29 Places to Visit If You Love the 1960s
More than any other postwar decade, the 1960s are as much a legend as they are an actual decade — and one full of contradictions, meaning different things to different people. It's easy for older generations who lived it and younger ones who didn't to romanticize the time when a rise in global youth culture gave way to social upheaval and shocking political violence. Put the tumultuous decade in perspective and see the reality of the '60s in America, for better and for worse, at these museums and historical sites.
The Beatles' U.S.-influenced skiffle music exploded in international popularity beginning in 1964, playing to crowds of unprecedented sizes and laying the groundwork for an increasingly global market dominated by youth. The music that changed the world came from Liverpool, a northern British port town where you can still visit the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played before fame, or tour the neighborhoods where they grew up, immortalized in songs such as "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Is there any event more tied to the legend of the '60s than Woodstock, the 1969 music festival in upstate New York that attracted more than 400,000 attendees? The field where it all happened is still there, marked by the Museum at Bethel Woods, which offers short films, interactive exhibits, and even intimate concerts designed to convey the history and "key ideals" of the 1960s.
More than any other city, San Francisco has become synonymous with the swinging '60s counterculture, and you can still see the lingering effects in the head shops, fashions, and faded "flower power" graffiti of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It's by sprawling Golden Gate Park, a major site for 1967's "Summer of Love" and the communal sit-ins featuring Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary that preceded it.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared the nation's commitment to landing an American on the moon before the decade ended, and in 1969, the Apollo 11 craft fulfilled that mission. The launch site in Cape Canaveral is now an Air Force outpost with no visitor facilities, but the Kennedy Space Center nearby recounts the story of the moon landing and the nation's other space exploration efforts with one-of-a-kind exhibits featuring moon rocks and the Atlantis space shuttle.
Kennedy didn't live to see his moon landing fulfilled, as he was shot dead in 1963 — the first of many assassinations in the '60s that shook the nation to its core. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where the shooting took place, has been named a National Historic Landmark to preserve the buildings and street lights as they stood in 1963. Visitors can learn about the assassination and its impact on American history from the Sixth Floor Museum in the former book depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly took his shot.
Café Wha? in Greenwich Village was one of Manhattan's most crucial musical hotspots throughout the 1960s, when it hosted performers such as Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce, The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, and Peter, Paul & Mary. Though closed in 1968 for almost two decades, Café Wha? has been restored in the form of a laid-back venue for great music where even informal house band performances draw lines around the block.
The Whisky a Go Go is another surviving music venue that provided a launching pad for some of the '60s most enduring acts, including The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Joplin, and the Byrds. Opened in 1964, it also helped popularize go-go dancing and was one of the main sites of the 1966 Sunset Strip curfew riots. The Whisky still hosts modern acts as well as tribute acts owing to its rich rock history.
In 1960, four university students started a series of nonviolent sit-ins at a local "whites-only" lunch counter at a Woolworth's department store. The protest overthrew the policy and helped inspire other struggles for racial justice, and the lunch counter is preserved as the self-proclaimed "birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement," within the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
There are many historic sites that pay tribute to civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but none more comprehensively than a preserved district in Atlanta, the center of black life in early 20th century Atlanta, that includes his birthplace, childhood church, and final resting place, as well as a rose garden and a bronze monument built in his honor.
The 1963 March on Washington left an indelible mark on the cultural imagination after it flooded the National Mall with more than 200,000 supporters and spawning King's most famous moment of oratory. The words of his "I Have a Dream" speech are today etched in granite on the spot he spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
One of the largest North American museums devoted to a single artist is this one for Pittsburgh-born pop artist Andy Warhol, covering the range of his career through films, artworks, and archival materials. Warhol's most famous works, such as silkscreens of celebrities and Campbell's soup cans, called attention to the nature of art and fame in the 1960s' increasingly consumerist culture. He also produced The Velvet Underground and used his New York studio The Factory as a countercultural gathering place.
For another perspective on the Beatles' short-lived, yet vastly influential career, there's Abbey Road Studios, where the band recorded almost all its songs and for which members named their final recorded album. In addition to recreating the iconic crosswalk photo, visitors can view the free-for-all graffiti wall and shop for souvenirs, remastered vinyls, and historic memorabilia from the band and other '60s acts that recorded at the iconic studio, including Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones.
By embracing the wah-wah pedal and the previously undesirable sound of amplifier feedback, Jimi Hendrix reinvented rock guitar and became a legendary live performer. Since his death in 1970 at age 27, Hendrix is buried in a family plot south of his birthplace in Seattle and memorialized by a granite dome where fans leave flowers and guitar picks. Elsewhere in the city, there's a bronze Hendrix statue and a public park named in his honor.
In addition to rock, the '60s were a prime era for soul music, as defined by Motown in Detroit and Stax Records. The latter studio went bankrupt in 1976, but is now restored to one of the world's only soul music museums, with vintage video footage and exhibits showcasing the genre's history, recording equipment, and influential artists from Stax and other labels including Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, Al Green, and Sam Cooke.
In the house where producer Berry Gordy lived, dubbed "Hitsville USA," the Motown Museum immortalizes American soul music's other major epicenter with intimate exhibits bursting with evocative photography of the period and storied relics, including the sofa Marvin Gaye would sleep in while working late at the studio.
It's no secret that the '60s counterculture was fueled in part by the use of psychedelics. Mark McCloud pays tribute to the decade's drug of choice with the world's largest collection of acid blotter art — aka framed sheets of (inactive) acid featuring pop art-esque images on them. Though twice brought to trial, the "blotter barn" is still open and available to tour for free by appointment.
Another enduring focal point for rock and psychedelic music in the '60s was The Fillmore, a 1,200-person standing auditorium that hosted artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. They still book worthwhile, relevant acts, and history buffs can stroll through the poster room to see original advertisements for some of the venue's most famous performances.
If you're visiting San Francisco, you'll probably tour Alcatraz, and may learn about the Occupation of Alcatraz, when Native Americans and supporters occupied the shuttered federal penitentiary island for 19 months to claim it as unused land. Though ended forcibly in 1971, the counterculture-fueled occupation inspired future American Indian movements while making them a target of FBI counterintelligence operations.
A galvanizing moment for the Civil Rights struggle came Sept. 15, 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Church in a black neighborhood of Birmingham, killing four girls. King gave a funeral speech, and grief surrounding the incident helped ensure passage of the next year's Civil Rights Act. The church is a National Historic Landmark within the Birmingham Civil Rights District and sees more than 200,000 visitors annually.
The historical significance of the Dexter Parsonage Baptist Church dates back to the 1950s as part of the Montgomery bus boycott, but deserves inclusion here for helping thrust King into the national spotlight. Now a National Historic Landmark, the church runs tours from 10 to 4 p.m. on weekdays; the adjacent parsonage where King and his family lived is now a museum.
The stretch of U.S. Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery — now christened an All-American Road — was the site of three marches representing a watershed moment in civil rights activism. The first saw some 600 protesters beaten by state and local lawmen while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge; the second saw King lead a shorter walk to the bridge; the third saw more than 20,000 complete the four-day march between the two cities. President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act less than five months later.
King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, sparking race riots in major cities nationwide. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which was renovated in 2014 to include more interactive, multimedia, and short film exhibits, in addition to the preserved rooms and vehicles relating to the assassination and broader civil rights struggle.
Another major social upheaval of the '60s was second-wave feminism, driven by literature such as "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan and the invention of oral contraception. There are precious few museums recounting the history, but the Women's Museum has exhibits honoring women of the LGBT movement and placing this period of feminist thought in the larger context of women's march to empowerment.
America's escalation of the Vietnam War throughout the '60s sent thousands of citizens to die in a losing proxy war overseas, spawning social activism in opposition. To understand what U.S. soldiers were up against, visit the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a 149-mile network of underground passages used by the Viet Cong to slip past enemies unseen.
The most notorious incident of the Vietnam War was the My Lai massacre in 1968, when U.S. troops murdered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. The hamlet where it happened has been preserved as a memorial by the Vietnamese government, where the victims' names and ages are listed alongside headstones and sculptures mourning their deaths.
This bar in lower Manhattan was the site of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, considered a transformative event for the gay liberation movement, when members of the LGBT community demonstrated against one of the police department's regular raids. The building has been occupied by many other businesses over the years, but the Stonewall Inn returned for good in 2007 and has remained a popular nightlife spot for its live music, trivia nights, drag and cabaret shows, as well as historical significance.
Cold War paranoia soared in the '60s, and much of it centered around the Soviet ally of Cuba, site of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, when Kennedy sent a force of native exiles to try to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime. To better understand how the island nation became a focal point in this international power struggle, you can visit the Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami or Museo Giron at the invasion's landing site in Cuba.
No single site summarizes the Cold War's conflict between East and West quite so succinctly as the Berlin Wall, which cut the German capital in half from 1961 to 1989. Much of the wall was destroyed when it fell, but there are still segments up to nearly a mile long standing throughout Berlin, while hints of its lingering impact remain throughout the city's eastern half.
The rugged stretch of central California coastline known as Big Sur became widely known in the 1960s, when folk singers bought homes in the Carmel Highlands and figures of the blossoming "New Age" flocked to the Esalen Institute for retreats covering gestalt therapy and the "Human Potential Movement." The Esalen Institute is now more upscale spa, but the region is still full of places for silent contemplation and echoes of '60s counterculture, from the Henry Miller Memorial Library to hippie-chic hotels such as Glen Oaks.
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