Our Guide: 24 Hours in Gettysburg With Kids
We had 24 hours in Gettysburg, which was not quite enough to see the town and its sights; 48 hours is probably perfect. But it seems a lot of people use Gettysburg as a stopover en route to places like Pittsburgh, Hershey and Lancaster (we were breaking up the drive to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort).
So for others making a brief stop I offer up a 24-hour itinerary that includes what worked well for us visiting with a kid and what could have worked better. If there’s anything you would change, let us know.
Day 1 in Gettysburg:
Here’s the thing about Gettysburg: The battlefield is remarkably well preserved and you can meticulously track the progression of the fighting that happened here. So all the talks and tours walk visitors through the three days of officers’ decisions and troop movements that led up to the Union’s crucial victory. Kids’ patience for this sort of functional detail is limited, so organize your activities with the expectation that they will get bored sooner or later. Make a point of reading, or better still hearing, the full Gettysburg address. It’s a short, stirring speech and surprisingly relevant to today’s political climate.
Start at the Visitors’ Center
All national parks tell you to start at the Visitors’ Center but in this case you really want to. A great deal of thought (and funds) obviously went into creating and organizing the exhibits at this museum. It’s the most impressive National Park center I’ve been to.
Start with the movie, narrated by Morgan Freeman, which gives you an overview of how and why the war began and the events leading up to and following the turning point at Gettysburg.
After the movie, follow the crowd upstairs to the cyclorama, a restored 360º depiction of the battle with props laid out in front of the screen to create a 3D effect. The account of the fighting that the ranger gives while highlighting parts of the screen is moving. All three of us were impressed by it.
Then there are a museum exhibits, which examine the times and the war more broadly. It’s well done with some good interactive screens (one lets you see what portion of each Southern state’s population was white, slave and free blacks, which tells you a lot about the roles the states played in the war). I was surprised to learn that only a small portion of white southerners owned slaves. It made me ponder what motivated the non-slave-owning southerners to volunteer to fight in this grim war.
Kids like stories about people and every single person and building in this small town was drawn into the Battle of Gettysburg in one way or another. So take time to explore the civilian side things at the Shriver and Jennie Wade houses, where costumed guides give tours. The director at the Shriver house explained that this family was one of wealthiest in town while the Wades were among the poorest. The contrast in the details of their homes, their day-to-day lives and how they spent the three days of fighting is worth exploring. We only got to the Shriver house but the story of the family interested Tiny Traveler enough that I wish we’d had time to see the other, too.
Anyone visiting with very small kids might consider taking time out for the Lincoln Train Museum. Walk through a turnstyle to enter and explore a collection of model trains, Lincoln’s funeral route in miniature and a recreation of the train car that carried his coffin. The civil war coincided with the rise of the railroad and trains played a large role in both Lincoln’s presidency and the war.
Time out to Eat
The Appalachian Brewing Company has a restaurant just outside of town that’s worth a visit for lunch or dinner. The pub food has some interesting twists (roasted Brussels sprouts with a Korean kick). The brewery dives into Pennsylvania’s German roots with its bock, wheat and Octoberfest styles and the more obscure Zoigl, which is worth a try in summer. If you don’t dine here you can take a break with beer and craft sodas in their outdoor beer garden.
Had it been less packed, we probably would have opted for The Pub, with its attractive room and decent bar menu, right in the center of town.
Instead we had a mixed experience at the tavern at the Farnsworth House. My game pie and pumpkin fritters, the house specialty, was really good, but Rich and Tiny Traveler shares fish ‘n’ chips that were only Okay. The service was painfully slow, but I’m pretty sure we just caught the one bad waitress. I wish the Inn would serve its pub menu in their beer garden, which is lovely and perfect with kids.
The best thing about the tavern is that it’s right across from Mr. G’s, a popular evening spot with house-made ice cream, outdoor seating and old-fashioned ring toss games.
Where to Spend the Night
Gettysburg has *plenty of three-star hotels for well under $150 a night. We chose the *1863 Inn of Gettysburg because it was right in the center of town, where you want to be on a short visit. I never stay in hotels with outdoor corridors, but you need to get through the lobby to get upstairs so I didn’t mind this time. The room was roomy and the free breakfast was standard. The pool had oddly short hours for an unattended swimming area, from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. We got to the hotel as it was closing in the evening and left before it opened the next morning, much to Tiny Traveler’s chagrin. 8:00 am to 10:00 pm would allow more guests to fit swimming around all the sightseeing people want to do while in town.
However, we discovered later in the day that TT left her beloved Kuschel Bear at the hotel. We called Inn, and the staff found him and mailed him back to us with a note about how much he missed us. So the 1863 Inn gets high customer service marks from us.
Day 2 in Gettysburg:
Drive the Gettysburg Battlefield
Yes, the kids will probably complain that they’re bored, but you can’t visit without driving at least part of the Gettysburg battlefield. Plan one or two stops along both the confederate and union sides to get their respective views of the other side.
Pause somewhere around stops 4 and 5 along Seminary Ridge (left), where the Confederates started out. Little Round Top (right) is a good place to stop on the Union side, both for its vantage point and the rocks that Tiny Travler enjoy scrambling around on. It’s hard to resist climbing atop the Pennsylvania memorial further on because it’s so big and right in the middle of things, just in front of Cemetery Ridge.
If you have the time, budget and kids who are old enough, I would do a *tour of the battlefield on horseback. It gets you to places your car won’t, the scenery is lovely and the kids will enjoy being on horses, even if they get bored with the tour.
If you would like to read up on this turning-point battle before your visit but aren’t big on military history books, try Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. It’s a character-driven narrative that I enjoyed reading. It gave me a fuller picture the logistics the rangers and signs around the battlefield explain and helped me to understand the significance of these various maneuvers and of the battle itself.
Enjoy Some Old-Fashioned Junk Food
The director at the Shriver house suggested we have lunch at Ernie’s Texas Lunch, a genuinely old lunch counter in the center of town. Two loaded “Texas wieners”, a hamburger, a side of thick onion rings, two iced teas and a root beer all added up to a smidge more than $20 with tip. And it was as tasty as it was bad for us.
On your way out of town, reward your kids for their patience at the battlefield with something fun, a detour to Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium. TT loved running around the quirky magic forest behind the shop. Admire the hundreds of elephants inside and out, sample some fudge, then splurge on a bag of assorted sweets. Sucking on Swedish fish and root beer barrels will keep your kids quiet on the ride to your next destination.
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