Top Experiences in Philadelphia
Let History Entertain You
Exciting, outside-the-textbook presentations of our nation's history abound in Philadelphia, and can be a great way to get kids and history-phobes to enjoy learning about the past. The National Constitution Center presents a fun, multimedia experience that explains the evolution and importance of the Constitution. See the show Freedom Rising, performed by an actor against a backdrop of music, video, lighting effects, and dramatic voiceovers. Then mingle with the Founding Fathers in Signers' Hall; the life-size bronze statues of the Constitution's signers show how George Washington literally towered over his peers. Visit the Once Upon a Nation storytellers' benches to hear history from the mouths of those who experienced it. Check out the Lights of Liberty Show at the Historic Philadelphia Center starring Benjamin Franklin, which tells the story of the American Revolution in 3-D. Two new attractions on the mall—the National Museum of American Jewish History and the President's House, a memorial to enslaved Africans in Colonial America—add valuable perspectives to the nation's story.
Get a Chill
At the Mütter Museum, a macabre collection of medical abnormalities, like conjoined twins, celebrity body parts, and a massive human colon, are on display. The Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison to try placing inmates in their own individual cells, was once home to Al Capone and Willie Sutton. Today it's a bone-chilling museum that often doubles as a venue for art installations and exhibits. Centuries-old Laurel Hill Cemetery has a beautiful view of the city and river, and is the final resting place of many of Philadelphia's fascinating early residents.
Visit an Offbeat Museum or Two
The Barnes Foundation has a collection of impressionist and postimpressionist art gathered by eccentric Albert C. Barnes. Paintings by such luminaries as Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne hang alongside African sculpture and pieces of American ironwork. The whole shebang moved to Center City, just a stone's throw from the elegant and often overlooked Rodin Museum, from its original site on the Main Line. The small galleries and lovely garden of the Rodin Museum display the best collection of the sculptor's work outside Paris. On the other side of the city, the Mummer Museum explores the history and significance of that quirky tradition that has beefy Italian men dressing up like drag queens and parading down Broad Street every New Year's Day.
Like most old cities on the East Coast, Philly is meant to be walked. Center City is tiny—about 2½ mi by 2 mi, from river to river and from South Street to Fairmont Avenue. Try walking from the Schuylkill to the Delaware in a day, swerving from neighborhood to neighborhood. You can hit Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square, Society Hill, Old City, and Queen Village (also called Southwark). Let yourself get lost among the tiniest streets. Hunt for hidden alleyways, courtyards, and gardens.
Weigh In on the Cheesesteak Face-off
Different flavor-of-the-month restaurants will always claim to have come up with the tastiest new cheesesteak in town, but the original face-off is ongoing at 9th and Passyunk in South Philadelphia, where Pat's and Geno's occupy separate corners. Pat's invented the cheesesteak. Geno's says it perfected the iconic Philly sandwich. While both serve up equally heaping portions of sliced rib-eye steak, grilled onions, and melted cheese on freshly baked bread, the lines of regulars out front have strong opinions about which is best.
Tour This Old House
Philadelphia's house museums tend to get lost in the shuffle, but there's no better way to soak up history than to see how people really lived. In Society Hill, check out Powell House, a 1765 Georgian Mansion, and Physick House, a Federal-style home built in 1768 and named after Dr. Physick, the doctor who invented carbonated soda. Elfreth's Alley in Old City is the longest continually residential street in America; one home has been turned into a museum, but if you're lucky you might catch one of the twice-yearly tours when residents open their homes to the public. Germantown, 6 mi north of Center City, has some real jewels in Cliveden, Upsala, the Deshler-Morris House, and the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion. The town's history as an upscale retreat-turned–Revolutionary battleground makes for a rich, multilayered past. A reenactment of the Battle of Germantown happens here the first Saturday of October.
Enter a Secret Garden
Philadelphia's positively bursting with hidden gardens if you know where to find them: Bartram's Garden, home to John Bartram, the country's first botanist, is a short drive south of the city and has an extensive Colonial garden that slopes up from a riverbank. In Fairmount Park, the Japanese House boasts hundreds of cherry trees that bloom in spring and a traditional Japanese-style garden that's pleasing year-round. The 166-acre Morris Arboretum just outside the city has romantic winding paths, a fernery, a rose garden, and meadows. The Magic Garden on South Street is a garden of another kind—a still-growing garden of mosaics using mostly found objects. And in Society Hill and the historic area, small pocket gardens abound, like the tidy formal variety at 4th and Walnut, adjacent to Dolley Madison's former home.
See the City through its Murals
With more than 2,800 murals spread throughout the city, Philadelphia beats out every other metropolis in number of murals per capita. This is thanks to the Mural Arts Program, which began as an anti-graffiti endeavor in the 1980s and evolved into a program that matches professional artists with residents to revitalize neighborhoods, beat blight, and provide an opportunity for young people to explore this means of self-expression. You can take a two-hour guided tour of the murals in an open-air trolley—a different section of the city is featured each week. Go to muralarts.org for information and to buy tour tickets.
Eat at a BYOB
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's complicated laws and fees, which make procuring a liquor license an expensive prospect, have spawned more than 200 BYOB (bring-your-own-bottle) restaurants. Natives know that the BYOBs, where the food and atmosphere are more flavorful and the bill is easier to digest, are hidden jewels. Some favorites include Pumpkin, Dmitri's, Lolita (bring your own tequila for homemade margaritas), and Modo Mio. In Philadelphia wine is sold only at state-owned Pennsylvania Wine and Spirit Stores.
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