Two days in historic Philadelphia works well for ambitious tourists like me. Because the historic district is compact enough to sightsee on foot, you can easily hop from one attraction to another. Of course, if you have three days, you’ll be able to see a bit more. And if you really want to see Philadelphia as a whole, including its world-class museums, then you’ll want to add at least another two days.
Most iconic sight: The Liberty Bell
Sight that requires the most planning: Independence Hall
Best Museum: The National Constitution Center
Newest Addition to the District: The Museum of the American Revolution
Best historic district restaurants for foodies: Buddakan and Amada
Day One: Independence Hall
Before you start your day, make sure you have tickets to a tour of Independence Hall. You can either reserve a time slot in advance by phone or website or get tickets at the Independence Visitor Center. Walk-in tickets are free; advanced tickets cost $1. Since walk-in tickets can disappear early in the day, often before 11 am, I advise getting there early. After you have your time slot, tailor the rest of your day around it. It helps if you can visit early in the day since the information gleaned can help you understand the rest of the historic sites. Note: your best bet for restrooms is in the Visitor Center or within the larger museums.
As with many of Philadelphia’s historic sites, Independence Hall is overseen by the National Park Service. For this reason, you’ll be assigned to a tour guide well-versed in the history of American independence and Philadelphia’s role in it. You won’t learn incorrect “facts” or be assigned to someone who doesn’t care. Instead, you’ll be treated to an exploration of one of the most famous buildings associated with the American Revolution. A tour makes a great start to your two days in historic Philadelphia.
The Liberty Bell
Located across the street from Independence Hall, the modern building that holds the Liberty Bell should be your next stop. Don’t be deterred by the long line to get in. The wait is because of security and has nothing to do with how crowded it is inside. The line moves quickly.
Although it’s tempting to walk immediately to the far end of the building to see the bell itself, stop instead to read the displays of its history. The exhibit is well-done and interesting. Once you get to the bell, you’ll be better versed in what it means.
The Liberty Bell itself has ample space around it so you can view it from all sides. The famous crack faces inward, toward the entrance. Backlighting and other visitors make it difficult to photograph, but you can capture both the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in one shot.
The President’s House
Next to the Liberty Bell Center, you’ll find the open-air President’s House, a tribute to the slaves who helped found and shape the nation. It contains videos telling the stories of some of these people. This stop takes only twenty minutes or so, but is well-worth adding to your understanding of history. Since you can access it 24/7, you can wait until the evening if you are pressed for time.
The Museum of the American Revolution
The newest addition to the historic district, The Museum of the American Revolution, offers displays that help visitors understand the war for independence. It covers both well-known and the lesser-known aspects of the war.
The most famous artifact housed here is the original tent that George Washington used as his headquarters. But you’ll also find weapons, a pre-revolutionary war drum, and artifacts once owned by Washington, Patrick Henry, Lafayette, and others. The exhibits are set up in such a way to draw in kids and adults alike.
You probably want to visit this museum on your first day and save the National Constitution Center for your second, just to keep your brain from tiring out. It also dovetails nicely with the tour of Independence Hall.
The Benjamin Franklin Museum
If you still have time and aren’t yet exhausted, head over to the small Benjamin Franklin Museum, dedicated to Philadelphia’s favorite son. The museum closes at 5 pm, and you’ll need approximately an hour to see it. You can always save it for day two, if you’d prefer.
Make sure to explore the Franklin Court Courtyard just outside the museum to see some of Franklin’s home’s foundation and markers for the family’s latrines. The Franklin Court Printing Office can also be accessed via this courtyard.
Day Two: The National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center is located at the opposite end of Independence Mall from Independence Hall. Whereas the one end of the Mall represents the era leading up to and including the Revolutionary War, the other where NCC resides shows what happened afterward. The museum’s exhibits show how the Constitution and Bill of Rights have formed that “more perfect union” (and still not perfect) that we know today.
The museum’s interactive exhibits help engage visitors with various topics. You can view a 360-degree movie or “sign” the Constitution as a commitment to its philosophy. The “We the People” exhibit contains artifacts such as Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court robe and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Without doubt, the NCC is my favorite stop in the historic district, mostly because of its far-ranging and interactive content. It demonstrates the relevance today of a document written in 1787. After visiting, you’ll understand why people call the Constitution a living document.
Christ Church and Christ Church Burial Ground
About an 8-minute walk from the NCC, you’ll find the Christ Church Burial Ground. Admission costs $3 per adult, $1 per child. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Ben Franklin, are buried here. People toss pennies onto Franklin’s grave, either through the fence or once inside the grounds. This tribute acknowledges his famous adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Admission to the Georgian-style Christ Church is free. The simple cream-colored interior with its wooden pews makes it easy to envision the famous Early Americans who worshipped here: George Washington, John Adams, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin, and others.
You can backtrack to see the next two stops, or if you know you have enough time, visit them on your way to Christ Church.
The Betsy Ross House
I consider the Betsy Ross House to be the first optional stop on my list. Still, I know many will want to view it, simply because of Ross’ fame as the seamstress of the first Stars & Stripes. The house is modest, and the period-dressed docents help bring Betsy Ross “alive.” Open daily from 10 am – 5 pm. Admission $8 for audio tour, $5 for self-guided.
This quaint street dates to 1702, and it requires little time to experience unless you want to stop by the museum. Only a 5-minute walk from the Betsy Ross House, it’s easy to incorporate into any itinerary. Tourists can flood the narrow street during popular times.
Other Historic Sights
Since you will have to make choices to complete your second day or extend into a third, you may want to cut out some of the above or add to them. Recommended additions, depending on your interests: Second Bank of the United States with its portraits; Mother Bethel AME Church, the home of the country’s first black denomination and a stop on the Underground Railroad; National Museum of American Jewish History; the African American Museum in Philadelphia; the Powel House; the Hill-Physick House; and the American Philosophical Society Museum, the home of the country’s first museum.
Where to Eat
If you want to continue the historic theme, then a visit to the City Tavern Restaurant may be in order. Although the food is good, the Colonial-inspired menu is limited, especially for those with more cosmopolitan tastes. Still, it can be a lot of fun to eat in a Colonial atmosphere with servers wearing Early American garb. Since walk-in seating can be tough to obtain, I recommend making reservations.
Foodies have two excellent options in the historic district: the Asian-fusion Buddakan and the Spanish tapas Amada. For more conventional fare, try the Red Owl Tavern. If you want a quicker bite or need to satisfy multiple tastes, duck inside the newly opened Bourse food hall. I’ve heard that Cuba Libre is good, although I’ve never tried it myself.
For those who want to Uber out of the historic district, Philadelphia has tons of options. Vegetarians and vegans may want to head to the renowned Vedge. I love Vernick and Parc. For truly upscale Italian cuisine, try Vetri Cucina. Also, sometime this fall, I’ll dine at Zahav, another renowned Philly restaurant. All of the preceding can be difficult to get into, so reserve well in advance if possible.
Where to Stay
I’ve stayed in the Kimpton Monaco and the Renaissance Philadelphia Downtown, both steps from Independence Hall. If you want to stay outside the historic district, then you have a wealth of options from the Ritz-Carlton near City Hall to the more affordable Fairfield Inn & Suites. The Kimpton Palomar and the Sofitel Philadelphia are excellent options near Rittenhouse Square. Rates at all can vary widely from day to day and week to week, depending on availability and what’s going on in the city. For instance, the Hotel Palomar can cost $150 per night during one period but up to $400 during another. Plan carefully!
Two days in historic Philadelphia takes visitors back to the early days of the nation. The National Park Service and the independent organizations that run the non-NPS sights have worked hard to make the subject matter accessible. If you really want a taste of the Colonial times, visit Boston first for two days, then descend on Philadelphia. The two cities, taken together, provide a comprehensive and intense experience.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann