When it comes to American history, few cities carry the importance that Philadelphia does. When it comes to preserving that history, only Boston can match what Philadelphia offers to history buffs like me. An exploration of historic Philadelphia is a journey through the annals of America’s founding.
Let me get this out of the way right here. When most people think of historic Philadelphia, or think of the city in general, the first thing that pops into their heads is the Liberty Bell. Feel free to skip it. Few things disappoint compared to expectations like the Liberty Bell. (The Mona Lisa and the Little Mermaid statue come to mind as well.) Most days, the line is long and slow moving. After waiting patiently, you finally arrive at the front and can see this amazing thing, only to find it’s pretty small. You’ll see it for a moment, try to take a picture through the crowd, and move on. I was actually more impressed with the LEGO Liberty Bell in the airport.
It’s really just a small bell with a crack. Not worth the wait.
Ok, with that out of the way, the rest of historic Philadelphia is pretty spectacular. The city does an incredible job of celebrating the storied past without distracting from its present. A walk down Elfreth’s Alley, the nation’s oldest residential street (the current houses date from 1728 on, but the street has been there since 1702) illustrates this well. These houses are still lived in, and next to the plaques telling us who used to reside in each home, one can see modern touches, like a Philadelphia Eagles flag.
In fact, much of historic Philadelphia is this way: original houses dating back to the 18th or 19th centuries with signage telling wandering visitors who used to live there, but still lived in today by residents appreciating the proximity to Center City. Walk down Spruce Street or Locust Street from Center City toward Penn’s Landing, and you’ll delight on each sign, discovering tidbits of American history you didn’t know before.
Historic homes along Spruce Street
Occasionally, one of these homes of someone famous has been turned into a museum. Betsy Ross, supposedly the stitcher of the first American flag (though this has widely been debunked), had her home very near to Elfreth’s Alley.
The Betsy Ross House
For me, the highlight of historic Philadelphia is a visit to Independence Hall. During the warm months, you will need an advance ticket to take a guided tour (the only way to see the building), which can be picked up at the Visitor Center two blocks north. During the winter, you will just get in line. Tours last about 20 minutes in winter, and longer in summer when the second floor is also seen.
Independence Hall is, along with the Liberty Bell (and a number of other buildings in the city), part of Independence National Historic Park, and the rangers do an incredible job telling the history of the building. Built in 1753 to hold the colonial legislature, it was later used as the Pennsylvania State House, and as the temporary national capital building while Washington was being constructed.
Our ranger guide, Helen McKenna, walks us into the room where the Constitutional Convention was held in 1781. She explains that originally, the convention was to fix the Articles of Confederation. However, one of the more obscure and ill-thought-out items in the Articles required ALL states to approve any changes. Knowing this, Rhode Island refused to send any delegates, making it impossible to change the Articles at all. Therefore, a new document was drawn up from scratch: the Constitution. (Rhode Island was also the last state to ratify the Constitution.) While little of the furniture in the room is original to the building, the chair at the top of the dais is the one George Washington actually sat in to preside over the meetings.
The room where the Constitution was written
The building is small, and we only look into two rooms on the ground floor, but Ranger Helen takes me upstairs afterward. The main meeting space upstairs was used to hold captured American officers during the British occupation of Philadelphia. It is incredible to me that one small building can have so much significance to the nation. We stare at an original map of the colonies, and walk back down the original staircase (with original floorboards) to the ground floor.
Looking at the original staircase and second floor landing
While the modern city of Philadelphia has a ton to offer a visitor (you can read my guides on food and art), a visit to historical Philadelphia is a must for any tourist. Just feel free to skip the Liberty Bell!