Unlock the legacies of society’s most elite as you step through the threshold of their grand estates. The gilded past of America comes to life as you meander through the hallways and gardens of these ten breathtaking properties. From panoramic views and lavish gardens to rare art and rich history, these extravagant homes welcome all to enjoy the high life.
By Zachary Laks
WHERE: Lenox, MA
Edith Wharton's grand mansion, The Mount, built in 1902, overlooks vast acres of lush, curated gardens. Best known for writing The Age of Innocence, Wharton was a Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction author who became a massive influence in modern American home design and gardening. Converted to a public landmark in 1980, The Mount has daily tours that bring visitors through the expansive 42-room estate. Separate tours are available through the formal gardens, and there's even a ghost tour in the fall, when spirits evoke the haunted nature of the aged grounds.
Insider Tip: Head down the street to the famed Red Lion Inn of Stockbridge, MA, for some peaceful relaxation on the porch, complete with rocking chairs.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Berkshires Travel Guide
The Biltmore Estate
WHERE: Asheville, NC
The sprawling, 8,000-acre grand estate of George Vanderbilt is a modern marvel. Completed in 1895 at the height of the Gilded Age, The Biltmore Estate's four acres of square footage are outfitted with 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. Vanderbilt’s fortune was inherited from his grandfather, Cornelius, patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country, who amassed a fortune in railroads and shipping. The grounds are open to the public with the new Antler Hill Village and Winery, where shopping, exhibits, restaurants, and wine shops dot the manicured pathways and groomed gardens.
Insider Tip: Off-road like never before in the luxury of a Land Rover truck, which you can drive yourself at The Biltmore Estate. Steep ascents and rock crawls await!
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Asheville Travel Guide
Kykuit The Rockefeller Estate
WHERE: Sleepy Hollow, NY
Overlooking the Hudson River sits Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller’s historic stone house, built in 1913. Within its six stories and 40 rooms, Kykuit houses Picassos, Moores, and Calders, as well as a world-renowned 20th-century sculpture collection. Still an active residence for the Rockefeller families, the main grounds of Kykuit are private and only available to the public through guided tours. Each tour focuses on a different part of the grounds, including areas such as the Coach Barn, where a collection of classic cars and horse-drawn carriages are on display, as well as the Italian garden, home to the Adam and Eve fountain.
Insider Tip: After your tour, head to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, where trails take you through lush forests perfect for bird watching.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Hudson Valley Travel Guide
WHERE: Rancho Mirage, CA
As a famed publisher, businessman, and philanthropist, Walter Annenberg and his flamboyant décor shine bright at Sunnylands, his and his wife's estate in Southern California. A distinct modern home, Sunnylands has a statement pink pyramid roof and a signature glass wall exterior, exposing guests to the panoramic mountainscape. A flagship golf course designed by Dick Wilson was a favorite of the Annenbergs, who played the course almost every day they were on site. With a new visitor center completed in 2011, Sunnylands welcomes guests for tours through the pristine estate, as well as into the life of the Annenberg family.
Insider Tip: Every other week or so, Sunnylands hosts a free movie night on the Great Lawn.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s California Travel Guide
Chalk Hill Estate
WHERE: Healdsburg, CA
About 40 years ago, Chalk Hill Estate was established on 1,300 acres of land at the base of the Mayacama Mountains, in Sonoma County, as a vineyard and residence for wine connoisseur Fred Furth. Having perfected its agricultural and fermentation processes, Chalk Hill is best known for its Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. Book ahead for an estate tour that will take you behind the scenes of the winemaking process, which includes tastings of the current pours.
Insider Tip: The Chalk Hill Culinary Lunch Tour is a special excursion focusing on the organic garden that supplies the fine cuisine at the estate. After the tour, you can relax with wine tastings and small plates of the same fruits and vegetables you saw moments prior in the garden. Reservations are required.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Napa and Sonoma Travel Guide
WHERE: Mount Vernon, VA
In Fairfax County, VA, not far from Alexandria, sits the historic Mount Vernon, built in 1735, where George Washington lived for 45 years. The house’s 21 rooms display intricate details, with almost all design and construction overseen by Washington himself. A variety of tours bring guests through the halls of the mansion and focus on aspects of life in the 1700s, such as dining culture, canine life, and slave labor. The Signature Tour brings guests to private areas of the house, such as the third floor and basement, for an even more in-depth look at the lives of America’s first First Couple.
Insider Tip: For the best view of Mount Vernon, hop on board the sightseeing cruise. The 45-minute narrated boat ride on the Potomac is a great way to admire the majesty of the grounds.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Washington D.C. Travel Guide
WHERE: Newport, RI
Built in ornate glory by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895, The Breakers is the ultimate summer home. This towering 70-room mansion on 13 acres provides unobstructed panoramic views of the Atlantic. The Great Hall dazzles visitors with its grand red carpet staircase, rare marble moldings, and walls overflowing with Italian art and sculptures. Step through to the library, where a fireplace from the 16th century remains in pristine condition, having been imported from Burgundy. The manor's style is grand and opulent, with manicured gardens and fountains.
Insider Tip: Take a hike on Newport’s Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile long scenic hike along the Atlantic coast, which offers incredible views of the many summer estates, including a great view of The Breakers.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Rhode Island Travel Guide
Black Point Estate
WHERE: Lake Geneva, WI
Built in Queen Anne-style in 1888 by Chicago beer baron Conrad Seipp, Black Point Estate sits on Lake Geneva. Originally designed with 13 bedrooms and one bathroom, the house was built as an escape from the city. The property remained in the family for three generations, and in 2005, Seipp’s great-grandson gifted it to the state of Wisconsin for use as a historic site. The home is open for tours from May through October, and visitors still arrive to the grounds by boat, the same way the original visitors did.
Insider Tip: The Wisconsin Historical Society Passport gains entry to the Black Point Estate, along with 11 other historic landmarks throughout the Cheese State.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Wisconsin Travel Guide
The Inn at Shelburne Farms
WHERE: Shelburne, VT
Make your way through winding roads and you’ll see the mammoth Shelburne Farms appear magnificently on the horizon. With a panoramic outlook of Lake Champlain, the grand Shelburne Estate, formerly a private estate but now a nonprofit with a mission to educate for a sustainable future, is a model of country living. Built in the 1880s by Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb as a 3,800-acre farm and residence, Shelburne was once internationally known for hackney horse breeding. Restored in 1987, the estate has been converted to an inn with 24 guest rooms and four guest cottages, along with a public farm-to-table restaurant—and made Fodor’s list of Top 100 Hotels in 2012.
Insider Tip: Stop by the Shelburne Farms store for their renowned fresh cheddar cheese, maple syrup, cured meats, and farm-made jams.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Vermont Travel Guide
WHERE: Charlottesville, VA
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, built a sprawling plantation in 1772 with land he had inherited from his father and called it Monticello. He originally built the estate to grow tobacco, wheat, and other crops at the top of an 850-foot peak in the Southwest Mountains. Designed with Neoclassical influences and maintained in pristine condition, Monticello welcomes visitors to explore the house and gardens, as well as four exhibits examining Jefferson's legacy of liberty and public service. With its facade having once served as the main image on the back of the $2 bill, the house stands as a national treasure.
Insider Tip: Opt for the Monticello Neighborhood Pass so you can gain access to James Monroe’s house in addition to Jefferson’s Monticello.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Virigina Travel Guide