One of the best ways to find history is to walk right through it. Pounding the pavement somehow makes history come alive, as if you were following in the footsteps of those who came before you. Places like Boston, Colonial Williamsburg, and Philadelphia offer many such strolls through history.
You just need a good pair of shoes and a little historical background to enjoy a "soleful" view of these three Meccas of American history. There's lots to do on foot, but only if you know where to look and walk.
Beantown is best by way of walking. Town officials have made it easy with the Freedom Trail, a legendary three-mile walking tour passing 16 historic sites from the Colonial and Revolutionary period. One just needs to lace up a pair of shoes and follow the bright red line conveniently painted on the street for a fascinating history lesson.
The National Park Service provides an information center for the Freedom Trail at 15 State Street. Just pick up a map and look for the red line.
The Freedom Trail begins at the Boston Commons, a former pasture and military training ground. It now serves as the oldest public park in the country and a great place for tourists to get their bearings and plan a walk. The State House, with it's landmark gold dome, and Park Street Church, where "America" was first performed, both sit on the Boston Commons.
Cemetery and history buffs will enjoy strolling through the Granary Burying Ground next to Park Street Church. It's easy to find the graves of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as those of Peter Faneuil, Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin's parents.
For book lovers, the Old Corner Bookstore on the Freedom Trail is a special treat. The location was a thriving literary center in the mid-1800s and served as the publishing company for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Faneuil Hall has been a marketplace and meeting hall for more than 240 years and it is in a perfect position for walkers to do some marketing and meeting along the Freedom Trail. This busy hall led the resurgence of urban marketplaces in the United States. There are more than 100 shops and 20 unique eateries. this is a great place to take a break from hisotry with some food and fun.
The long red line leads to Old North Church, of "one if by land, two if by sea" fame. The church featured the signal to start the American Revolution, as the British headed toward Concord by sea.
The USS Constitution and Museum is hard to miss. "Old Ironsides" was undefeated in 44 major encounters during the War of 1812. Up the hill, the Bunker Hill Monument marks the spot of the first battle in the American Revolution with a 220-foot obelisk monument overlooking the city center.
Bunker Hill also marks the end of the Freedom Trail. By this time, visitors are usually ready to try one of my favorite Boston restaurants for justifiably famous fare, go to a ballgame at Fenway Park, or head back to their lodging of choice.
For lodging in keeping with the flavor of Boston, contact the Bed & Breakfast Agency of Boston at (617) 720-3540
Though many may view Colonial Williamsburg as an historic amusement park, it has much more substance. This is literally living history at its very best and you can walk right through it. You'll finish your stroll knowing much more about Colonial times and having loved the learning.
Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia until it was moved to Richmond during the Revolutionary War. It had lost most of it luster before 1926, when John D. Rockefeller provided big bucks for the restoration and establishment of Colonial Williamsburg. It's now a thriving tourist center.
Walking the streets and exploring the buildings of Colonial Williamsburg provides a tasteful step back in time. The Historic Area is typically alive with period actors performing their daily life routines as they did more than 200 years ago. There are cobblers, blacksmiths, candlemakers, farmers, gardeners, and all sorts of shopkeepers.
When preparing for a stroll into history, walkers should get a current copy of "Visitor's Companion." Along with a detailed map, visit recommendations, walking highlights, there are many special events and activities reviewed. The guide makes each walk in Colonial Williamsburg completely different. The Visitor Center film, "Williamsburg--The Story of a Patriot," provides a great introduction and often serves as a warm-up for my walks.
Colonial Williamsburg is best seen through random rambling. Walkers should let their eyes, ears, and nose be their guides to historic buildings, sites, museums, trade sites, dining, and shopping.
To see Colonial-style governing and living at its restored best, head for the Governor's Palace, the Capitol, the George Wythe House, the Peyton Randolph House, and Raleigh Tavern. If you need further recommendations, just ask one of the period actors.
Colonial trade is also a restoring experience. My favorites include the hardworking blacksmith, the printing office, the shoemaker, the silversmith, and the hair-raising wigmaker.
Besides the Historic Area, visitors enjoy walking around Merchants Square. This modern shopping district feature some 30 specialized shops. The Trellis Restaurant and Cafe on Merchants Square is one of the state's best dining options, with the contemporary American fare of Marcel Desaulnier.
When it's time for bed, head for lodging in keeping with Colonial times. Call Colonial Williamsburg Official Hotels at (800) HISTORY to spend the night at the Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg Lodge, Williamsburg Woodlands, or the Governor's Inn.
The city spruced up for the Bicentennial in 1976 and visitors still flock to town. The historic sites are definitely open and so are the arms of the friendly people in this "city of brotherly love."
Philadelphia was America's first urban center and thus provides lots of history, ethnic diversity, and culture in a small space. One can even walk "the most historic square mile in America". The place to begin any exploration is the Visitor Center at Independence National Historical Park, where maps, tours, and many interesting programs are provided.
Offering much more than a cracked bell, the Jefferson walking tour celebrates places of importance to him and the birth of the U.S. Independence Hall hosted the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the drafting and signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Next door, Congress Hall hosted the meetings of the U.S. Congress, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital between 1790 and 1800.
Tourists can walk past the Liberty Bell on their way to Declaration House, where Jefferson moved to escape the hectic pace of city life in 1776. It was here that he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
A favorite stop along the walk is the City Tavern, a reconstruction of the famous colonial tavern where Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin spent hours discussing matters of state, business, and probably pleasure.
Jefferson would have liked Philadelphia today. There is still strong ethnic diversity and the distinctive neighborhoods are also great for exploration.
To sleep as Jefferson would have slept, contact Bed and Breakfast, City Center at (215) 735-1137.
From head to toe, there's little better for the mind and body than historic walking tours. It's a "soleful" way to take a walk back in time.