If the upcoming presidential holiday or the steady debate about who should lead the country for the next four years has sparked an interest in travel with a patriotic theme, Philadelphia fits the bill perfectly.
This city of 1.5 million takes tremendous pride in its linkage to the country’s Founding Fathers, early presidents, shaping of American democracy and all things red, white and blue.
Philadelphia was founded in 1682 by William Penn and grew into a vibrant and vital colonial city. During the American Revolution, it was the site of the first and second continental congresses. For a short time, Philadelphia was the capital of the United States.
All of this history (and so much more) is enshrined in a number of tourist-friendly sites, including Independence National Historical Park, National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell Center, Betsy Ross House and a new attraction called The President’s House. Many feature state-of-the-art technologies and environments that make the retelling of history both compelling and appealing.
Independence National Historical Park is located on the site of many of the seminal events that shaped the nation. In the nearly two-and-a-half centuries since the Declaration of Independence was adopted there on July 4, 1776 it has grown into a living model of history for generations to experience. “The stories related to the founding of the United States of America in Philadelphia are multiple and are still being discovered and reanalyzed. The opportunity to understand our history with its complexities and contradictions is valuable for the millions of people who come to find a connection with this place,” said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent, INHP. The Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the New Hall Military Museum, Franklin Court, Bishop White House and the Declaration House are some of the structures that make up the park. During the summer, ranger-led walking tours are held, and every July 8, a public reading of the Declaration of Independence is held on the spot where it was first read in 1776. Throughout the year, one can stroll the grounds of the park independently taking in as much as one wants at each site.
At Independence Hall, one can view the courtroom where lawyers from opposing sides shared tables and law books, see the original inkstand used to signed the Declaration of Independence as well as a draft of the document. (The original is housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.). Free tickets can be obtained on the day of visit at the Independence Visitors Center located at 6th and Market streets, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Reserved timed entry tickets also can be purchased for $1.50. (For reserved tickets, call (877) 444-6777 or visit http://recreation.gov.) Tip: Arrive early to secure same day tickets as often tickets are gone by 1 p.m. during the busy season.
A new addition to the park in recent years is The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, which reveals the inside story of the residence of presidents George Washington and John Adams, who served their terms of office in the first executive mansion which was located on the site. It also pays tribute to nine enslaved Africans held by Washington. The President’s House is an open-air, skeletal structure with five videos embedded in parts of it depicting re-enactments of what life might have been like for the enslaved Africans. The site is located on the Independence Mall between the Liberty Bell Center and the National Constitution Center. There is no charge for this exhibit.
Yet another stop on Independence Mall is where I had a surprising and engaging learning experience, the National Constitution Center, which I initially thought might be a bit of a yawn. Through a wide variety of exhibits (more than 100, many interactive), the story of the country’s birth and the continuing struggle to uphold the tenets of the Constitution are demonstrated. I was captivated by the theatrical performance Freedom Rising, which combines a live actor with a high-tech multi-media mashup of visuals and sound. One can also stand shoulder to shoulder with life-size bronze statues of the 39 signers of the Constitution, decide a Supreme Court case and take the presidential oath of office. Tickets to the National Constitution Center, which proclaims itself as “America’s first and only museum dedicated to the U.S. Constitution,” range from $9.50 to $16.50. (Free admission is given to active military with identification and children who are age 3 and younger.)
Liberty 360 is a 15-minute indoor show in which visitors are taken on a 360-degree 3-D journey to explore the meaning of liberty led by Benjamin Franklin. The action takes place inside Historic Philadelphia Center’s PECO Theater, located at 6th and Chestnut streets. Go to historicphiladelphia.org for more information.
Whether or not Betsy Ross really stitched the first American flag remains a bit of a mystery, however, her connection to American flags and early ways of life is celebrated at The American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial. The house at 239 Arch St. was a home Ross rented and worked in as a furniture upholsterer. It features tiny rooms and a tight staircase and her family Bible, snuff box and other belongings are on display. Ross is buried under elm and sycamore trees in the home’s courtyard. Visitors can take self-guided tours of her work room, two bedrooms and kitchen.
These are just a few of the historic and general tourism things to do in Philadelphia. It’s an urban center filled with a rich mix of diversions, including cuisine, art, culture and off-the-beaten path attractions. Don’t try to experience it all in one visit. Philadelphia is the kind of city deserving of return trips.
For more information on places to visit in Philadelphia, go to www.visitphilly.com.