There’s nothing like studying a map and a TourBook from AAA, charging your camera battery, hitting the pavement to see the sights, and returning home with a new favorite travel destination. Recent case in point: Philadelphia.
Let’s begin at Penn’s Landing, the waterfront destination that commemorates the beginning of Philadelphia’s story. William Penn, founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, landed at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers in 1682 and established its capital city there. Naming it Philadelphia, Greek for “brotherly love,” the Quaker leader wanted the city to be a place where people of all faiths could worship freely. He envisioned it to be a “greene countrie town,” a wholesome place with plenty of gardens that would never experience a tragedy like the great fire that ravaged London in 1666. In the revolutionary decades that followed, Philadelphia became a thriving center for trade and government, best known as the place where the Founding Fathers declared their independence from Great Britain.
That momentous event is celebrated at Independence National Historical Park, a historic square mile of Colonial-era landmarks maintained by the National Park Service. Classically influenced brick row houses shelter elegant recreated 18th-century gardens. A sculpture called “The Signer” marks the place where portrait painter Gilbert Stuart’s home once stood. Christ Church, where George Washington worshipped, still stands, as does Carpenters’ Hall, where delegates from 12 of the original colonies met in the fall of 1774 to discuss their options in responding to their grievances against Great Britain.
At Independence Hall, first known as the Pennsylvania State House, see the original “Rising Sun” chair that George Washington used while he presided over the 1787 Constitutional Convention and stand in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Walk across the yard where the famous document was read to an assembled crowd on July 4, 1776 as the bell that was originally rung to signal Pennsylvania Assembly meetings in the State House pealed overhead. Then cross the street to take an up-close look at this legendary symbol of freedom, now known as the Liberty Bell.
Pass through the original arched carriageway that Franklin used to go to and from his house to the Franklin Court Market Street Houses. Franklin built three of these five reconstructed townhouses as rental properties in the 1780s. The other two house worthwhile museums dedicated to two of his professions.
At the B. Free Franklin Post Office, still a working United States post office, learn how Benjamin Franklin was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia and later was responsible for all post offices from Massachusetts to Georgia as Postmaster General. Mail home a special souvenir: a flyer about the post office that’s sent in an envelope bearing a special hand-canceled postmark.
Next door at the recreated 18th-century Franklin Print Shop, discover how Franklin printed broadsides, pamphlets like Thomas Payne’s The American Crisis, The Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper and his own Poor Richard’s Almanac. Park rangers demonstrate the labor-intensive process involved in printing a newspaper, from applying the ink made from tree sap, linseed oil and chimney soot with leather daubers stuffed with cotton…
Just beyond Independence National Historical Park, find Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the United States. The narrow cobblestoned lane dates to 1702, when it was a path used by carts hauling goods from the Delaware River docks. Between 1724 and 1728, 33 homes were built on either side of the alley, some of whom were built and rented out by blacksmith Jeremiah Elfreth. Usually one room wide and two stories high, with a dormered garret, these narrow dwellings were typical of how many 18th-century craftsmen rented houses that also doubled as workshops or retail stores from their more prosperous counterparts.
Of course, I had to make a pilgrimage to the Betsy Ross House, on Arch Street, between Bread and 3rd Streets. The front portion of this bandbox- style house, with one room on each floor and a winding staircase leading from the cellar to the upper levels, was built around 1740, with the rear section added 10 to 20 years later. The front room was used as a workshop and showroom, with a large window to display merchandise, while the rest of the house was the family home. During the 18th century, the house was occupied by a shoemaker, a shopkeeper and an apothecary; an upholsterer named Betsy Ross lived here from 1776 to 1779.Upholsterers of the day did much more than stuff and cover furniture. They also made slipcovers, curtains, tablecloths, rugs, Venetian blinds, tassels, mattresses and blankets. In addition, they often sold and hung wallpaper. Betsy incorporated flag-making into her trade.
Lined with shelves piled high with ginghams, flannels, silks and trimmings, this room is how Betsy’s shop might have appeared when George Washington and two other representatives of the Continental Congress stopped by to ask Betsy to create a new standard for Britain’s rebellious colonies. Her flag of 13 stripes with 13 six-pointed stars encircled on a blue field became the first official flag of the new nation.
Today, the seven period rooms of the Betsy Ross House are furnished with period antiques, 18th-century reproductions, and objects that belonged to Betsy and her family, such as her walnut chest-on-chest, her Chippendale and Sheraton side chairs, her eyeglasses, her quilted petticoat and her Bible. The kitchen in the lower level showcases “Women at Work in Revolutionary America,” which highlights the household tasks performed by 18th-century women.
For general sightseeing and historical information on Philadelphia, see Literary Landmarks of Philadelphia, by Joseph Jackson; Historic Landmarks of Philadelphia and Historic Houses of Philadelphia: A Tour of the Region’s Museum Homes, both by Roger W. Moss; Philadelphia Discovered, photographed by Joseph Nettis, with an introduction by Nathaniel Burt; An Architectural Guidebook to Philadelphia, by Francis Morrone; The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Walking Tours of Historic Philadelphia, by Edward Colimore; First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory, by Gary B. Nash; Philadelphia: An American Paris, by Joseph L. Borkson; Philadelphia Liberty Trail: Trace the Path of American History, by Larissa Milne; The Liberty Bell, by Gary B. Nash; Philadelphia: Portrait of A City, by Michael P. Gadomski; Visit Independence Hall, by Alexander Wood; Philadelphia & the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, a DK Eyewitness Travel guide; The House in which Thomas Jefferson Wrote the Declaration of Independence, by Thomas Donaldson; and Betsy Ross and the Making of America, by Marla R. Miller. For books for young readers, see A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia, by Alice Turner Curtis, Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by Robert Byrd; and Ben and Me: A New and Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin as Written by His Good Mouse, Amos, Lately Discovered, Edited & Illustrated by Robert Lawson. Watch Ben and Me, the 1953 Disney cartoon inspired by the book, here.