Gettysburg Family Vacation

Tour the famous battlefield and stand in the spot where President Lincoln gave the “Gettysburg Address.”


When my son, Alex, was 5 years old, we visited Colonial Williamsburg, Va., a lovely, recreated historic village. I’d explained to him that everything we would see and do there was just like in the “olden days.” One morning, we ate breakfast in a candlelit tavern. When the costumed waitress delivered Alex his breakfast he tugged at my sweater and whispered in my ear, “Is the waffle old, too?” [Read more about Colonial Williamsburg.]

Fast forward 13 years. Alex is now 18 and we recently visited Gettysburg, Pa., a historic destination that goes all out in paying tribute to both the Civil War battle that was fought here and Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Of course, Alex wasn’t quite as naive as years back, but just as curious: “Where did Abraham Lincoln give the “Gettysburg Address”? How many soldiers died on the battlefield where we stood? Where can I charge my iPhone?”

Bloodiest Battle in North America

Tucked in the Allegheny Mountains, Gettysburg is the real thing—you will actually stand at the spot where President Lincoln gave his “Gettysburg Address” and roam the battlefields by foot, bike or car where 51,000 soldiers lost their lives during the three-day battle that took place here. When visiting, you can’t help but be moved by the significance of events that took place here in 1863.

And yet there’s more to Gettysburg than 1863 history, soldiers and war. The pretty town is vibrant with great restaurants, cafés and shops, and there’s a prestigious liberal arts college at the heart of it all—Gettysburg College—which brings a young vibe to an otherwise historic setting.

What to See

Battlefields and ghosts. Gettysburg is home to both, and offers many opportunities for visitors to follow in the footsteps of soldiers and to feel the whispery breath of spirits. Here are the top six things you should do at Gettysburg:

Battlefield Tours

Tour the battlefields. You can do so by bus and other guided tours, but for families the most flexible way is to do so by jumping in your car, popping in an audio CD, and cruising the battlefields. Monuments are well marked and there are plenty of photo ops if you care to stop. You can pick up an audio CD at the Farnsworth House Bookstore, Dobbin House and other lodgings including Hickory Bridge (where we spent several nights.) Another thrilling way for families to experience the sprawling battlefields is by bicycle.

Civil War Houses

New to the Gettysburg scene is the restored David Wills House. Built in 1818, this is where Lincoln put the finishing touches on his “Gettysburg Address.” David Wills was a lawyer who was instrumental in post-battle recovery efforts for the Gettysburg community and who invited Lincoln to pay homage to Gettysburg after the famous battle that took place there. Today, the house is a National Park Service museum.

The Shriver House Museum gives a different glimpse of life in Gettysburg away from the battlefields, with a peek at civilian life in the home of George and Hettie Shriver during the Civil War time period.

Military Museums and Monuments

Visit the Gettysburg National Military Museum & Visitor Center. Take in the 22-minute movie, A New Birth of Freedom, for a well-done introduction to the Battle of Gettysburg. Then, stick around for newly conserved Gettysburg Cyclorama Painting, a 360-degree historical look at Pickett’s Charge, the peak of the fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg National Military Park is where, before a crowd of 10,000 who gathered to honor those who died here, President Lincoln delivered his much-celebrated “Gettysburg Address.”

Civil War Reenactment

Each July, the annual Civil War Battle Reenactment takes place with tons of family events, five main battles, a living history village and more. As you can imagine, it gets crowded and you should make reservations in advance.

Ghost Tours

Kids love spooky ghost tours, especially at night, and there are several from which to choose. Ghost of Gettysburg Candlelight Walking Tours (the tours are based on Mark Nesbitt’s award-winning books), Farnsworth House Civil War Mourning Theater & Haunted History Walks (the Travel Channel rated Farnsworth “one of the most haunted inns in America”) and Sleepy Hollow of Gettysburg Candlelight Ghost Tours (recommended by the Paranormal Investigators and Research Association).

Where to Eat

Dobbin House

Dating back to 1776, Dobbin House Tavern is the oldest house in Gettysburg. It’s a very popular spot and you may have to wait but you can do so while shopping at the gift shop next door. We settled into a private table in one of the six candlelit dining rooms and stayed put for hours enjoying a meal of crab, filet mignon and shrimp. Bonus: The homemade bread is tops. After we ate, my son and I climbed the teeny stairway (no easy feat for 6’5” Alex) to see where the slaves were hidden during the Underground Railroad.

Hickory Bridge

“Please pass the roast beef” best sums up the great family dining experience at Hickory Bridge. Housed in a 180-year-old barn with original warped, wooden floors, we shared platter after platter of baked chicken, Crab Imperial, roast pork tenderloin, carrots, scalloped potatoes, spiced peaches, corn fritters and more. You eat as much as you want for one price. Open Fri. and Sat. from 5 to 8 p.m., Sun. from noon to 3 p.m. Tips: Bring your own bottle and watch those warped floors (in that order).

Lincoln Diner

Breakfast is served all day at the Lincoln Diner, as are other kiddie favorites like milkshakes and grilled-cheese sandwiches. The diner has an easy-to-find, right-in-town location so you can walk off those stacks of pancakes while perusing the shops and historical sites in downtown Gettysburg. Bonus: If it’s a nice day, order take-out instead to enjoy a picnic spread at the battlefields or one of the other perfect-for-a-picnic settings throughout this bucolic town.

Where to Stay

You can tuck in at a handful of inns and hotels in town from the Wyndham Gettysburg (rates from $126 per night) to The Gettysburg Hotel (rates from $138 per night). But we happily curled up at Hickory Bridge Farm, nine miles west of Gettysburg. You can’t beat the hospitality of owners Robert and Mary Lynn Martin—or the hearty country breakfast. We stayed in the old farmhouse with three bedrooms, whirlpool tubs and a sitting room downstairs where, thankfully, there was a TV that occupied hi-tech Alex way past midnight. There are also cottages with Franklin stoves that are accommodating for families.

In the morning, we sat on the porch sipping coffee and sharing Mary Lynn’s enthusiasm for Gettysburg and life in this neck of the woods. Behind the farmhouse, there’s a swing by a rambling brook where I could have spent the rest of the day—but Gettysburg tempts with so much to do that you’ll head into town to visit the battlefields or museum or take a walking tour or a baseball game at Gettysburg College. Rates from $135 for a double in the farmhouse.

Other Attractions

The beauty of Gettysburg is that within just a few minutes outside of town you can cruise through apple and peach orchards in the countryside with lots of opportunities to stop along the way to pick your own fruit (come in October for the National Apple Harvest Festival). Another family-fun diversion: Hersheypark, a popular amusement park in Hershey, Pa., (think Hershey kisses) is just one hour away. New this year: The Boardwalk: The SEAquel, which features a wave pool and a lazy river ride.

Getting There 

Gettysburg is easy to get to from Philadelphia (two hours); Washington, D.C., (90 minutes); and Baltimore (90 minutes). From New York City, it’s about a four-and-a-half hour drive.

Destinations: Gettysburg

Themes: Historical Vacations

Activities: Sightseeing

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