Only three hours away, a trip to Philadelphia is an easy and fun day trip, especially for Washington, D.C. families wishing to introduce young children to the critical role that Pennsylvania played in the American Revolution. And let’s face it, Benjamin Franklin is one of the coolest (insert answer: Founding Father, scientist, inventor, diplomat, author, printer) this country has ever had.
The Our Kids review team started its exploration of Philadelphia at the Independence Visitor Center located in the heart of bustling Center City (525 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA) to pick up same-day tickets to Independence Hall and brochures for other local offerings. Unfortunately the first available tour wasn’t for another hour and half, so we reserved tickets (free if reserved at the Visitor’s Center; also available online at www.recreation.gov for a small service fee) for a tour later in the morning. We spent some time speaking to the friendly Park Rangers who staff the Independence National Historic Park, who were extremely knowledgeable about the 55 acre/20 city block national park that includes, among other sites, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Old City Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Franklin Court. The review team (2 adults, four children ages 4 through 13) meandered through the interesting but small exhibit on the Underground Railway, which had several facts directed at kids although no interactive features to engage the youngest reviewers. We also used the modern and clean restrooms at this point, since we were unsure of availability once we were in the historic sites. We briefly went through the large gift shop, with the initial intention of knocking it off at the beginning of the trip and not returning. We were impressed by its selection of gifts in a wide price range and by the end of the visit we were so impressed by the obvious and well-deserved pride that Philadelphians feel toward their city, we gladly returned to buy books, t-shirts and other mementos of our visit.
Directly across Market Street from the Visitor Center, the Liberty Bell is housed in the modern-day Liberty Bell Center (526 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA) located between the Visitor Center and Independence Hall. We were impressed by how quickly the long line at the entrance (due to security checks) moved. Admission is free and no tickets are required. The Center is primarily geared toward strong readers and utilizes historical placards about the bell’s manufacturing, its crack (which is actually a repair) and its legacy as a symbolism of freedom. The few video clips and interactive features had large groups surrounding them, thus making them less attractive to young children who chose instead to rush forward to the end of the exhibit where the Liberty Bell is on display. For the review team with a 4 year old and a 6 year old, the entire visit took less than ten minutes, but the payoff was that both can proudly say “I saw the Liberty Bell” and the parents can document their scrapbook with photographic evidence. The 6 year old’s review of the Bell: “Man, that sure is cracked.”
Just outside the exit of Liberty Bell Center, visitors are offered a variety of Horse-and-Buggy Tour options: a twenty minute tour of Independence Square for $30; a thirty minute tour of Independence Square and Society Hill, for $40 or an hour-long tour of Independence Square, Society Hill, and the Philadelphia waterfront for $80. The prices are flat rate (maximum of 6 people); gratuity is not included. Credit cards are accepted (be sure to bring cash for the gratuity) and most buggy drivers have heavy blankets available to make the ride more comfortable. In retrospect, we wish we would have had started our exploration of Philadelphia with this tour in order to gain an overview of the city. Since the enjoyment of such tours really depends on the personality of guides, this reviewer recommends talking to drivers in the buggy line to find a good fit. Note that the availability of the tours will vary with the daylight hours and weather, and are tailored to minimize the impact on downtown traffic.
Also outside the Liberty Bell Center, is the President’s House Site. Utilizing text placards, a few video clips (some of which did not work or were dismantled entirely), and one archeological view into the house foundation, this outdoor “ghost house” structure outlines the three-story mansion where both George Washington and John Adams lived. The historical markers focused on the households’ daily life in the late 1700s, and the plight of slaves in both presidents’ households. Unfortunately the President’s House Site seemed more interesting in our online research than it was in person and failed to engage the youngest members of our group.
The half-hour tour of the buildings of Independence Square (520 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA) was fascinating to the grownups and older children, but less engaging for the younger team members. The center building, Independence Hall, housed both an Assembly Room, where the Second Continental Congress convened, and a Courtroom, which brought to fruition the early colonists’ vision of a justice system with open courts and legal rights. The building to the left of Independence Hall is The Old City Hall which housed the new nation’s Supreme Court. The building to the right is Congress Hall which served as the meeting place for the United States Congress from 1790 to 1800.
Also on Independence Square, is the National Museum of American Jewish History (101 South Independence Mall East, Philadelphia, PA) which opened its doors to the public in November 2010. The museum chronicles the culture experience of being Jewish in America including the early immigration waves in the 1700s, the roles that American Jews played in 18th and 19th century America, the contributions in business, philanthropy, politics and entertainment, modern life in suburbia, and religious adaptation and reaction to the developing American society. This museum was fascinating and well done. It had something for all age groups from dress up and hands on exhibits like the covered wagon experience of Fannie Brooks to the concept room where patrons’ answers to thought-provoking philosophical questions are projected onto the walls. For the kids ages 8 to 12, the room for video clips of classic scenes such as the Three Stooges and Marx Brothers gave a reason to sit back and enjoy; this adult reviewer could have spent all afternoon just watching the clips of Mel Brooks (from History of the World, Part I), Billy Crystal and Carol Kane (The Princess Bride) and Jerry Seinfeld. Former campers who have experienced Jewish sleepaway camp may feel nostalgic for bygone summers after viewing the picture library from various camps across the country.
A few things to know before you go. Although NMAJH is affiliated with the Smithsonian, tickets are required ($12 for adults; $11 for youth 13 to 21; free for children under 12 and active military members). The museum is open on Saturdays even though that is the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), when customary religious practice is not to conduct money transactions. Therefore, on Saturdays, patrons cannot pay for admission at the museum however, tickets can be purchased beforehand online for a small service fee or at the Independence Hall Visitor Center on Saturdays for same-day admission. In addition, the gift shop is open on Saturdays but no cash is accepted; credit card transactions will be run through after sundown once Shabbat is over.
One final note, the NMAJH is hosting a special family-friendly Christmas Day event “Being Jewish at Christmas” with a kid-friendly concert, Laser Science, dreidel and board games. As the docent noted, given the museum’s location near Chinatown and a movie theater, the “total Jewish Christmas experience can be enjoyed within an easy walking distance.” Admission for children is $5; further information, please visit https://www.nmajh.org/bjac/.
Three city blocks east from Independence Hall on Market Street is Franklin Court (Market Street, between Third and Fourth Streets) which is an underground museum on the site of Ben Franklin’s brick home when he served in the Continental Congress. Unfortunately the museum and the “ghost house” structure are closed for renovation until approximately Spring 2013. However, the Franklin Printing Office (320 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA; free admission) is still open and is definitely worth a visit. In the Printing Office, docents show visitors how Ben Franklin would have used the printing press (a replica) to produce his weekly paper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, which in turn helped inform and entertain the citizens of the newly formed country. This visit was engaging for young viewers who were able to see the printers actually produce newsprint and hang it to dry, and explain the different type-face used and other facts about Ben Franklin’s life and times.
A brief walk north on Third Street and a right on Arch Street takes you to the Betsy Ross House Museum and Memorial Site (239 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA). The “Birthplace of the Flag” is off a small, peaceful courtyard on Arch Street. Admission ($4 for adults and $3 for children) gives visitors access to Betsy Ross’ house with its upholstery shop on the ground floor. According to oral history, in May 1776, Betsy was visited by General George Washington and a committee of men who asked her to sew a flag. While there is some controversy whether Mrs. Ross was the seamstress who sewed the first flag, there is documentary evidence to show that she was paid for making ships colors (a flag) in that time period. The fact that there is a controversy at all makes the visit to the Betsy Ross House more compelling to the older children. For younger children, there was one costumed re-enactor in the upholstery shop ready to answer any questions posed, and in the basement, there is a pretend kitchen to allow the little ones to understand how meals were prepared in the latter half of the 1700s.
There are so many kid-friendly offerings in Philadelphia, we know that we barely scratched the surface. Our next trip will include visits to The Franklin Institute (222 North 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103), which is a kid-friendly, hands-on science museum with continuing exhibits such as the Train Factory, Amazing Machines and Sports Challenge. We also look forward to sampling the children’s menu at the City Tavern (138 South Second Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106), which features cuisine inspired by the customs and fashions of 18th century colonial America such as Colonial Turkey Pot Pie, Meat and Cheese Pie (similar to lasagna) and Fish and Chips.
Things we loved about Philadelphia
- Many of the historic sites are small but significant. It is easy for parents with children to get age- and attention-span appropriate exposure to history, while still being able to cut and run in the event of a melt-down.
- There are many historic sites within an easy walk. To walk from Independence Square to Franklin Court to the Betsy Ross House directly would take less than 20 minutes, even with young children. One word to the wise, as with most historic sites, strollers are difficult to maneuver, assuming they are permitted at all.
- The “National Park” does not feel like a national park because it is intermixed with the modern city. It is easy to balance the history with contemporary amenities and age-appropriate restaurants. That said, the cobblestone walkways, historic buildings and random costumed re-enactors make it easy for kids to envision how life was actually was like in the 1700s.
- This City takes great pride in its history and its citizens are very knowledgeable. Talking to docents, historical re-enactors, local merchants and business-people alike, it is clear that they are aware and proud of the historical offerings of this City and welcome tourists to ask questions and become vested with the spirit of the City.
If we had to do it again, we would have
- Obtained tour tickets online at the National Park’s website and the National Museum of American Jewish History beforehand to manage our time better.
- Started our tour with an extended horse and buggy tour outside the Liberty Bell Center to get an overview and the feel of historic Philadelphia.
- Better utilized the audio tour options of the historic sites by calling 267.519.4295; see more information online.
- Brought books and other things to entertain the kids while waiting the 45 minutes between recommended arrival time and tour start time for the Independence Hall tour.
- Paid heed to parking suggestions on the various historic sites’ websites. There is some on-street parking but we found that our credit card was not accepted nor did we have the city-specific smart card to add money at the parking kiosk. The locals warned that the City is quick to tow, especially cars with out-of-town license plates, when the owners are likely to need them and will retrieve them quickly from the pound.
A final word to nay-sayers who think taking young children to historic sites is ill-advised: Philadelphia makes it easy. Start with a fascinating historic figure (Ben Franklin, George Washington, Betsy Ross), add an easily identifiable historic symbol (Liberty Bell), and short vignettes of history with re-enactors and interactive exhibits, then factor in modern amenities such as plentiful cafes and restrooms. Children of all ages will come away with at least a base knowledge of Philadelphia’s significant contribution to the founding of this country and will have fun at the same time.
- Independence Visitor Center: www.independencevisitorcenter.com
- National Park Service – Independence National Historical Park: www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/directions.htm
- National Museum of American Jewish History: www.nmajh.org
- Betsy Ross House Museum and Memorial Site: historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/what-to-see/
- Map of Philadelphia/Independence Mall Area: www.nps.gov/inde/upload/area_map.pdf