You will probably get to Gettysburg by car. The good news is that it’s less than a two-hour drive from Philadelphia, Washington or Baltimore, which has the closest airport (BWI).
Civil War buffs have been making reservations for the 150th anniversary of the battle (July 1-3) for years. If you don’t already have a room booked nearby, plan a day trip, and start early to beat the traffic and find a place to park. It’s a small town with limited public parking.
Your best bet is to travel well after the anniversary. Spring, when I went, and fall are particularly nice times to visit. No matter what time of year, to experience the true serenity of the battlefield park, go in the early morning or evening. The big tour buses — often filled with schoolkids — seem to arrive between late morning and early afternoon.
There are basically three options for seeing the battlefield, the least desirable being one of the aforementioned bus tours. Second best, but a bit pricier, is a guided auto tour with a military expert who will take the wheel of your car and talk you through the complex movements of the Union and Confederate forces over the three days of the 1863 battle (details below). If you don’t want to spend the money, you can self-guide the 24-mile auto circuit, relying on maps and markers provided by the National Park Service.
The best option, if you have the stamina, is to walk the battlefield like the soldiers once did. A number of marked paths cover the 6,000-acre grounds, one of the best being the 1.5-mile Cemetery Ridge trail beginning at the National Park Service Museum and Visitor Center.
The newly refurbished visitor center is also a good place to get oriented, with a museum, bookstore and a theater that shows the must-see “A New Birth of Freedom,” narrated by Morgan Freeman. Also not to be missed is the giant Cyclorama (360 degrees) painting by Paul Philippoteaux of Pickett’s Charge. (There is an entry fee; see below.)
National Park details
For more traveler information on Gerrysburg National Military Park, go to www.nps.gov/gett.
Admission to the Gettysburg Museum Experience, the film “A New Birth of Freedom” and the Gettysburg Cyclorama program ranges from $12.50 for adults to $8.50 for ages 6-12 (ages 5 and under admitted free). You can buy tickets online at www.gettysburgfoundation.org.
To make a reservation for a privately guided tour of the battlefield in your own vehicle, call 1-877-874-2478 (reservations must be made at least three days before your visit). The cost is $65 for a vehicle with one to six people.
Privately run museums
The battlefield light show of yore is no longer there, but a good substitute is the privately run Gettysburg Diorama and History Center, which lays out the battle in miniature scale with lights, a soundtrack and 20,000 hand-painted soldiers (www.gettysburgdiorama.com).
The diorama is one of many privately operated museums-cum-souvenir-shops, and most have something original to offer, particularly the restored homes that show the civilian side of the battle.
Another worthwhile off-the-battlefield attraction is the Gettysburg Museum of History, run by memorabilia collector Erik Dorr (www.gettysburgmuseumofhistory.com). Dorr buys, sells and trades everything from Confederate money to Nazi paraphernalia and Elvis’ X-rays. “There’s something here to offend everyone,” he says cheerfully.
The food offerings in Gettysburg range from a pair of fast-food franchises woefully close to the battlefield, to period restaurants like the Dobbin House (www.dobbinhouse.com) and the Farnsworth House (www.farnsworthhouse.org), where waitrons in period costumes serve 19th-century American fare like goober pea (peanut) soup, spoon bread and pumpkin fritters.
My wife and I decided to stay in the mood and go with the traditional offerings in food and lodging, staying at the Brafferton Inn, one of dozens of historic bed-and-breakfasts around town (1-717-337-3423; www.brafferton.com). We were glad we did.
For more suggestions, check out the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-717-334-6274 and www.gettysburg.travel.