Children in tricorn hats run willy-nilly while parents secure timed tickets and snap pictures. It's a busy morning at the Independence Visitor Center, starting point for tourists bound for Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center. With the U.S. flag waving in the breeze and red-white-and-blue bunting on fences, every day feels like July 4th in Philadelphia, birthplace of the United States. National Park Service guide Don Grace moves visitors into hallowed rooms and gives brief summaries about what happened here. "The delegates argued about independence for a year and then voted to break away from Great Britain," he says. "A nation was born right here in this room." At the Liberty Bell Center, an audio program tells the story of this important national symbol. At the end of the hall, the famous cracked bell hangs. Beyond these great icons of history, Philly offers art museums, botanical gardens and shopping.
On the other side of Independence Mall from Independence Hall sits the National Constitution Center, a $185 million institution that strives to increase awareness, understanding and relevance of the U.S. Constitution. Interactive exhibits have visitors taking the presidential oath of office, trying on a Supreme Court justice's robe and casting a vote for an all-time favorite president.
Independence National Historical Park covers several more blocks and a slew of important historic buildings, including Carpenters' Hall, meeting site for the First Continental Congress in 1774 (www.nps.gov/inde). We wander through Franklin Court and encounter historic interpreter Ralph Archbold in the role of Ben Franklin. In character, he shares his views of publishing just a few steps from an 18th-century print shop set up in a row house.
Stepping up in Society Hill
Tall trees shade the cobblestone streets and brick houses of Society Hill, an enclave of brick townhouses and 18th-century churches that is part of the Center City Historic District. Doorways and steps are clues to age, explains guide Ed Mauger. Older houses, perhaps built when people kept dairy cows in back yards, required wide entrances. During the early colonial period, parents supervised children and completed chores on the first floor of their homes. Activities spilled onto sidewalks. In later years, when men left home for work in offices, small stairs were built to an elevated first floor as a means of separating home life from the public.
Where Washington prayed
We enter St. Peter's Church, a Georgian structure designed by Scottish-born architect Robert Smith. "George Washington liked to come here. Normally, he went to Christ Church, the first Anglican Church. It's fancier," says Mauger, explaining that Washington liked the bishop's sermons here. "Where you are sitting is the only spot you can sit where Washington himself 'warmed his bottom.' It's the original pew."
Bordering the leafy Society Hill neighborhood is South Street, a bohemian area with galleries, nightclubs, sidewalk cafes and ethnic food shops. The shimmering mosaics of artist Isaiah Zagar decorate the streetscape. He uses colored glass, pottery fragments, mirror shards and wine bottles to nurture an imaginative Magic Garden outside his studio.
Our little secret
As plant lovers follow the winding paths through Bartram's Garden, they step into history. It is our next stop and is the oldest living botanic garden in America. Franklin, Washington and Thomas Jefferson came here to examine the plant collections of John Bartram (1699-1777). The garden has an unmatched collection of North American plant species, yet it remains a secret garden often overlooked by tourists. The naturalist's original garden plots, wildflower meadow and woodland span the 46-acre property on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The stone house, designated as a national historic landmark in 1966, contains family furnishings, plant displays and an exhibition highlighting his travels.
At Fairmount Park, a downtown green space 10 times the size of New York's Central Park, the Philadelphia Zoo is home to 1,600 mammals, birds and reptiles. We admire the lavish landscaping and Victorian-era architecture of the structures as we wander among the animal exhibits. Fairmount Park also features the world-class Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Northwest, United and US Airways offer direct flights from Minneapolis to Philadelphia.
One of the original 13 colonies, Philadelphia is known as the City of Brotherly Love. The city has a population of 1.4 million. It lies in the subtropic humid zone, which means that it can be hot and muggy in the summer, but pleasant fall weather can extend into November.
Philly was once among the largest cities in the British Empire, second only to London. That was before the American Revolution, which was born in Philadelphia, of course.
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