Think like a tourist

It's only the first day of our trip, and my mind is officially blown as I stare at rows of crumbling white bricks and stone benches. These are ancient Roman bathhouses, circa A.D. 140, our host informs.

A.D. 140 .

And we've only started our history lesson. Later, we'll gawk at the remains of a defensive Roman fort, circa A.D. 100; lean against the foreboding stone buttress of a 15th-century medieval Scottish highland castle; sit in the pews of an epic seventh-century cathedral; drink pints of beer in a 16th-century-era Glasgow, Scotland, pub; and wander through a monastic Belgian crypt with tomb engravings that mark its history as far back as the 11th century.

As we take in the sights, California's history seems to pale in comparison: 1800s-era buildings no longer impress.

At least, not until the flight home from Brussels, as I listen to a young foreign exchange student excitedly tick off the American attractions she plans to visit.

“I really want to see Sutter's Fort,” the Sacramento-bound girl tells her seatmate.

Sutter's Fort? Really?

The structure was built in the 19th century, and most of what remains isn't even original, I want to tell her. Think of what you're leaving behind: castles! Cathedrals! Meandering city canals once guarded by knights!

Her enthusiasm, however, also strikes a wistful nerve. Sitting on that plane, still miles from home, I suddenly find myself newly appreciative of it.

Most historical attractions here—Sutter's Fort; the foothills' gold-rush settlements; Old Sacramento, with its legendary underground streets—are relatively new, but if you think of them like a tourist, eager to experience their stories in person, they take on fresh importance.

History—and home—is what you make it.