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Flash tour of historic Philadelphia

By KD Fabian, CNN
The Declaration of Independence was signed in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall.
The Declaration of Independence was signed in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall.
  • Visitors can pack a lot of American history into a few hours in Philadelphia
  • The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are just across the street from each other
  • Strolling nearby, tourists are likely to stumble upon other historic sites

(CNN) -- My unscientific poll of people who have visited or lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, revealed three top must-dos for a first-time visitor: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and cheese steak.

I managed two out of three in 2½ hours during a trip to attend a wedding.

Fortunately for tourists pressed for time, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall happen to be right across the street from each other.

To enter Independence Hall, visitors must get free, timed tickets at the Independence Visitor Center, a block away. Get there early during the height of tourist season, as tickets go quickly.

Once you have your ticket, head over to Independence Hall for your tour. This building, originally called the Pennsylvania State House, could be considered the birthplace of the United States. It was here, in the Assembly Room, that the Declaration of Independence was discussed, adopted and signed and where, years later, the Constitution was signed.

The tour, which lasts about 40 minutes, takes you through the main floor of Independence Hall. The space is split into two large rooms, with a hallway in between. In the Supreme Courtroom, the cage that held the accused during trials is still in place. The second room, the Assembly Room, is set up with desks scattered with papers, books and inkwells, so visitors can imagine what it would have been like for the Founding Fathers to sit here and deliberate what would be seen as treason by the king in England: the Declaration of Independence.

At least one piece of furniture in the room is original: George Washington's "rising sun" chair. Ben Franklin is said to have wondered whether the carving on the back of the armchair symbolized a rising sun or a setting sun, but after the Constitution was signed, he said he believed that it symbolized a sun rising on a new day and a new nation.

Across the street, the Liberty Bell Center houses the bell that once resided inside the steeple of Independence Hall. Famous for the big crack that silenced it, the Liberty Bell was used to announce two great moments in American history: the opening of the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775, when it was rung after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

It has been said that the bell also rang July 8, 1776, to bring the citizens of Philadelphia together for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, but that story has been disputed by historians who say the bell tower was in severe disrepair at that time. The final ringing of the bell was in 1846, when the last crack appeared and made it unusable.

Entry into the Liberty Bell Center is free, no timed tickets needed.

A few blocks away, on Arch Street, the Betsy Ross House is nestled in among the taller, newer buildings. The red, white and blue bunting on the fence in front of the courtyard is hard to miss. Usually remembered as a seamstress, Betsy Ross was actually an upholsterer by trade. She is credited with making the first United States flag, and although that bit of history may be in dispute, she did make flags for the country for about 50 years.

Inside the house, several rooms have been furnished with period pieces. A visit is a great way to understand what life was like at the time of the Revolutionary War. The burial site of Ross and her third husband, John Claypool, is in a large courtyard outside.

Entry to the house is $3 for adults and $2 for children under 12 and students. An audio tour, which also includes the admission price, costs $5.

The last stop on my flash tour of Philadelphia was unexpected: the Christ Church Burial Ground. On the corner of Arch and Fifth streets, this colonial-era graveyard is the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin (as well as four other signers of the Declaration of Independence). Franklin's grave can be seen from the street, and that's how I came across it.

In homage to the man who once said "A penny saved is a penny earned," visitors leave pennies on his tomb; local tradition also says that doing so will bring you good luck. The burial ground is open from March through December; admission is $1 for students and $2 for adults, and guided tours begin every hour.

My touring time was short but chock full of history. As the train pulled away from the station, it dawned on me that I never managed to get to the last "must-do" revealed in my poll: cheese steak.

Everyone I spoke with had a different place with "the best cheese steak in the city," whether they were recommending a famous spot like Pat's or Geno's or the place "just around the corner" from their house.

Oh, well, it gives me the perfect excuse to come back to Philadelphia.