There is perhaps no better city to see our country’s history, with the exception of maybe Boston. Washington, D.C. gets included because of the memorials and National Achieves. But Philadelphia was our nation’s first capital and in many ways I still feel like it is. There are treasures to be found from the past as well as those that will show us the way to the future.
It is important to note that while there may be time constraints for these activities they are mostly all free. The three exceptions that appear here are the National Constitution Center, Betsy Ross’s House, and the Franklin Institute.
Among my favorite Philadelphia activities are definitely the ones on and around Market Street. I suggest you start your day here at Thomas Jefferson’s house. The home has many of its original furniture and better yet a draft of his most brilliant work: the Declaration of Independence. It then comes as no surprise that these were the rooms where this founding father worked on the document.
The visit won’t take too long and you can walk around at your own pace. I just stood and stared at the bedrooms upstairs. It was like Jefferson was so close yet so far. As a lover of the law and my country just to be there even for a short time felt like a privilege. How many people in other countries can say that about their society’s culture? I never take that for granted and it is always exciting to see relics from long ago that have survived time and place. It is like witnessing a historical miracle.
When you are done with your visit at Declaration House exit through the gate and walk to the corner and cross the street. You will see the Independence Visitors Center along with your next stop on my itinerary: the Liberty Bell.
The Liberty Bell Center
Another must of mine but this will be a quick visit. First you will go through security, they are very thorough here, which is more annoying than anything else especially during the colder months when you are all bundled up. After that you will pass many signs describing the circumstances that led to the Liberty Bell and all that it still signifies today. The Bell is the last thing you will see in the back. People are moving in and out so you can easily take your selfies. There is a glass window panel behind the Bell so you will simultaneously get Independence Hall in your shot. Not a bad way to begin your day.
From here you can easily see the next place on our trip: the National Constitution Center. It is a pretty big building so it is hard to miss. As you approach be sure to look for the words “We The People" on the front right side. What a great way to be welcomed.
National Constitution Center
This is a must for anyone visiting Philly even if you do not consider yourself a history buff. It is a large building but the exhibits are spread out in large rooms. The absolute most impressive display is one that will make you feel as though you stepped back in time. There are full size replicas of all of the men who were present the day the Constitution was signed. My friend Benjamin Franklin is seated holding onto his cane. Up front there is John Hancock, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. All together there are thirty-nine statues of the forty-two signers that were present that day. Feel free to take your picture with your favorites and “sign” the constitution.
Besides the Constitution and other documents you will see preserved here, there are theater shows on the main floor that use modern technology to explain the past.
There is also an exhibit hall on the first floor that rotates what it displays every few months. A few years ago when I went I saw the “Diana” exhibit (http://thequeenoff-ckingeverything.blogspot.com/2012/03/for-diana-celebration.html) featuring everything about the People’s Princess. That was incredibly moving.
Now you are heading back over that lawn, past the Liberty Bell, and crossing the street. You should be directly in front of our next location: Independence Hall in all its glory.
Independence Hall and Historical Park
I have been here more than once and it never gets old. These might be the most important buildings in Philadelphia and for American history. For it was here that the Second Continental Congress (using the inkwell on display) signed Declaration of Independence and adopted the Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson's cane and Benjamin Franklin’s book can be seen as well as George Washington's famous "rising sun chair".
After visiting the Liberty Bell in its new home, it’s important to note here that the stairwell between the two rooms at Independence Hall housed the Liberty Bell until 1976. True story.
Christ Church and Burial Ground
While walking these streets you have undoubtedly noticed the white steeple looming over all other buildings. If you haven’t you need to only look up towards the heavens. This spear can be seen from any neighborhood.
Once inside this church you will see the main chandelier, which was brought over from England in 1744. George Washington's seat remains and is marked with a plaque. William Penn was baptized at the font sent over from All Hallows Church in London. Another fun fact is that when I was in London in 2009 I went to All Hallows church as it was near the Tower of London. It was breathtaking how much history is alive there. I plan on writing about London soon so be sure to look out for the pictures I will share on that day. Sometimes the world really does feel small.
Here I must mention something you need to be aware of as you tour these attractions. For one Christ Church and its burial ground are not situated together. Despite having the same name they are pretty far apart.
Christ Church Burial Ground is located diagonally across the street from the National Constitution Center. While Christ Church is near Elfreth’s Alley as you will see further down on this tour.
The Burial Ground is home to Benjamin Franklin’s grave is at the closest corner of the street. You will see the coins that have been left by prior visitors. It cannot be missed. There will probably be other people stopping for photos as you can see the grave through the gate well enough that you do not have to enter the cemetery. Besides Benjamin Franklin and his wife Deborah, there are four signers of the Declaration of Independence buried here.
Betsy Ross House
Ok its true confession time. I will have to recount my very first experience at Betsy Ross’s house because it shaped my future for the positive, despite what my mother says it did to hers. It is no coincidence that I am a blogger who continues to share her truth while evaluating my experiences.
As Sophia Petrillo of the Golden Girls would say: picture it, Philadelphia, P.A. and I am in the first grade. For whatever reason my class were spending the day in Philly. I assume from my level of excitement the class has been counting down to this moment. I know Mrs. Ross had been mentioned over and over. It would be last stop of our day. Apparently for some people (i.e. me) the buildup was only getting stronger as the day marched on.
When the moment arrived I pushed past my fellow classmates to get as close to my teacher as possible. Inside the house she was explaining all of the things in the room we were looking at and how different her daily life was compared to ours. Then she made her error-she turned to me and asked me what I thought. Without a moments hesitation I opened my mouth and said: “I think it’s a dump”. This is where my mother prayed the floor would open beneath her, as she stood there embarrassed. That will show her not to come along on my class trips. I wonder if she ever did come on anymore, certainly not that school year.
My teacher was of course shocked by my response with the same feeling I had for what I was looking at. Here Betsy Ross was, star of her day, making the American flag, and living in a room that had a pot by her bed to use as a bathroom. I of course said whatever fell out of my mouth, which I still do today.
When I tell this story to my friends I mostly remember the shock and awe of my reaction. I couldn’t believe I rode a “cheese bus” all the way to P.A. (long ride for six year olds) and this was the grand finale of our day? With all of the buildup I probably expected to see a mansion or something more White House-ish. But nope she lived a dump. I wasn’t as sorry for her as I was for myself. What a big letdown. Perhaps this is why you needn’t take children who do not fully understand history to places like this.
But that visit it wasn’t a total loss. I think everyone near me that day learned an important lesson; if you “can’t handle the truth” don’t ask me the question especially without bracing yourself first.
It turns out that I can always trust my own instincts. The twenty-seven year gap between visits did not change my initial reaction. If anything now that I am bigger it feels even smaller. For instance while upstairs looking at the bedrooms there was one other young lady also trying to see them. It took us a few minutes to get the choreography right so I could leave and she could take my place. Holding my coat and bag certainly didn’t help. The rooms are enclosed in glass which takes up even more space in revolutionary period houses.
I am still glad I went back there after so many years retelling the story. This is the only place in Philadelphia where I could walk in the path of American history as well as my own.
It only takes a minute or two to walk through. Betsy Ross & husband are buried in Atwater Kent Park which turns out is the front yard of the Ross home. When you walk into the gate turn left and bend down. Depending on the landscaping it may be harder than usual to ready the names on the tombs. But trust me; Betsy is there buried next to her third husband. That was one busy broad.
Benjamin Franklin House, Shop, and Post Office- (Franklin Court)
This is the lot that used to host the home of Mr. Franklin and his family. After spending much of his life abroad, primarily in London and France, Benjamin returned to this home after the death of his wife Deborah. Unfortunately the last heir to the estate razed the house but the creative way you can still visit the house is really something. I didn’t even notice it at first but the lot is surrounded by an enormous white structure. If you step back a few feet you will see the design of the original house. Very cool. Even cooler there are several holes in the yard covered by glass. They display items of importance to the family and show where certain places were located when the home was still standing.
When you are done looking at this, go to the right and enter the museum. It is underground and kind of a random design but you will see many things Franklin contributed to our culture that we still use today.
Back above ground as you leave the house you will notice two important buildings on either side of your path. One is the Printing Office for Colonial methods of printing that produced the Aaron & General Advertiser, Franklin's grandson's newspaper.
That makes the other building Benjamin Franklin’s Post Office and museum. You can see how each paper was reproduced and how much work went into it. This is still a post office of sorts and current employees still stamp postage by hand.
Looks like a set you would step onto on a lot somewhere in L.A. It seems unreal that this street, famous for being the oldest continually habited street in USA, still exists and is occupied. It appears they are going for a record of some sort.
The Alley is a decent fifteen-twenty minute walk from Betsy Ross’s House but it is worth it. Depending on who did your itinerary you may have more time than I did to explore it. If you go definitely stand there and take a moment to notice the “busybody mirrors” that were used by former residents see who was at their door from the second story bedroom. You will also see the different various colors of the doors of each home. Apparently it was the way to let an inebriated man find his way back to the correct house.
If you turn around and head northeast you will find Christ Church on the right hand side. As I mentioned above, step inside for a few minutes to appreciate it. Now when you see that white steeple high in the sky it will have some meaning for you.
I might have been here on that now infamous school trip because I seem to remember the enormous heart exhibit they have and how claustrophobic I felt going through it. I am not sure if it was here or someplace else but either way I am taking a suggestion from Taylor Swift- I am never, ever, going to do it again.
I came primarily to see Cleopatra exhibit in 2010. It was very well done. After that I was able to walk around and see the other things they had to offer.
Among my faves are the thirty-ton statute of one Mr. Benjamin Franklin as a room of his most powerful quotes surrounds him. It reminds me of the Lincoln Memorial how he is looking down and proud.
On the main floor you will find a collection of Franklin’s bet known inventions and authentic artifacts/possessions. They are similar to the items you will have seen at Franklin Court’s underground museum.
St. Stephens Church
Unlike most of the people who come to this church I was not here to pray. Actually on the Saturday morning I stopped by the church was closed. That was just fine by me. I was there to study the front exterior. On the right side of the church doors in the middle of the wall you will find a small plaque indicating the reason I was here: this is the site where Benjamin Franklin first flew his infamous kite. It was not a church back then but the plaque is a nice way to remember that history was made in this corner with current passerbies seemingly unaware. Benjamin Franklin just happened to get thee first.
Sadly we are almost done. But there is still time for a little more info before I say goodbye and you say hello, to Philadelphia.
Up next: For the City of Brotherly Love, Benjamin Franklin, and Betsy Ross's House: To Do List.
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