The Battle of Historic Philadelphia

Touring the "birthplace of a nation" isn't as easy as it should be, but at least the lunch is good

It started out as a solid plan. We would take our houseguest on a tour of historic Philadelphia on a Saturday afternoon. I love the “birthplace of a nation” tour. There really are some impressive sights to show out-of-towners. It’s slightly more bracing doing this in November than in July, but this was the hand we were dealt. We had a limited amount of time, and we planned to make a handful of specific stops. Except historic Philadelphia fought back.[SIGNUP]

After parking and walking a couple of blocks, we got to Independence Square where we were greeted by the sight of … scaffolding. Okay, a historic building needs a facelift. Understandable. We told our guest that the front view was better anyway. Except you have to cross the street to see the front view because you can’t just walk in front of the building. That’s fine; we planned to do the tour inside and really that’s what counts. But when we got around to the front of the building there was a sign announcing there were no more tickets to tour Independence Hall that day. Not that we could have bought ourselves tickets there. I had completely forgotten you have to buy them at the Visitors Center, which isn’t exactly convenient to the tour entrance. New plan. Independence Hall is out, but there are many other attractions. We looked across the street at the weird greenhouse that houses the Liberty Bell. There were about 50,000 people surrounding the building. Well, it was probably a few hundred, but it looked like a LOT of people in line. That’s when I started to worry our tour was going to end before it began. And I wondered if Philadelphians realize just how well the local tourism industry is doing.

Our next stop was Carpenters’ Hall. It’s a really interesting place, and I can’t praise the docent working there highly enough. Dressed in Colonial garb, he looked like he was on a break from waiting tables at the City Tavern, but he knew so much about the legal history of the framers and their individual histories. I have to imagine the city is probably not paying this guy enough. Actually, I’m not totally sure he’s an employee at all. He could just be a constitutional law expert with a costume who hangs out there on weekends for fun. I was just incredibly grateful to finally offer our guest a taste of history. Inspired by the Colonial guy, I figured a champagne shrub and pepper pot soup at the City Tavern would be a good bet afterward. Nothing says history like champagne.

Over lunch we decided our next stop would be Christ Church cemetery. We really built it up to our guest, hoping to show her something really significant. Ben Franklin’s grave, all the notables buried there. There was that great scene in the movie National Treasure. Awesome, right? Wrong. It closed a few minutes before we got there. Gates locked. Thirty people crowded around the fence in front of Ben, throwing pennies. Seriously, they close at 4 p.m.? Are they afraid we’ll wake the dead? Were we cursed?

We were running out of ideas fast. Where to try next? Betsy Ross House? Maybe that would still be open. And it was. Busy outside, lined up inside, tiny hallways congested. It was my first time too and it was interesting. Maybe not for the intended reason though. A lot of the signage said, “she may have…” I left with the distinct impression nobody really knows anything about this woman except who she married and that she made a flag. Maybe in her room. Which may be this room. And maybe British soldiers squatted there. There were an awful lot of maybes. Interesting nonetheless. We didn’t want to tempt fate, so we called it a day.

Unfortunately I suspect the highlight of our historic Philadelphia tour may have been lunch. I did learn a few things, like first read the website, which says, “arrive early, tickets are often gone by 1 p.m.” And, “pick up tickets at Independence Visitors Center.” Plus, I now know what time the cemetery closes. Next tour, I’m doing this in the summer without the icy wind. Recent controversy aside, it would be nice if Ride the Ducks returned. The professionals take a lot pressure off the disorganized suburban tour guide.