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Thu, Sept. 19

Column: Exploring the birthplace of the United States

National Science Foundation/Courtesy photo

National Science Foundation/Courtesy photo

Inscribed on Philadelphia's Liberty Bell are the words "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof." In a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this? And on this weekend celebrating the most American of holidays, come for a stroll with me in Philadelphia.

Constructed in a time when men still walked, the city is wonderfully compact and manageable on foot. The area between 2nd and 7th streets, bounded by Walnut and Arch Streets, holds carefully preserved memories and treasures from our nation's past and is very simple to navigate.

I would begin at the Independence Visitor Center on 6th and Market Streets. Here you will find maps, information about guided walks, tickets to Independence Hall, information about current events, clean restrooms (always handy) and a good cup of coffee at the café. There is also a John Houston-directed film, "Independence," which is shown every half-hour and, if you're there on a Saturday, you may be able to have breakfast with Ben Franklin. (OK, so it's an actor - but it's fun.)

Just south of the Visitor Center is Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States. Stand there for a moment and realize that the phrases "We the people of the United States" and "When in the course of human events" were first heard here and see if you don't get goosebumps. Within this hall, the Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, and the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. Independence Hall is also where the Constitutional Convention met to draft, debate and then sign The United States Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.

North across Chestnut Street, you'll find one of the finest symbols of our freedom, the Liberty Bell. According to tradition, its most famous ringing occurred on July 8, 1776, to summon citizens of Philadelphia for the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

From here I would probably head north across the Visitor Center block and take a coffee break in the ground-floor Delegates Restaurant at the National Constitutional Center. (I find that getting off my feet and having caffeine always helps me appreciate history more.) The center itself is a national museum that honors and explains the U.S. Constitution with interactive exhibits and a theater.

Christ Church Burial Ground is across the street on the corner of Arch and 5th. In the two-acre Colonial and Revolutionary graveyard are 1,400 graves, including those of Ben Franklin and his good wife Deborah, as well as four other signers of the Declaration. Toss a penny through the opening of the brick wall for luck. (Although "a penny saved is a penny earned"!)

Two blocks east on Arch and 3rd is the modest home of Betsy Ross. The house has been restored to its 1777 appearance by the dime donations of two million Americans who helped convert Betsy's house from a state of disrepair into a national shrine. Interestingly, the legend of the making of the first flag is an oral one.

Another block east and just a titch south is Elfreth's Alley. Since 1702, this has been the oldest continuously occupied group of homes in America. Named for blacksmith Jeremiah Elfreth, Elfreth's Alley, with its 32 houses, is one of the first National Historic Landmark Districts that celebrates the lives of everyday Americans.

Stroll down Elfreth's Alley's historic cobblestones and step back into America's past.

Going one block south on 2nd Street will take you to Christ Church, the "Nation's Church." This Episcopalian church has been an active parish since 1695. It is where Benjamin Franklin, William Penn and George Washington worshipped, and is also the church where the American Episcopal Church was born. Step inside and you will feel "300 years of vision, faith and courage." Its steeple is a landmark throughout the city, and on July 4, 1788, its bells tolled all day to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution.

Finally, continue three blocks south on 2nd Street to relax where so many have before you - the City Tavern. The Tavern was the political, social, and business center of the new United States. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Paul Revere all ate here, and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both owe much to the food and spirits consumed in this building. So you can rest, chat, eat and drink and feel that you are in the company of great men.

If there were space, I would go into detail about the Revolutionary Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the middle-class home of Dolley Todd Madison and the more luxurious one next door of Bishop White, and bend a knee to Franklin's Library Hall. My husband Michael would insist that we stop by the New Hall Military Museum and then finish with a visit to the Bourse Building to begin comparison eating of Philly cheese steaks.

Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel since 1975.

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