Image: Althorp estate
David Levenson  /  Getty Images
Nearly 500 years old, Althorp's main attraction is its six-room exhibition highlighting the life of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The Spencer family home also holds an extensive collection of portraits and boasts gardens designed by architect W.N. Teulon in 1860.
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updated 7/17/2007 3:57:20 PM ET 2007-07-17T19:57:20

Hoping to take a spin around the Philip Johnson Glass House this year? Good luck. The only way to access the late architect's New Canaan, Conn., home, which opened to the public for the first time last month, is to become a Patron of the site for $500.

The 1929 home is architecturally significant — it was the first building in America with external walls made entirely of glass — and also houses an impressive collection of 20th century art. Johnson's partner, museum curator David Whitney (both men passed away in 2005), left works by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly to the estate.

What makes tours like these so compelling, says Richard Moe, CEO and president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving historic places, is that they give visitors a peek into the past. The 28 homes in the organization's collection, of which Johnson's is a part, span several generations and eras, and offer varying levels of architectural and cultural significance.

"We're strong believers that every place tells story," he says. "We try to craft an experience that will enable the visitor to take away something real."

You'll find such a spot in Drayton Hall. One of the few plantation estates to survive both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the 17-room, unfurnished mansion boasts architectural elements — from 18th-century limestone steps to 20th-century fish-scale shingles — spanning seven generations of owners. Don't expect ornate draperies and reassembled rooms, though — this is purely about the architecture.

Jane Austen's House Museum in Hampshire, England, is a fine example of a 17th-century cottage, but what makes visiting it worthwhile has more to do with who lived there than what's left.

Austen penned three novels in the eight-room home: "Mansfield Park", "Emma and Persuasion", and she spent time there revising "Pride and Prejudice". Through the end of the month, visitors can view the original manuscript of "Persuasion", on loan from the British Library, as well as such original pieces as Austen's piano and dining room furniture.

Image: Vanderbilt Mansion
John Chiasson  /  Getty Images
This Gilded Age home, maintained by the National Park Service, served as a weekend retreat for Frederick William Vanderbilt and his family from 1895 until his death in 1938. The 54 rooms, designed by Georges Glaenzer, span several eras. Among the pieces on display are a Rococo-style tall case clock and Spanish side chairs.
Interested in art? If so, consider Salvador Dalí's Portlligat House Museum in Cadaqués, Spain, where the surrealist resided for more than 50 years. Visitors travel through narrow passageways, taking in everything from the artist's stuffed animal collections to red velvet draperies in the 15 multi-level rooms.

Though estates such as Althorp, the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., might elicit oohs and aahs, it's often the chance to see how prominent people used to live and to compare their lifestyles with our own that draws visitors.

Says Jerry Sosnicki, founder of HistoricHomeTours.com, an aggregator of historic home sites across the U.S., "There's a little bit of voyeurism in everybody."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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