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Eastern Pennsylvania’s Keystone Cool

If ever there were a place perfect for group travel, it’s the eastern half of the Keystone State. Anchored by the City of Brotherly Love, eastern Pennsylvania offers much more than the still-thriving boomtown where our forefathers founded the nation. Brandywine Valley and Valley Forge, both an easy drive west from Philadelphia, are stellar destinations in their own right. Like Philadelphia, they offer not only diverting history, but also cultural institutions that are second to none, heralded food and wine scenes, and fabulous shopping.

Begin in Brandywine

Tour leaders might want to begin their group’s adventure in the lush, lyrical Brandywine Valley. Stretching across a slice of southern Chester County, this area is defined by its undeveloped landscape.

“Chester County has relegated something like 38% of its land to open space,” said Nina Kelly, director of marketing and communications for the Chester County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And we’re known as America’s Garden Capital. Within 30 miles, there are 34 horticultural assets, and of course, we’re blessed that Longwood Gardens, one of the world’s great display gardens, is right here. It encompasses more than 1,000 acres, one of the largest indoor conservatories in North America and the most significant fountain collection. About 1.6 million people a year go to Longwood Gardens.”

Longwood Gardens offers guided tours to groups as well as special reserved seating for events like the Fireworks and Fountains show. But there are plenty of other ways for group travelers to enjoy the bounty of the Brandywine Valley, including a tasting and tour at Chaddsford Winery — Kelly recommends reaching out to Chester County CVB director of sales Courtney Babcock to set up an event there — and sampling some of the area’s mushrooms. About 64% of the country’s mushrooms are grown in Chester County. Groups can shop for their favorite edible fungi in Kennett Square’s idyllic downtown or take in a mushroom museum and cooking demo at the Woodlands, located at Phillips Mushroom Farms.

Before heading northeast from the Brandywine Valley to Valley Forge, groups will want to stop at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, a gorgeous institution that showcases the work of the legendary Wyeth family, including Andrew Wyeth, who painted the masterpiece “Christina’s World.”

Shopping and More at Valley Forge

Then, it’s a quick 40-minute drive to the King of Prussia mall, where groups can shop, eat or relax with a drink.

“It’s the largest retail shopping mall in the country,” said Jessie Shi, international tourism sales manager for Valley Forge Tourism and Convention. “It has 450 stores, seven department stores and 30 restaurants. So you have plenty of options. For example, if you’d rather have economy shopping, there’s H&M; but if you’re feeling like luxury, there’s Coach, Burberry, Gucci — you name it. And King of Prussia also offers plenty of great group dining options, like Maggiano’s and True Food Kitchen.”

The Valley Forge area, which sits pretty in Montgomery County, also encompasses the site where Gen. George Washington camped with his Continental Army during the nation’s fight for independence. Groups can honor the determination and sacrifices of Washington and his troops with a ranger-led walking tour, trolley tour or even bike tour of Valley Forge National Historical Park. The park also hosts seasonal reenactments that are worth planning a trip around for Revolutionary War history buffs.

Meanwhile, birds of a feather will want to flock to the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, which just wrapped up a $16 million renovation that added a brand-new 18,000-square-foot museum and nature facility. Along with original Audubon prints, the center boasts the 18th-century home where the celebrated ornithologist and artist lived in his youth and miles of trails from which to enjoy the avian critters that so inspired him.

Follow the Founders to Philadelphia

After wrapping up their tour of Valley Forge, groups can head 18 miles into the city via Interstate 76, where a wealth of wonderful diversions await. Along with iconic sites Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both signed; the Liberty Bell; and the Betsy Ross House, Philadelphia is consistently adding enticing new attractions, like the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Set to debut this year, the center on Independence Mall will explore how values like faith and liberty have shaped America. Another recently opened attraction in Philadelphia is the Cherry Street Pier, a 64,000-square-foot public space tucked away on the central Delaware River waterfront. The Pier hosts a marketplace with goods from local craftspeople, spaces for artists who offer demonstrations and direct sales to the public, and plenty of options for locally sourced dishes and drinks from Philadelphia’s biggest names in food and beverage.

Speaking of fine vittles, fans of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine will want to visit Elwood in the hot Fishtown neighborhood. Less than a year old, the restaurant has been winning chef and owner Adam Diltz big accolades. There’s space for only about 26 guests, but groups are welcome to buy out the place for a night to experience goodies like ham pot pie, a stewlike dish with noodle squares found only in Pennsylvania.

Though there are enough new doings in Philly to keep groups busy far past their departure date, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau communications manager Anthony Stipa suggests taking in some old favorites, too.

“Motorcoach groups always have an appetite for the museum district because it’s very accessible with parking, and it’s all in one condensed footprint that people can get to,” he said. “So you’ve got the Barnes Foundation, which has postimpressionist paintings from artists like Renoir, da Vinci and Monet, as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is so iconic it’s really become an emblem for the city. You also have the Franklin Institute, which is dedicated to science and innovation. There are so many learning opportunities in these museums, which really appeals to the motorcoach crowd.”