AAA Travel Tips / Best Historical Places to Visit on a Pennsylvania Road Trip

Best Historical Places to Visit on a Pennsylvania Road Trip

AAA/Jennifer Broome
By Jennifer Broome , Travel Journalist and TV Personality
October 21, 2019
Take a Pennsylvania road trip and your vacation will be filled with copious history lessons. What you read in textbooks comes alive as you stand on a Civil War battlefield or in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed. When my friend’s son Joseph decided he wanted to go to the oldest brewery in America for his 21st birthday, I joined in on the family trip. We took a long weekend to do a historic road trip in the southeast region of the Keystone State. If you’re planning a Pennsylvania vacation to this area, here are my recommended top things to do in Gettysburg, Pottsville and Philadelphia.
Battlefield in Gettysburg Pennsylvania
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Visit Gettysburg and Gettysburg National Military Park

There is so much history here, honestly, it’s overwhelming at first. The July 1-3, 1863, battle was a turning point of the war as the Union claimed victory. Make your first stop in Gettysburg National Military Park at the visitor center. The $15 adult admission to a film, museum and cyclorama painting is well worth it. Plan for at least an hour at the Museum and Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park and start with the 20-minute film “A New Birth of Freedom.” It sets the stage for the magnitude of what happened in Gettysburg.
One of largest collections of Civil War relics is in the Gettysburg Museum of the American Civil War. The Gettysburg Cyclorama is a 19th-century version of virtual reality as the cannons blast, the battle cries blare and the shots fire in this unique immersion into Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the battle. It was truly unlike anything else I had seen before.
Tour in Gettysburg Pennsylvania
Destination Gettysburg

How to Tour the Gettysburg Battlefield

There are multiple ways to tour the battlefield. You can download the Gettysburg Driving Tour App on your phone for a self-guided tour. Licensed battlefield guides can take you on a two-hour car or bus tour. Other options include double-decker bus, bicycle and horse-drawn carriage tours.
As we headed out on the 16-stop auto tour, we popped in a CD I bought in the museum bookstore to take us from stop to stop. We started at McPherson Ridge, where the battle began. We went to the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, climbed the small observation tower at Oak Ridge, passed state memorials and climbed a tall observation tower for a panorama, including the Eisenhower National Historic Site. During his presidency, Eisenhower used the modest farmhouse as a weekend retreat. You can tour the house and adjoining farm.
Battlefield in Gettysburg Pennsylvania
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Where Lincoln Gave the Gettysburg Address

Just as we got to Little Round Top, the golden hues of a setting sun shined on the hill overlooking Devils Den. At dusk, we stopped at the Pennsylvania Memorial and finished the auto tour at High Water Mark, the site of the climactic moment when the Confederate army retreated. The next morning in a misty rain, we walked through the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park. The three-day battle inspired President Abraham Lincoln to give his famous “Gettysburg Address” at the cemetery’s dedication on Nov. 19, 1863.
Mason Dixon Distillery
Courtesy of Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau

Things to Do in Downtown Gettysburg

The battle didn’t just happen in the surrounding fields and farms. Downtown was just as much a war zone. Historic walking tours give you the civilian perspective and tidbits about some of the historical buildings.
I was pleasantly surprised by Gettysburg’s charm. If you’re a foodie, book a Savor Gettysburg Food Tour to sample local fare in some of the eateries while learning a little history along the way. We arrived in Gettysburg around lunchtime. Our first stop was Mason Dixon Distillery, owned by father and son team George and Yianni Barakos. As we chatted with Yianni while tasting a gin released that day, he told us it’s the only distillery in the world to use grain from a national park. The distillery’s spirits are smooth, and their comfort food is fabulous. It was a great introduction to a booming culinary scene I wasn’t expecting.
Mason Dixon Distillery is one of 15 wineries, breweries, distilleries and cideries dotting the Pennsylvania countryside on the Adams Country Pour Tour. Hard cider is very popular as Adams County is the largest producer of apples in the Commonwealth. There’s also a plethora of museums in Gettsyburg, each telling a different story of the war.
The Shriver House Museum tells the story of one family, sharing the civilian perspective. The Gettysburg Heritage Center is great for kids because it is filled with hands-on and interactive displays. Take a stroll in downtown to check out the unique shops and antique stores. Gallery 30 sells Americana themed goods made by local artisans. Lark is a fun gift shop full of funky and eclectic finds. Nerd Herd celebrates all things nerdy. It’s run by local area high school and college students and is full of games, science kits and pop culture gifts. If you’re an escape room fan, 1863 Escape has two Civil War themed rooms.
Exterior of Alexander Dobbin Dining Rooms in the Dobbin House in Gettysburg, PA.
AAA/Inspector 33

Places to Eat in Gettysburg

Several locals recommended Garryowen Irish Pub for a casual dinner. We quickly found they serve up elevated pub grub. The housemade whiskey walnut dressing on the salads was a hit with our group along with the fish and chips. Tommy’s Pizza is another local favorite. For a Colonial dining experience complete with historic dishes, dine at either the Dobbin House Tavern or Farnsworth House. Make a reservation as both are very popular. Dobbin House dates back to 1776 and is reputedly the oldest home in Gettysburg. It offers casual dining in the Springhouse Tavern at the Dobbin House along with an option for fine dining in the Alexander Dobbin Dining Rooms in the Dobbin House.
pennsylvania state memorial, soldier monument, battle, cemetery ridge battle line
catnap72/iStockphoto.com

Places to Stay in Gettysburg

The Gettystown Inn Bed & Breakfast has nine guest rooms furnished with antiques and reproductions to look like 1863. The Farnsworth House Inn also has a tavern, dining rooms, a beer garden and a 10-room bed and breakfast with Colonial decor. The Farnsworth House dates back to circa 1810. During the battle it was shelter for Confederate sharpshooters, then served as a hospital after the war. Both homes offer tours.
For a historic hotel stay, Gettysburg Hotel is right on Lincoln Square, which ironically is a traffic circle. It dates back to 1797. For a romantic stay in a historic inn, book a room at Baladerry Inn at Gettysburg, Inn at Herr Ridge or The Brickhouse Inn. Battlefield Bed & Breakfast Inn is dog-friendly if you’re traveling with pooch in tow. They even offer family friendly ghost stories by the fire with a professional ghost storyteller.
We opted for a budget-friendly hotel for our one night in Gettysburg. AAA Three Diamond Courtyard by Marriott Gettysburg is 2.5 miles from the center of town. The 152-room hotel is spacious and was perfect for our group of eight. The next morning, we grabbed lattes and cannoli at Ragged Edge Coffee House before visiting the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park. Before hitting the road, we made a stop at the Ugly Mug Café for coffee and bagel sandwiches.
Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville Pennsylvania
Courtesy of Yuengling Brewery

Visit Pottsville and the Oldest Brewery in America

The hour and a half drive from Gettysburg to Pottsville takes you through picturesque countryside with barns dotting the rolling hills and expansive farms.
At 190 years old, Yuengling Brewery is America’s oldest brewery. All ages are welcome on the free one-hour tours. You do have to wear closed-toe shoes (they must be completely closed-toe) and be prepared to walk up and down some stairs. As you start the tour, you quickly learn that the original Eagle Brewery was destroyed by a fire in 1831 and the brewery was moved to its current location because of the close proximity of the mountain. It took 10 years of hand digging to build the cave used for cold storage, aging and fermenting. The cave is 50 feet underground, 50 feet wide and 150 yards long with a temperature of 47-50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
The name change to Yuengling didn’t happen until 1873. You see the remnants of brick walls built to block beer production during Prohibition. The brewery made low alcohol near-beer and created a dairy and ice cream business to survive. You see mashers, tanks and kettles as you tour the brewhouse. Something I didn’t expect to see was the beautiful stained-glass window. It was put in to block the sun’s reflection off the copper brew kettles. After the tour, you get to sample some of the different beers on draft. You can also get a Black & Tan freshly made. For the kids and non-drinkers, they have birch beer on draft, too.
Pottsville dates back to 1806. If you have extra time, do a self-guided walking tour to learn more about the town’s significant impact on America’s Industrial Revolution. If you’re hungry after your brewery tour like we were, head over to the Wheel Restaurant. Several Yuengling employees suggested it to us. They give you a paper menu and pencil and you select everything from the bread to dipping sauce to create your own grilled cheese masterpiece.
Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia Pennsylvania
PHLCVB

Visit Philadelphia and Independence National Historical Park

The drive from Pottsville to Philadelphia is about two hours. We arrived early evening at The Notary Hotel, Autograph Collection, which is now The Notary, an Autograph Collection Hotel. The former City Hall Annex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The landmark is in the middle of Center City and is an excellent location from which to walk or take a short ride to most of the sights in Philly.
Since we had visited the oldest brewery in America, we figured we would start our adventure in Philadelphia at the town’s reputed oldest tavern, McGillin's Olde Ale House. Don’t let the dark, kind of seedy alley scare you off. Venture into this lively joint established in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. While chowing down on some pub grub, we cheered on the Phillies, sang along to ‘80s tunes and laughed as the libations flowed.
The next morning, we were off on a journey of historical proportion starting at Independence National Historical Park. Tickets are required March through December. You can reserve tickets for a dollar each ahead of time or wait in line for free tickets. After snagging ours, we had just enough time to grab a coffee at La Colombe before our tour which lasted about 30 to 40 minutes. Our volunteer guide, retired attorney Stewart Berger, was a hoot.
Our first stop was Independence Hall or “the most historical building in the National Park Service,” he told us. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed here. I was awestruck seeing the chair George Washington sat in and the chair with a rising sun on it that Benjamin Franklin used. You could hear quiet “wows” and camera shutters clicking. Stewart said, “This room is and always will be the first dot in our country. As long as there is an America, there will be dots to connect and they all come back to this city, this room.” You could have heard a pin drop after he said that, as our tour group took in the magnitude of the birth of a nation that happened in Independence Hall. It was the most prolific patriotic moment I’ve ever experienced, and I wished that every American could stand in this room.
Next, Stewart took us over to Congress Hall, where the United States Congress met from 1790 to 1800 when Philadelphia served as the capital. It was in this building where the Bill of Rights was decided, Alexander Hamilton started the first United States Mint, George Washington was sworn in for his second term as president, John Adams was sworn in as president and the nation’s first memorial to a person was installed with a statue of Benjamin Franklin after he died in 1790.
Jennifer Broome at the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia Pennsylvania
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Visiting the Liberty Bell

Before you get to the famous cracked bell, learn how the signal became a symbol as you walk through the exhibits of the Liberty Bell Center. Admission is free. During the 19th century the bell became a symbol of liberty for the abolitionists, women’s suffrage and Civil Rights movements. After seeing Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, we took advantage of a glorious morning and explored more of the historic district including the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery, Carpenters Hall and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.
Pat's King of Steaks in Philadelphia Pennsylvania
PHLCVB

Places to Eat in Philadelphia

We stopped at City Tavern, where you can sip ales of the Revolution as you sample 18th-century cuisine. Walk over to Penn's Landing on the Delaware River waterfront and wave to New Jersey. Another great lunch option is trying a Philly cheesesteak. Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks are cattycorner to each other so you can do your own taste test. These are touristy places and always crowded. In search of the best Philly cheesesteak for my crew, I asked locals all day which place has the best cheesesteak. The overwhelming favorite: Jim’s South St.
From the cheesesteak corner galore in the East Passyunk neighborhood, we explored South Philly with a walk along 9th Street in the Bella Vista neighborhood. This area is an eclectic mashup of Chinatown and Little Italy with a dose of Mexican thrown in filled with wonderful aromas coming from the many small restaurants. Needing to wet our whistles, we stopped in Bar One for a beverage. The casual eatery is a sister restaurant to Ralph's Italian Restaurant, one of the country’s oldest Italian restaurants.
Our walk took us through the Society Hill neighborhood and back into the Old City Historic District. We went by Benjamin Franklin’s grave, Christ Church, the Betsy Ross House and walked along Elfreth's Alley, said to be the oldest neighborhood street in America dating back to 1702. There are 32 homes in Federal and Georgian styles and a small museum in the alley. We stopped in Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar for cocktails and plantains then headed off to Pizzeria Stella for dinner, both true to Philadelphia’s vibrant culinary scene of flavors.
Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania
AAA/Chrizney Roth

Run the Philadelphia Museum of Art Steps Like Rocky Balboa

We had two things on our agenda for our last morning—eat a great breakfast and run like Rocky.
Just a couple of blocks from our hotel was the Reading Terminal Market. It opened in 1893, making it one of the oldest markets in the country. There are more than 80 food purveyors as well as artisan and gift shops, along with restaurants, bakeries and cafes. The market is open daily but Pennsylvania Dutch vendors are closed on Sundays. Enticed by the aroma, I jumped in line at Old City Coffee. One sip and I knew why it’s a local favorite; they micro-roast their beans in Reading Terminal.
We managed to snag a table at Down Home Diner in Reading Terminal Market. As soon as I saw the vinyl booths, counter seating and retro décor I knew we had hit the jackpot for breakfast. Get a biscuit. They’re baked in-house every morning and the jam is homemade. If you want true local fare, go for scrapple, which is kind of like a pork meatloaf, or the Philly cheesesteak scram. A couple of other great brunch options in town are Hungry Pigeon in Queen Village for a hearty breakfast, Res Ipsa in the Rittenhouse district for a homemade English muffin egg sandwich, or Tela’s, the quaint neighborhood café and market not far from the Rocky steps.
To walk off our hearty breakfast, we started towards the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Along the way we passed City Hall. The 548-foot tower purportedly makes this architectural marvel the tallest masonry structure without a steel frame in the world. We popped over to Board Game Art Park to see the giant Sorry tokens, then took pictures at the LOVE and AMOR statues in Love Park. As we approached the museum, we raced to the top of the 72 steps made famous in the movie “Rocky.” When you get to the top enjoy the view as you catch your breath.
We were getting short on time, so we headed back down Benjamin Franklin Parkway. We stopped at the Thinker sculpture at the entrance of the Rodin Museum then stumbled upon Grumman Greenhouse, a 28-foot-tall street art of a full-size airplane crashed into the sidewalk at Lenfest Plaza. There’s also a giant paintbrush sculpture called Paint Torch. It definitely made for a thought-provoking last stop in Philly. Perhaps it was the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection’s final stroke in painting some lasting memories as our road trip came to an end.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
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