Philadelphia is a city rich in history; it was the birthplace of our nation, and no trip to this city is complete without learning all about how America got its start. There are, of course, plenty of tours and museums that cost money, but did you know that you can learn all about Philadelphia’s history for free? Philadelphia’s historical sites are all in a national park, so anyone can visit and learn without paying anything. Below are the highlights for free, family-friendly activities in historic Philadelphia.
Independence Visitor Center
Start your day at the Independence Visitor’s Center to pick up maps, guides and everything else you’ll need for a free day in historic Philadelphia. Pick up an Historic Philadelphia Gazette, a free newspaper with a map of all of the historic sites (including all restroom locations'”a must with kids!) as well as a complete schedule of all tours, performances and special events that will be going on during your visit. In this building you can also get your tickets to visit Independence Hall. All tickets are free, but they are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, and each ticket has an assigned tour time. Get there early to ensure you get tickets for your group.
If you have children, stop by the rangers’ station and pick up Junior Ranger Activity Books for each child (details below). At the desk, there are also stamps for each major historic attraction. Make sure your kids stamp the back of their books like a passport so they can remember all of the places they’ve visited. The Visitor Center also has restrooms (including a family restroom), a gift shop and a cafe. There are plenty of tables and chairs for anyone to sit and rest, talk or eat a pre-packed lunch if you don’t want to spend extra money buying food.
Independence National Historic Park
Make sure you get a park map before embarking on all of Philadelphia’s free historical sites. It’s impossible to see all of the sites in this historic park all in one day, especially because it’s spread out across the historic district. If you’re a local, plan to come back again another day to see more; if you’re visiting, allot at least two days to really take in all of Philadelphia’s history. There are lots of historic buildings and sites to see, but if your time is limited, the best sites for families are: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Franklin Court, Carpenter’s Hall and Elfreth’s Alley (if you don’t mind spending a reasonable amount of money, the Betsy Ross House is a wonderful tour for families as well). All sites are within easy walking distance from each other and form the foundation for our nation’s history.
The park also has a lot of green space on each city block with landscaping, benches and lawns, which are perfect for a picnic, snack break or just a rest in between sites. Our family likes to pack a picnic lunch to save on money, and the best spots we’ve found to eat are: Washington Square, the lawn behind Independence Hall, Independence Mall, the Rose Garden, and the courtyard at the Betsy Ross House (which has tables and chairs).
Once Upon a Nation Storytelling Benches
All kids love a good story, and in historic Philadelphia they can hear thirteen short stories about our nation’s history. Thirteen Storytelling Benches are scattered throughout the historic district (they’re all marked on the map), and kids (and adults) can sit and listen to a story about events surrounding the birth of our country. Each spot is numbered, and kids can get a flag with thirteen numbered stars. Every time they hear a story, they get a star sticker to show that they were at that station. It would be tough to collect all thirteen stars in one day (two is more likely), but since we’re locals, our goal is to get them throughout the summer at our leisure. The flags are available at each station and they, along with the stories, are completely free.
Junior Ranger Activity Books
These books can be picked up at the Visitor Center’s Park Ranger Desk for free, and they’re the perfect way to keep kids engaged and entertained as they learn all about historical Philadelphia. Each book contains fifteen pages of activities, corresponding to many of the historic sites throughout the park. Some are more difficult than others, but ages five and up should have no problem completing at least some of the pages. In these books, kids can do mazes, drawings, word scrambles, dot-to-dot, matching and other fun activities. My kids love walking around with these books and completing the activities as they learn. They also serve as a nice distraction when Mom and Dad want to sit and take a break. Make sure you bring pens or pencils with you; otherwise, you can purchase cool souvenir pens at the gift shops scattered around, starting at about $3.
During the summer season (Memorial Day through Labor Day), colonial men and women walk, talk and teach all over historic Philadelphia. You may run into some wandering about; feel free to start up a conversation'”they love to share what they know! My sons chatted with a young military troop about his peculiar flag with red and white stripes but no blue square or stars. They learned that this is what the flag looked like before we became a country, and they were fascinated talking with this colonial character.
Not only can you talk one-on-one with these folks in character, you can also watch skits and demonstrations throughout the day at various locations (all printed in the free Historic Philadelphia Gazette). We watched a wonderful interactive three-man play in the Betsy Ross House courtyard while we ate our lunch. We learned something and got free entertainment with our meal. Besides skits, you can see military demonstrations, flag rallies, tours, stories from historic people and more. Check the Gazette schedule for times and locations, or just ask a park ranger or colonial townsperson.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive day trip or family vacation, then look no further than historic Philadelphia. The free family activities in Philadelphia can occupy you for days, provide lots of entertainment and teach you something too. Our family always has a great time, and every time we leave, the kids want to know when we’re coming back.
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