WHY GO: If organic architecture, 1800s carousel organ music, Audubon bird art, and Revolutionary War history make your hearts go pitter-pat, plan a couple of days to explore all the things to do in Valley Forge PA. Dynamic duos with a penchant for exploring oddball stuff will find much to love and explore together in this region just 23 miles outside of Philadelphia.
Valley Forge was the third of eight Winter Encampments during the American Revolution. Discover why it was important enough to commemorate as a National Park.
See the home of 18-year-old James Audubon, who was dispatched here (by his French father) to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army.
Hear and see hundred-year-old Wurlitzer Organs and Nickelodeons on an incredible tram tour through Mechanical Music History.
Or peruse the extremely unique home and furnishings of a prominent turn-of-last-century architect/furniture designer that few have ever heard of.
Even if the mere mention of George Washington or American History makes your eyes glaze over, there are curiosities aplenty in the Valley Forge Region of PA, and we let you in on the best. Read on.
To extend your “outer Philly” weekend getaway, add this fantastic escape to Chester County PA, a visit to Bryn Athyn PA – home to one of the grandest Cathedrals ever built by a private citizen in the US, and/or a bike ride along the Perkiomen Trail and a visit to Skippack Village.
Both are within a 25-minute drive from Valley Forge.
Things To Do In Valley Forge PA
TOUR: Valley Forge National Park
Valley Forge National Historic Park was just one of eight Revolutionary War Winter Encampments. This was the third, from December to June 1777-1778, there were no battles fought on these 3,500 acres, and it wasn’t even the worst winter of the war-torn years. So why make such a big deal about it?
What was the importance of the battle of Valley Forge?
“So,” on-site interpreters ask, “why does the National Park Service honor Valley Forge specifically, and why do schoolbooks dump all of the War’s suffering in one place?”
The Park Ranger and signage do an excellent job with the answers:
- Perseverance through a winter that incurred the highest death toll (a record 2,600 died from an illness.)
- The fact that France, wanting to stick it to its nemesis England, began sending arms and men (in no small part due to the influence and finesse of Ben Franklin who was living in France at the time.)
- And the arrival of a Prussian mercenary named Von Steuben, who had served under Frederick the Great. Von Steuben turned the disorganized, ill-supplied collection of 13 militias into the United States Continental Army.
Pick up a park map and take a self-guided tour on a well-marked ten-mile driving loop of the encampment tour route. There are nine stops, including the National Memorial Arch commemorating the arrival of General George Washington and the Continental Army into Valley Forge.
Be sure to stop at Washington’s Headquarters, “The Pentagon of its day.” As you drive along, you’ll see clusters of recreated log cabin huts representing the 2,000 that soldiers built for the harsh winter.
Entry to the National Park is free, as is the self-guided tour. For a more comprehensive tour, purchase an audio tour CD at the Visitor’s Center, or take a 90-minute narrated Trolley Tour. Check the website for hours open.
TOUR: American Treasure Tour
Take a 90-minute guided American Treasure Tram Tour through the staggering collection of one media-shy man obsessed with Mechanical Music – specifically Band Organs and Nickelodeons from 1900-1926, and animatronics, or “automatons” used for department store window displays.
It’s the most extensive collection of Mechanical Music in the world. And, it’s one of the coolest things to do on a date near Valley Forge!
The tram carries you through displays that are housed in the 100,000 sq. feet former home of the B. F. Goodrich Tire Factory. As you glide along, your guide turns on Band Organs and toys via iPad app, triggering childhood memories of carousels and ice-skating rinks. Step off the tram into a vast Nickelodeon Hall.
If you thought that Nickelodeons were merely player pianos, you’ll be surprised. The diversity of instruments that came to life for that nickel included drums, harps, violins, and even banjos. Don’t miss the “Photoplayer” made for silent movie theaters. It featured foot pedals that played chirping, bopping, and other sound effects for the screen.
The collection also includes a seemingly limitless number of cars, stuffed animals, and Americana. But, of course, come for the music.
This is an attraction that should be trumpeted throughout the world. And I know just the Wurlitzer to do it.
VISIT: Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio
A little bit Gaudi, a little bit Frank Lloyd Wright, Wharton Esherick–artist, sculptor and furniture designer–should be a household name. Anyone who is interested in architecture, furniture design or just plain quirky buildings should come to this little studio/home in the woods.
Constructed over a span of 40 years, the Wharton Esherick Museum and Studio is a triptych of styles. Beginning with a 1926 stone studio uphill from his farmhouse, followed by a wood portion in 1942, Esherick completed the compound with a silo encased in mixed pigment stucco in 1966.
Believing that building designers should throw out their T-Squares, Esherick, the “Dean of American Craftsman,” said,
“why be straight and square when nothing in nature is?”
A memorable house tour takes you through the building as Esherick left it in the late 1960s.
You access three levels via steps bolted into tree trunks. Heading up to Esherick’s bedroom, you’ll grasp a sensually smooth Mastodon tusk handrail. This revolutionary design, including the whole tight spiral staircase, was showcased at the 1940 World’s Fair as the centerpiece of a Pennsylvania Hill House.
The artist’s clothes are still neatly folded in the chest of drawers beneath his raised bed.
“It’s a space that changes lives,” says curator Paul Eisenhauer. “People who came as kids bring their kids. There’s just nothing like it.
VISIT: John James Audubon Center @ Mill Grove
James Audubon killed every bird he painted, so it would probably puzzle him to learn that his name would someday be associated with one of the most powerful conservation groups on earth – the National Audubon Society.
The John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove was James Audubon’s American Home, and there’s plenty more you probably don’t know about the guy.
For example, Audubon was born out of wedlock. He was French. He was never trained in art or science and was despised by the elite of both disciplines. And yet, Audubon was celebrated for his exquisite renderings of North American Birds.
Learn more about this young man – only 18 when he moved into this house. And peruse the exhibits, which include a complete “Double Elephant” Portfolio of “The Birds of America.” (Out of a run of 200, there are only around 100 in existence today. The last complete set sold at auction for $12 million).
Plan to spend at least an hour in the house and outside by the owl hut where you’ll find Odin, a big, engaging, Horned Owl.
Valley Forge Restaurants
EAT: Cedar Hollow Inn, Malvern
Enjoy tasty sandwiches, wraps, soups, and personal pizzas on the sundrenched enclosed patio.
EAT: Restaurant Alba, Malvern
Chef Sean Weinberg, a James Beard darling, dedicated to high quality, locally produced foods, opened up this big city-caliber eatery in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Malvern years ago. And the great reviews are never-ending.
EAT: Locals Recommend
Most highly rated restaurants in the Valley Forge area are in the more commercial King Of Prussia PA. The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, and Aroma Mediterranean are top choices there.
Valley Forge Hotels In Montgomery County
STAY: Wayne Bed & Breakfast Inn, Wayne
Facing a big empty nest, Traudi and John Thomason were determined to convert their five-room 1890 Arts & Crafts Victorian home into a B&B. Opened in 2012, the Wayne Bed and Breakfast Inn has already earned quite a following as a romantic getaway.
Hardwood floored guest rooms reflect Traudi’s taste; a mix of period pieces that include oriental rugs, four-poster beds, antiques, and contemporary art.
STAY: Sheraton Valley Forge
For those who like a more traditional hotel stay, the Sheraton sunk millions of bucks into an ultra-modern redo. Rooms are chic, and service is friendly.
STAY: Desmond Hotel, Malvern
See this Chester PA Getaway Post for more local attractions and places to stay.
More Weekend Getaways For History Tour Lovers
- Best 50 Historical Sites For The American History Buffs
- Parks and Recreation in the US; A State By State List (includes listings of historic sites)
- Looking for more travel ideas near Philadelphia? Check our Weekend Getaways In Pennsylvania.