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Archive for December, 2010

In November, we were able to take our kids to Washington D.C., but had only 48 short hours to see the sites.  We made a whirlwind tour of the city and got to see some amazing and historical places.  Here are our suggestions of ten sites to visit in the nation’s capital with your kids.  Reservations were required for a few of these locations, but all of these places we visited were FREE.

White House Tour: A few weeks prior to our trip, we contacted the office of our U.S. Representative, Sam Johnson, and were able to get tickets to tour the White House.  The tour takes around 45 minutes, and allows you to see some of the famous rooms in the house.  It was as much as a treat for the parents as it was for the kids.  The White House Visitor Center, located a few blocks away, is a great place to see before or after your tour.  They have a very interesting video describing the history of the White House and the various renovations it has been through.  Other exhibits we enjoyed were about  former First Ladies and the children who lived in the White House.  NPS Jr Ranger books for the White House/Presidents Park are available here, and they have a nice area for the kids to work/color/rest.

U.S. Capitol Tour: We were also able to arrange tickets to tour the U.S. Capitol Building through our Congressman.  Congress was not in session the day we visited, but the impressive architecture and history of this building and our informative tour guide made the hour-long tour memorable.  Because so many tours come through the building at once, you are given headphones to wear which amplify your tour guide’s voice so you don’t miss anything.  The details in the rotunda murals were amazing.  Once you are in the Capitol building you can walk through an underground tunnel to the Library of Congress.  Lunch in the Capitol cafeteria is not free, but it was very convenient.

Library of Congress

National Archives: The National Archives displays some of the most important documents in our country’s history.  We were able to see originals of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Our kids really enjoyed this since we had toured Independence Hall in Philadelphia four days earlier and stood in the actual room where both these documents were signed.  To minimize damage to the documents, cameras are not allowed.

The Air & Space Museum: This museum was incredible, and our kids really wish that we could have stayed longer.  They enjoyed seeing the original plane of the Wright Brothers, a plane flown by Amelia Earhart, and many different space craft.  Their favorite activity was a hands-on exhibit designed for children to teach the physical science behind flight.  If we had not made him leave, Andrew would still be there today marveling at the exhibit that demonstrated lift by making a ball float on a pocket of air.

Amelia Earhart's plane


National Museum of Natural History: The Smithsonian is actually a group of over 19 different museums surrounding the National Mall, but this particular  museum holds many of the exhibits made famous by Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum”.  You could spend multiple days here and still not see everything, and it was very enjoyable despite the large crowds.  The dinosaurs were a big hit with everyone in the family.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: We have been fortunate on this adventure to attend Mass at some amazing Cathedrals across the country, but this was the crown jewel of churches on our trip.  This is the largest Catholic Church in North America. The high ceilings and architecture can accurately be described as breath taking, and the mosaics are unbelievably beautiful and detailed.  We took a taxi to the church, but found that taxis do not hang out there looking for fares after Mass, especially at night.  We had to wait around 40 minutes before Divine Intervention brought a taxi our way, so plan accordingly.


Lincoln Memorial: The walk up the famous steps of the Lincoln Memorial leads to quite a sight. Sitting on the steps, looking out over the reflecting pool, it is easy imagine what it was like when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” Speech. The words to the Gettysburg Address are carved into one of the walls of the Memorial, and Mom was surprised at how much of the speech she remembered from 5th grade.  In the base of the Memorial, there are some excellent exhibits highlighting pioneers and events of the Civil Rights movement as well as President Lincoln’s life and achievements.  This is one of the two monuments where you can pickup NPS Jr. Ranger Books for the National Mall and Memorials Park.  At the base of the Memorial, you can also try some fun trick photography.

Washington Monument: The Washington Monument is the other location to pickup Jr. Ranger Books, or in our case, review your completed booklet with a Ranger and be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger.  Tickets are required to go to the top, but they are free and are available at the Visitor Center near the base.  We were fortunate to get the ticket for the next available time slot, and had a minimal wait.  The Monument is over 555 feet tall, and the top of the tower has windows on all four sides that make great viewpoints of the city in all directions.  This was a definite highlight of our trip.

Looking out of the observation window at the top of the Washington Monument

View from observation window of Washington Monument with Monument shadow in foreground

FDR Memorial: The FDR Memorial is a little of the beaten track, but definitely worth the visit.  The memorial is divided into four different sections, each representing one of the four terms President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served and featuring bronze statues illustrating events specific to that four year period.  Each section has a different and impressive waterfall feature – Andrew’s favorite part.

Korean War Veteran’s Memorial: This memorial features life-sized statues of Korean War soldiers on patrol, dressed in full combat gear and representing each branch of the armed services.  Behind them is a black granite wall on which is etched the faces of actual soldiers who perished.  From certain angles, the statues are reflected in the wall, making it appear as though an endless numbers of troops are coming out of the trees which line the area.  The atmosphere here was very somber, and we found it to be very moving and thought provoking.

Jefferson Memorial: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is located on the water and features a very impressive rotunda.  The kids really enjoyed walking around and through the tall stone columns.  Underneath the memorial, the Visitor Center features exhibits on Jefferson’s life and amazingly diverse skills.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in Jefferson Memorial

We will have to return to Washington DC one day, because there are so many other things we would love to see!

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On our last day in Philadelphia, we were blessed with mild weather and small crowds.  We began in downtown Philadelphia for our 11:00 tour of Independence Hall.  Independence Hall is the Old State House of Pennsylvania, the site where the First and Second Continental Congresses met to sign both the Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.

Tickets to tour this building are available for free on a first-come first serve basis, but we highly recommend reserving them online (for a small convenience fee) if you are planning on visiting. The tickets seemed to go pretty quickly each day we were there because there are only a limited number of spaces to take the tour.

A Park Ranger leads the very informative, guided tour through the Hall, which is divided into two main rooms.  The room where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed is arranged the way it looked in the late 1700s, and still contains the chair that George Washington sat in during the Constitutional Conventions.  Even the items on each desk are consistent with the period.  Once again we were filled with amazement  to be standing in a building filled with such historical significance.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin observed the symbol of a half-sun on George Washington’s chair and remarked, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

The second room  in the Hall served as a the main courtroom in Philadelphia.  We learned that the US Court System is based on the British legal system of the time.  The defendant was made to stand during his entire trial in a “cage” of iron bars in the center of the room.  This is where the phrase “to stand trial” originates.

After this tour we headed a few blocks South to visit St. Mary’s Catholic Church. This church is the oldest Catholic Church in Philadelphia, and George Washington once attended a service here in 1789 to celebrate the two year anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  We had been in the church for a few minutes enjoying the beauty of the sanctuary when we realized that a midday Mass was starting.  The priest celebrating this Mass was blind, and it was very humbling and inspiring to see how he flawlessly performed all of his duties without the ability of sight.

St. Mary's Catholic Church

After Mass and a quick lunch back at the Bourse, we made one last trip to the Independence Visitor Center.  The kids turned in their completed Junior Ranger books and received their badges.  The Park Ranger spent about 15 minutes talking with them about what they had seen and learned, and he gave them all the Philadelphia historical site trading cards still needed to complete the set.

While Mom hit the gift shop, Dad and the kids played football on the grassy lawn outside the Visitor Center.

We then said goodbye to Philadelphia and drove onward to our nation’s capital.  We drove through the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia all in about three hours.  Being able to drive through 5 states in such a short time period is a little strange for people coming from a state the size of Texas.

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The morning of Philadelphia Day 3 started with a trip to the Federal Reserve Building to visit their “Money in Motion” exhibit.  We learned all about our currency system past and present through twelve interactive exhibit stations.  Unfortunately, they did not give out free samples at the end, so we headed out for a quick lunch nearby.

We wandered into the Philadelphia Bourse, a beautiful historic building filled with a modern food court and small shops.  The kids were able to sample their first Philly Cheesesteaks and gave the meal a thumbs-up.

After lunch we went to the Franklin Court which houses the Ben Franklin Museum, Print Shop, and Post Office.  We were again amazed that we were able to stand in buildings that were over 235 years old and used by some our country’s most important historical figures.

Standing in the same tunnel that Ben Franklin walked through every day on his way to the Print Shop.

The highlight for us was to go to the Printing Shop he owned and see how they printed things in Franklin’s time.  A Park Ranger operated an actual press and showed us the process from beginning to end.  It was interesting to learn that Benjamin Franklin ran such a successful printing company in his 30s that he was able to retire from the business at the age of 40 and move onto other interests.


The Betsy Ross House was next on our list.  We learned that Betsy Ross was running a very successful upholstery business out of her home when she was approached to make a flag for our new country.  The house is still in remarkably good condition after all of these years, and we were again surprised at how low the some of the ceilings were in this time period.  Apparently this made the houses easier to heat during the harsh winters. 

In the basement of the house is a child size replica of a kitchen that would have been used during Betsy’s time.  Andrew had a great time following the recipe for chicken pot pie using wooden vegetables.

This kitchen exhibit is sponsored by a restaurant called The City Tavern that is famous in the city for its historical period dining.  Since the pretend pot pies looked so tasty, we decided to give it a try for dinner.  Unfortunately, this meant that our Cheesecake Factory marathon would sadly end after only two days.

The City Tavern’s goal is to deliver its guests a culinary experience inspired by the customs and foods of 18th Century Colonial America.  The restaurant is located in a recreation of the original Tavern (established in 1773) and rebuilt only seven inches from the original site.  Tavern regulars included people like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and you can almost picture men sitting at the tables discussing the impending Revolution.  The waiters wear clothes authentic to the period, a harpist provides background music, and most of the light comes from candles.  The food and drinks are made from recipes from the Colonial Period and included beers and breads made from the actual recipes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The Sampler

Dad chose the Lobster Pot Pie, while the rest of the family enjoyed the Turkey Pot Pie.  A lesson was learned that the bill can sometimes be shocking if an item such as a Lobster Pot Pie is listed at “Market Price”, but everything was delicious.

After dinner we headed to a second-hand bookstore to reload the van library for our voracious readers and then headed back to the hotel for our last night in Hotel Nirvana.

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We awoke in our palatial hotel room at the Wingate by Wyndham with grand plans to go into Philadelphia and visit all of the historical sites.  A quick look out the window into the pouring rain led to a change of plans that included only indoor activities.

Our first stop of the day was in Nottingham, PA, for the Herr’s Foods Snack Factory Tour.  Herr Foods started in 1946 when James Herr bought a truck and three iron pots for cooking potato chips for $1750.  From these humble beginnings, Herr’s has grown into a major enterprise, selling over 340 different snack food items in 20 states.

The factory tour led us through all phases of their chip and pretzel making processes and was really cool.  The machinery used to make chips and other snacks on such a grand scale was amazing.  Unfortunately, no cameras were allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it.  The best part of the tour was getting to sample warm potato chips that had just come of the line on their way headed to the bagging stations.

Our second indoor stop of the day led us to New Castle, Delaware, and Bowlerama.  The family bowled two games (luckily we paid by the game and not by the hour because we bowl VERY slowly), and everyone had a grand time.

Thanks to a little iPhone research we found our dining venue for the evening.  We headed to a nearby mall in Delaware that had another Cheesecake Factory.  Two nights in a row at the same restaurant is no problem for this group, especially when cheesecake is involved.

Despite the rain, we had a great, fun-filled day!

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