A Walk Through Historical Philadelphia Provides Colorful Surprises

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Truth be told, I hadn’t been to Philadelphia in probably 30+ years before making a stop there on our way south this summer. It could have even been a school trip since I don’t count train changes from NYC to DC in a snow storm for business in my twenties. The technology industry never seemed to bring me there and even though I had an ex-boyfriend from Pennsylvania, we never managed to go for one reason or another.

I wanted a stop over on our way to Baltimore from JFK and so Philly it was. After all, I’m a huge lover of history, the architecture in Northeastern cities and frankly, every time I’ve met someone from Philly or Pittsburgh over the years, we’ve hit it off.  There’s something about their dry and yet edgy sense of humor that is ALMOST New York but with a humble and down-to-earth quality that has always resonated with me.

As always, the first thing I wanted to do was meander around the city by foot except chaos in Queens resulted in us arriving four hours late — luckily, the fabulous Lacroix Restaurant moved our reservation, keeping the kitchen open later so we could sample their greatest and latest. If you’re a serious foodie and lean towards European style old world wines, put it on your list and be sure to read my write-up on this delicious gem where Executive Chef Jonathan Cichon performs culinary magic.  Even with my over-the-top restricted high protein diet, the kitchen accommodated.

There was much to catch up the next day as Philly’s bridges, museums, attractions and historical buildings were waiting. Despite the fact that the city is somewhat spread out and doesn’t have the convenient subway system NYC does, it’s worth exploring on foot if the weather is decent. In our case, it was over 90 degrees and humid but we put rubber to the pavement regardless.

Street Art & Impressive Art Museums 

One of the things you’ll notice in various parts of the city are the abundance of murals. It’s not Central America or London, but there’s plenty of street art to be found. For the more conventional among you, the James A. Michener Art Museum is also nearby, housed in a former Bucks County Jail. It displays the largest public collection of Pennsylvania impressionism and furniture pieces by famous woodworker George Nakashima.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is also in Philly as is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which we breezed through due to lack of time. Their collection spans 2,000 years of artistic achievement, so depending on how much time you have, you can go there first and then walk down the street to the Rodin Museum, which is also on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Not all of you may know who Rodin was, but I was exposed to him again and again in my early twenties when I lived in Amsterdam Holland and had an unlimited pass to art museums in the Netherlands, and reduced fee passes to art museums in the rest of Europe. Let’s just say that I spent a significant amount of time gazing at works of famous art for a few years.

This celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin will blow you away even if you didn’t think you could ever be moved by sculpture. The museum houses one of the largest collections of Rodin sculptures and drawings outside of Paris, including The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, Eternal Springtime and the Gates of  Hell.

Photo credit: Rodin Museum website. www.rodinmuseum.org.

Since we didn’t have enough time on our schedule, we had to take a pass at the Brandwine River Museum of Art, which is located in an historical gristmill with glass-walled lobbies overlooking the bucolic Brandywine River. We did however spend a few hours at the Barnes Foundation (the outside fountain was so serene we wished we had a picnic basket). There’s also a grassy area lined with trees where people were sitting to retreat from the heat of a hot August afternoon.

Even if you’re not into art museums, you can’t help but be impressed by the Barnes Foundation collection — it boasts 181 Renoirs (more than any other collection), 69 Cezannes (I love Cezanne…..and this is apparently more than all of France — who knew?) and groundbreaking African art. Their 3,000 piece collection focuses on French impressionist, post-impressionist, American and African art and sculpture. You’ll also find works by Henri Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani, Henri Rousseau and Chaim Soutine. A nice twist was their inclusion of African sculpture, Pennsylvania German furniture, Native American ceramics, jewelry and textiles, American antiquities from the Mediterranean and Asia and wrought iron objects from Europe and the states.

Historical Architecture

Since I’m a fan of architecture, there was plenty to take in regardless of what part of the city you happened to be roaming through. OH so East Coast urban style and oh so lovely! I only wished we had more time.

We got lost a few times and I think I lost count how many times we crossed the bridge below which isn’t as much fun as it sounds when it’s 95 degrees and humid. Getting lost always allows you to meet a local however and we met several trying to find our way back to the hotel.

Museums & Historical Attractions

If you have enough time, art museums aren’t the only thing to take in within Philly’s borders.  A few worth mentioning for your bucket list include:

  • The African American Museum on Arch Street: life-size characters speak about their lives, beliefs and aspirations in 18th and 19th century Philadelphia.
  • Benjamin Franklin Museum on Market Street: its newly reopened and is located in Franklin Court, which is now a highlight of Independence National Historical Park.
  • Fonthill Castle in Doylestown: here, you discover the work and life of Henry Chapman Mercer.
  • Mercer Museum, also in Doylestown: see above. More than 60 early American crafts and trades come to life through 40,000 tools in this towering 1916 castle.
  • Mummer’s Museum on 2nd Street: you got it, it’s all about mummery and footage from New Year’s Day in Philadelphia.
  • National Museum of American Jewish History on South Independence Mall East: this massive 100,000 square-foot building is near the Liberty Bell, and recaps 350 years of history of Jews in America.
  • Penn Museum on South Street: This museum features art and artifacts from around the globe including ancient Egyptian mummies.
  • National Liberty Museum on Chestnut Street: this is a must for history buffs — eight galleries feature 2,000 heroes of liberty and freedom.
  • Betsy Ross House on Arch Street: for non-Americans, she was credited as sewing the first American flag at the request of George Washington.
  • Independence Hall on 5th Street: this is a great place to feel the pulse of early American history.
  • Liberty Bell: see above. It used to be outside when I first saw it as a child, but it now sits inside to stay protected. If you love history, then this is also a must.
  • Philadelphia Zoo on W. Girard Avenue: if you have kids in tow or are an animal lover, why not head to the zoo? They have more than 1,300 animals, many of which are apparently rare and endangered.

Rittenhouse Square

We stayed at the Rittenhouse Hotel (strong recommend – the spa is amazing), which faces the infamous Rittenhouse Square. This is a fabulous place just to hang out, people watch and even have a picnic. Frankly, I wished I had time to read a book under a tree. In this area, you’ll find high-end stores, locally owned boutiques, small galleries, theaters and entertainment, cafes, wine bars and restaurants. The one-square-block park is also home to festivals, farmer’s markets and fairs throughout the year.

There are other outdoor spaces as well including Dilworth Park, Fitler Square, John F. Collins Park, Schuylkill River Banks and Trail and Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk.

 Foodie Delight

There are plenty of other options in town for fun and casual fare as well as cocktails and drinks. A few for your list although you can find more recommendations over on visitphilly.com.

  • Byblos Restaurant & Hookah Bar: think Mediterranean cuisine, cocktails, world beats and tableside hookahs.
  • a.bar: swanky and chic, also in Rittenhouse Square, they have lunch and dinner, oysters and charcuterie. A fun hip place to hang out before or after a dinner as well.
  • Butcher and Singer: a steakhouse with sides a la carte. Dessert lovers will appreciate their Baked Alaska and cheesecake.
  • Art Bar: as a lover of artsy establishements, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Art Bar, which has a stylish interior thanks to an art program curated by the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.
  • D’Angelos Ristorante Italiano: we were staying away from carbs this trip otherwise, I would have loved to try this romantic old world Italian spot, which boasts family recipes. Two locals also told me about it.
  • Estia: upscale Greek that also has live music on Friday and Saturday nights. (Greek music that is).
  • Le Cheri: for those who don’t care about calorie intake and just want a fabulous French meal – they do have lighter options such as steak tartare however. Elegant and exquisite.
  • Liberte: more French influence in the Sofitel Hotel lobby. Chic and fun, with great cocktails.
  • Lacroix – I mentioned Lacrois earlier where we ate the first night we arrived (3 thumbs up). The wine list is extensive, so much so that your head will spin – rarely do you get such a large European-centric wine list (where were all the Napa Valley wines I thought?). The food and service is fabulous.
  • Oyster House: hey, I’m a fan of oysters, so can’t leave this one out. Oysters galore and seafood of course, continued in family tradition.
  • The Prime Rib: if you want to get decked out, this is your spot. Men must wear jackets and so it’s a great excuse for women to put on that fabulous cocktail dress. They serve fabulous Manhattans apparently though we obviously didn’t have a chance to try one.
  • R2L: this one is worth mentioning for the views that span 40 miles. It’s a Daniel Stern bar and restaurant 500 feet above Center City.
  • Monk’s Cafe: a great place for beer lovers, craft beer that is. Go there for a fabulous craft pour, burgers, mussels and frites.
  • Tavern 17: located inside the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, think small fun bar plates like short rib quesadilla and truffle-scented deviled eggs. Yum!
  • Tria: this looked like fun since they specialize in wine, cheese and beer — there’s also a taproom edition which also looks like a boat loada fun.
  • Zama: I had to include a sushi option for you, located on 19th Street and headed up by Chef Hiroyuki “Zama” hence the name.
  • Giwa: more casual is this Korean tacos and bibimbop (rice bowl) joint.
  • Miel Patisserie: go here for gourmet desserts and elegant sweets – ouch! They also have artisan chocolates to tempt you before you leave.
  • Metropolitan Bakery: this is apparently a Philadelphia institution (who knew?) and they’re known for their breads, scones and sweets. They also have artisan cheeses and produce I’m told.
  • Ashton Cigar Bar: they have 200 varieties of cigars, 200 whiskies, 300 spirits and 50 wines, based on Walnut Street.
  • COOK: we thought this looked interesting as it’s a little different. This is a collaborative kitchen-classroom that only takes 16 guests per class. It’s upscale and you learn from the best chefs and afterwards, you EAT the rewards. Oh JOY! It’s based on South 20th Street.

Entertainment & Nightlife

We didn’t have time for it on this trip, but there are theaters, a dueling piano bar called Howl at the Moon (gotta love the name), the Helium Comedy Club where you can see stand-up comedians, a Roxy Theater and the Chris Jazz Cafe, where you can see live performances every night except for Sunday.

Read my write-up on the Rittenhouse Hotel,  the fabulous Rittenhouse Club & Spa, where I had an out-of-this-world facial and the Rittenhouse Hotel in the heart of Rittenhouse Square.

Photo credit from YouTube with no other information on source.

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