We just completed our epic move from Arizona to Pennsylvania and I am so happy to be here for so many reasons, but one is for my kids to grow up in a place being surrounded by so much American history and culture, like I did growing up in Massachusetts. One thing we wanted to right away with our kids was begin to see some of the historic sights with our kids and we decided to start with Gettysburg. Hopefully you know this already, but Gettysburg was the site of a major battle that was the turning point in the Civil War. It took place over three days in July of 1863. There were over 46,000 wounded soldiers and almost 8,000 dead from both sides. Pretty epic. This very important battle helped to shape the outcome of the Civil War and helped to make our country what it is today and, luckily for us, it’s only about an hour away and still looks a lot like it did on those fateful days in 1863. If you are thinking of taking your kids, here is my guide to seeing Gettysburg, PA, so you can know what to expect!
Before you go
Many travel places with kids don’t require any “pre-traveling homework” but before you head to Gettysburg I’d advise on teaching you kids a little about the battle and the Civil War itself. Obviously, depending on your kid’s ages you will want to tailor what you say, but the seriousness and historical significance of the site will be lost on a child if they have no idea why they are staring at this giant open field. I suggest reading some online and even checking out some books from your local library before you go. Cover the basics. It was a complex war with many angles and you cannot expect a child to understand them all- so many angles in fact, I took not one but two different college classes about the reasons we went to war and what the country looked like after. So choose your facts according to their ages but be sure to explain the gravity of the place and how important it is before you leave.
What to bring
Even if you pay for bus tours (see below) you will probably still do a lot of walking so I suggest putting sneakers on your kids along with comfy clothes, sunblock and hats. I have a cute Vera Bradley backpack that I use for events like this, since it’s easier to carry the things I need (like water bottles and wipes and such) but without weighing me down. If you have younger kids, I’d suggest a stroller or backpack carrier FOR SURE- unless you enjoy carrying a child the whole time. Other necessaries: water bottles, snacks, camera and paper/pens/crayons for drawing things you see!
Where we went
The very first place to stop and visit is the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitors Center. This is where the battlefield is and the museum. Once you arrive, there are many things to see and to do, lots of them for free, but I recommend paying to see the movie, Cyclorama, and the museum for sure. You can pay one price to see all three. The movie is a short film, less than ten minutes, that documents some of the events leading up to the battle. It’s kid friendly as much as it can due to the nature of the content, but made in a way that teaches some of of how and why the battle took place, My older kids aged 9 and 7 absolutely loved it but our youngest who is 5 thought it was a little scary, probably because it was loud and on a huge screen (and not animated). After the movie, you will be led into seeing the Cyclorama, which is the 1800’s version of an IMAX film. This painting made in the last 1800’s, documents the battle with some 3D objects below it so the people of the time could really feel as if they were part of the battle. It is absolutely stunning and unbelievable that this enormous 360 degree canvas still exists.
After you see the Cyclorama, you are free to explore the museum, which is a must see, in my opinion. Now, my kids did well at the beginning, but they did get “bored” after awhile, and here is where a blank diary for them to draw things and take notes on what they see would come in handy. You could even get them their own instant cameras (think like the ones you used in high school!) for them to document things that they found interesting.
There are an amazing amount of relics still around and lots to see and learn about. Be sure to read some to your kids who can’t read and explain to them what the relics mean and were used for.
Once you leave the museum, you are free to explore the Battlegrounds, which are huge! You can walk them (like we did) or take a bus tour or even a guided car tour. There are lots of options but walking is free and our kids did surprisingly well on it. There’s a free app you can even download to help show you around the fields if you are unfamiliar with the battle.
The battlefield is truly awe-inspiring. As a history buff myself, I found it absolutely honoring to be on that hallowed ground. It was a humbling experience, and I tried to explain that to my kids. We explained how the battlefield was set up, with the Union soldiers holding the high ground but running out of ammunition, and the rebels breaking through the tree line below. I asked in they could imagine this beautiful, quite field filled with men and guns and loud noises. We explained how important this place is to our history and how many men died in the shaping of our history.
There are a ton of monuments, signs and statues that show where certain groups of soldiers were and what they did. It’s set up in way that you can more easily understand the timeline of the battle and what happened where. My husband and I honestly could have stayed there all day, but, of course, our kids got hungry and eventually we headed into town to explore and eat.
Before we headed into town, we stopped at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where many of the men that died that day are buried and where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address speech. It was truly amazing to stand in the very place where President Lincoln gave that nation-inspiring speech so long ago. Luckily two of my kids knew about him so they were as excited as we were to be there.
Each state has a section of markers that show where many men were buried. Due to the time in history this took place, they are not marked by person, and that makes it even more humbling.
Before you leave the cemetery, head over into the neighboring cemetery and visit Jennie Wade’s grave. She was the only civilian to be killed during the battle, accidentally while she was cooking bread in her kitchen for the union soldiers. She is one of only two woman to have the flag flying at her grave site: her and Betsy Ross.
Once you have toured the battle ground, I recommend heading into town to visit some of the historic sites there. We drove since it was a few minutes away and found free parking pretty easily. After we ate at a historic inn and had some homemade ice cream (see below) we walked around some. All of the buildings that were there during the battle are marked with 1863 plaques and many still have hundred year old bullet holes riddled in their brick walls. Be sure to stop and see Jennie Wade’s house, where she was killed.
The back side door still had the bullet hole where the fateful bullet busted through that hit Jennie, easily visible to anyone. There is a museum there that I would have liked to see but was closed by the time we made it over there.
Down the other end of the main street is Lincoln Square (which is really a rotary) and has many historic markers along the way that show where some of the battle spilled into the streets and where President Lincoln walked when we gave his Gettysburg Address a few months later.
The David Wills house in Lincoln Square is where Lincoln stayed and actually finished his speech. There is a museum here as well.
Where we ate
While there is a McDonald’s around the corner, we wanted to eat in a historic place so we chose the Farnsworth House and Inn which is not only one of the most famous Inn’s in American history, but also one of the most haunted ones! I’d love to back for a nighttime ghost tour someday- without kids, obviously. This house is one of the ones that has a side riddled with over too bullet holes in the brick and is neat to see. Honestly, it didn’t have the most kid friendly menu, but the local Gettysburg made wines were delicious. After, we strolled across the street to Mr. G’s ice cream, which is in another history building and had some of the best Reese Cup ice cream I’ve ever eaten!! The kids loved it- and so did mom and dad.
What we saw
Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg National Museum
The Historic Battlefields
Solider’s National Cemetery
Jennie Wade’s grave site
The Jennie Wade House
David Wills House
The Farnsworth House and Inn
It’s a must, obviously, to visit all of the historic sites. I don’t think the guided tours are necessary, but maybe that’s because both my husband and I knew a lot about the battle beforehand. If you know nothing about it, you may want to spend the extra money and do that. There are many places to eat, especially around Lincoln Square, so eating at the Farnsworth House isn’t a must, but pretty neat in it’s own right- and lastly ice cream is a must, I think, if you have kids. It’s a great treat to reward them for doing such a good job earlier.
Things to avoid
Wearing uncomfortable shoes
Traveling when it’s too hot (unless you like the heat)
Visiting the museum during nap time!
None really, besides bringing something to help your kids learn about the history in their own way, like the notebook, journal or camera. This will help them to remember this important place in their own way. Also, there are no bathrooms out on the battlefield, and it’s a far walk, so be sure to take all little ones with small bladders to go potty before you head out!
Overall, we give Gettysburg a 10/10 for visiting with kids. I think my kids were at a perfect age for really soaking up the history and learning a lot. I don’t think a toddler would really enjoy it much, but that doesn’t mean they can’t come along, especially with a stroller to nap in. I think Gettysburg is an absolute must for all parents and kids to visit at some point, It’s absolutely an amazing place to be. I know I said that before, but I truly believe it. It’s really incredible.