Before I went to Philadelphia I really didn’t realise how much important American history was based there. On one of three days we spent in Philadelphia at the end of last year we went to what is called Philadelphia’s Old City, to see the Liberty Bell. The afternoon we spent there turned into a full tour of the area, and a really interesting glimpse into America’s past.
There was so much history there, that I definitely can’t remember all of it or do it justice. If you’re ever in Philadelphia I would recommend one of the walking tours, where a local takes you through the streets while sharing their incredible knowledge as you go.
One of the first things I learned was that Philadelphia was actually the first capital of the US. I didn’t even know America had ever had a different capital to Washington, never mind a fair few. Philadelphia was capital for ten years between 1790 – 1800, while Washington was being built. The Congress would meet in Carpenter Hall, rather than Independence Hall which was the meeting place of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
It’s really difficult as someone with no prior knowledge to take all of this in especially when you’re there for an afternoon, so to give you a bit of an idea, I’ve covered below some of the must see’s that I can remember as well as a really brief history lesson on it too.
The Liberty Bell
If you had asked me before this trip when America became an independent nation, I would have said 4th July, the day it is celebrated. What I learned at The Liberty Centre was that actually, the thirteen colonies of Congress voted for independence on 2nd July 1776, and it was officially adopted and began on 4th July, so two days later. Declaring their independence on this date became their national Independence Day.
The Liberty Bell rang a few days later on 8th July, from it’s location in the tower of Pennsylvania State House, which is known today as Independence Hall. It’s chime was to call the local citizens to come and hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence by John Nixon.
The Liberty Bell therefore holds so much significance to America and Americans, and when we were dropped off outside the Liberty Bell Centre the first thing you could see was the queue snaking alongside the building of people wanting to see it.
We joined the queue, which moved fairly quickly. The Liberty Bell Centre is free to visit, and there are full security checks on entry. The centre takes you through the full history of the bell, and it’s importance as well as what it came to stand for.
Basically it was originally cast in London in 1752, and when it arrived in Philadelphia it cracked the first time it was rang. It was repaired twice, but the repairs actually meant making the crack bigger.
I’m not a pro on bell fixing obviously, but that’s what they had to do to get it sounding right. As well as being used for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, it had many other purposes over the years, until it’s final chime for George Washington’s birthday in 1846.
Subsequently the bell was moved to the Liberty Bell Centre, opposite Independence Hall, which is where you’ll see it today.
As well as being a symbol of freedom, the Liberty Centre also showcases the bell as a symbol for the abolishment of slavery. Walking through the centre you pass displays, text, and photographs that show why the bell became an anti slavery symbol, including laws passed that banned slavery, women’s voting rights, and other anti slavery acts.
Before you get to the bell itself, you will pass a fenced off area which protects the exact location of the slave quarters that worked at the President’s House. The space is dedicated to honour those who were enslaved.
After we had seen the Liberty Bell, and spent some time walking around the centre, we came back outside to Market Street. Here you will find walking and carriage tours that take you on a more detailed route through the rest of Philadelphia’s Old City.
We decided to do one, as what better way to see and learn about a city than from a local? Our guide was great, you could tell she really loved her city and wanted to share her knowledge on it as much as possible. Throughout the half hour tour, which turned out to be nearer 45 minutes, we passed some of the following iconic landmarks of Philadelphia:
Located on Chestnut Street, as mentioned above Independence Hall as it is known today is where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both signed. It is a UNESCO Heritage site, and for most of the year tickets are required to get in, but are free of charge, and you are given a guided tour.
Declaration House is on Market Street, and is where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also lived here, and it is open to the public.
On the corner of Chestnut Street is Congress Hall, another Georgian building that was home to the Philadelphia County Courthouse. When Philadelphia was the capital of the United States, Presidents Washington and Adams were both inaugurated here. Again admission is free.
Philadelphia is a city of many firsts, being the first capital of America. The first art museum, the first banks for example, and Carpenter’s Hall was the meeting place of the first Congress. It was also the home of the first bank. You can find it on Chestnut Street too.
The architecture of Philadelphia’s Old City was very recognisable once you had seen a few of these buildings. Bankers Row was a bit different, and was basically a row of banks that were all dedicated to different things. You could tell which bank was which by the engraving on top of them. The sailors bank, the merchants bank and so on.
Philadelphia’s Old City had so much more character to it than just the grand historical buildings. A city that was centred around the Delaware River, some of the old cobbled streets used for horse and carts to bring goods up through the city to Market Street can still be seen. This was the oldest street in Philadelphia.
The area is much sought after to live in, and you can see why. It was a beautiful area with homeowners taking real pride in their homes and the character of them.
If all that history and walking doesn’t deserve a drink then I don’t know what does. We went to a Spanish bar on Chestnut Street that served tapas and sangria, before walking further on to the river and Penn’s Landing.
I know this is all pretty brief history, especially for the area of Philadelphia known as the ‘historical square mile’, but I’d hate to delve into more detail and get it wrong. We spent the best part of a day here seeing all the buildings, including many more that I can’t remember the names of. We finished off the afternoon down by the river, an area that has a lot less going on now than it did back then.
If you ever visit Philadelphia this is an area you can’t miss. It was one of my favourite days in the city and even if you aren’t interested in the national history, those gorgeous old houses are too pretty not see first hand.
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