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Thanks to Lin Manuel Miran­da and his Broad­way smash hit “Hamil­ton,” U.S. His­to­ry has nev­er been cool­er, so now is the per­fect time to hip-hop on the band­wag­on and take teens (and pre-teens) to Philadel­phia to see “the room[s] where it happened.”

A centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park in Historic Philadelphia is Independence Hall. Built in 1753 to house the Colonial legislature, the building gained renown for being the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The lowest chamber of the original wooden steeple was the first home of the Liberty Bell, which now resides across the street. Visitors obtain free timed tickets for tours of Independence Hall at the Independence Visitor Center, located one block north at 6th and Market Streets.

His­toric Inde­pen­dence Hall sits in har­mo­ny with Philadel­phi­a’s mod­ern sky­line Pho­to © Vis­it Philadelphia

Independence Hall

Philadel­phia is lit­er­al­ly the birth­place of our nation.  It’s not only where the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence was signed, but also the Con­sti­tu­tion and the Bill of Rights.  Inside the walls of Inde­pen­dence Hall – and the adja­cent Con­gress Hall – our found­ing fathers cre­at­ed and signed these ground­break­ing doc­u­ments. Teens who have tak­en (or will take) U.S. His­to­ry can lit­er­al­ly see their text­books come to life as guides list the names of the remark­able men who walked the floor­boards, includ­ing George Wash­ing­ton, Thomas Jef­fer­son, and of course, Alexan­der Hamilton.

In addi­tion to the main sec­tion of Inde­pen­dence Hall, vis­i­tors can also tour Con­gress Hall, which served as the home of the U.S. Con­gress from 1790 to 1800 when Philadel­phia was the tem­po­rary cap­i­tal of the Unit­ed States.  In fact, both Pres­i­dents Wash­ing­ton and Adams were inau­gu­rat­ed in Con­gress Hall. His­to­ry buffs can also see orig­i­nal print­ed copies of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion, and the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion inside the West Wing of Inde­pen­dence Hall along with the actu­al sil­ver ink­stand used by the 56 sign­ers of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence in 1776 (a par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive item for my old­er son).

One of the original printed copies of the Declaration of Independence that was sent to the colonies is on display in the West Wing-of Independence Hall Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman

One of the orig­i­nal print­ed copies of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence that was sent to the colonies is on dis­play in the West Wing-of Inde­pen­dence Hall © Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

Stepping into Independence Hall is like stepping back in time to 1776 Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman

Step­ping into Inde­pen­dence Hall is like step­ping back in time to 1776 © Saman­tha Davis-Friedman


Admis­sion into Inde­pen­dence Hall is on a tour only. Timed admis­sion tick­ets are free, but the line can be extreme­ly long (espe­cial­ly dur­ing busy times of year), so pre-order­ing tick­ets online makes the process much sim­pler – and the nom­i­nal fee is cer­tain­ly worth the time saved – though it’s prob­a­bly wise not to make direct eye con­tact with the peo­ple in line who were not savvy enough to order their tick­ets in advance.


The Liberty Bell

Across Inde­pen­dence Mall from Inde­pen­dence Hall is where anoth­er extreme­ly cool piece of Amer­i­can His­to­ry can be found, and along with the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty and Mount Rush­more, it’s prob­a­bly among the most icon­ic Amer­i­can sym­bols: The Lib­er­ty Bell. Admis­sion to see the Lib­er­ty Bell is also free, and like Inde­pen­dence Hall, the line can be long.  While there is no pre-order option for the Lib­er­ty Bell, get­ting in line at least a half-hour before the open­ing time ensures access to the Bell before the crowds get too out of con­trol. Mul­ti-task­ing tip: Have one adult hop across the street to col­lect the pre-ordered tick­ets for Inde­pen­dence Hall while the rest of the group waits in the Lib­er­ty Bell line.

The Liberty Bell sits beside Independence Hall - Photo by Visit Philadelphia

The Lib­er­ty Bell sits beside Inde­pen­dence Hall — © Vis­it Philadelphia

See­ing the bell itself is obvi­ous­ly the main rea­son for vis­it­ing the Lib­er­ty Bell Cen­ter, but fam­i­lies should def­i­nite­ly make sure to take the time to check out the cen­ter’s exhibits that not only tell the sto­ry of the bell and its famous crack (Spoil­er Alert: Nobody record­ed exact­ly when or why the Lib­er­ty Bell first cracked), but also illus­trate how the bell made its way into both Amer­i­can His­to­ry and pop culture.


Two boys and a bell - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman

Two boys and a bell — © Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

The Museum of the American Revolution

A rel­a­tive­ly new addi­tion to Philadel­phia is the Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, which opened in April 2017. Though the word “muse­um” is often the kiss of death when it comes to entic­ing teenagers, this one should def­i­nite­ly not be missed. Inside, the sto­ry of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion unfolds though a col­lec­tion of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary-era weapons, per­son­al items, doc­u­ments, and works of art, as well as sev­er­al immer­sive expe­ri­ences and inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal ele­ments that con­nect 16th cen­tu­ry patri­ots with 21st cen­tu­ry kids.

George Washington's blue silk sash is on display at the Museun of the American Revolution next to a 1776 portrait of Washington wearing the sash - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman

George Wash­ing­ton’s blue silk sash is on dis­play at the Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion next to a 1776 por­trait of Wash­ing­ton wear­ing the sash — © Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

A par­tic­u­lar favorite item for my teens was George Wash­ing­ton’s War Tent, one of the most remark­able sur­viv­ing arti­facts of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.  After the war, the tent used by Wash­ing­ton as his head­quar­ters on the bat­tle­field from mid-1778 until 1783 (includ­ing dur­ing the 1781 Siege of York­town), under­took a pret­ty fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney. It was first giv­en to Martha Wash­ing­ton’s grand­son, George Wash­ing­ton Parke Custis, and was kept at his estate in Vir­ginia. It then passed to his daugh­ter Mary Anna Custis Lee, who inci­den­tal­ly was the wife of Civ­il War Gen­er­al Robert E. Lee, until it was tak­en from her by fed­er­al troops at the start of the Civ­il War. Even­tu­al­ly returned to the Lee fam­i­ly about 40 years lat­er, the tent – still in prac­ti­cal­ly per­fect con­di­tion – final­ly made its way to the muse­um where it is now the cen­ter­piece of an amaz­ing state-of-the-art mixed media presentation.

Multi-media presentation with Washington's tent as the main character - © Museum of the American Revolution

Mul­ti-media pre­sen­ta­tion with Wash­ing­ton’s tent as the main char­ac­ter — © Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Revolution

On a side note, and turn­ing back to our friend Alexan­der Hamil­ton, from Octo­ber 27, 2018 though March 17, 2019, the Muse­um of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion will have a spe­cial exhib­it that explores Hamil­ton’s Philadel­phia called “Hamil­ton Was Here: Ris­ing Up in Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Philadel­phia,” an inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence with scenic envi­ron­ments and facil­i­tat­ed games.


Eastern State Penitentiary 

Located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the most famous prisons in the world - Photo by Visit Philadelphia

Locat­ed in the Fair­mount sec­tion of Philadel­phia, East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary was one of the most famous pris­ons in the world — © Vis­it Philadelphia

Even if teens still don’t think U.S. His­to­ry is cool after vis­it­ing Philadel­phi­a’s his­toric spots – though hope­ful­ly they do – they sure­ly won’t be able to deny the cool fac­tor at East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary. Once the most famous prison in the world, East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary’s crum­bling cell­blocks and emp­ty guard tow­ers are all that’s left of the world’s first true “pen­i­ten­tiary,” a prison designed to inspire pen­i­tence in the hearts of pris­on­ers, which by the way, includ­ed one of its most famous inmates – and one of Amer­i­ca’s most noto­ri­ous crim­i­nals – Al Capone.


Al Capone's cell in Eastern State Penitentiary - Photo by Tom Berault

Al Capone’s cell in East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary — © Tom Berault

The self-guid­ed audio tour of East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary nar­rat­ed by Steve Busce­mi tells the sto­ry of how – and why – the prison was con­struct­ed in the 1800s, and also includes fas­ci­nat­ing first-per­son accounts record­ed by for­mer guards and pris­on­ers who lived and worked there. The prison is also believed to be haunt­ed, and as ear­ly as the 1940s, offi­cers and inmates report­ed mys­te­ri­ous visions and eerie expe­ri­ences inside its walls. In fact, footage cap­tured on the sec­ond tier of Cell­block 12 by para­nor­mal inves­ti­ga­tors dur­ing the film­ing for SyFy Chan­nel’s “Ghost Hunters” is still one of the most con­tro­ver­sial ghost sight­ings in history.


© Fer­di­nand Stöhr on Unsplash

So, by com­bin­ing your fam­i­ly vaca­tion with a walk through his­to­ry, you’re not only get­ting some down time, you’re also using your fine­ly honed mul­ti-task­ing skills to edu­cate your teens. They can see George Wash­ing­ton’s tent and the Lib­er­ty Bell; they can lit­er­al­ly stand in the room where the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence was signed; and they can pos­si­bly see a ghost of an East­ern State Pen­i­ten­tiary pris­on­er. Final­ly, to con­vince them that you’re real­ly not all that dat­ed and have some hip left in you too, make reser­va­tions at Zahav restau­rant. It’ll be the vic­to­ry meal you all deserve after your deep dive. Now, that’s a pret­ty cool fam­i­ly vaca­tion (and might even get them an A on their next U.S. His­to­ry test if they were pay­ing atten­tion). Win-win.