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Gettysburg PA: A Great Family Weekend or Vacation

Updated on August 20, 2013
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Bill Watson has authored 3 books and many articles online and for print publications such as Sports Afield, Income Opportunties and more.

Explore Gettysburg With Your Family!

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is a fabulous family vacation destination because it's the site of one of the most notable battles in the American Civil War. And experiencing it in person is the only way to understand what an amazing place it is. You really need to put visiting Gettysburg on your "must see" short list.

As you might expect, the town itself is a little on the "tourist trappy" side. There are numerous restaurants to visit and plenty of stores that will hone your shopping skills to a fine edge. There are also various "to-do's" such as wax museums, ghost tours where you can presumably see the "haunted areas" of the town and other distractions. There is also a vistor's center that's well worth the price of admission.

But the battlefield itself is what drives the rest of it and by far the principle reason most people go to this tiny town. And it's as far from a tourist trap as anything can be. It's 100% free to walk, to bicycle or to drive through "auto-tour" style. If you take any time at all to savor the experience you will barely drive through it in a day.

With so many places on this earth you could take your family, why choose a small town in Pennsylvania that doesn't have a roller coaster? Why pick a place where the nearest oceanfront hotel is like 500 miles away? Let me answer with a personal note: My parents took me many places as a child. Some were tremendously fun, some left me in jaw-dropping awe.

But Gettysburg changed my life.

It did for me what years of boring elementary and high school classes failed miserably at, igniting a tiny spark- a love for history- that fanned over time into a steady flame. My lifelong pursuit of historical knowledge and exploration is firmly rooted in a fantastic gift from my parents: a simple trip to Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg National Battlefield features over 1,000 monuments!

The Gettysburg National Battlefield features over 1,000 monuments!
The Gettysburg National Battlefield features over 1,000 monuments!

Don't Worry, Your Children WILL Have Fun!

History in general has a bad rap. The way it's presented in school is so boring, it's no wonder students feel they've barely escaped class without turning to stone!

On a recent return trip, my kids, and judging by the children of other families I observed at the battlefield stops, all kids, thoroughly enjoy Gettysburg! Just let them explore a bit on their own, take it at their own pace, explain a little of what happened at each stop, and they'll not only enjoy, they'll "get it!"

The tower in the photo is one of three battlefield observation towers and it is "scary high" for anyone with the slighest bit of acrophobia. Small children, adults and teenagers all have a blast climbing the towers. There are also two "castle" monuments with steps that can be climbed to the top. When we visited, the huge boulders and rock formations on Little Round Top were full of kids and adults climbing, exploring and picking up a little history in the process.

If there is any such thing on the planet, Gettysburg is hallowed ground. And I believe standing on it, contemplating what happened there elevates people's thoughts to a higher place, to a more reverent position. Eavesdropping on conversations I noticed that there was almost no small talk. Both children and adults were discussing what they were seeing, kids were asking questions, not about Facebook or iPods, but about the battle.

When the three-part trip was over, which included spending some holiday time with relatives, a multiple-day stay at Gettysburg. and a visit to a drive-thru/walk-thru animal safari, my youngest daughter rated all three portions as equally fun. The entire family indicated they thoroughly enjoyed it and would love to return soon.


See where President Lincoln Delivered The Gettysburg Address!

The Gettysburg National Military Park is the only place on earth you can walk the grounds Lincoln walked just prior to delivering the speech that altered world history.

The mere 272 words he delivered were "little noted" then. In fact, many critics of the time blasted it as far too short, inadequate and a poor excuse for a proper dedication.

But today most historians consider it to be an incredible piece of writing and the greatest speech ever written.

Did you know?

70 year old Gettysburg resident, John L.Burns, heard the battle begin, grabbed his flintlock rifle, and jumped right in on the Union side. He was the oldest soldier to fight in the Civil War. Already fairly old for the 1800's he lived an additional 7 years after the battle!

Perhaps check out this movie before you travel!

You can do an instant download of it at Amazon for next to nothing. It's a movie well worth watching simply as entertainment, but if you're going to travel to Gettysburg for your family vacation, it will help set the stage, put everyone in the proper frame of mind and help bring the battlefield to life. Yes, it has battle scenes that may not be appropriate for very young children, but they are tastefully done with gore and blood being kept to the absolute minimum.

Here you will see Union Colonel Josh Chamberlain, commanding the 20th Maine as they heroically defend the high ground on Little Round Top from wave after wave of Confederate troops attempting to outflank the Union position. The 20th held the extreme southern end of a long Union line that extended for miles. Had the 20th failed, not only would the Union likely have been defeated at Gettysburg, it's possible the entire war would have been lost.

Chamberlain realized this was a "hold at any cost" situation.

When his men began to run out of ammunition, no doubt expecting to be given permission to retreat, Chamberlain instead ordered, "Fix bayonets!" then, "Charge!" The ferocious frontal assault, with the 20th sweeping down the hill as if on a hinge, succeeded, and the attacking Confederates were finally defeated.

When you visit the battlefield and visit Little Round Top, there are markers that show exactly where the right and left side of the 20th Main's positions were! You'll stand on the very ground the 20th Maine fought to hold!

One of Over 400 Cannons on the Battlefield. Boom!

One of Over 400 Cannons on the Battlefield. Boom!
One of Over 400 Cannons on the Battlefield. Boom!

The Gettysburg Diorama

Your family vacation won't be complete without seeing it!

The Battle of Gettysburg was a three day event pitting the confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee against Union troops commanded by George G. Meade. Lee, fresh from two previous battles he had won against the Union had marched his troops north into Pennsylvania hoping that a victory would force a political end to the war. It was a major battle with a lot of drama and complexity that is difficult to comprehend simply by viewing maps or by touring the battlefield.

The Gettysburg Diorama is a replica of the battlefield area in HO scale, and is the largest military diorama in the United States. It's impressive to view but I recommend it because the narrated show that accompanies the viewing is the best method I've witnessed of obtaining clarity on exactly how the battle unfolded.

The Gettysburg Diorama

241 Steinwehr Ave.

Gettysburg, PA 17325


Devil's Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. Cemetary Ridge, The Wheatfield, Pickett's Charge... you're about to see places indelibly etched into our nation's collective memory! Once you've checked into your hotel you'll probably want your first stop to be the visitor's center at the battlefield. There are fees to see the majority of it but if museums aren't your bag or you don't want to spend the dough you can also pick up a free map there that shows the battlefield complete with the auto-tour stops.

The free map will get you by but it's a little confusing and you'll almost surely get lost a few times. Many of the streets on the map are either not shown, or shown but not named.

For a better experience, and considering the cost of the trip as a whole, you might want to invest just a few dollars on a proper guidebook. Some even include audio which will greatly enhance the experience, almost like having your own live tour guide.

Spark Your Child's Interest Before You Go!

The Safari products are designed to stimulate a child's imagination. A few weeks of playing with these toy Civil War soldiers accompanied by parent's gentle reminders about the upcoming trip and what to expect? That's a recipe for whetting the appetite of a young child.

They'll be on the edge of their seats and won't be able to get to Gettysburg fast enough!

Maybe There ARE Ghosts in Gettysburg!

Maybe There ARE Ghosts in Gettysburg!
Maybe There ARE Ghosts in Gettysburg!

Did you enjoy it? Did your children like it? How long of a stay do you recommend? What was your favorite area of the battlefield? What was your favorite location to visit? Best restaurant? A good hotel or motel you can recommend?

Please help out those thinking about visiting!

Have You Visited Gettysburg? - Please give us your impression of your trip here!

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    • BarbRad profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      6 years ago from Templeton, CA

      You did a great job in describing this awesome place to visit. I have been there three times. The first time I had dropped my husband off at a conference in Maryland and had the day with the rental car to explore from 8-5. I first went to Harper's Ferry, another awesome place. It was afternoon before I got to Gettysburg and I was captivated. I saw a living history presentation at Meade's Headquarters. It was the last day of our trip and my husband is a Civil War student. I knew he had to see this. So I barely made it back to Maryland to pick him up and then we drove to Gettysburg. We had dinner in town, and you're right about that, too. A totally different atmosphere than the Battlefield. We stayed until it got dark and then went back to our hotel. I can't even remember where that was.

      The second time I was there, our kids were with us. As you said, they also loved it. This time we saw an old farm and both my kids enjoyed that part with the animals most. I was disappointed they couldn't see the enactment I'd seen on my first trip, but things change from year to year.

      The third time I was there I was on a business trip to Harrisburg and I took my employees to Gettysburg, since my nephew was among them and I didn't want him to miss the opportunity. He was 13. Unfortunately, my husband wasn't there to explain things, and I just dropped the man and boys off to explore the history park while I visited some vendors. The best part that time for me was discovering a quiet motel off the beaten track. The rooms were somewhat dark, but the yard was like a park. I would go back.

    • Writingmystory1 profile image


      6 years ago

      Awesome! Awesome article! The passion you have for Gettysburg is so evident in your writing that if I'd never been there before, the passion in this article alone would make me want to go! And since I have been there I'll say it was one of the best places I've been. I only got to spend two days there but I would love to go back and be able to spend at least a week! My favorite stop there I think would have to be Little Round Top, and I'm very glad I watched the movie, Gettysburg that you mentioned above before I went. It's really an awesome place I think anyone should visit at least once in their lifetime! Although if you are impressed as I was I don't think just once in your lifetime could ever be enough!


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