The Brig Niagara under full sail, off of South Bass Island, Ohio on Lake Erie.
The Brig Niagara under full sail, off of South Bass Island, Ohio on Lake Erie. by Lance Woodworth (CC BY)

30 Boat Tours That Take You Back in Time

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The Brig Niagara under full sail, off of South Bass Island, Ohio on Lake Erie.
The Brig Niagara under full sail, off of South Bass Island, Ohio on Lake Erie. by Lance Woodworth (CC BY)

History Courses

There's a romance and adventurousness to old-time sailing you just don't get from chic modern cruise liners. Thankfully, the travel industry provides plenty of opportunities to recreate and learn about the experience of being on a wooden ship at sea, albeit without the same dangers and isolation faced by sailors in the old days. In this list, we'll review some of the day and overnight boat tours and ships-turned-museums that give tourists a chance to live out their nostalgic seafaring fantasies. 

Related: The 40 Best Places in America to Travel Back in Time

Mystic Whaler
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Mystic Whaler | New London, Connecticut

Sailing from May through October, the Mystic Whaler recreates the experience of sailing on one of coastal cargo schooners that kept Atlantic port cities well stocked in the 19th century. On 3-hour-plus cruises touring the Thames River's historic forts and lighthouses, passengers can raise the sails and take turns steering, while also enjoying the comforts of alcoholic refreshments, hors d'oeuvres, and, on select sailings, choice New England seafood. Prices range from $60 to $94 per adult.

The sternwheeler Queen of the West, a 1995-built replica steamboat, on the Columbia River near Hood River, Oregon.
The sternwheeler Queen of the West, a 1995-built replica steamboat, on the Columbia River near Hood River, Oregon. by patti (CC BY-SA)

Queen of the West | Portland, Oregon

The Queen of the West is a nostalgic paddlewheel ship that retraces portions of the Lewis and Clark voyage along the Pacific Northwest's majestic Columbia and Snake Rivers. Run by American Cruise Lines, this seven-day Northwest cruise starts in Portland and encompasses natural and historic landmarks like Multnomah Falls, Mount St. Helens, and Fort Clatsop, where America's most famous expeditioners rode out the winter of 1806. Rates starting at $3,725 include lodging, dining, and onshore guided experiences.

Adventure
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Adventure | Gloucester, Massachusetts

Launched in 1926, the schooner Adventure hauled in more than $4 million worth of fish before retiring in 1953 as the Atlantic's last dory trawler. Now restored to active condition, it serves as a mobile symbol of Massachusetts' maritime heritage, a living history classroom for students, and host to both private events and open community sails in season. Tickets to learn about the vessel's history and operations firsthand are available May through October and cost $60.

Star of India
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Star of India | San Diego

The world's oldest active sailing ship, the Star of India was built in 1863 and traversed the globe 21 times between Great Britain, India, and New Zealand before serving the West Coast's salmon cannery industry. Visitors can get the inside scoop on this history and what life onboard was like with a $20 admission to the San Diego Maritime Museum. Even more experiential learning opportunities are available with the four-hour on-the-water adventures, costing between $44 and $99, aboard either the Gold Rush-era Californian or 16th century replica San Salvador.

SS American Victory
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SS American Victory | Tampa, Florida

For $10 per person, the American Victory Ship and Museum gives full access to one of America's last operational World War II merchant ships. That's nine decks complete with crew cabins, captain's quarters, radio and weaponry rooms, a three-level cargo hold, and much more. Docent-guided tours offer more to learn about the rare artifacts and military decorations onboard, as well as why merchant marines are considered the "unsung heroes" of many conflicts. The ship also hosts a couple of Relive History cruises every spring and fall, wherein participants enjoy live entertainment and traditional maritime demonstrations while sailing through Tampa Bay.

The Christeen, Oyster Bay, New York
The Christeen, Oyster Bay, New York by Idoysterbay (CC BY)

Christeen | Oyster Bay, New York

Built in 1883, the nation's oldest oyster sloop now takes passengers on educational tours of Oyster Bay and Cold Spring harbor. After surviving numerous hurricanes and Nor'easters dredging up the turn of the century's chief fishery product, the one-masted Christeen now provides a unique venue for learning more about both the maritime history and current environmental conditions of Long Island Sound.

Elissa
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Elissa | Galveston, Texas

The official Tall Ship of Texas, this three-masted barque was built at the end of the age of sail but still lasted well enough to become one of the world's longest continuously sailed vessels. That legacy continues with its annual day-sail series from the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston, during which trainees gain hands-on experience sailing a square-rigged ship. If you're unable to afford or schedule one of these $200 voyages (they're booked up for this year), the Elissa is also open for self-guided tours for $8 per adult.

The Brig Niagara under full sail, off of South Bass Island, Ohio on Lake Erie.
The Brig Niagara under full sail, off of South Bass Island, Ohio on Lake Erie. by Lance Woodworth (CC BY)

U.S. Brig Niagara | Erie, Pennsylvania

The U.S. Brig Niagara is a replica of an 1813 warship that serves as both a historical artifact and sail-training classroom. While accessible for most of the year as part of the Erie Maritime Museum (admission cost $10), the Niagara also goes out on the Great Lakes for four-hour public day sails costing $85 and hosts two-week seamanship apprentice programs for would-be sailors of high school age and over in summer. The Lettie G. Howard, a National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1893, also hosts sailing trips of 1½ to 2½ hours.

The Schooner Pride
Schooner Pride/Yelp

The Schooner Pride | Charleston, South Carolina

Modeled after 18th century coastal trading ships, the Schooner Pride evokes the peak days of Charleston's harbor trade with daily public sailings. Lasting two hours each, they offer afternoon dolphin sails ($47 per adult), sunset sails ($58), or moonlight sails ($45). While not narrated, passengers are encouraged to ask crew members for more context on the area's maritime history and marine wildlife, or for the chance to help rig the sails. 

Related: 19 Free or Cheap Things to Do in Charleston

Creole Queen
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Creole Queen | New Orleans

This list wouldn't be complete without a paddleboat tour along the Big Muddy. In New Orleans, the Creole Queen offers twice daily tours with a local historian narrator, covering the city's 300-year heritage through landmark stops like the Chalmette Battlefield and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. Prices start at $36 per adult for the three-hour experience, with a $15 surcharge for bottomless mimosas along the way.

SS John W. Brown
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SS John W. Brown | Baltimore

The SS John W Brown is one of two remaining operational "Liberty Ships" that served the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II. Preserved in the Baltimore harbor, she now hosts several annual events that whisk passengers off the land and into the 1940s, imparting the duties of a merchant seaman in their authentic quarters in between USO-style entertainment and aircraft flybys. Day and weekend-long experiences can be booked in advance for costs starting at $150 and $950, respectively.

The Pilgrim – Dana Point, California
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The Pilgrim | Dana Point, California

As well as a full-sized replica of the circa 1825 fur-trading brig immortalized by the novel "Two Years Before the Mast," the Pilgrim is the Ocean Institute of Dana Point's "largest classroom," hosting living history programs and overnight field trips for thousands of students each year. For the rest of the public, it features prominently in the annual Tall Ships Festival each September, and hosts a weekly open house (with $10 admission) each Sunday, wherein period-appropriate docents impart sea shanties, nautical lore, rigging techniques, and other tidbits about the golden age of sailing.

The American Queen, a recreation of a classic Mississippi riverboat, in front of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, MO, US.
The American Queen, a recreation of a classic Mississippi riverboat, in front of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, MO, US. by Thegreenj (CC BY-SA)

American Queen Steamboat Company | Mississippi River

This company boasts a number of cruises that let passengers experience the Mississippi River with historic themes to suit any era or interest. "Huckleberry Finn" fans can tour Samuel Clemens' Missouri hometown on the Mark Twain cruise; whiskey enthusiasts can enjoy special tastings and distilling demonstrations in Kentucky's Bourbon country; and military buffs can learn about the waterway's strategic importance during the Civil War. Itineraries are usually eight- to nine-days and cost upward of $2,000 per person.

Schooner Alliance
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Schooner Alliance | Yorktown, Virginia

Modeled after early colonial sailing vessels that traded with the Powhatan Indians, the Schooner Alliance recalls America's infancy with sailings through Virginia's "Historic Triangle," the birthplace of our democracy, including the Revolutionary War's Yorktown Battlefield and Victory Monument. The two-hour sightseeing cruises run daily from April through November with an admission cost of $39 for adults or $27 for children, who may prefer the themed Pirate Adventure cruises instead.

Sea Cloud
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Sea Cloud

Not much has changed when it comes to rigging up sails, as passengers on this four-masted schooner's globetrotting sailing cruises get to observe. Built by a Wall Street tycoon in 1931, the windjammer now hosts up to 64 guests in an old-timey atmosphere of marble fireplaces, teak benches, and antique nautical instruments. Knowledgeable crew members are also happy to answer questions about the Sea Cloud's eventful history, while a live pianist and sea shanty choir provide regular entertainment on the promenade deck.

Queen Mary 2
Queen Mary 2 by NMOS332 (CC BY-SA)

Queen Mary 2

There are plenty of cruise ships sailing the seas today, but the Queen Mary 2 is the only remaining ocean liner, which were once the primary mode of transportation across oceans from the mid-19th century onward. This retro classic holds more than 2,500 passengers and 1,200 crew members, like its own civilization at sea, complete with a vast library, bars, restaurants, luxurious staterooms, and a spa club. On their six-day Atlantic crossings, guests can experience all the shared challenges of life out at sea and the civilized trappings of the turn-of-the-century before coming to port in New York City just like the socialites and immigrants of yesteryear. These voyages start at $1,300 per person, while two-night cruise itineraries within Europe cost as low as $389.

Side view of Star Clipper.
Side view of Star Clipper. by ChrisCruises (CC BY)

Star Clippers

The Star Clipper and Star Flyer are a pair of modernized clippers, the common 19th-century merchant sailing ship, which ferry up to 170 cruise passengers across the seas in retro style. With sailings from the Caribbean and Panama Canal to the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia, their voyages combine the evocative historic decor of tri-masted teak decks, antique paintings, mahogany railings, and an Edwardian-style library with more modern luxuries like a tropical-themed bar and two onboard swimming pools.

The Jolly Roger
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The Jolly Roger | Grand Cayman

Though modeled after Christopher Columbus' galleon the Nina, the experience onboard the Jolly Roger is more escapist than historic, evoking family-friendly pirate lore during 2-hour sails along the shores of Grand Cayman. Whether snorkeling during the daytime, watching the sunset, or blasting music on the evening booze cruise, tourists can enjoy stunning views along with live entertainment from the crew and unlimited quantities of fruit and rum punch. Voyages cost $95 for adults and $47 for children.

The brigantine under sail
The brigantine under sail by Forum Media Group, Merching (CC BY-SA)

Eye of the Wind | Caribbean & Mediterranean

An internationally certified sail-training vessel, the Eye of the Wind navigates between Mediterranean and North Sea ports each summer and Caribbean ports each winter. Along the way, intimate groups of 12 passengers learn how to rig and take control of the 109-year-old topsail schooner, which may be recognizable for its featured role in films like "Blue Lagoon." Cruises range from three- to seven-nights in duration and cost anywhere from $900 to $2,000 per person.

Amazon River
SL_Photography/istockphoto

Rio Amazonas | Iquitos, Peru

Built in 1899, this restored steamboat will make passengers feel like a Victorian-era explorer, cruising down South America's most iconic body of water during the "Rubber Boom" of the late 19th and early 20th century. Along with the 1876 Clavero, also housed at the Museum of Historic Boats, the Rio Amazonas takes regular five-day cruises, featuring wildlife viewing, naturalist lectures, and classic books on Amazonian history in a retro historic setting outfitted with useful modern comforts like air conditioning. Costs start at $1,249 per passenger.

USS Constitution
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USS Constitution | Boston

The world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat, the USS Constitution, or "Old Ironsides," played a major role fending off British naval forces in the War of 1812. Now part of Boston's Freedom Trail of distinguished historical sites, the top three decks are open and free to visit throughout the year at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where active duty Navy personnel are stationed to give oral presentations on the ship's life and role in American history every 30 minutes.

USS Alabama
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USS Alabama | Mobile, Alabama

Built in 1940, this 45,000-ton battleship saw action across the North Atlantic and South Pacific with a crew of 2,500 Americans before settling down as a National Historic Landmark on the Gulf Coast. For a $15 general admission ticket, visitors gain access to the enormous gun turrets and below-deck living quarters of the "Mighty A," as well as the plane and artillery collections — not to mention America's oldest publicly displayed submarine — also located in the grounds of Battleship Memorial Park.

USS Cobia in 2006
USS Cobia in 2006 by Royalbroil (CC BY-SA)

USS Cobia | Manitowoc, Wisconsin

The USS Cobia submarine sank 13 Japanese vessels in World War II, including two that proved crucial to the Allied victory at Iwo Jima. Restored to its 1945 condition, it now serves as a submarine memorial and centerpiece of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. A general admission fee of $15 not only lets you tour the preserved torpedo rooms and other quarters, but also includes a "Below the Surface" exhibit that recreates an actual depth-charging battle based on the ship's patrol log.

USS Constellation
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USS Constellation | Baltimore

The USS Constellation was the last sail-only warship built by the U.S. Navy, which served in the African Slave Trade Patrol before being drafted to guard the U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean against attack by Confederate ships in the Civil War. As part of the Baltimore harbor's world-class Historic Ships collection, the Constellation has four unique decks open to explore, with uniformed crew members offering historic context. They also host regular live firings of the Parrott rifle and kid-friendly tours about the "Powder Monkeys," as young as 11-years-old, who were responsible for manning the artillery guns. A $15 or $18 admission charge grants access to two or four of the ships on display respectively. 

Related: The Best Things To Do In Baltimore

USS Hornet
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USS Hornet | Alameda, California

This aircraft carrier is a museum unto itself, paying tribute to its history in World War II's Pacific theater and as the recovery ship for NASA's early Apollo missions. Included with a $20 adult entry ticket are hourlong docent tours through meticulously restored living quarters and control rooms, a test command module and similar space-race artifacts, military jets and helicopters in the hangar decks, and other in-depth history exhibits.

Charles W. Morgan – Mystic, Connecticut
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Charles W. Morgan | Mystic, Connecticut

Dating to 1841 with an 80-year seafaring career, the Morgan is second only to Old Ironsides as America's oldest ship still afloat. A relic of New England's commercial whaling era, it now serves as a flagship for the Mystic Seaport Museum, occasionally sailing between ports to raise awareness of maritime history and issues of ocean conservation. Still lined with enormous try-pots for converting blubber into whale oil, the ship's decks are available to tour for $19 per adult.

Arthur Foss – Seattle
Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Foss | Seattle

Well before starring in MGM's 1933 blockbuster Tugboat Annie, this 1889 tugboat towed ships across the Columbia River shoals and to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. Now the oldest floating vessel in the Pacific Northwest, it's one of several museum ships at Seattle's Northwest Seaport available for public tours and vocational training. For only $50 per bunk, one can spend the night learning about the ship and its place in maritime history. She also hosts bimonthly story times and onboard happy hours in summertime.

USS Cairo – Vicksburg, Mississippi
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USS Cairo | Vicksburg, Mississippi

One of seven ironclad warships built for the Civil War, the USS Cairo captured a Confederate fort along the Mississippi before becoming the first ever vessel sunk by remote torpedo. Preserved for more than 100 years by the mud of the Yazoo River, the gunboat was eventually recovered and displayed at Vicksburg National Military Park, along with more than a thousand artifacts offering a glimpse into what life was like onboard. The park costs $20 to visit and includes an accompanying museum and summer ranger programs to supplement a ship walkthrough.

USS Silversides
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USS Silversides | Muskegon, Michigan

The USS Silversides sank the third-most ships of any Allied submarine during World War II, and the museum named in its honor now offers a window into what life was like onboard during the conflict. While standard daily admission is only $15, groups of 20 or more can pay $32.50 apiece to stay overnight in the same berths once occupied by U.S. Navy sailors.

Rhode Island Bay Cruises
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Rhode Island Bay Cruises | North Kingstown, Rhode Island

For this cruise, the boat isn't the historic attraction so much as the sights it sails past. In a 90-minute passage through Narragansett Bay, passengers can take in the opulent Gilded Age mansions of Newport, the nation's second largest masonry fort, and many prime examples of classic wooden ships. The $35 advance ticket takes you past 60 miles of coastline, with insights along the way provided by well-known local historian Arthur Strauss.