Offering alternatives to overcrowded destinations.
At the Liberty Bell, long lines and large crowds
Philadelphia’s iconic bronze bell sits at the heart of what is often called the most historical square mile in America. On one side of the Liberty Bell Center is Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. On the other side is a huge visitors center with a souvenir shop, Rocky statue and costumed look-alikes of Betsy Ross and President Thomas Jefferson. Tourists, double-decker buses and horse-drawn carriages jam the cobblestoned streets.
Unlike Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center is free and doesn’t require timed tickets; visitors simply line up on a first-come, first-served basis. The wait to see the bell, however, can be much longer than the time spent viewing it. Once you make it inside, you have to go through security, then weave through exhibit-viewing crowds before reaching the cordoned-off bell. There, you’ll join dozens of other tourists taking selfies or scrutinizing the famous crack and have maybe three seconds to get a clear photograph before the next group swoops in.
If this seems overwhelming, if you are accompanied by small kids (or impatient grown-ups) or if the federal shutdown is still in effect, consider viewing the bell from outside. If you bypass the entrance near Market Street and head to the window on the east side near Chestnut Street, you’ll have a good (albeit glassed-in) view of the bell. Bonus: You can do this beyond the pavilion’s daily 9-to-5 hours to get a clear shot or to play with the effects offered by sunsets and nighttime shadows.
Location: The Liberty Bell Center, 526 Market St., 215-965-2305
At Franklin Court, kid-friendly historical experiences
For a less hectic historical experience, head two blocks east to the quieter Franklin Court off Market Street. Like the Liberty Bell Center, it is part of Independence National Historical Park, but it doesn’t draw the same crowds. This might be due to its location down an unobtrusive brick alley that its namesake, Benjamin Franklin, would pass through on his way home. The founding father’s mansion is long gone, but the complex includes a steel ghost structure of his house, and grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper office and bindery, which offers kid-friendly printing demonstrations on 18th-century presses and floor portals that peek into the home’s original cellar kitchen.
There’s also a frozen-in-time post office that commemorates Franklin’s Colonial-era role as postmaster general. Occupying a three-story rowhouse, it is the only operating post office in the country that does not fly the U.S. flag (because it didn’t exist during Franklin’s tenure), and all mail is stamped with “B. Free Franklin,” his original 1775 postmark. It’s usually hushed inside, with a single Colonial-era-garbed clerk on duty and a small exhibit of postal artifacts, as well as quills and inkwells for addressing postcards.
In 2013, the underground Benjamin Franklin Museum reopened off the courtyard as an interactive paean to Franklin’s life and character, with fill-in-the-blank quote displays and an electronic version of Magic Squares, the Sudoku-like brainteaser he invented while sitting through debates at the Pennsylvania Assembly. You may leave here with a newfound appreciation for the country’s greatest polymath, not to mention the peaceful space in which to absorb it all.
Location: Franklin Court, 322 Market St. 215-597-8974
Randall is a writer based in Los Angeles.
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