence.' The museum and visitors center offers a comprehensive preview, including a film narrated by Morgan Freeman. After touring the battlefield, Burns suggests heading to the national cemetery at sundown.
Bucket list tip: Make sure to see the Cyclorama, a historic panoramic painting of Pickett's Charge.
Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Theodore Roosevelt experienced some of the best and worst moments of his life at his Long Island home. It's here that he got the news that his youngest son died in World War I, where he learned of his humiliating defeat as a third-party candidate and also where he lived with the love of his life, his second wife, Burns says. 'It's a magnificent palace, the trophy case of his life, with the animals and the big game he shot.' It's an entirely different personality from FDR's home.'
Bucket list tip: The home is closed for renovation until 2015, but the adjacent Roosevelt museum is open.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia
It's hard to overstate the importance of this building, where colonial leaders met and wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 'It's the place where the United States was born,' Burns says. 'Try to go on a hot summer day and understand that pre-air conditioning, our founding fathers gathered and tried to figure out how to invent a government.'
Bucket list tip: To understand why this history still matters today, visit the National Constitution Center, an interactive, multi-media museum.
U.S. Capitol and the National Mall, Washington
The center of U.S. political power provides a nearly palpable sense of the country's storied past and its future. Walking the Mall takes visitors by world-renowned museums of art and history. 'It's one of the greatest places on Earth, and the heart of it is the U.S. Capitol, perhaps the most recognized building on Earth,' Burns says.
Bucket list tip: Head to the top of the Washington Monument for a birds-eye view of the city, and then walk the last third of the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, which Burns calls 'the most beautiful monument ever created.'
Lexington and Concord, Mass.
To comprehend the American Revolution, visit these Boston-area towns where it started. 'You'll understand the beginning of the guerrilla warfare that took place,' Burns says, 'the notion that a citizenry feeling the oppression of a country across the ocean would rise up and against the most powerful government on Earth.' Walk the battlefields at Lexington Green and North Bridge and other sites, and try to imagine Colonial and British soldiers engaged in a running firefight. throughout the day at Lexington Green and North Bridge and other sites.
Bucket list tip: Time a visit for Patriots' Day in April, when reenactors show how the conflict unfolded.