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Loads of fun, food, and history in Philadelphia and Gettysburg

There are many outstanding, nearby family vacation destinations for New York families. I recently went with my wife and daughters (ages 10 and 11) to two of them in Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Gettysburg. Below are some highlights from our trip, which included historical attractions, fun, food, and sometimes, historical food:

Philadelphia

Attractions

Two of Philadelphia’s most famous attractions are Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Independence Hall was where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed; the Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American freedom. Reserve your tickets for Independence Hall online if you’re going March through December. Take advantage of the free films in the Independence Visitor Center, where you get your tickets.

Independence Hall, www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/independencehall.htm

Liberty Bell, www.nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/libertybellcenter.htm

Eastern State Penitentiary is a fabulous Philadelphia attraction. It housed inmates from 1829 to 1971; its most famous included Al Capone and Willie Sutton. Using a headset and audio tour, you have the opportunity to tour old cells, long corridors, the exercise yard, and many other aspects of the prison — including a Jewish synagogue. Listen to audio tales from former prison inmates and staff. There are many interesting exhibits about prison life and events, such as the entrance to a 97-foot tunnel dug by inmates in a 1945 escape attempt.

Several blocks away from the Penitentiary is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an iconic building offering world class art, including an impressive Impressionist collection featuring the work of such greats as Claude Monet. Check their online calendar for special exhibitions. They have an extensive permanent collection; we enjoyed the medieval armor, Japanese tea house, and works from East Asia, and the Byzantine Empire. Go on the first Sunday of the month or on a Wednesday evening and “pay what you wish.” (Kids ages 12 and younger enjoy free admission.) They also have a café. Go early and avoid the crowds; start at the top floor and work your way down. And, when you’re done, run up the famous “Rocky Steps” and enjoy a great view of the city.

In the historic end of town, visit the Betsy Ross House and learn about the life of the woman credited with sewing the first American flag. Betsy was widowed twice by age 30, and worked as an upholsterer and was involved in the Revolutionary War. You can take an audio tour while viewing exhibits throughout the house; at the end of the tour, meet a Betsy Ross living history character who demonstrates to children how to make five-pointed flag stars by folding the fabric and cutting it with fabric shears. In the bottom floor of the house, there is a hands-on exhibit with objects kids can handle; we also enjoyed the House’s gift shop. There is a concession stand in the courtyard; stay and enjoy lunch afterward.

Eastern State Penitentiary, www.easternstate.org

Philadelphia Museum of Art, www.philamuseum.org

Betsy Ross House, historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/what-to-see

Across the Delaware River in Camden, N.J., is Battleship New Jersey. Whether you’re interested in U.S. Naval history or your kids need a neat place to climb around in, this is a great attraction. This ship saw combat in World War II, and was once the flagship of Admiral William Halsey. It was re-commissioned multiple times in the following decades, and was finally retired in 1991. You follow a tour route throughout the ship — lots of steep stairways and low ceilings — and see the big guns, living quarters, barber shop, laundry, navigation area, missiles, galley, and much more. From the ship’s deck, you can enjoy great views of the Delaware River and Philadelphia.

Battleship New Jersey, www.battleshipnewjersey.org

Lodging

We stayed three nights at The Windsor Suites, a perfect choice for families in the downtown area. We had a large, one-bedroom suite, with two double beds and a queen-sized sofa bed in the living room. It also had a large walk-in closet, fully-equipped kitchenette and a balcony with a nice view of the city. It is centrally located, near many attractions, such as the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and the Philadelphia Art Museum.

The Windsor Suites, www.thewindsorsuites.com

Dining

Across the street from Eastern State Penitentiary is Jack’s Firehouse, an excellent restaurant housed in a 19th century fire station. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner; we went for the weekend brunch. The décor is fantastic with its high ceilings, old wood, and even a brass fireman’s pole. Sit indoors or outdoors. It has a unique variety of Southern food. They have some great soups, such as black-eyed peas and ham, and other crowd-pleasers such as the Philly cheesesteak, pulled pork sandwich, burgers and homemade fries, spinach salad with grilled shrimp, and crab cakes.

They have a great selection of beers; their Bloody Mary is highly rated. Save room for dessert; we had warm chocolate chip cookies and butter cake.

At Reading Terminal Market, a busy shopping area in the heart of the city, we tried Maggiano’s Little Italy. This is the place to go for Italian pizzas and pastas and an assortment of specialty dishes and appetizers. You can’t go wrong with their lasagna, flatbread, or ravioli. Other good options include their chopped salad and filet mignon medallions with creamy mashed potatoes. They also have a full bar and terrific desserts. Maggiano’s Little Italy has generous portions, and it’s very kid-friendly.

When you’re visiting Independence Hall, stop by the Red Owl Tavern in Center City for a meal. It’s directly across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and has outstanding food for the whole family. We stopped by for brunch, which included waffles, pastries, French toast with apple cranberry compote and streusel, quiche, fruit, egg dishes and some great juices. We also sampled some lunch items; try the Philly cheesesteak or the tavern burger. They make their own breakfast pastries and bread on-site.

For ice cream, make a stop at The Franklin Fountain at the end of Market Street in the historic section of town. This is the place for homemade ice cream as well as sundaes, shakes, banana splits, and floats. They offer many flavors and generous portions. It has an old-fashioned feel with friendly, young servers. It’s well known in the community, and the lines are long. (The Franklin Fountain only accepts cash.)

The City Tavern Restaurant takes you back to colonial times with food and ambiance that our founding fathers would have enjoyed in the 18th century. It is the brainchild of chef Walter Staib, the host of the Emmy Award-winning show “A Taste of History” and a cookbook author. City Tavern features colonial-style furnishings, pewter goblets, live harp music, and costumed servers. You can enjoy period breads and pastries, crab cakes, corn chowder, and pepperpot soup, turkey pot pie, or lobster pie. There is also a kids’ menu.

If you want to try libations like those our founding fathers savored, order an “ales of the Revolution” sampler. Save room for desserts such as a fruit cobbler or Martha Washington’s chocolate mousse cake.

We also dined at the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, which has locations throughout Philadelphia and the surrounding states. We went to the Maple Shade, N.J. location after visiting Battleship New Jersey. This is the place to go for pizza, burgers, steaks, soups, sandwiches, salads, and fish and chips. They brew their own beer, so they have many craft beers on tap. (Try the sampler.) They also have a kids’ menu, and some outstanding desserts — try the Triple Chocolate Hill.

Jack’s Firehouse, www.jacksfirehouse.com/default.aspx

Maggiano’s Little Italy, www.maggianos.com

Red Owl Tavern in Center City, www.redowltavern.com

The Franklin Fountain, www.franklinfountain.com

City Tavern Restaurant, www.citytavern.com

Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, www.ironhillbrewery.com

Gettysburg

Gettysburg has something for everyone. If you love history, read up on the battle, so when you arrive, every field, ridge, hill, cluster of rocks, clump of trees and building will have meaning to you. Or, if you’re there for beautiful scenery and great restaurants, there’s plenty of both. My children enjoyed the simple pleasure of climbing on the large rocks of Devil’s Den, one of the many interesting features of the battlefield.

Attractions

The place to start is the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center. It features innumerable displays and historic items telling the story of the battle and life during the Civil War. Highlights include the film “A New Birth of Freedom,” narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, and the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, which recounts Pickett’s Charge, the climax of the three-day battle.

After spending some time at the center, you can head out to the battlefield, best viewed with the assistance of a licensed battlefield guide. We enjoyed a two-hour tour in which the guide drove our car, stopping along the way at significant points. He had the ability to quickly show me elements of the battlefield I had read about, which I subsequently went back and toured on my own afterward. There are many monuments to soldiers and old cannons throughout the site, along with magnificent scenery which made for some great photographs.

Destination Gettysburg (www.destinationgettysburg.com) is a great resource when you’re planning a trip, including dining and lodging options.

National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center, www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm

Licensed Gettysburg battlefield guides, www.gettysburgfoundation.org/14/gettysburg-battlefield-tours

Destination Gettysburg, www.destinationgettysburg.com

Lodging

There are many fine hotel choices in and around Gettysburg. We opted for the affordable and family-friendly Wyndham Gettysburg, just off Interstate 15, which runs alongside the town. Our room had two queen beds; other amenities included a large indoor pool, a well-equipped fitness room, and complimentary parking. We opted to have breakfast both mornings at the hotel; all was delicious. Like everything else in and around the town, there was a strong Civil War theme in the hotel décor.

Wyndham Gettysburg, www.wyndhamhotels.com/wyndham/gettysburg-pennsylvania/wyndham-gettysburg/overview

Dining

There is no shortage of terrific restaurants in Gettysburg; we chose to start at the Appalachian Brewing Company, which is located across the parking lot from the Wyndham Gettysburg. It features pub house classics and dishes with a twist: Rockfish tacos, Thai coconut chicken and gumbo, fish and chips, ribs, burgers, sandwiches, soups, and salads. We also sampled their excellent craft beers; each of Appalachian Brewery Company’s six Pennsylvania locations has its own small-batch, craft beer brewery. Appalachian Brewery Company has two Gettysburg locations, the second being on the battlefield, as well as its original location in Harrisburg.

When you’re in downtown historic Gettysburg, try The Pub and Restaurant on Lincoln Square. It’s a great place for a burger or pizza; the soups and salads are fabulous as well. We had good luck with the spinach salad and French onion soup. They also offer a kids’ menu. It has a great location in the center of town.

Definitely make time to visit historic Dobbin House Tavern, a historic 1776 home converted into a restaurant, pub, and bed & breakfast. We enjoyed an upscale dinner in the restaurant; its elegant atmosphere pairs nicely with the menu of deliciously prepared seafood, steak, and poultry dishes. Desserts include homemade pies and cheesecake. Take a tour of the building when you’re done eating, as it was once part of the Underground Railroad, which hid fleeing slaves.

Appalachian Brewing Company, abcbrew.com

The Pub and Restaurant, the-pub.com/thepub

Dobbin House Tavern, www.dobbinhouse.com

Philadelphia and Gettysburg are two fabulous attractions for New York families. We hope to be back soon.

View of Philadelphia from the battleship USS New Jersey.
Jim Graves

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