One of the things I love most about travel is exploring historic sites and trying to imagine what life must have been like for the people who shaped our world. So you can imagine my thrill at visiting Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and walking down the same streets as Betsy Ross and George Washington, standing in the same room as Benjamin Franklin, and dining at the tavern that served Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
Some of the earliest sites and symbols of American Independence stand within the 55 acre, 20 block long Independence National Historical Park . Included within the Historical Park are numerous sites important to early American history including the First and Second Banks of the United States, Congress Hall, Christ Church, Independence Hall, City Tavern and Franklin Court (where Benjamin Franklin’s house once stood). Perhaps, though, the most famous symbol housed within the National Park is the Liberty Bell, found in the Liberty Bell Center.
The first stop for any visit to the Historical Park should be the Independence Visitor’s Center. The modern structure holds exhibits, maps and information kiosks, and it is where timed tour tickets for Independence Hall are distributed, free of charge, on a first come, first serve basis. Guests may choose to reserve tickets up to one year in advance of their visit, for a nominal fee, and during high travel times this is strongly recommended. However, we headed to the Center mid-morning and were able to get tickets for a tour scheduled several hours later. Planning ahead is a good idea, but if you haven’t don’t rule out stopping by and getting lucky.
Independence National Historical Park is not only a haven for history fans, but is a greenway within the city, providing a quiet spot for a picnic or walk. If you’ll have a wait to tour Independence Hall, bring along a blanket to stretch out on the lawn. If you have more energy, do what my family did – with detailed maps in hand we headed off to walk the quaint streets to into the history filled red brick buildings in the park.
The Liberty Bell will be on everyone’s to-see list, and the the Liberty Bell Center offers exhibits and video presentations describing the history of this cherished symbol of freedom. Originally cast in London to hang at the Pennsylvania State House, the Bell cracked and was recast shortly upon its arrival. The bell cracked again and was repaired to ring for the birthday celebration of George Washington in 1846. Perhaps from over-ringing, the bell cracked still again and has not been rung since. Hanging from what is thought to be the original wooden yoke, the Liberty Bell is displayed within a glass room with a striking view of Independence Hall located a short distance away.
Depending upon the crowd size, allow 1-2 hours within the Liberty Bell Center; larger crowds will mean longer waits not only in the security check lines, but around the exhibits themselves. During crowded times, a great deal of patience and strong dose of good manners are required as there was no defined lines to get up close to view the Bell. Upon witnessing my youngest being jostled from her viewing position numerous times by anxious visitors, a National Park Ranger pulled her under the ropes and knelt down for a private question/answer session.
From the Liberty Bell Center it’s just a short walk over to Independence Hall where two of the most important documents in the history of the United States were debated, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. After a brief history lesson from a National Park tour guide, groups are led to the two rooms within the Hall, the Supreme Court Room and Assembly Hall. Independence Hall as been restored over time to retain, whenever possible, its 18th Century appearance. Furnishings within the Hall are period pieces, however the “Rising Sun” chair used by George Washington as he presided over the convention, is the original. Listed as a World Heritage Site, the rooms have a comfortable familiarity, like a scene out of 1776 or National Treasure, and there is an amazing sense of calm considering the drama that unfolded here.
Within Assembly Hall, the meeting place of the Second Continental Congress, George Washington was appointed the Commander of the continental army, the design of the American flag was approved, and on July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted. It is so easy to forget the great risk these men took while carving the foundation of what they hoped would be a new nation, and standing here brings it all rushing back. Viewing the US Constitution was particular moving for my family because of one particular signature – Jared Ingersoll – a direct ancestor.
Another site within the Historical Park that my family enjoyed is The City Tavern Restaurant. Not just a drinking establishment, in the late 1700′s most meetings and business transactions took place within a tavern. Although this is not the original building, the essence of the City Tavern is still the same and its significance in history resonates. The Bar and Coffee Room supplied both British and American newspapers and many of the key leaders in the American Revolution met at the Tavern to discuss the intolerable acts of the British and launch the First Continental Congress. John Adams wrote about this fine establishment in attempt to showcase the status of Philadelphia as a cosmopolitan city.
The City Tavern offers foods customary to 18th Century America, attempting to be as authentic as possible, with colonial menu items like venison, turkey, rabbit and seafood. Tofu is on the menu, and lest you think it is a modern addition, Benjamin Franklin was known to have made his own and shared his recipe with others in his writings. While dining by candlelight in the evening hours creates a timeless aura, I found the evening meal to be quite pricey for the quality. The lunch menu offers many of the same items at roughly half the price and appears to be a better option. But in my in my opinion a visit to City Tavern should be as our forefathers experienced it – a stop in the bar for a cold beverage while discussing the events of the day and what the future holds.
Photo credits: Tony the Misfit via flickr (Liberty Bell); all others J. Ingersoll
Jenni Ingersoll | Having been transplanted numerous times, I have learned to explore the sites around our new found hometown, uncovering hidden gems and attractions. When vacation time rolls around, I enjoy traveling with my family and the occasional weekend escape with my husband, coming home to share our travel experiences with others. You can follow me on Twitter @JAIngersoll. My top three destinations are Walt Disney World Resort, the Midwest and any beach I can walk along.