Date of Trip: July 2006
After growing up in Maryland, I have spent the last few years living in the suburbs of Philly — and I now consider the City of Brotherly Love to be my adopted home city. This trip report encompasses a few of my favorite places both in and around the city, based on visits over the past six years or so. I don’t pretend that this is a comprehensive list of anything and everything you can see (buy a guidebook!), but these are my faves!
The granddaddy of Philly’s museums is, of course, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s an awesome building at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with a big old neo-Classical facade complete with columns and lots of steps! (Rocky I am not — I always walk, not run, up the steps.) Inside the museum is pretty huge — you can’t really see it in one visit unless you have a lot of endurance. I have a few favorite spots inside, including the Asian wing with its life-size replica tea house, and the medieval cloister located among the older European art.
Go to the PMA on a Sunday and you can “pay what you wish” — though this means Sundays can be pretty crowded. (And special exhibits like the Wyeth, which is running now, are still $20 or whatever the fee is, even on Sundays.)
Right near the PMA is the Rodin Museum (I believe if you pay to get into the PMA, your admission will get you into the Rodin). It’s pretty small, usually quiet, and definitely worth a stop if you’re at all interested in Rodin’s work.
It’s generally overshadowed by the PMA, but the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts is also a fine museum, located right in Center City. The building itself is beautiful inside architecturally, and its (mostly European, I think) collection is a great size — not too overwhelming, but not so small you feel gypped out of the admission fee. Definitely worth a stop if you’re not feeling art-ed out!
Obviously I’m an art fan, but Philly has a bunch of non-art museums that are fabulous, including two science museums: the Franklin Institute and the Natural Academy of Science. The National Constitution Center is supposedly good for history buffs, though I’ve never been there myself.
One last museum I definitely want to recommend though is the National Liberty Museum, which is right near Independence Hall and all the attractions of Old City. I think this is a largely overlooked museum but it’s great — it has exhibits on liberty (in all its many meanings) throughout the world, from religious freedom to people working for peace around the globe to a very moving display on 9/11. Interspersed with all the information and photos are lovely works of blown glass. Highly recommended.
Other Philly Area Attractions
Man does not live on museums alone, so here are a few of my favorite attractions in the Philly area. The first one is right across the river from Philly in Camden, New Jersey (take the RiverLink ferry to get there from Penn’s Landing, or just drive over the Ben Franklin Bridge). The Adventure Aquarium was renovated a couple of years ago and is looking great — it’s not just for kids! (Be warned that you will be surrounded by small fry on all sides, of course.) I liked the hippos and the sharks (there’s a little glass tunnel where you’re totally surrounded by the tank, so sharks drift by you on all sides — really cool).
Another underappreciated attraction is the Eastern State Penitentiary, an eerie place a few blocks north of the PMA and the other Parkway museums. It’s got these long wings of cells where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement all day every day, which was supposed to force them to be “penitent” about whatever crimes they’d committed. The place is no longer in use, so your steps echo as you walk around the empty cell blocks — a very haunting place.
If possible, while you’re in Philly you should check out a baseball game at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies’ new stadium. It’s a fun place modeled after stadiums of old. The Phillies aren’t usually very good, sadly, but it’s fun to root for the home team anyway!
Finally, get out of town and visit Longwood Gardens in the Brandywine Valley. There are acres and acres of gorgeous gardens and forests, plus a number of greenhouses where there’s always something blooming. The most popular gardens have these huge fountains (and in fact Longwood does “fountain and fireworks” shows throughout the summer). This place is amazing — if you take a day trip from Philly, make it to Longwood.
I’ve only stayed overnight in Philly a couple of times since I live so close, but I loved my stay at the Sofitel (near Rittenhouse Square). The bed was so soft and the room was pretty, even if it overlooked a beautiful view of … another building. Ah well.
I also stayed at the Hyatt on Penn’s Landing, which had a nicer view (you look out over the river or at the Philly skyline) but was as bland as you might expect a chain hotel to be.
My traveling companion and I don’t eat out much at all (too cheap!), but we splurged once on dinner at Tangerine, in Old City, and were totally blown away. The food there is a combo of Moroccan and Mediterranean, and the atmosphere is fabulous and exotic, with flickering candles everywhere. Love!
Our other recent splurge, at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, was not quite as satisfying. We discovered that those fancy French places with the teaspoon-sized servings aren’t for us. The food (what there was of it) was good, so folks with fancier tastes than ours would likely be quite pleased.
Like any city, Philly has a lot of cool neighborhoods (and, of course, some that you’d be better off avoiding — North Broad, anyone?). My favorites for strolling include Society Hill and Old City, both on the eastern side of town near the river. Society Hill is historic and residential, with cobblestone streets and centuries-old rowhouses. Old City has a bit more going on, with lots of restaurants, galleries and boutiques mixed in with the historic buildings. Nearby is Elfreth’s Alley, supposedly America’s oldest continuously residential street. (That means that people still live there, so respect their houses as you visit.)
One other great neighborhood for strolling is the area around Rittenhouse Square — again, it’s pretty and residential, though the houses there are newer than in Society Hill. This is probably one of the richest neighborhoods in the city.
A Note on Transportation
Philly is the fifth-largest city in the country. So why does it have such lousy public transportation? There’s a subway system that a) feels unsafe and b) doesn’t go to all that many places, and the regional rail system is at best just okay. Never taken the public buses, so I won’t disparage them. Tourists might be better off using the Philly PHLASH buses (purple vehicles that pick up and drop off at the major tourist hot spots) — they’re pretty cheap. And it’s pretty easy to walk a lot of places in Philly, though it’s quite a hike to get between the Parkway museums and the historic districts. Here’s a tip — the regional rail lines, no matter which suburb they’re headed to, always stop in three main stations in center city: 30th Street, Suburban and Market East. You can travel east or west among these three stops for free, since the staffers on the trains don’t start looking at tickets till after. This is a quick way to get from one side of the city to the other!