Tucked along the Delaware River, Philadelphia boasts well-preserved history, thriving arts and culture, and a newly booming food scene. Nearly equidistant between New York and Washington, D.C., the City of Brotherly Love is an easy visit from nearby Eastern seaboard states, but also doable as a long weekend trip for visitors from the West Coast (like us!).
Philadelphia is where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and it’s very much the birthplace of the U.S. as a nation. Introducing these historic landmarks to our kids was the focus of our recent four-day family visit. We chose accommodations in Old City, with the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, Ben Franklin Museum and the 2-year-old Museum of the American Revolution all within a few blocks.
If we’d had more time, we could certainly have tacked on a day or two beyond city limits to visit the nearby Valley Forge National Park, coastal beaches or even Hershey’s famed theme park. No matter what your itinerary, Philly offers plenty to learn, do and eat!
Start the morning bright and early at the glass-encased Liberty Bell Center. Free of charge and run by the National Park Service, the first-come, first-served site exhibits detailed information and memorabilia and ends with the 2,080-pound bell itself. Originally known as the State House Bell, the copper and tin structure once rang in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). That original bell came from London, but cracked on the first ring; it was melted down and recast in Philadelphia. The new version later developed a split after decades of use and the crack we see today was actually made to repair the bell.
It’s also worth noting that it was abolitionists and women’s rights activists who coined the term Liberty Bell and adopted it as their symbol based on the inspiring inscription across the top.
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After the bell, consider touring Independence Hall to see the room where the Declaration was signed and the Constitution was created as a framework for our government. Free timed tickets are required and available at the visitor center or online.
If this feels like a bit much for littler ones, opt to visit the Philadelphia branch of the U.S. Mint, where half the circulating coins in the country are struck. The mint has undergone a major renovation in recent years.
Our daughter, who had read about Betsy Ross before the trip, was especially keen to see the famed flag-maker’s house. Though it’s still disputed whether this was the upholsterer’s original home, the intimate house and shop offers a slice of what colonial life was like. A “Betsy” in colonial attire usually can be found in the house. During our visit, Betsy shared how she persuaded General Washington to use a five-point star on the flag (instead of a six-point one) and gave our daughter a paper example of that star.
Even the candy shops in Philadelphia have a history. Finish with treats or hot chocolate (parents may like the yummy Spanish drinking chocolate with a hint of cayenne) at nearby Shane’s Confectionery, which dates back to 1911.
The 2-year-old Museum of the American Revolution was one of the high points of our weekend, largely because we signed up for the hour-long family highlights tour offered on Sundays. An educator from the museum, dressed in colonial garb, takes families through the core exhibits with interactive prompts for children along the way. From the discontent over taxes to the battles of Lexington and Concord to a model privateer ship that children can climb aboard, our guide helped bring to life so many details and stories about the war. We finished with the movie and showing of George Washington’s war tent, the museum’s powerful and moving pièce de résistance.
With so much history to absorb, we took a lunch break and headed to Goldie’s Falafel, the more casual but equally delicious eatery from chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav’s fame. The pint-size Center City restaurant offers falafel sandwiches with marinated cabbage, cucumber, tomato and parsley, and tehina shakes and fries too.
In anticipation of our Philadelphia trip, I had tried to hook our family on the Young Ben Franklin podcast. Our son was especially absorbed by the storytelling, and so we knew we had to make a stop at the underground Ben Franklin Museum. Set below the very area where Franklin’s home and print shop existed, the small museum shares a glimpse of Franklin’s personality and many achievements. A printer, philosopher, inventor and statesman, Franklin is credited with many of the country’s firsts, including a post office, hospital, lending library and even a volunteer fire department, all of which were first established in Philadelphia.
On our last day, we took a break from history and considered other alternatives such as the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum and Barnes Foundation.
A robust science museum and planetarium, the Franklin Institute would certainly have engaged our kids for hours. The Rodin Museum, which I had visited more than a decade prior, has some 150 works that span the course of the famed sculptor’s career. And the stunning 93,000-square-foot Barnes Foundation, which moved to Philadelphia in recent years, is known for its outstanding collection of impressionist art.
Ultimately, though, our children were looking forward to some downtime at a park (or ice skating rink, as it happened to be in our case). Had we pushed, maybe we would have made it to another historical stop or museum; knowing that family travel is a balance and less is often more, we went with the flow. But I can say, without a doubt, we will definitely be back in Philadelphia again!
Editor’s Note: Photos by Tanvi Chheda except where noted.
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