Situated about halfway between New York and D.C., Philadelphia is a natural stopping point for groups traveling up and down the East Coast. But this world-class city, and the charming communities that surround it, are worth a trip all their own.
Philadelphia, of course, is a prime destination so steeped in history it was selected as the country’s very first World Heritage City in 2015. Count on needing at least a few days to explore the adventures that beckon in Pennsylvania’s crown jewel before moving on to the smaller gems that sparkle so brightly nearby: Brandywine Valley, Valley Forge and Lancaster. All offer their own rich historical, cultural and natural treasures sure to captivate every group member.
Our nation’s birthplace, the City of Brotherly Love famously boasts oodles of historical goodies, but no other attraction tells the tale of the War of Independence like the Museum of the American Revolution. The collection, which began more than a century ago with the original tent from which George Washington commanded the Continental Army, now features thousands of other equally stirring relics, artwork and documents. The museum is group-friendly, too.
“They’ll let groups come in before they open, and they’ve even created evening activities for groups around some of their special exhibits,” said Annie Jirapatnakul, global tourism sales and services manager for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Jirapatnakul also recommends leaders make space in the itinerary for stops at the three-floor Penn Museum, on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and the Barnes Foundation, which is off the Ben Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The former plays host to more than a million priceless antiquities from around the globe, including the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere. Leaders can choose from a wide range of special
experiences for their groups, from learning to write Sumerian to after-hours dining.
Meanwhile, the Barnes Foundation, which Jirapatnakul believes many tour operators might not be aware of, was once the private art collection of wealthy drug developer Alfred C. Barnes.
“It includes some of the world’s most important impressionist, post-impressionist and modern paintings,” she said. “It currently doesn’t travel, so the only place you can see it all together is in Philadelphia. I really recommend the guided group tours, because the docents are so passionate about art and Dr. Barnes and his story.”
Before heading out of the city, groups might want to swing by the preserved ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary, where notorious criminals such as gangster Al Capone once bunked. Nowadays, it offers guided tours for groups looking for a unique experience they can’t find anywhere else.
Tucked away within the lush greenspace of southern Chester County, Brandywine Valley is just a 60-minute drive from Philadelphia but a world apart from its bustling environs. The area is best known for Longwood Gardens, a 1,000-plus-acre botanical splendor that welcomes groups with guided tours. This fall, the attraction will cut the ribbon on its massive, much-anticipated expansion, Longwood Reimagined, which includes the new West Conservatory, a 32,000-square-foot marvel that will seemingly float on water.
Big doings are also underway at the Brandywine Museum of Art, home to a stellar assemblage of work from iconic American painter Andrew Wyeth; his father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth; and his son, Jamie.
“There’s now a curator in charge of Andrew Wyeth assets,” said Nina Kelly, director of marketing and communications for Chester County Tourism. “Having this gentleman means that there are really great eyes on how Andy’s work is preserved and presented, so his exhibition area at the museum has been very lively, with exciting new exhibitions.”
The institution, which offers seasonal artist studio visits, guided collection tours and on-site dining, will debut “Every Leaf and Twig: Andrew Wyeth’s Botanical Imagination” in February. Running into September, it will present 40 watercolors and drawings, most never before seen by the public. In October, the Brandywine opens “The Crafted World of Wharton Esherick,” an exhibit of work by the influential artist known for his sculptural furniture. Groups of up 16 people may also want to visit the Wharton Esherick Museum, a National Historic Landmark for Architecture that includes the artist’s hand-built studio.
According to Kelly, groups shouldn’t miss one of the area’s lesser-known pleasures, the Antique Ice Tool Museum. Open seasonally, the attraction is set within “this fantastically renovated, historic bank barn,” Kelly said. “It really covers the history of the ice trade in America, which influenced the settlement of the entire nation, because as the country moved west, provisions had to go with them, and only so much could happen without a cooling agent. It’s a fascinating place.”
To the north of Brandywine Valley unspools Montgomery County’s Valley Forge area, home to the not-to-missed Valley Forge National Historical Park. Groups can enjoy seasonal re-enactments, hop-on guide service and a newly renovated visitor center at the park, which marks the location of the 1777-78 winter encampment of General George Washington’s Continental Army.
“If it weren’t for what took place at Valley Forge, the American army might not have come together, and we could be having a whole different conversation right now,” said Scott Higgins, director of sales for the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board.
Just down the road from the park is the King of Prussia Mall, where tour operators might wish to give groups time on their own to browse the wares — after all, Pennsylvania offers tax-free clothing and shoe purchases.
“With about 450 stores, it’s one of the largest malls in the U.S. shopping-wise, but there are also great culinary offerings,” Higgins said. “It was recently announced that Eataly [an Italian restaurant and marketplace] will be opening a location there. There are only a handful in the country, so we’re really excited.”
Fans of our fine-feathered friends will want to visit the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, also conveniently situated near the park. In addition to stretching their legs on the 175-acre property’s trail system, groups can peruse the on-site museum and an 18th-century farmhouse where the renowned naturalist lived as a young man.
Located 30 miles east of Valley Forge, Bryn Athyn Historic District preserves the New Church religious community founded there in the late 1800s. It’s definitely worth the detour, with enough architectural and historical highlights to fill an entire afternoon. They include Cairnwood Estate, a Beaux Arts-beauty built in 1895; the soaring Bryn Athyn Cathedral, completed in 1928 and featuring buildings in the Gothic and Romanesque styles; and Glencairn Museum. Boasting a staggering collection of religious art and artifacts, the museum reopened in November, following an 18-month infrastructure project. All offer guided tours for groups.
Speaking of attractions with a spiritual bent, Lancaster County — distinguished by rolling, verdant farmland and one of the country’s oldest inland cities — offers a blockbuster example. For 25 years, Sight and Sound Theatre has brought Bible stories to life in state-of-the-art productions set on a sweeping, 300-foot stage. This March, it will premiere the eagerly awaited “Daniel,” slated to run through the year.
Groups can expect to see “production values that are second-to-none,” said Joel Cliff, director of communications and advocacy for Discover Lancaster. “I’d put Sight and Sound up against anything on Broadway. So, it’s not just for folks interested in faith-based experiences but also those who just love fantastic theater.”
But Lancaster may be most famous for its community of Amish, people who eschew modern conveniences, living a simple, rural life marked by hard work, humility and a focus on family. Groups can get a closer look at their customs by visiting Amish Village near Strasburg. Located on a 12-acre property, it features an authentic Amish farmhouse, built in 1840, as well as a one-room school, shops and more. Customized tours are available for groups and may include a step-on guide, lunch and craft sessions.
Cliff advises groups to also make tracks to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, a few minutes’ drive from Sight and Sound and Amish Village. Special group offerings include a restoration shop tour and the white-glove tour of the expansive collection, which features 100 historic locomotives and railroad cars.
“The nice thing additionally is that it’s across the street from the Strasburg Rail Road,” Cliff said. “So, groups often combine the museum with an historic train ride.”
Of course, Lancaster City offers its own diverse pleasures, and they include Wheatland, erected in 1828 and once the home of James Buchanan. History may not look kindly on the president, who served just prior to Abraham Lincoln, but the home is magnificent.