When time came to make a decision regarding our summer vacation several options came to mind; Europe always holds a special allure, but it is usually way too expensive in the summer. California sounded great. There’s lots to see but perhaps not enough time to make reservations. With June upon us my wife Lisa and I began to scale back our options but still had lofty goals of seeing important sites, standing in the presence of history, and then lying on a beach.
As a high school history teacher in New York I had the good fortune of taking a class trip to Philadelphia. I had been there once before for a very brief time for a conference and saw almost nothing of the city. With the students we covered too much ground in too little time, but everyone got a good sense of one of the most important cities during the creation of the United States. I saw enough to want to return. I suggested Philadelphia to my wife and the possibility of moving on to Washington DC just a few miles south. A glance at the map showed Virginia Beach to be a few short hours beyond DC and would provide a nice respite from all of the running between sites. As Lisa, talked to some friends about our trip many of them also suggested we stop in Baltimore since it was along the way and has a great inner harbor. We both liked where this was headed and made a quick call to the travel agent to secure hotels. Just a few days later we had the car filled and ready to go.
As we headed south on Interstate 95 I have to admit that I didn’t realize just what type of vacation we had crafted. Yes, we would go to historic cities and sites, but somehow it failed to register that on this trip of a little more than a thousand miles we would step back some two hundred and thirty years in history. We would witness Colonial life and the birth of the nation in Philadelphia, the growth of federal institutions in Washington DC, the near-death of the country in two separate wars, first in Baltimore and then again in Richmond, Virginia. By the time we arrived home both Lisa and I had a new respect for the early years of the United States as well as a new sense of what it means to be American.
Day 1: We arrived in Philadelphia a little after 9AM. After checking in at the hotel we were off to the historic center of the old city. The former capital of the United States, Philadelphia today is rather cosy for a large city and mass transportation makes it easy to get around. SEPTA trains may not be the cleanest in the world, but they are air conditioned and relatively on time. Luckily for the tourist, all of the major historical sites in Philadelphia are within about ten blocks or so of each other. Even in the nearly unbearable heat and humidity of July it was not too much of a burden to get a feeling for the city’s history.
Our first stop was to the tourist center to procure tickets. Although entry at the major sites is free, you need tickets for a few of them to coincide with guided tours, and the only place to get them is the tourist center. The first site on our list was Independence Hall. Located in the city center section of the city Independence Hall is where the first Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were haggled over and eventually written. Independence Hall is buttressed by the County Courthouse to its immediate west, which housed Congress when the city was the nation’s Capital, and City Hall just to the east. It was originally used by the Supreme Court. The guided tour is about 45 minutes and well worth it. Visitors are able to stand just a few feet away from the location where some of the most important debates in the nation’s history took place. Unlike many government buildings constructed in the years after independence, the buildings that housed the early American governments are simplistic in their early Colonial architecture, but beautiful nonetheless. Even more impressive than seeing where these important documents were created was getting a chance to view them up close. In the former Supreme Court the Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution are on display in a sealed and climate-controlled glass case. Visitors can get close enough to read the two hundred and thirty year old words and appreciate the large calligraphy-style signatures of John Hancock and the like.
Just across the street from Independence Park is the Liberty Bell Center. Since 2001 it has been enclosed in a massive glass and brick structure, and similar to Independence Hall, security is tight. Be prepared to wait in line and be searched as if going to the airport. In our case, the security line took almost as long as viewing the mini-museum and the Liberty Bell itself. The bell has a history all its own and its story parallels the growth of America from the Revolution through the Civil War. Unfortunately, there is usually a crowd around the Bell, and we had to wait several minutes to take a picture of it. In any case, this is one site that is definitely worth the time.
Just one block away from the Liberty Bell is the National Constitution Center (NCC). This large structure is dedicated to exploring the meaning of the US Constitution and is one of the most interesting museums in the country if not the world. The Louvre in Paris or the MET in New York are fascinating in that they showcase works of art though the ages. The NCC focuses not on art per se but a single political document and how it has applied to this country for more than two centuries. The NCC is a circular exhibit that shows all the amendments to the Constitution with beautiful glass carvings and hanging artful displays. Visitors begin with the first amendment and are treated to audio, video, or written examples of its application to American life. As you continue around the exhibit you soon realize that you are not looking at the past but rather a living document that has never been more relevant that it is today. Exiting the Constitution exhibit leaves you in Signers Hall, one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve ever seen. The room is filled with life-sized statues of all the signers of the Constitution, but they are not roped off in a corner to be admired. They are free standing statues posed in groups as if they are still debating the very contents of the document they are about to sign. Visitors can walk among the statues in this unique exhibit, an actual step into history, and soon you are overcome with the feeling that you are being watched…by the figures themselves. More than once I excused myself for blocking someone’s view, only to turn and realize I was talking to a statue!
Just one block away from the NCC is the Christ Church Burial Ground, which has many notable graves including that of Thomas Jefferson. This site is conveniently located across the street from the US Mint, which is also an interesting visit if only to see just how much money can be coined in one day. Our last stop was in Philly was Betsey Ross’s house. It’s just a few blocks away from the NCC and stands in stark contrast to the other sites. A small, simple Colonial-style home, Ross’ house really gives the visitor a feel for life in the colonies. Every school child knows her story but, again, standing in the place where history was made can be inspiring. Her grave is in the courtyard just a few feet away.
In the main downtown area of Philly there is no shortage of great bars and restaurants, and it provided the perfect way to unwind after a day of exploring.
Day 2. We departed Philadelphia and headed south to Washington DC. Our hotel in DC was not ideally located as it was not near any of the major sites and seven long blocks to the subway. With temperatures near one hundred degrees every day we opted for local cabs. One good thing about DC, like Philly, is that all the major sites are relatively close together and free. With a little careful planning you can start in one section of the city and work your way through fantastic sites without having to acquire transportation for the entire day, as long as you are willing to walk.
That first afternoon we took the metro for the one and only time. It dropped us off near the US Naval Monument, across the street from the National Archives. There was quite a long line at the archives, so we headed one block over to the National Gallery of Art. This museum rivals any of the great museums of the world. The cavernous building contains artwork the spans all ages: Ancient, Classical, Renaissance, Modern and Photographic. All of the greats are represented, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, etc. We spent three hours in the museum and could easily have stayed into the night ,but unfortunately it closed at 5pm.
Day 3. We wanted to see the memorials that DC is so famous for, but the weather reports were for another week of terribly hot and humid weather. To avoid this we planned to visit Monumental City as it is called, early in the day. A cab from our hotel to anywhere in the city was never more than $10. The ride was quick and got us to the Vietnam memorial just before 9AM. We had a few minutes alone to walk along this somber memorial, as it was largely deserted. The wall contains some 58,000 plus names of the dead and is striking in its magnitude. As we finished our walk along the wall the first tour buses arrived disbursing hundreds of sightseers . I was glad we had seen the memorial alone in the quiet morning.
Not more than a block away is the Lincoln Memorial. Modeled on the Parthenon in Greece the memorial is inspiring from a distance. As you approach, its beauty and sadness hit you all at once. The massive statue of President Lincoln is situated in the middle of this immense structure. On the surrounding walls are carved two of his most famous speeches, including the Gettysburg Address. Having witnessed the birth of the country just two days earlier in Philadelphia, it was almost startling to be reminded of the fact that the country had been split into two nations for almost five years.
Across the street and opposite the Vietnam Memorial stands the Korean War memorial. Its most defining feature is the group of nineteen ghostly, life-sized statues of soldiers spread out over a hundred yards. Frozen in time, the soldiers appear to be on a never ending patrol. Each one represents a different facet of the jobs the men performed: One is a medic, another is a radio operator. It’s another beautiful and somber memorial that should not be missed.
A long walk beside the reflecting pool brings you to the World War II memorial, one of the largest and the newest memorials. The circular design of this site is split into two halves, one for the Atlantic/European front, the other for the Pacific/Asian front. Carved into granite in chronological order are the names of all the battles in which Americans participated. Surrounding these engravings are giant stone pillars, one for each state or territory that contributed soldiers, sailors, and marines to the war effort.
From this point in Monumental City it is possible to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument with the Capitol in the distance. It makes for a great place to stop and catch your breath. By 11AM it was oppressively hot so we decided to continue on towards the air conditioned museums. We stopped briefly at the Washington Monument, a beautiful white obelisk. At this point in the day the National Parks Service workers informed us that they were already out of tickets for the day to enter the Washington Monument. If you are planning to see sites like this you must acquire tickets very early, it would seem.
A few more blocks and we reached the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. This museum houses one of the most fascinating collections of Americana anywhere. Its exhibits span the cultural, technological, and social development of the nation. The museum is replete with examples of life through different periods. There are Muppets, a Model T Ford, the ENIAC computer, Dizzy Gillespie’s B–flat Trumpet, an actual Southern Railways’ model 1401 steam locomotive, and thousands of other objects that are uniquely American. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring this museum before catching another cab back to the hotel.
DC has a myriad of restaurants that are accustomed to catering to tourists and diplomats from all over the world. It is easy to find something you like. We opted to eat in Georgetown on the waterfront at one of the many seafood restaurants that dot that section of town. This area is a haven for the yuppie crowd, as evidenced by the outdoor bars and party-like atmosphere. After a fantastic seafood dinner we caught a sightseeing cruise on the Potomac River. We were treated to a cool breeze and a nice view of all the major sights that are illuminated after dark. It’s a nice way to put the city in perspective. For those willing to spend more money, there are air conditioned dinner cruises that feature live music.
Day 4: Our last full day in Washington DC was a Saturday. We did not take this into consideration when planning our day, and it cost us the chance to tour the Capitol Building. DC attracts tourists from all over the world, but on weekends you also get many day-trippers from surrounding states. This influx of tourists proved to be a problem for getting into some of the sites that require tickets. We arrived at the Capitol at 9AM to find a line out the door and down the block. Rather than wasting our time in line we had the cabbie drive us around the block to the Library of Congress. The Library was a secondary site that I had wanted to see if we had the time. Little did I know it would be one of the highlights of our time in DC. Built in 1897 the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and is the largest library in the world. It contains over 29 million books on some 530 miles of book shelves. The tour takes visitors through the ornately decorated marble structure. The interior walls and ceilings are lined with glass porticos, tile mosaics and frescos representing intellectual genius throughout the great ages of humanity. Climbing several flights of palatial stairs visitors can overlook the reading room where scholars from around the world come to research. In a climate-controlled sealed glass case on the ground floors is the famous Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with moveable type back in 1454AD. It is one of only three complete copies in the world and the only one in the US.
After the awe inspiring collections at the Library of Congress we took a cab to one of the smallest historical sites in Washington DC and the location of President Lincoln’s assassination, the Ford Theatre, a fully functional theatre today, Ford’s is open to the public when actors aren’t rehearsing. The Presidential box is closed off now, but visitors can stand just a few feet away and see where John Wilkes Booth shot the President. The basement has been converted into small but well-done museum dedicated to that fateful night, the conspirators and their eventual capture and death. Across the street is the house where the mortally wounded Lincoln was taken and where he died a day later. From Ford’s Theatre it is only a short ride to the White House. These days you cannot drive in front of it, but Pennsylvania Ave. is still open to foot traffic and provides a good photo opportunity. Next door to the White House is the Treasury Department. This also requires tickets and a long wait in line. Since it was our last day in DC we skipped it.
We ended the day by stopping at two more museums, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space museum. The former was a problem. Again, it was a Saturday and since the Natural History museum features exhibits on dinosaurs, bugs, snakes and the like, it was filled with thousands of children in strollers or running about with parents close behind. It would have been better to see this on a weekday. After a short time we walked another block over to the Air and Space Museum and were treated once again to many of the technological inventions that embody America’s can-do spirit. The Write Brothers flyer hangs from the ceiling at the entrance, next to Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, the X-15, and Space Ship One, which was the first commercial suborbital craft. As if those weren’t inspiring enough, the Apollo 11 command module is right there in the middle of the floor. The museum is split into two wings, one dealing with aircraft and the other with space exploration. Again, there was too much to see with too little time. We spent our last few hours examining space suits, moon rocks and launch vehicles and vowed to come back another time.
Day 5: We departed Washington DC with a better understanding of the trials our country had been through and the astonishing accomplishments it had made. Rather than head straight to our planned respite on Virginia Beach we took a detour through Alexandria and stopped at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s estate. It was well worth the two-hour stop to see the home of the first president. The Colonial-style wooden exterior was currently being restored, but the interior was open for viewing and had a simple elegance and charm that bespoke earlier times. The tour included all the main rooms as well as the bed chamber where the first president died. Those with more time can walk the entire plantation. Most of the buildings are now open to the public. We headed straight for two days of sun and sand in Virginia Beach. It was a great place to unwind from all the hustle of the past five days.
Day 7: On our return trip from Virginia Beach we stopped in the city of Richmond, former capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. We visited the Museum of the Confederacy that morning. A small museum by modern standards it contained clothing, pictures, swords, bullets and flags of the South’s struggle. Most interestingly the exhibits were displayed in the words of the soldiers who fought for the South. Their letters were enlarged and highlighted throughout the exhibits. Just a few feet away from the museum is the Confederate White House, where the only president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and his family made their home. Visitors can only enter during guided tours and are treated to a grave reminder that the future of this nation was not written in stone.
Four hours later we arrived at our hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. There is more of a big city feel in Baltimore than in DC or Richmond mainly due to the densely packed downtown area with its tall office towers and traffic. Luckily our hotel was close to the renowned inner-harbor area of the city. The inner harbor is filled with excellent restaurants, shops, water taxis, tour boats, and the National Aquarium. This facility is reputed to be one of the best in the nation and that reputation is well-deserved. The aquarium houses nearly every type of shark in the world. Visitors can walk down through the shark tank in a massive enclosed walkway that really lets you see the sharks in their own habitat. Another display, just as large, contains stingrays and other fish. Similar to the shark display, visitors can also descend “into” this tank.
The inner harbor is also home to two important pieces of American history. The USS Constellation, the last wooden sail ship ordered by the Navy is at anchor and can be toured, and just across the harbor is Ft. McHenry flying a massive 15-star flag. This is a replica of the flag flown during the war of 1812 that British captive Francis Scott Key saw through the night by the “rocket’s red glare” and penned the national anthem. Before departing Baltimore we visited the fort that played such a critical role after Washington DC had been captured by the British.
Day 8: Leaving Baltimore gave us time to reflect on all we had just seen. In a little more than a week we had relearned what it meant to be American. We had witnessed the struggle for freedom, the dark days of 1812 and the Civil War and through it all the country persevered. Challenges were met often with triumph. We saw the American spirit on this patriot trail, and, as we once were as children, we were again inspired.