It's no exaggeration to call this the most historic square mile in America, the very place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution of the United States hammered out. The look is tidy and stereotypical, steepled red-brick buildings with neat white porticos. Yet there's nothing tidy about what happened here -- it took enormous courage for these British colonists to leap off this cliff -- and when you see your child's eyes light up, realizing that these were real people and not just Faces on the Money, that's when you'll be glad you came to Philadelphia.
The focal point of Independence National Historical Park is Independence Hall, Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th streets, where the Second Continental Congress convened in a chamber known as the Pennsylvania Assembly Room in May 1775. Virginian Thomas Jefferson was assigned to write a document setting forth the colonists' grievances (Jefferson worked on it while boarding at Graff House, nearby at 7th and Market sts.), and by July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ready to be signed by the Congress -- in Independence Hall you can even see the silver inkwell they used. You can also see the Rising Sun Chair that George Washington sat in 11 years later to preside over the Constitutional Convention, as President of the new United States. In a glass pavilion next door rests the 2,000-pound Liberty Bell, which was rung in 1776 at the first public reading of the Declaration; circle around it to find the famous crack up its side, which has been there since it was cast in 1751. At the northern end of grassy Independence Mall, the modern National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St., is so darn interactive, the children may not even notice how educational it is -- you can take your own Presidential Oath of Office or try on a Supreme Court robe. In Signers' Hall, bronze life-size statues depict the delegates who signed the Declaration -- putting faces to those famous signatures was enormously satisfying.
And while you're here, follow Arch Street a few blocks east from the mall to the tiny Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch St. (tel. 215/629-4026; www.betsyrosshouse.org), where a widowed Quaker seamstress supposedly sewed the first American flag. No one knows for sure if she really sewed it, or if this was even her house, but it makes a great story; and the house is so quaint, you'll want to believe it.
Nearest Airport: Philadelphia International.
Where to Stay: $$ Best Western Plus Independence Park Hotel, 235 Chestnut St. (tel. 800/624-2988 or 215/922-4443; www.independenceparkhotel.com). $$$ Rittenhouse Hotel, 210 W. Rittenhouse Sq. (tel. 800/635-1042 or 215/546-9000; www.rittenhousehotel.com).