Gettysburg: Make history a family adventure
A woman — orbited by her two children — approached the information desk at the Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitor Center one recent Friday afternoon with a question that sounded familiar to the volunteers: "Where do I even begin?"
It's a bit overwhelming. Rangers, battlefield stops, bus trips, monuments, tours with a guide, tours on a bus, audio tours, films. Which to choose? What's a cyclorama? And what will the kids enjoy?
Where do you even begin?
One of the best times of the year to take in the full breadth of Gettysburg is near the anniversary of the July 1-3 battle, when re-enactments and the celebration of the Fourth of July engage visitors. It's worth fighting the crowds. Read about the plan for this year's celebration.
Meanwhile, here's a guide to Gettysburg's don't-miss historic attractions you can visit in one day:
Stop 1 (two hours)
The Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitor Center, 1195 Baltimore Pike: This is a great place to begin for an overview of the battle through the film, cyclorama and museum — all great visuals and storytelling. Arrive early in the day because tours fill up quickly.
Ranger talks: Head straight for the information desk, and pick up a free copy of "Today in the park." Peruse the booklet for ranger talks (all free) that interest you. Ranger talks (just outside the building) are on topics such as the re-creation of a court martial and an in-depth look at why soldiers enlisted and fought. Ranger sessions are also held throughout the battlefield and farms run by the Park Service, all times and locations in the booklet. For children: Rangers adeptly involve children during the talks. There's also a junior ranger book to engage them, available at the information desk. In the evening, there's a campfire program at the park's amphitheater (check "Today in the park" for the time). Price: free
Film, museum and cyclorama: Waste no time getting into the ticket line beside the info desk. One ticket will get you into the museum, film ("Gettysburg: A new birth of freedom") and cyclorama, and those are all worth your time. The short film sets the scene of what happened in Gettysburg. If you have children under 10, it has three screens with great visuals to keep their attention. From the movie, you'll go to the cyclorama, an intricate circular painting of the battle by Paul Philippoteaux (he painted himself into it) from the late 1880s. It has been refurbished and turned into another short and interesting presentation about the battle. The museum is as good as anything you would see at the Smithsonian, but children may want to zip through it quickly. Price for film, museum and cyclorama: $12.50 for adults; $11.50 for 65 and older and active military; $8.50 for 6- to 12-year-olds; free for 5-year-olds and younger.
Stop 2 (two hours)
A bus tour or guided tour: Throughout Gettysburg, bus tour options abound. All of them will give a good overview of the battle. The two-hour bus tours from the Visitor Center, though, are led by a licensed battlefield guide, who are typically quite good. Price: $30 for adults; $18 for children. The personal tours with a licensed battlefield guide are usually better because you can ask questions along the way. (Sometimes the tour guide asks to drive your car.) Reserve the guide at the ticketing counter or call in advance at 877-874-2478. Price: $65 for groups of one to six. Note: Audio tours that you can take on your own are hard to follow and, of course, don't answer your questions.
Stop 3 (two hours)
Eisenhower National Historic Site: It's not every day that you have a chance to walk through a former president's home. And it's really a beautiful location, which is why Dwight D. and Mamie chose it. Tour the house, the grounds (see Ike's limo and station wagon), the farm's cattle operations, and the skeet range (he loved to shoot). Ranger talks are also available here. Price: $7.50 for adults, and $5 for children 6-12. (If you have time, the Spangler Farm – tickets available at the Visitors Center – is worth a visit, too. Renovations are still being done there, but the ranger talks and personalization of the battle for Gettysburg residents are captivating.)
Stop 4 (45 minutes)
The battlefield and monuments: Historians continue to debate the significance of each site on the battlefield, but here are three places worth a visit: Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge and Devil's Den. Little Round Top was the site of a turning point in the battle, and its location gives a great overview of the area. Seminary Ridge housed the Confederates during the battle, and it served as Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters. The boulders and location of Devil's Den made it a key location during the July 2 battle. Monuments large and small dot the fields and hills of the National Park, a reminder of the lives lost and the sacrifices of so many families. In the tales of this battle, there isn't a more important story than this.
Stop 5 (90 minutes)
Seminary Ridge Museum, 111 Seminary Ridge: This museum just opened two years ago in a historically significant building to the battle, the original Lutheran Theological Seminary building. What's really compelling here is the way the museum has laid out the story of the first day of the battle, the stories of Schmucker Hall's use as a field hospital, and the heated debates about the Civil War. Also, take the cupola tour. The museum's cupola served as a military observation post during the battle. For children: The cupola will be a highlight for them. Price: $29 (plus tax) for adults; $27 for senior citizens.
Stop 6 (15 minutes)
Soldiers' National Cemetery, Taneytown Road: This is where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, on Nov. 19, 1863, to about 15,000 people for the cemetery's dedication. More than 3,500 Union soldiers and a few Confederate soldiers are buried at this site.
Where to eat?
Convenient: The Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitor Center has a cafeteria with burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, and pre-made wraps and salads. It's convenient when you're at the Visitors' Center, but it's not a memorable meal.
Historic:Dobbin House Tavern, 89 Steinwehr Ave., serves both fine dining and tavern fare in a 1774 building. If you have children, go for the less expensive, casual tavern side. This is a hot spot because of its history, so make a reservation or go during an off time.
Easy and downtown:Café Saint-Amand, 48 Baltimore St., a French bistro in town, has a sizeable menu of crepes, sandwiches, salads, and soups.
Mexican:El Costeno, 39 York St., serves fresh Adams County ingredients in the form of fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, salads, chips and salsa. It's BYOB with covered al fresco dining and a casual dining room.
Out of town:Fidler & Co. Craft Kitchen and Grocery, 213 E. York St., Biglerville, serves wood-fired pizza, paninis, and salads for lunch and a selection of entrees at suppertime. (Formerly Pomona's Café Bakery.)
Sweet style:Johnny Como's Cupcakes and Coffee, 62 Chambersburg St. is a '50s-style blast from the past. The café's glass-front counter is filled with cupcakes for any taste: strawberries and cream, peanut butter blast, triple chocolate, and many more. Ask Johnny who his famous relative is. Susie and Johnny Como donate their proceeds to organizations connected to the military, firefighters and police officers, Susie Como said.
Homemade:Mr. G.'s Ice Cream, 404 Baltimore St., makes its own ice cream. Lots of flavors, sundaes and shakes.
Less interested in history? Here are 13 fun stops in Gettysburg (minus history).
In Gettysburg during a festival? Check out four big Gettysburg festivals this year.