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Philadelphia with Kids: Walking in the Footsteps of Liberty

“Freedom isn’t a destination, it is a journey,” explained the Park Ranger guiding our tour of Independence Hall in Philadelphia last month. We were visiting Philadelphia with kids and after waiting all day for our timed-entry to this esteemed building, we were about to see where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and where, 11 years later, the Constitution was developed and ratified, holding our fragile nation together and creating an entirely new form of government. But first, we were going to get a very important lesson about what freedom and liberty really mean.

Growing up just an hour north of Philadelphia near Trenton, NJ, I have strong memories from the 1976 bicentennial (yes, I am that old) and field trips to Revolutionary War sites. We even had a copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging in our home.

As a child, I never thought much about how “We the People” didn’t include all the people, which is why I was so impressed throughout our trip to historic Philadelphia with family how this not-so-pleasant part of our history was addressed, and not ignored. Our guide went on to explain how tenuous this country was after the Revolutionary War.

Just a confederacy of independent states, versus a strong, national government. When the delegates from 12 colonies (Rhode Island stayed home) met in the summer of 1787 to discuss the articles of confederation, they ended up throwing it out the window and starting fresh. With so many strong opinions and opposing views in the room, these men decided to put aside the issue of slavery and create a document, the Constitution of the United States, that represented a new government, composed of compromises they could agree upon.

After visiting Gettysburg earlier that year, and the National Civil War Museum later in the week in Harrisburg, we came back to this moment in history again and again to wonder what it would have been like if the signers of the Constitution had dealt with the issue of slavery back in 1787. Back in Independence Hall, our guide’s opening talk continued to discuss women’s rights, civil rights, equal rights, and all the issues we have faced as a nation regarding freedom and liberty since our inception in that very building.

It was captivating, moving, and hopefully powerful enough to sink in with the tired kids in the room whose heads were swirling with the history they had been exposed to and hoped to absorb throughout the day.

Must-See Attractions when Visiting Philadelphia with Kids

This is just one highlight of our trip to Philadelphia, where our main objective was to explore all the history that Philadelphia had to offer. I’m sure we didn’t come close to experiencing it all, but we did a lot in less than two days and here are our highlights.

Independence Hall

Exploring Historic Philadelphia with Family - Independence Hall

Independence Hall is the building where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written and signed by our Founding Fathers. The National Park Service maintains and operates this building, offering tours every 15 minutes from 9 am to 5 pm daily. Timed-entry tickets are required March through December, and are available for free at the Independence Hall ticketing counter in the Independence Visitors Center across the street, or they can be reserved online for a small ticketing fee.

If you don’t reserve in advance, follow my tips for visiting Philadelphia historical sites and get there early because tickets to this popular attraction go very quickly. Inside, you will start with an introduction to the history of the drafting of the Constitution and the United States’ path to freedom and liberty.

From there, you will move into the courtroom, that was once used by the British and discuss the event leading up to the Revolutionary War. Across the hall you will see the room where the Founding Fathers debated for weeks the structure and set of checks and balances that frame our government to create the Constitution.

The entire tour takes about 30 minutes but you’ll want to allot at least an hour because you’ll need to arrive at the security tent 30 minutes before your timed entry, and you may also want to explore Congress Hall, the oldest capitol building in the United States, and the West Wing on your own.

National Constitution Center

Historic Philadelphia with Family - National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center was one of my favorite stops along our history tour of Philadelphia. You’ll need to buy tickets to this one, but it is entirely worth it as the main exhibit contains over 18 hours of interactive material — more than you will ever be able to absorb during your visit.

A timed ticket gets you entry into a 17-minute multimedia theatrical production of Freedom Rising, which runs every 30 minutes, and from there on to the main interactive exhibit of We the People and the Signer’s Hall. This is a large exhibit, as you can imagine, so it is unlikely that you’ll need to wait longer than a few minutes for the next performance.

After entering the 360 degree theater, the presentation begins with a live actor telling the story of Taxation without Representation and the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. He continues with a discussion of the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, again addressing the thorny issue of slavery and how it didn’t address equal rights for all. The presentation continued with a discussion of the evolution of the Constitution through the Amendments, all the way up to the more recent Patriot Act. It was a very good historical overview to help put the rest of the exhibit in context but also to help frame the rest of the historical sights around Philadelphia and the importance they played.

When the presentation concludes, you move into the main exhibit, which is a 360 degree timeline of the history of the Constitution. The exhibits are extremely interactive and appropriate for everyone from about 4 and up. You will see videos, taking interactive quizzes to see if you would have been eligible to vote during that time frame, and learn about the main events that shaped the nation.

On the interior ring of the exhibit, you will be able to enter an election booth and vote on key issues to see which president your views align with. There are also fantasy elections that pit one President against the other to see which would have been victorious. In the Supreme Court section you can see what it is like to sit on the bench and listen to the arguments and hear both points of view for critical cases like flag burning.

Everything was extremely interactive and there is no shortage of things to do, videos to watch, or hands on activities so you should not hear those dreaded “I’m bored,” words. Just the opposite, I saw more than one parent trying to drag a child away to keep moving throughout the exhibit.

We also spent a little time in the Jefferson’s Monticello exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and slavery. There wasn’t a lot to see there so I’m not sure I would recommend adding the extra ticket for it since there is so much to see upstairs. We didn’t have time to see the Signer’s Hall but that is included in the main ticket. If you visit, you should plan on spending at least 2 hours at the National Constitution Center.

Museum of the American Revolution

The newly-opened Museum of the American Revolution is a great addition to Philadelphia’s other historical sites and museums. Visitors learn stories of well-known and everyday people who experienced the tumult of the war through galleries, engaging films, and a collection of Revolutionary-era weapons, personal items, diaries, and works of art.

I was so impressed the quality and interactivity of the museum. The galleries and exhibits were extremely well-curated, thought out, and executed to engage and inform visitors.

You start your visit with a short film, Revolution, which explores the origins of the American Revolution. Then you head up the grand staircase to enter the core exhibits. You should also leave time to see Washington’s War Tent, an immersive film which follows Washington’s career. There is also a Revolution Place discovery center downstairs for young children, which provides an immersive and engaging experience in recreated historical environments. You will want to allot at least two hours to enjoy this museum (and there is a cafe on site serving colonial-inspired cuisine.)

National Museum of American Jewish History

Exploring Historic Philadelphia with Family - National Museum American Jewish History

The National Museum of American Jewish History was my second favorite stop along our journey. If you aren’t Jewish or don’t have an interest in Jewish studies, it may not be of as much interest to you, but frankly I think the history of any people is important to understand. That is why we travel, to open our eyes to new experiences, people, cultures, foods, etc.

That said, being Jewish, this museum was captivating for us. We were able to point to the founding of B’nai Jeshurun, the synagogue we belonged to when we lived in New York, the Touro Synagogue, that we drive by every time we visit Newport, RI, Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills where my father-in-law worked as a young man, and the beginning of Jewish summer camp, which isn’t too different from the one our daughter attends today. Throughout the exhibit, there was a lot that we could relate to as a family. From familiar names to familiar places to familiar traditions.

The exhibits start on the fourth floor and unfortunately, no photography is allowed so I can’t show you some of the interactive and informative exhibits. This museum too is set up along a timeline covering the beginning of Jewish immigration to the United States, through present day.

Many Jewish museums that you see are Holocaust museums, which I don’t think I’m ready to bring a 10 year old to, or focused on a particular time period, like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. I like that this covers the entire Jewish American experience, from our early history as traders and the forming of the first synagogues, through immigration, the wars, civil rights, Hollywood, the emergence of Reform Judaism, all the way up through Seinfeld.

Everyone will find something they can identify with and you will want to spend 1.5-2 hours exploring.

Liberty Bell

Exploring Historic Philadelphia with Family - Liberty BellThe Liberty Bell is one of the most iconic symbols in America. Once called the State House Bell, it used to hang in the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall). Although it cracked on its first test ring, the Liberty Bell, with its imperfections, is still one of the most visited sites in historic Philadelphia.

Visiting the Liberty Bell is free and no tickets are required, but you will have to go through a security screening before entering the building. Be forewarned that the line can wrap around the block and after all that build up, once you get inside it can be a bit anticlimactic.

Once you enter this beautiful building, redone in 2004, you can walk through a small exhibit detailing the history of the bell, or beeline straight to the Bell. You might as well take your time and read a bit of the exhibit because there isn’t much to do at the Bell except take pictures so the traffic flows pretty steadily.

The Bell’s famous cracked side faces the inside and you can walk around the entire 2,080 lb. Bell. In fact, it is much easier to take pictures from the back, both because it isn’t as crowded and because you aren’t facing into the sun. Go late or early to avoid the long lines and sun glare, otherwise be prepared to spend 30+ minutes in line on a busy day.

The Betsy Ross House

Exploring Historic Philadelphia with Family - Betsy Ross HouseAt the Betsy Ross House you will get a chance to explore the home where the country’s first flag was sewn by Betsy Ross, a widowed upholsterer. Visiting the Betsy Ross house will only take 10 minutes and there isn’t a lot to see so if you want, you can leave it off your list, but for someone that has read about the woman heroes of the Revolutionary War that risked their lives and livelihood to support the cause, it is a quick and easy stop to make.

Inside you can tour the rooms where Betsy lived and those she rented out to boarders. You will also meet “Betsy” in her upholstery shop and have a chance to ask her questions about her life. We were a little disappointed to learn that she didn’t actually design the flag, and they are unsure who did.

We did learn that it was originally intended to have six-point stars but Betsy Ross convinced George Washington and his contingent that five-point stars were faster and easier to make (and even got a demonstration on how to make them.)

There are so much more history to explore in Philadelphia. For more ideas, check out the Visit Philly website, and read my tips on visiting historic Philadelphia including books to read before you visit.

Note: Our stay in Philadelphia and entrance to attractions were hosted by Visit Philly, with no expectation or influence on this article.

7 Comments on “Philadelphia with Kids: Walking in the Footsteps of Liberty

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  1. I love that you include so many historic sites in your travels with your kids. Education is so much more fun and rewarding when presented like this rather than just reading about it in books. I’m sure your kids love you for it and will grow up to be well rounded, knowledgeable and open minded adults.

    I would be interested in visiting Philly, especially after visiting Boston and loving the history there. It’s good to hear that they didn’t gloss over the bad points in American history like slavery. Such a terrible shame that they didn’t end it back in the 18th century. I am reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the moment (about slavery) and even though it is a fictional book, there is a lot of truth in the horrific way the slaves were treated. Thanks for this informative post 🙂

      Great book. It led to some really interesting family discussions, especially with the recent examples of racial tension that still exist.

    Karyn, that was true when I was younger so I was glad to see things have evolved in a more open and honest way.

    I still remember visiting Independence Hall as a child, some 30 years ago. I remember standing in the signing room, imagining what it was like full of men hoping for a better place to live. The history there is amazing. I’m sure I would love to go back and see more…especially the museum of American Jewish History. I have Jewish ancestry and would enjoy learning more and share some of that history with my children.

    Occasionally, we rangers stalk ourselves to get public feedback. I’m glad you all enjoyed you time in historic Philadelphia. Maybe on your next visit you can check out our new Benjamin Franklin Museum as well. 🙂

      Thanks Lynn, we will! I’ve never had a bad experience with a National Park ranger. Thanks for all you do!

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