I seriously feared I might get stabbed by a flying branch! When that crazy gust of wind swirled around us, I got grit all over my face, felt something hit my leg, then noticed several broken branches lying on the ground. What was going on? A hurricane in historic Philadelphia?

Fortunately it quickly calmed down. My guide and I took shelter in the lobby of a nearby building. Without missing a beat, David continued telling me the story of early Philadelphia while we waited for a break in the storm.

Earlier that morning, my walking tour with Context Travel had started out in perfect weather: not too hot, not too cold, and not overly sunny, which makes for better photos. Because the tour was sponsored (and the other blogger didn’t show up), I got to enjoy a private tour!

Walking tour with Context Travel in Philadelphia

That’s David, walking up 2nd Street with the steeple of Christ Church in the distance.

Exploring historic Philadelphia with Context

Normally a Context Travel tour consists of a minimum of three people and a maximum of six. Because the groups are small, the participants can easily interact with the docents who are scholars or specialists in their fields. No wonder Context brands its walks as “very small group tours for the intellectually curious traveller”.

My tour was called Colonial City in Context and was led by David Krueger, a scholar with a Ph.D. in history, specializing in religion and American culture. His tour focuses on historic Philadelphia (Old City and Society Hill) during colonial times, from the late 17th to the late 18th century.

David and I met in front of City Tavern, a landmark from the 18th century which still serves food and drinks, including George Washington’s original recipe for ale! Back in colonial times, taverns doubled up as meeting places where people conducted business and exchanged ideas.

Statue of William Penn standing in Welcome Square, Philadelphia

Statue of William Penn standing in Welcome Park against a modern building

How it all began

Across the street in Welcome Park, I learned the story of William Penn who founded the city in 1682. Penn was a bit of a rogue, at least from the standards of his era. The son of an admiral, he was expelled from Oxford, became a Quaker, and was later sent to the New World to establish the colony of Pennsylvania and its capital city, Philadelphia. The colony was actually named after his father, not him!

The white lines painted on the ground of the park represent the street layout of historic Philadelphia, a perfect grid anchored by five squares. These open areas were intended to keep an eventual fire from destroying the entire city.

Inside Christ Church, Philadelphia

Inside Christ Church

Our next stop was Christ Church, an Episcopal church whose current structure dates from the first part of the 18th century. It was attended by such illustrious figures as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and still contains the baptismal font of William Penn (yes, he did leave the Quakers eventually). Its 60-metre steeple made it the tallest building in North America between 1754 and 1810. We spent some time inside listening to a church docent share some of the church’s history with visitors.

Nearby, Elfreth’s Alley had to be one of the cutest streets I had seen in North America. Brick row houses with colourful window shutters, potted plants, and draped flags lined a cobblestone pedestrian alley. It is branded as the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the USA, dating back to 1702.

Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia

Elfreth’s Alley

Busted myth and insight

One great thing about Context Travel docents is they know their topic in depth. You pay more, but you get good answers to your questions (unlike the free tours given by students or guides who follow a script). If you are the intellectually curious type, you’ll definitely enjoy these tours. The walks are also typically longer than most walking tours, lasting from two to three hours. For example, my 3-hour tour was priced at US$85.

We stopped briefly in front of Betsy Ross’ house, now a museum with a large courtyard obviously very popular with schoolchildren on field trips. The commonly held belief is that Betsy Ross made the first American flag and presented it to George Washington, but David was quick to point out that there is no evidence to substantiate this story. Urban legend?

Quaker church, Philadelphia

Quaker church

Our next stop what a stately brick building that turned out to be a Quaker Church. It didn’t look much like a traditional church, but Quakers consider all people who believe in God to be on equal footing so their masses are more akin to a meeting where everyone contributes, rather than a sermon from a priest preaching at a pulpit. I have to admit I didn’t know anything about the Quakers before. To me, Quakers always conjured up oatmeal!

Where America was born

The most historical place in historic Philadelphia has to be Independence Mall. This large grassy area is surrounded by landmarks: the George Washington’s House commemorative site (with a very interesting video recounting the story of Washington’s slaves), Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787), Congress Hall, and the Liberty Bell.

George Washington's House commemorative site, Philadelphia

George Washington’s House commemorative site – rebuilt in situ.

The rain first hit us just as we were approaching the Independence Visitor Centre. This long narrow building is where you book your free timed tickets for a tour of Independence Hall. The Context tour does not enter Independence Hall but walks past it. If you want to visit inside, arrive early in the morning for same-day tickets. Or book online in advance for a small fee.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall – where the USA was born!

When we came out, the rain had stopped temporarily, but a few minutes later we got caught in that mini-hurricane I mentioned earlier. By the time we came out of our hiding place, the rain and wind had relented somewhat but the air was frigid. The temperature seemed to have dropped several degrees within minutes.

Working around the weather

Fortunately, David had checked the weather forecast that morning, and changed the itinerary a bit so we could visit Powel House around the time the rain was expected. Flexibility is another advantage of Context tours. Depending on weather or the interests of the group, the itinerary can be modified or re-arranged. For example, when I mentioned that I hadn’t had my morning coffee, David found a place along our route where I could quickly pop in and grab a cappuccino-to-go.

Inside Powel House, Philadelphia

Inside Powel House’s dining room

There was an extra cost for Powel House ($8) but we were the only visitors there. The house, an aristocratic mansion from the 18th century, belonged to Samuel Powel and his wife Elizabeth Willing. Powel served as the last colonial mayor of Philadelphia and first mayor of the city after the creation of the United States. Unfortunately, he died shorty after in a Yellow Fever epidemic. Some of the furniture in the house and other mementos are original.

We finished the tour at Carpenter’s Hall which was completed in 1775 for the Carpenters’ Guild, but also played an important role as a meeting place for the First Continental Congress, delegates who met early on during the American Revolution to consider their options.

Architecture in Old City Philadelphia

Architecture in Old City Philadelphia

There sure is a lot of history in Philadelphia, and a Context Travel walking tour (or walking seminar as they like to call it) is the perfect way to get your head around it. Interestingly, Philadelphia is the home city of Context. The company now operates in 37 major cities around the world, and will be adding its 38th, Stockholm, in July.

If you go

If you book your context tour online, try to plan a week in advance as the system will not let you book dates within the next few days. Tours that are guaranteed to run (having reached their minimum number of participants) are clearly indicated.

Note: I was a guest of Context Travel on this tour called Colonial City in Context. A usual, all opinions are my own.

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