Historic Philadelphia: Coolest Things to Do in the Birthplace of The US Constitution

Can a Historic Philadelphia PA Getaway Make American History Entertaining? And Pleasurable? Absolutely!

Be in the halls where it happened on this Philadelphia American History Getaway. Yes, you’ll see Carpenter’s Hall, Congress Hall, Independence Hall, the liberty bell, the Betsy Ross house, and other historic Landmarks. And you’ll also learn all about the messy, bloody, confusing American Revolution sparked by a fiercely debated Declaration of Independence.

Liberty Bell inscription Philadelphia History Getaway

But you can also dine on the fly in a great new Food Hall, and sleep in luxury where independent workingwomen felt at home long before they earned the right to vote.

American History signage everywhere in Philadelphia

Now, with our nation so divided, it’s a good time to head to the source, to learn about the “American Experiment” in the still-standing buildings where our country was born.

This city is so significant in our country’s founding, Independence Hall became one of the nation’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Philadelphia itself was proclaimed a World Heritage City in 2015.

To Bigotry no sanction sign on wall of American Jewish History Museum

We recommend museums, experiences, good grub, and a just-opened “contactless” boutique hotel with a cool “boss-women” backstory, in the following History themed Philadelphia Getaway. Read on.

Want to do a deeper dive into Philadelphia, the Getaway Mavens way? We’ve got a few themed posts that offer various ways to explore this great city.

Haunted Philly Getaway (perfect for Halloween Month)

Philadelphia Gardens Getaway

Philly Murals, Arts, and Letters Getaway

Philadelphia’s Cool Neighborhoods

And, one new Philly hotel, The Guild House, made it onto our 20 Best Romantic Hotels Northeast USA 2021 list.

Philly is also on the Harriet Tubman Trail from Birth to Death.

Inspired by these posts? Want more vacays in PA with your favorite person? Check out these 30+ Romantic Getaways in Pennsylvania.

Where is Philadelphia’s Historic District?

The city’s first borders spanned from the Delaware River to 7th Street, and from Vine Street to Lombard Street (with Market Street at its center). Today, this area encompasses parts of Independence National Historical Park, the Delaware River Waterfront, and Old City, and is known collectively as the Historic District.

Within it, you’ll find the First Federal Bank of the United States building, (opened in 1791, not open for tours), and Washington Square Park, which, like it’s NYC counterpart, served as a Potters Field for the destitute during the Revolutionary War, and a final resting place for victims of Yellow Fever in the early 1800’s.

There is so much to see and do here in fact – you can spend a few days alone delving into sites within Independence Mall – the three-block section of Independence National Historical Park informally known as “America’s Most Historic Square Mile.”  

Things to Do On A Historic Philadelphia Getaway

Philadelphia Visitors Center on Independence Mall

START: Independence National Historical Park Visitor’s Center

Pick up a map at the greatly informative Independence Visitor Center. This long stretch of building in Independence Hall National Park, contains both National Park and Visit Philly information. It’s also where most historic walking tours begin. Open daily 9-5, free.

Liberty Bell with tourists Philadelphia PA

SEE: Liberty Bell

Contrary to popular legend, the fabled Liberty Bell did not ring for the first time on July 4th, 1776. It did ring, however, at the signing of the US Constitution, and the deaths of Ben Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Bell on display was actually commissioned by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, which granted religious liberties and political self-government to the people of Pennsylvania.

Close up of cracked Liberty Bell Philly PA

The Bell’s inscription reads, in part, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Ironically, the bell, known as the “State House Bell,” was first called the “Liberty Bell” in the late 1830’s as a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.

Although no one knows when the Liberty Bell was first damaged, it got its major crack on purpose, when metal workers attempted to halt further fissures. It rang for the last time in February 1846, on George Washington’s Birthday. Open daily 9-5, free.

Independence Hall Philadelphia PA

TOUR: Independence Hall

Be in the “Room where it happened” on this 20 minute tour of Independence Hall. “It” in this case is the signing of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

It took nine months for the US Constitution to be ratified and adopted into law, in 1788. Open daily 9-5. Guided tours every 15 minutes – last one 4:45. Get tickets online.

Tour guide in Congress Hall Philadelphia PA

TOUR: Congress Hall

Although George Washington was first inaugurated at Federal Hall in New York City, his second term inauguration took place in this sturdy brick building next to Independence Hall, Congress Hall.

John Adams also took the oath of office here, but, according to our very entertaining guide, that was no sure thing.  The struggle, after America won its Independence, was to “take one good idea and turn it into reality.” That good idea? The U.S. Constitution.  

On a guided tour, we were whisked back in time to March 4, 1797, to the inauguration of John Adams. This building was just eight year old. The Constitution, ten. The document called for a President – not a King – to be elected by the people every four years. Would it hold?

That day, the former President, George Washington, sat in the room, alive and well. Power transferred to John Adams without a hitch. We pulled off the good idea. For now. Open daily 9-5, free.

Carpenters Hall with school group Philadelphia PA

TOUR: Carpenter’s Hall

Tour Carpenter’s Hall, the building that housed the First Continental Congress in 1774, and Benjamin Franklin’s Library. You’ll find it just steps from the Museum of the American Revolution.

Museum of the American Revolution Philly exterior shot

VISIT: The Museum of the American Revolution, Washington’s Field Tent

Back in the day, everything I knew about the American Revolution and the War of Independence, I learned from the Broadway musical, 1776.

What I realized after visiting the Museum of the American Revolution and other institutions within Independence Hall National Park, was that our country’s founding was a lot messier, more deadly, and created more upheaval than any song and dance number can convey. (Several numbers, however, hit very close to the mark, including Molasses to Rum to Slaves, Momma Look Sharp, and the one that always makes me burst out in tears, Is Anybody There.)

Washington’s War Tent

Washingtons War Tent poster

Perhaps George Washington penned the letter to Congress, with that anguished question (above), in his War Tent – which is on view after a short film about its use and how it came to this museum.

The tent served as Washington’s home and operations center during the Revolutionary War – and seeing that relic right before your eyes, is quite the thrill. But the rest of the museum certainly warrants a couple of hours, at least.

Staircase to exhibits at Museum of the American Revolution Philadelphia PA

Walk through over 20 exhibits along a timeline that includes Becoming Revolutionaries (1760-1775), The Darkest Hour (1776-1778), A Revolutionary War (1778 -1783), and A New Nation (1783-present). There are plenty of videos, dioramas, and one large ship, among so much more.

America's first political cartoon - Join or Die - by Benjamin Franklin

The first room begins with America’s first political cartoon: Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” drawing of a segmented snake – each part representing a different American colony.

George Washington breaks up brawl between Black and White soldiers Museum of American Revolution

Of course, once those separate parts joined, the mixing of American regions and races caused problems of their own – as the depiction of General Washington breaking up a brawl in Harvard Yard between Black Massachusetts and White Virginia soldiers points out.

Thomas Paine wrote, “It’s one thing to declare independence – it’s another to secure it.”  And, once secured, how do we govern to assure its continuance? It’s a question to ponder as you make your way through the museum, because it’s a question that still resounds today. Open daily 10-5, $19 adults, $13 kids.

National Constitution Center exterior Philadelphia PA

VISIT: National Constitution Center

A nonpartisan view of our government’s foundation, “The National Constitution Center illuminates constitutional ideals and inspires acts of citizenship, so that We the People may better secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

In May 1787, a group of passionate, involved delegates were called to Philadelphia for a “constitutional convention,” to tackle the issue of states rights versus federal power. 

Debating, disputing and hashing it out, often at loggerheads, for 114 long days, these fifty five men settled on a balance of power between three branches of government; Executive, Legislative and Judicial, giving each authority but not complete control. It was a form of government never before seen on this earth.

Freedom Rising

Begin by watching the 17-minute “Freedom Rising.”  Stadium-style seating rings a spot lit stage where a live actor begins, “We the people.”  You may get goose bumps as he/she goes on to explain that our county’s quest for independence was “a step civilization had never taken before; this idea of a people deliberately willing to rule themselves.”

The history of our constitution is told in a great, interactive timeline on the second floor of the museum. See a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court robe. Watch yourself on a large screen as you recite the Presidential Oath of Office. There’s so much to learn and do. 

Sign Your Name

Sign the Constitution in Signers Hall National Constitution Center Philly

In the Signers Hall, 42 life-size bronze statues gather in clusters, discussing, gesturing, urging you to sign their much-argued-over document (in actuality, a guest ledger). 

Representing a scene in the Pennsylvania State House on September 17, 1787, Signers Hall is one of the most unexpectedly engaging museum exhibits in the city and a worthy photo op. Mingling among these short, pony-tailed – albeit inanimate – men, you can’t but feel being a part of history.

Neon Ben Franklins at Ben Franklin Museum Philly

VISIT: Ben Franklin Museum

Visit the Benjamin Franklin Museum for fun (and interactive) insight into one of our country’s Founding Fathers: an upbeat, robust, productive, and ultra-social man of international renown.

Ben Franklin at his writing desk Philly PA

But he also experimented with electricity, invented bifocals (or, as he called them, “double spectacles”), was appointed Postmaster for the Colonies, came up with dozens of sayings still known today (“Haste makes waste.”), wrote like a crazed blogger, and was the poster boy for “thinking outside the box.” All while suffering from painful gout.

Ben Franklin Sat Here - Benjamin Franklin Museum Philadelphia

You’ll see plenty of what his mind conceived of in this engaging museum, which includes many of Franklin’s inventions, some of his original furniture, and more information about his family.  Open daily 9-5.

National Liberty Museum exterior

VISIT: National Liberty Museum

The National Liberty Museum is a quirky little gem dedicated to the idea of Freedom and its definition.  Though you’ll be captivated by beautiful Chihuly glass art, there is one compelling reason to visit.

National Liberty Museum Philly PA
National Liberty Museum Philly PA

Listen to the peal of the “original Liberty Bell,” made in the same foundry in England with the same materials – this one without the crack. 

National Museum of Jewish History Philadelphia PA

VISIT: The Weitzman National Museum of Jewish History

The Weitzman National Museum of Jewish History tells the 350-year-old story of Jews in America.

In a soaring glass structure, four floors of exhibits illustrate the past and present of Jewish life in the US, famous Jewish Americans (like Emma Lazarus, who wrote the inscription for the base of the Statue of Liberty) and current communities. Though the museum has become a touchstone for Jewish people worldwide, it draws many non-Jews, as well. Check website for hours, free.

Faith and Liberty Discovery Center Philadelphia PA

TOUR: Faith and Liberty Discovery Center

Although not really preachy, The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center (right across the street from the Jewish Museum) accentuates Christian values, using many New Testament sources.

However, this highly interactive museum is infused with love and respect for all people. That’s because exhibits revolve around Philadelphia’s founder, William Penn.

As a Quaker, Penn was persecuted in England. He came to the New World so that he, and others, could worship as they chose. Penn’s beliefs gave rise to the quest for Independence and Liberty, greatly influencing the Founding Fathers.

Magic Lamp makes the Faith and Liberty Museum interactive

When you purchase your ticket, you receive a cool flashlight-like device that, as you walk around, can sync and download exhibits throughout the museum. Staff urge you to capture anything that “calls to you.”

Exhibits are divided into Faith, Liberty, Hope, Justice, Unity, and Love. I tended towards the “Justice” aspects of religious practice – “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” being straight out of the Old Testament (Torah). 

Capture What “Calls To You”

I “captured” the biblical commandment, “Do not mistreat foreigners living in your land. Remember you were foreigners in the Land of Egypt,” and the Proverb, “Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless.”

And, of course, I had to collect the poem penned by Emma Lazarus, emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me you tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.”

There are “Conversation Booths” for visitors who’d like to impart their own ideas about Faith and Liberty. And, you’ll find plenty of artifacts, like crosses, bibles, and a Jewish talit and Sabbath candlesticks.

Theater in the Round

Don’t leave without experiencing the 15-minute theater in the round animated presentation. Your magic lamp allows you to “open” more pages in the subjects that interest you.

Freedom for women to practice medicine in 1800s Faith and Liberty Museum Philly

I wanted to know more about the Constitution’s Article VI, Clause 3, which states: “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Given that our Constitution is based on the freedom to worship each according to our own faith, one shortcoming of this museum was the absence of other religious practices, such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Open Mon-Sat. 10-5, $10 adults, $8 youth.

Where to Eat in Historic Philadelphia PA

The Bourse Food Hall Philly PA

EAT: The Bourse

Once a stock and commodities exchange building, this modern Food Hall on Independence Mall, The Bourse, makes the best sense for visitors trying to maximize their time in the Historic Sites and Museums.

Vendors are still signing on, but as of mid-October 2021, you can choose from Poke at Abunai, fried chicken at Freebyrd, pizza at Brico Pizza Romana, Philly Cheesesteak at Marino Bros., and several more.

Newest Historic Luxury Hotel in Philadelphia PA

Guild House Hotel front door mantle Philadelphia PA

STAY: The Guild House Hotel

The Guild House Hotel, a beautiful mid 1850’s Italianate brick row house in an area of Philadelphia teaming with great restaurants, holds some heady history.

In the 1880’s, when women could not enter many fine-dining establishments without a husband, feminist Eliza Sproat Turner envisioned a club for working women. The Club would offer trade classes, and a beautiful place to gather, enjoy a cup of tea or soup, and brainstorm with others of like mind and aspirations.

In 1882, Turner and others created what came to be called the New Century Working Women’s Guild, which, after several moves, came to this property on Locust Street in 1907.

The Guild House Reborn

After an extensive renovation in 2021, the dining and meeting rooms have been reconfigured as luxury boutique hotel guest chambers, with stunning bedrooms and gorgeous private baths.

Staircase at The Guild House Hotel Philly

Just two caveats: the inn is an “invisible service operation.” No one is around to welcome you or staff the one common room, The Lounge. And, there are no elevators. So, depending on the location of your room, you must be able to climb up to four floors of stairs. (Although there is a dumbwaiter for luggage).

In other words, if you are solo and book here, you’ll have to be as ballsy and independent-minded as the women in the early 1900’s who first walked through these doors.

I was so up for that.

First Impressions of The Guild House Hotel

Prior to my visit, I received multiple emails and texts from The Guild House Hotel with a link to the Guest Services Manual, providing information on parking lots, restaurants, and medical facilities nearby, in addition to information about the hotel itself.

The day before I arrived, I received the key code to enter the front door, which beckoned from the sidewalk, through a cast-iron gate, and up several steps.

The Guild House Hotel Lounge Philly PA

A long hallway leads to the Lounge/Library. A tufted bench and small tables line illuminated shelves stacked with teacups, saucers, ceramic art, and books.

Filtered and seltzer water taps on 3rd floor Guild House Hotel Philly

This ornate vignette is juxtaposed with a modern dining table for ten, and a counter stocked with water glasses and a faucet that provides both filtered and seltzer water. I imagine that at full occupancy, the Library Lounge buzzes with conversation. 

Room 6 Guild House Hotel Philly

Rooms at the Guild House Hotel

My room, #6, the Gabrielle, was one of the prettiest I’ve ever stayed in. According to photos on the website, every room, named for a woman of note, is just as spectacular.

Each ensemble defies an identifiable era. Designers took great liberty with different periods, from traditional, to Victorian, to modern, without veering into camp. Rooms and suites somehow provide a sense of nostalgia without being overwrought. The whole effect is enchanting.

Sitting area in Room 6 The Guild House Hotel Philly

Gabrielle  – a high-ceiling 450 sq ft. fantasia of blue – was on the 3rd floor. Dark teal walls showcase eclectic art. Heather blue curtains hang from brass rods from the ceiling to the hardwood floor.

A blue and white Chinese vase tops a small mid-century modern hourglass-base table for two. And two upholstered swivel chairs add more seating. The handsome carved wood fireplace frames an array of blue and white Delft tiles.

When not in use, the flat screen TV, on top of a “Suitcase” bureau, projects a piece of art.

Metallic spindle four poster bed The Guide House Hotel Philly

The spindle-canopy bed is ultra-comfy, with wall outlets for phone and laptop easily within reach. The hoteliers thought of everything.

Guild House Hotel Mosaic Bathroom Philly PA

The bathroom is an exquisite oasis. Small hexagonal marble tiles form black and white mosaic designs on both the floor of the room and the large glass shower.

Guild House Hotel in room treats

Food at The Guild House Hotel

Rooms are stocked with complimentary treats, such as cookies and chocolates, from women-owned businesses nearby. There are porcelain cups and saucers – a nod to the women who’d take tea during “Noon Rest.” And there’s a drip coffee maker with a jar of ground coffee – no pods! – an electric tea kettle, and small microwave as well.

Mural at Locust St Parking Lot Philly

However, the Guild House is not a B&B or a restaurant, so you’ll have to walk a few steps to area eateries. For breakfast, the Green Eggs café is practically next door, across from a parking lot identified by the mural pictured above.

The closest spots for dinner, Bud & Marilyn’s and Little Nonna, are catty-corner across the street.

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  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.