Image: Downtown Philadelphia
Harry How  /  Getty Images file
Philadelphia does its Revolutionary past right, especially with in the history-jammed confines of Independence National Historic Park.
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updated 5/5/2006 12:30:56 PM ET 2006-05-05T16:30:56

Walking through Philadelphia sure beats history class. Kids get to step outside the textbooks and into the past when they visit the birthplace of America -- to see where the Constitution was signed, where Betsy Ross may have lived and where William Penn landed when he arrived to found the city.

Kids can play quoits (a traditional colonial game) on the lawn at Independence National Historic Park, or park themselves on a "storytelling bench" and listen to tales from the American Revolution. They can even get a letter postmarked at Benjamin Franklin's post office.

But Philly isn't stuck in the 18th century. There are plenty of modern pleasures for families to enjoy together. Get up close and personal with sharks, climb through a huge model of a human heart, play in whimsical gardens or go to a museum where visitors are actually encouraged to touch.

Kids won't even realize that they're learning even while they're having fun -- and parents might be surprised to find that they're having fun, too.

Amazing freebies worth pursuing:

  • Wandering the busy stalls of Reading Terminal Market.
  • Playing colonial games and listening to stories from the Revolution in Independence National Historic Park.
  • Cooling off in the fountain on Logan Square on a hot summer day.
  • Visiting the Independence Seaport Museum on Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon.
  • Hanging out at Penn's Landing.
  • Visiting the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and other buildings in Independence National Historic Park.
  • Playing in Rittenhouse Square.
  • Visiting Franklin Court.
  • Participating in some family programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sundays in July and August.

Home away from home

  • For families who enjoy a little luxury when they travel, the Loews Philadelphia Hotel is a good choice. Call the hotel's family concierge ahead of time to plan out your itinerary and arrange for age-appropriate welcome gifts for the kids. Once you arrive, children can stay free in the same room as their parents. You'll also find game libraries, childproofing kits, supervised recreational programs and special restaurant menus. The hotel's Center City location puts it within easy walking distance of both the historic sights and the museum district.
  • Right near Independence Mall is the Holiday Inn Historic District, just steps away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Along with a great location and reasonable rates, the hotel offers cribs, rollaway cots, board games and in-room video game rentals. Kids under 12 eat free in the hotel restaurant. Ask about family rate packages.
  • For some of the conveniences and comforts of home, try the Embassy Suites in Center City. Each two-room suite offers a kitchen area with a microwave and refrigerator, plus up to two beds and a sofa bed. (Cribs are available on request.) Each suite also has a dining area and a balcony. Breakfast is complimentary, and other meals are available in the attached T.G.I. Friday's. The hotel is located near Logan Circle and some of Philly's most kid-friendly museums.

Day one
You'll start your day right where America itself started: at Independence National Historic Park. The park spans several blocks and some 20 historic buildings, including Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed. Make the brand-new Independence Visitor Center your first stop, to get your bearings and find out what special events are happening in the park today. Note that if you want to visit Independence Hall, you'll need a timed, dated ticket for a tour. These can be reserved up to a year in advance (you'll pay a small fee for the convenience), or you can get free same-day tickets here at the visitor center -- but be sure to arrive early.

You can also purchase tickets here for "Ride the Ducks," an 80-minute land and water tour on amphibious vehicles called Ducks (in keeping with the theme, everyone gets a free "wacky quacker" noisemaker). The tour makes its boisterous way through the sights of Philadelphia's historic district before plunging with a crowd-pleasing splash into the Delaware River at Penn's Landing. This is a great way to get an overview of the area, learn some history and decide which attractions are worth going back to see in more depth.

The tour drops you off near the Liberty Bell, which is your next stop (depending, of course, on the time of your tour through Independence Hall). Philly's most famous landmark was cast in England in 1751 but cracked for the first time after only a few years. After it was recast, it served as the official bell of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), was rung in celebration of the Declaration of Independence and eventually was adopted as the symbol of the abolition movement. The bell is now located in its own glass-enclosed pavilion, complete with informational exhibits and a video presentation.

After checking out the Liberty Bell, head across the street to Independence Hall and the other brick buildings that make up what's billed as the most historic square mile in America. As you wander among the buildings, you might catch folks in Revolution-era dress leading games on the lawn, demonstrating how to write with a quill pen or teaching other colonial pursuits -- feel free to join in. You also won't want to miss the new storytelling benches scattered throughout the historic district. Grab a seat and listen to a specially trained storyteller spin tales from the city's past.

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When the gang gets hungry, head west a few blocks to another Philadelphia institution: Reading Terminal Market. Opened in 1892 as a train shed for the Reading Railroad, this thriving farmer's market offers a feast for the eyes as well as the belly, with over 80 vendors peddling everything from baked goods and produce to flowers and books. Lunch options include Philly's famous cheese steaks, plus sandwiches, hot dogs, seafood, pasta and more -- so you'll find something to suit even your pickiest eater.

After lunch, head back toward the historic district and Franklin Court, former site of Benjamin Franklin's home while he was serving in the Continental Congress. Though the house was torn down in 1812, today there's a steel skeleton in its place, and some parts of the original building (like the foundation) have been excavated. Also on site are an underground museum with fun interactive exhibits and the B. Free Franklin Post Office, which still operates today (and will postmark a letter for you if you like).

If Franklin is Philadelphia's most famous male inhabitant, Betsy Ross may well be its most famous female one. Her house is just a few blocks away, now a historic site complete with a replica of the 13-star flag she's known for. Historians are uncertain about whether Ross actually sewed the very first flag, or even that she lived in this particular house -- but there are plenty of genuine artifacts here from the life of this fascinating woman, who outlived three husbands and many of her own children. The adjacent courtyard is a good place to take a little rest if anyone in the group is getting tired.

Take a quick stroll through Elfreth's Alley, the oldest residential street in America and a National Historic Landmark. If there's time, you can pop into the Elfreth's Alley Museum for more info; otherwise, just enjoy the historic ambience of this charming cobblestone street. (Note: People still live here, so be as respectful of their homes as you'd like them to be of yours)

Tummies rumbling? Head south to Market Street and Soho Pizzeria, voted best pizza in the city by Philadelphia Style magazine. Other choices on the menu include sandwiches, salads and finger foods. If the weather's nice, take advantage of their outdoor seating.

Once night falls, you have a couple of options. Lights of Liberty is an outdoor multimedia show that walks you through Independence National Historic Park. Everyone is fitted with headphones to hear the story of the Revolution, enacted by Whoopi Goldberg, Charlton Heston and other actors. Hand-painted images are projected onto the historic buildings to the soundtrack of patriotic music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. A special children's version of the show is available.

Or, for something a little spookier, try a ghost tour. Discover which Founding Fathers are still lurking around the City of Brotherly Love, and just what their unfinished business actually is. We guarantee the city won't look the same in the morning.

Day two
Make your way to Penn's Landing, a waterfront park that marks the approximate spot where William Penn, the city's founder, arrived in 1682. From here you can catch the Riverlink Ferry for a quick ride across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey. Even before you get off the ferry you'll see the huge, WWII-era battleship New Jersey off to the right. Now a floating museum, this is America's most decorated battleship. We recommend taking the self-guided tour so kids can go at their own pace down the narrow corridors and over the decks. They can see where officers and crew slept and ate, and check out the view from the bridge. (Note: Ladders between the decks are quite steep; this may not be appropriate for very young children or families traveling with strollers.)

Younger children will enjoy the Camden Children's Garden, located next to the Adventure Aquarium near the Riverlink Ferry dock. The property spans four acres of whimsical horticultural exhibits, including the Storybook Garden, featuring Alice in Wonderland and other tales, and the Dinosaur Garden, complete with a model Apatosaurus.

For most kids, the highlight of the Camden Waterfront will be the recently renovated Adventure Aquarium. In the brand-new North Building you'll find the Shark Realm, where kids (and adults) stand in a glass tunnel while sharks swim by on all sides. For older and bolder kids, there's even an opportunity to swim with the sharks (reservations for this highly popular activity are limited, so call ahead; note that the minimum age is 12). This is also the only aquarium in the country where you can see hippos, which are found in the new West African River Experience. Outdoor crowd-pleasers include penguins and seals. Whenever you get hungry, grab lunch in the Aquarium's new cafe and enjoy a view of the Philadelphia skyline from across the river.

Hop on the ferry back to Philly and you'll find yourselves just steps from the Independence Seaport Museum, your next stop. Here you can learn all about the history of Philadelphia's waterfront, how ships are built and why boats float. This is also the place to tour historic ships and take a peek into a workshop where wooden boats are built.

Spend the rest of the afternoon at Penn's Landing, where there are often free concerts and events going on, before heading back to Old City for dinner at Campo's Deli. Cheese steaks and hoagies (known to non-Philadelphians as subs) top the menu, but there are some choices especially for kids too.

Day three
You'll spend your last day in Philadelphia's museum district, located on and around Benjamin Franklin Parkway. There are more fascinating places to visit than you can see in a day, so pick and choose based on your kids' ages and interests. All of the following attractions are within easy walking distance of each other.

Younger kids will feel right at home at the Please Touch Museum, where they can climb and play to their hearts' content among the fun (and educational) interactive exhibits. They can learn for themselves "where the wild things are" in the Maurice Sendak exhibit, or get behind the wheel of a city bus in the "Move It" exhibit. For the littlest tykes there's a model barnyard where toddlers can feed baby chicks and learn all about life on a farm.

Not far away is the Franklin Institute, a science museum that's great for all ages. Kids can clamber through the museum's famous giant heart, following the path of blood through its atria and ventricles, or take the "Sports Challenge" -- skiing down a virtual slope, bouncing a basketball on different surfaces and squaring off against life-size football linemen. "The Island of the Elements" is a special exhibit for 5- through 8-year-olds, which teaches them the fundamentals of science as they try to save the planet from Lord Chaos.

Can't get enough science? Check out the Academy of Natural Sciences, located just steps from the Franklin Institute. The most popular exhibit here is the Dinosaur Hall, where kids can marvel at full skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a Gigantosaurus, and other dinos large and small. There's also a children's nature center called Outside-In, home to a number of animals including a rabbit, a tortoise, a guinea pig and more -- if you're lucky, you might even get to touch some of them. Among the many other attractions here are Egyptian mummies and an exhibit on crystals and gems.

At the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the neo-Classical Philadelphia Museum of Art, complete with its famous steps, where you can make like Rocky Balboa and see how fast you can run up to the entrance. The museum offers family programs on Sundays in the summer (some of them free), including a drop-in studio where kids can paint their own artistic masterpieces, as well as tours geared toward different age groups.

While the museum district is rich in educational opportunities, there aren't a lot of restaurants on the Parkway -- so we suggest grabbing lunch in one of the museums (all the ones mentioned here have cafes -- except for the Please Touch Museum, which does have an area where you can bring in outside refreshments or purchase snacks and beverages).

If you want to take a break between museums, take a seat outside near the huge fountain at Logan Square -- on hot summer days, folks sit on the edge and dangle their feet in the water, and kids splash around among the bronze statues in the center of the fountain. If you're further up the Parkway near the Museum of Art, you can go around to the west side of the museum and down the hill into Fairmount Park, the world's largest landscaped urban park, with over 8,500 acres. At this corner of it you can look out across the Schuylkill River toward Boathouse Row or take a short rest in the azalea garden.

If the Phillies are in town, head out to their brand-new stadium for a night of America's favorite pastime. Get there early to grab dinner and explore the stadium. Besides the game itself, the ballpark offers a number of family-friendly facilities, including several "phood" stands with kid-sized portions and the Phanatic Phun Zone, where younger kids can climb and play. Note: Most folks drive to the stadium; public transportation is available, but may not be the safest option after dark. If you don't have a car, you may want to call ahead and arrange for a taxi to pick you up after the game.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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