This tour of Philadelphia brought to you by Mara Gorman from The Mother of All Trips.
In the United States, the summer's big holiday is of course Independence Day on the Fourth of July. And during your family's summer vacation, what better place is there to learn about the birth of the nation than in Philadelphia, where it actually happened?
The great thing about "Philly" (as it's almost always called by the natives) is that your entire family can enjoy a hands-on history lesson, while also exploring the city's many cultural institutions and parks, as well as one of the country's top children's museums and the nation's oldest zoo.
There's more to do than I can cover here, (I definitely recommend starting your trip planning at the excellent Visit Philadelphia website, which is comprehensive and also includes up-to-the minute information about summer activities and Fourth of July celebrations), but this list includes some of my highlights and don't-miss attractions, as well as suggestions for places to stay, and eat.
Franklin Square Park: After a day of touring Philadelphia's monuments and museums, a stop at this popular park north of Independence Hall can be a great way for kids to get their wiggles out. In addition to a carousel and a large and well-appointed playground, you'll find a mini-golf course where many of the holes are decorated with miniature versions of Philly's iconic buildings and streets including the Art Museum, Boathouse Row and Elfreth's Alley, famous as one of the oldest residential streets in the United States. Grab a bite to eat at the SquareBurger stand in the park, where you'll find the Cake Shake, a milkshake concocted with Tastykakes, which hail from Philadelphia.
Independence National Historical Park: Start your visit to Philadelphia in the park's Visitor Center, where you can pick up timed tickets for a tour of Independence Hall (tours are free, but you must have tickets), learn what tours and kids' programs are available that day, and also see exhibits and videos that show Philadelphia's role in American history. A tour of Independence Hall is a must for school-age kids; mine both studied the American Revolution in school and were thrilled to stand in the same room where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was ratified. But there are numerous other buildings in the 55-acre urban park to visit, including some historical homes and a fascinating portrait gallery in the Second Bank that features paintings of many famous early Americans. The nearby National Constitution Center is also a great place to visit, where kids eight and up learn about the role this vital document has played in our nation's history from numerous interactive exhibits. And of course, you won't want to miss the Liberty Bell (during the summer in particular, get there early in the day to avoid the crowds).
Philadelphia's City Hall: It's hard to miss the giant statue of William Penn that dominates the top of City Hall, but an insider tip is that you can ride an elevator to the top of this iconic building's central tower and stand right under him. You can also get a great view of the city and see the clock and tower from the inside. The elevator is small and a bit old-fashioned, making this a better activity to do with kids who are not in strollers.
Franklin Institute: This large science museum has something for kids from preschool age on up, whether they are interested in biology and want to walk through a giant replica of the human heart, or like sports and want to participate in the Sports Challenge, where they can test their pitching, running and jumping prowess. Got a young dino lover in your family? Right across the street, you'll also find the Academy of Natural Sciences, which in 2012 is celebrating its 200th anniversary with special events and tours throughout the year. Your junior paleontologist will love digging for fossils and seeing the fossil preparation lab.
Please Touch Museum: If your kids are seven or younger, you'll love Philadelphia's children's museum, which is located in the gorgeous Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. The museum is chock-full of interactive fun: kids can splash in the water zone, go down the rabbit hole to see Alice or shop in a big grocery store (what's more fun than filling up a cart with no grownups to say no?). There's also a beautifully restored 100-year-old carousel.
Philadelphia Zoo: The first zoo in the United States has more than 1,300 animals to visit, including an impressive primate reserve and a habitat for large cats. The children's zoo is also the oldest in North America, and is home not only to the more typical farm animals but also to porcupines, hedgehogs and owls, all of which are outside in exercise yards during the summer. Like the Please Touch Museum, the zoo is located in Fairmount Park, which offers lots of green space for picnics and 215 miles of trails for hiking and biking.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Few art museums anywhere do a better job with their family programming; from Stroller Walks for parents of babies to Early Bird Read and Look programs for children ages 3 to 5 to Family Gallery Tour and Studio events for families with older children, there is something here for kids of all ages to engage with art of all varieties. My school-age children loved seeing the paintings with a museum educator and then creating their own masterpieces that mirrored what they saw. And you won't want to miss the photo op provided by a run up the steps to stand next to the famous statue of Rocky Balboa.
The Omni at Independence Park: The best thing about this hotel is its location, which is just steps from Independence Hall. Ask for a room on the upper floors in the southwest corner of the hotel and you'll have views of it. The Omni Sensational Kids program offers a goody bag with toys like a Frisbee and a magnifying glass for your children when you arrive at the hotel, as well as a milk and cookie snack. Sign up for the free Select Guest program and you'll enjoy perks like free wireless Internet as well as complimentary juice and coffee delivered to your room in the morning.
Loews Philadelphia Hotel: Always a plus in a city hotel, this property has an indoor pool. It also offers a host of other family-friendly items, from Fisher-Price welcome gifts for younger children to musical downloads for teens. Parents of babies and toddlers can borrow everything from car seats to potty seats to baby-proofing equipment; the concierge can also make recommendations about fun things to do with teens and tweens. Children under 18 stay for free and pets are welcome too.
Sofitel: Close to City Hall, this quiet and luxurious hotel is a short walk from the charming Rittenhouse Square and also across the street from Joseph Fox Books, one of the better independent books stores in the city. Stay as part of the Magnifique Family package, and when you book two rooms the second is 50 percent off with a late checkout; children also eat breakfast for free in Chez Colette, the hotel's cheerful restaurant.
Reading Terminal Market: Just steps from City Hall you'll find this old railway terminal, which has been turned into a thriving center of all things culinary. Whether you're craving sushi or a Philadelphia cheesesteak you can get it here. There's a central seating area where you can eat your meal after choosing from one of the many different vendors. Word to the wise: It gets very crowded at lunchtime; arrive a little ahead of noon to beat the scores of hungry office workers.
Jones: The groovy interior of this restaurant has been compared to the Brady Bunch's house, and that description isn't too far off. Shag carpeting is soft on little feet, and the friendly, noisy vibe makes it a perfect place to eat with kids. So do the alcohol-free cocktails with fun names like the Purple People Eater and the serious comfort food; fried chicken and waffles are favorites, and the burgers are sublime.
The Franklin Fountain: You might do as I did with my kids and have dessert for lunch (or even dinner) at this retro soda fountain where all the ice cream, hot fudge and other toppings are homemade. Sample old-fashioned drinks like egg creams or dig into an enormous banana split. Afterward, if you haven't had your fill of sweets, step next door to Shane Confectionery, where in addition to old-fashioned favorites like candied fruit slices and homemade caramels you can buy artisanal chocolates. Please note that both stores are cash-only.