Since watching Hamilton, my kids have become obsessed with learning about the Revolutionary War and the founding of our country. What a better place to give them these lessons than Historic Philadelphia. Philadelphia is home to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin, but there is also so much more. Check out how we spent our perfect day in Historic Philadelphia.
Back in February of 2019, my father was diagnosed with a rare oral cancer that was growing in his sinus cavity. We started his treatment at Penn Medicine, one of the few cancer centers in the world who could treat this. My dad and I spent 3 days in Philadelphia meeting with doctors, doing tests, and starting what turned into a 9-month long process. While we were there, we did a quick visit to the Liberty Bell and the courtyard of Independence Hall. My dad and I, nervous at the time about his prognosis, both agreed. Once he was over this, we would come back with my kids, and show them all Philadelphia had to offer. Fast forward to 2021. My dad is in remission, and we are spending 3 weeks back in the east coast with him. Also, for the first time in forever, I was spending my birthday with my family. I decided I wanted to spend my birthday fulfilling our promise. My husband, father, and our two kids loaded in the car on my 42nd birthday to check out historic Philadelphia.
Independence Visitors Center
While most of the historic sites in Philadelphia are close together and walking distance from each other, a great place to start is the Independence Visitors Center right in the center of the park. Right at the exit of the parking garage elevators, there are exhibits on prominent historical figures and events in Philadelphia, as well as a help desk where you can find maps and information about the city. My kids spun the wheel to learn about famous residents such as Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin. My daughter found out that not only was printing once a big business in Philadelphia, it was originally done by putting down letters, and beating the paper onto the letters with ink. This fascinated her. But a nice surprise was the area set up for family fun. There were Instagram able picture set ups, and fun games like foosball for everyone to enjoy. We had a few epic battles (that may have moved the tables, oops…) but in the end the rightful team won (the one I was on of course!). Plus, the Independence Visitors’ center is always a place where you can find a clean bathroom.
Once we had our fill of the Visitors’ Center, we went for what we came for, history! The Liberty Bell is a free attraction, and it’s on a first come, first serve basis. There is no reservation, but during the busy season, do expect a long line but they do a good job of moving it along quickly. We did join the line outside but were able to get to security after a 5–10-minute wait. Since 9/11, those entering the Liberty Bell need to go through a metal detector, and have their bags go through an x-ray machine. At the time we visited, those who were unvaccinated were required to mask indoors.
Once inside, the long hallway was lined with an excellent exhibit on how the symbol of the Liberty Bell was used in various movements in history. My son read extensively about the Liberty bell, what it means, and its symbolism was used in abolitionist and civil rights movement (something he’s read a lot about). My daughter was fascinated with the panels talking about the womens’ suffrage movement.
But once you walk along the hallway, at the end, you see what you came for. The huge, cracked, Liberty Bell. Sitting in a glass room, you enter seeing the Liberty Bell with Independence Hall in the Background. We had recently watched National Treasure, so the kids were looking for the words Pass and Stow on the bell. And they were both surprised to find that it was actually cracked, and that it had been that way since almost the beginning. I’m not sure what I did wrong in parenting that at 11 and 9 they are just finding that out. They admired it for a total of 2 minutes and were then ready to go. Apparently, the history panels along the way were more interesting. 😀. After forcing them to admire and take a few more pictures, we then left the nice, air-conditioned building for the east coast humidity outside.
Lunch – Classic Philly Cheesesteak
The entire party universally agreed that we HAD to have Philly Cheesesteaks for lunch. We googled the best Cheese Steaks in the area, and found Sonny’s was listed in one of the top 10 in the city, and only a few blocks from the Independence Visitors Center. We went for a walk in the classic historic district, past brick row houses 100s of years old. Just a few blocks down, we found Sonny’s, which was crowded with a line out the door. We waited about 15 minutes before being able to order. When we were about 2 from the front of the line, we lucked out and saw a table in the back free up. I sent our children and my father to sit and hold down the table for us as my husband and I ordered the food. We all ordered classic beef cheese steaks with Wiz, though some of us choose to add things such as grilled onions, peppers, and mushrooms. My son added bacon, yum! We also ordered 2 fries for a party of 5 and had more than enough fries left over. The food was made quickly, and we got to sit in the air conditioning and enjoy a fantastic Philadelphia classic.
(COVID Note: While we did sit inside, social distancing was almost non-existent in the restaurant. In fact, we even had a couple share the long table with us. I was not totally comfortable with the arrangement but was outvoted by the rest of my hot and tired party that did not want to sit outside in the heat. But it’s something to consider if you plan to dine inside).
Ben Franklin Museum
After lunch, we were ready to head off to the next stop in our itinerary. However, on our way, we noticed a small plaque in front of an alley way. It mentioned the alleyway was over 200 years old and was the alley way that Benjamin Franklin walked down every day. I could not pass this up. I forced us all to change course and walk down this incredible brick arched alley. It turned out to lead into the courtyard of the Benjamin Franklin Museum. The courtyard has pretty flowers, and an art sculpture of the frame of Benjamin Franklin’s original house. But at the end of the courtyard where areas where, through glass, you could see the actual foundations of the original house. You could see where the fireplace once was, where the bedrooms once were. My kids got a kick out of the fact, there was even an obvious layout of where the privy once was, including the hole for the toilet. We unfortunately didn’t have time to go into the museum, but it’s something I would like to include on my list for next time.
The reason we needed to rush through the Benjamin Franklin Museum courtyard was because I had 3pm reservations at Independence Hall. At the time of publication, to enter Independence Hall you needed to book reservations in advance. The cost to see Independence Hall was, as always, free, but the reservation cost $1. There are limited seats available for same day tours, and they are given out in the morning and run out quick. I booked almost a month before the day we visited, and all the tours prior to 3pm were already sold out. The only way to see Independence Hall is through a reservation on a guided tour so book early!!!
Independence Hall had the same security procedure as the Liberty Bell. Once in, you were able to wait in the courtyard for your tour time. The courtyard has some historical placards that talked about the famous events that happened in Independence Square, including the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
The tours run about every 15 minutes, and when it’s your tour time, they call you to join, where you show your reservation, and are given a quick debrief on what’s about to happen. Then you are led from the heat of the East Coast into the nicely air-conditioned Independence Hall. That’s certainly an upgrade from when I was a kid!
In the first room, we learn about the history of Independence Hall, and how it’s technically the Capitol building. We learn about the early judicial system, and about the room where the declaration of independence was originally read and signed. Then you move onto the Assembly Room, where you learn about the room where they locked in the Constitutional Congress to draft and create the constitution.
Our tour guide was built for this job. He had a great booming voice, and was able to layer in emotions as he talked about the founding of our country you were immediately drawn in. He encouraged all the kids to come up front so they could be involved, asking them questions, pointing out symbolism in the room, and drawing them in to learn a bit more. At the end, he walked us out, back to the unpleasant east coast heat, but stayed and answered questions of the group.
Once outside, the kids admired the plaques that talked about the different history events along the way. When JFK visited, the site of the first senate building. But we had to walk around to the back to see a stature my eagle-eyed daughter had spotted. As we go there, we were encouraged to find it was the statue of John Barry, the man who started the United States Navy. My father, as an ex-navy man, could not pass up the photo opportunity.
Christ Church Burial Ground
By this time, everyone was hot and tired, and looking for ice cream. Unfortunately, it appears that the Independence National Historic Park area is a bit of an ice cream desert. But I did notice we were near the Christ Church Burial Ground. I dragged the hot, tired party just a few more blocks so we could see the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin. Founded in 1719, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the US, and is the final resting place of many prominent historical figures. But we came to see one, Benjamin Franklin. The cemetery was unfortunately closed by the time we go there, but the area where Benjamin Franklin lines is gated but open for the public to view. On his headstone was hundreds of pennies, well wishes from people who admired the man and honor his famous phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned”. We rested our pennies on the grave, said our prayers, and then I considered defeat and lead the tired party back to the parking lot.
The day in Philadelphia was hot, it was sticky, and it involved a lot of walking. There were amazing parts that I know the kids continue to remember to this day. They were fascinated with all the historical exhibits, loved the Philly cheesesteak, and still remember how the privy at Benjamin Franklin’s house looked. But there were parts where they were also hot, tired, and maybe a little over the history lessons. But travel is not always perfect. What was perfect is that I got to spend my birthday with the people I love the most, fulfilling a promise my dad and I made over two years ago. We got to show the kids this beautiful city and help them learn more about the founding of our country. And for that, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
* Photos taken by Atma Photography