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Cities That Made Us

Pick the right spot, listen carefully and it’s almost possible to hear the steady, strong heartbeat of a blossoming America still tender but no less assured for its youth. After all, this country has managed to retain many of its historical sites, places where it was born and continues to grow, sometimes gently, sometimes with undeniable pain. 

Many of these sites are located in cities up and down the coast of the Mid-Atlantic so chock full of landmarks it would be possible to spend at least a week exploring each one of them. But why settle for just one city, when you can build the ultimate historical tour for your group by visiting several?

 Conveniently strung together like sparkling gems along Interstate 95, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Williamsburg, Virginia, are the cities that made us. They provide not only an inspiring look at our nation’s past but perhaps a peek at our future, too.

Philadelphia: Founding Fathers First

While Williamsburg is about a half-century older than the City of Brotherly Love, it makes sense to begin any historical road trip through the Mid-Atlantic’s coastal cities in Philadelphia, long billed as “The Birthplace of America.” Established in 1682, it’s where our Founding Fathers drafted and adopted both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. 

An iconic symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell is also here and available to visit, along with the Betsy Ross House (said to be the site at which she sewed the country’s first flag) and statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin’s grave. It all adds up to a total of 67 National Historical Landmarks, with many packed into Philly’s federally administered Independence National Historical Park, otherwise dubbed the “most historic square mile in America.”

Before it moved to Washington, D.C., the country’s capital was located in Philadelphia for about 10 years. The city offers so much history in such a relatively small area that it “makes it very easy for groups,” said Annie Jirapatnakul, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s global tourism sales and services manager. “They can get dropped off in one location and walk around the historic district.” As for tour guides, she added, “Centipede Tours is one of the popular ones because their guides will dress up in historic garb and walk around the city or hop on the bus.”

Whether hanging out with a Ben Franklin look alike or not, groups will definitely want to visit Independence Hall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, events including the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first formal act in securing America’s freedom, forever changed the world. The National Constitution Center delves into the hallowed document, also endorsed in Independence Hall, that laid the foundation for the nation. Meanwhile, groups can choose from private, themed tours around subjects like how women impacted the American War for Independence at the Museum of the American Revolution.

It may be hard to tear your travelers away from these show-stoppers, but give it a try. There are loads of fine Philadelphia historical sites flying a bit under the radar that are worth a visit. In the historic district, the President’s House ingeniously uses the footprint of America’s first executive manse to explore the contradiction between Washington’s belief in personal freedom and his ownership of enslaved peoples. 

And Fort Mifflin, where members of the Continental Army were able to delay the redcoats long enough to allow Washington’s troops to dig in at Valley Forge, makes a fine last stop in the city. Sitting on the west bank of the Delaware River, it’s a stone’s throw from I-95.

On the Road Again

Before heading south to Washington, D.C., consider a detour to Valley Forge National Historical Park, a quick 45-minute drive northwest from Philadelphia on Interstate 76. It’s famed as the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army, which helped turn a band of rag-tag militias into a cohesive fighting force able to defeat the British. 

Or, make a pit stop in Baltimore, about an hour north of D.C. on Interstate 95, depending on traffic. Be sure to check out Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the citadel that successfully defended the city from the British navy during the War of 1812, thus inspiring Frances Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Past and Present Merge in Washington, D.C.

The seat of our nation’s government for more than two centuries, Washington, D.C., is where history happens “every single day,” according to Theresa Belpulsi, vice president of tourism, sports and visitor services with Destination DC. As such, it can be difficult for leaders to decide which attractions their groups should visit — the city beats out even Philadelphia with a whopping 75 National Historic Landmarks. 

Belpulsi recommends taking a look at Destination DC’s list of curated itineraries for inspiration. They zero in on subjects like Black History, Prohibition and Lincoln’s legacy, with stops everywhere from the new Black Lives Matter Plaza, which was made a permanent monument late last year in the wake of the national movement’s D.C. protests, to the cottage in which President Lincoln penned much of the Emancipation Proclamation, finally freeing (most) enslaved Americans.

Belpulsi said there are many sites everyone simply must see in D.C. Although the White House hasn’t yet reopened for tours, the Capitol Building has. Not only beautiful, it’s also home to the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives and is the site of a multitude of historically important events. 

Belpulsi also suggests paying a visit to the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights at the National Archives Museum, adding, visiting “the National Mall, obviously, and walking up to the Lincoln Memorial are musts.” 

“There are some significant things that happened there, including Martin Luther King Jr. giving his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the stairs,” she said. “And then the King Memorial is steps away on the National Mall.”

For groups interested in doing a deeper dive into history, consider booking a walking tour through the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C. Fans of “Camelot,” will especially enjoy a Kennedy-themed Georgetown tour that includes stops at the church JFK and Jackie worshipped in, as well as Martin’s Tavern, where he proposed to her, and several of the couple’s homes. 

Or, have your groups take a turn through (or, even better, stay at), the luxurious Willard Hotel. First expanded in 1850 from a series of row houses built in 1816, the Willard has sheltered many of the nation’s biggest movers and shakers. President Lincoln stayed there in the week preceding his inauguration due to threats of assassination; President Grant could often be found hanging out in the lobby during his White House tenure; and Martin Luther King Jr. made the final edits to his “I Have a Dream” speech at the hotel.

Head out on the Highway

Before getting back on the interstate, you might want to travel the aptly named George Washington Memorial Parkway for 15 miles to Mount Vernon, Virginia. The bucolic estate of the nation’s first president, it features not only the historic mansion but also gardens, outbuildings, a museum, Washington’s tomb and more. 

Richmond, Virginia, a bit more than two hours south from D.C., makes a great historic detour groups are sure to love, too. Orator and patriot Patrick Henry gave his impassioned “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech, which helped speed the Colonies toward revolution, at St. John’s Church in the city. The church still stands, as does Henry’s home, Scotchtown, where he crafted his legendary speech. Both are available for tours. 

Williamsburg: Colonial America Comes Alive

Offering an immersive experience thanks to the 301-acre Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area, Williamsburg, Virginia gives groups an opportunity to not only learn about life in one of America’s most historically important cities but also actually experience it. Named Virginia’s capital in 1699 after the statehouse in Jamestown burned down a year previously, Williamsburg quickly morphed “into the center of political, religious, economic and social life in Virginia, which was the largest and most populous of the British colonies in America,” said Visit Williamsburg CEO Victoria Cimino. 

“It also became a center of learning thanks to the College of William and Mary [the second oldest college in America, founded in 1693],” Cimino added. “Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler were notable attendees. Additionally, Gen. George Washington assembled the Continental Army in Williamsburg in 1781 for the siege of nearby Yorktown and the winning of American independence.”

Today, the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area is known as the largest living museum in the nation, with costumed interpreters interacting with visitors amongst 88 structures both original to the period and reconstructed. Some reenactors portray everyday artisans practicing trades; others portray notable figures like George Washington. And there are plenty of experiential adventures available specifically to groups in Williamsburg, ranging from a historic (and rowdy) pub crawl complete with an interpreter leading the way to joining a Colonial military drill under the guidance of a “militia sergeant.”

Want to give your group a chance to check out a less-explored corner of Colonial Williamsburg? Be sure to stop at one of the area’s fine museums. For maximum fun, drop by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. One of the largest such institutions in the country, it is filled with whimsical examples of three centuries of American folk art and features more than 7,000 paintings and sculptures. 

An evening ghost tour also provides plenty of diverting entertainment. There are a wealth of companies investigating spooky doings in Williamsburg, but Colonial Ghosts can take any size group while not only dishing up thrills and chills but delving into the history of the area as well. They also offer extended tours that visit the College of William and Mary.

Take the Long Way Home

Williamsburg is one-third of America’s Historic Triangle, three cities connected by the scenic 23-mile Colonial Parkway that were home to dramatic events dating back to the days before independence from Britain was won. As such, it just makes sense for your travelers to pay them a visit before heading home.

Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement, includes two attractions that shouldn’t be missed. Jamestown Settlement is a re-creation of the 1607 colony, while Historic Jamestowne boasts an archeological dig and a museum filled with fascinating artifacts.

For a deeper understanding of the decisive battle that ended the American Revolutionary War, groups can take a tour of the Yorktown Battlefield with a park ranger and stop by the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.