For an L.A. girl, Philadelphia beckons with the charms of time – stratums of culture, history, beauty – that result in a city pulsating with energy. Sure, sunshine, palm trees and sandy beaches sparkle on the surface, but the City of Brotherly Love, enriched by centuries, fascinates in a way newer American cities cannot compete with. With the Democratic National Convention coming in July, this 17th century town is about to explode.
With 18 national parks to its name, both of the traditional, green variety and the “something-important-happened-here” variety, Pennsylvania seduces travelers with both nature and history. Philly boasts four of these remarkable sites, the most astonishing being Independence National Historical Park.
When you hail from California, the opportunity to stroll by the building where the Constitution was signed, let’s say on your way to meet a friend for lunch, or grab a black & tan at La Colombe Coffee Roasters, never presents itself. A distracted, over the shoulder glance at the Liberty Bell while arguing with your husband, never occurs.For residents, these monuments to freedom and democracy sit as a backdrop to their daily lives. This may be an obvious point, but it simply took my breath away to see The Assembly Room, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and The Governor’s Council Chamber, where fugitive slave trials were held. Extremely well preserved and recreated, the rooms inside Independence Hall exude life. It feels as if all the bewigged gentlemen of old have just stepped out for a cigar and will be back momentarily, their quills at the ready.
Another delicious slice of time can be found just outside the city at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Famous for housing the ill-equipped troops of General George Washington during a long winter in the midst of the Revolutionary War, Valley Forge now encompasses 3,500 acres, making it easy to picture what it was like over two hundred years ago. The park rangers do a terrific job of giving chatty, informational tours that will leave you wanting more.
Valley Forge also presents numerous interactive opportunities that are worth seeking out. Bring your kids and have them “enlist” in the Continental Army. Come on December 19th and join the Annual March In of the Continental Army Commemoration by candlelight – meet George Washington, sing carols and drink artisanal hot chocolate around a fire. The well thought out activities make the stories come alive. Oh yeah, and it’s simply beautiful.
After soaking up all that trivia, nothing refreshes a girl more than a sumptuous wine and cheese platter. Talulah’s Garden, in Washington Square, focuses on organic, sustainable ingredients, assembling a cheese plate that makes you just as proud to be an American as Benjamin Franklin does. Come to think of it, the wine can make you proud as well (Cheers Oregon, New Mexico and, of course, Sunny Cal). With delectable choices from multiple regions of the country, as well as nearby farms, it’s difficult to choose. Try the Artisan American Collection and feast on a Doe Run Farm cow’s milk variety, A Von Trapp Farmstead “Oma” and four others that promise to tickle your palate. House made crackers, sugared nuts and jam round out the plate. Artisan salami is an excellent addition as well. And there you can stop, if you must.
But really, you’re on vacation, so why not indulge a little? It’s practically un-American not to. Try the crispy-skinned salmon with mustard seed-malt vinaigrette, or the New England scallops & squid with wild nettle-lemon risotto. Don’t skimp on the sides; the white corn grits with whipped spring onion butter and sea salt might just make you happy enough to break into song. “America the Beautiful,” anyone?Another terrific option for food is the Reading Terminal Market. Like a Matryoshka doll of delights, the market keeps surprising you with way more than seems possible – from smoothies to Philly cheesesteaks to pizza. Stop at Miller’s Twist for Amish-style pretzels, buttery and soft. Try the plain or cinnamon or even hot dog-stuffed – these treats are a game-changer, pretzel-wise. Or visit Smucker’s Quality Meats and Grill for honest-to-goodness Pennsylvania Dutch products. The sandwiches are terrific and the hot dogs are a mere buck fifty. The gentlemen wear suspenders and the ladies bonnets–no, not in a kitschy way, but in all sincerity. Mennonites abound here.
For sweets at Reading Terminal Market, visit Beiler’s Donuts – the line may be long but you’ll need that time to choose from the dozens of options. There are numerous other items to buy for yourself and those at home you deem worthy of souvenirs. Candy, chocolate, jam and candles are just a few of the homemade goods meant to dazzle you into supplication. Give in! We’ve already established your bonafides! You’re on vacation!
Another way Philadelphia flaunts its centuries of civilization is through its cultural institutions. The museums alone rival much bigger cities. The Rodin museum holds more of the artist’s sculptures than any museum outside of Paris, and the collection includes the iconic Gates of Hell and The Thinker. The Philadelphia Musuem of Art showcases a multitude of art spanning centuries, from El Greco to presidential china to Diego Riviera.
The most interesting museum in the city, to me at least, is the Barnes. A collection of 300 works amassed by the quirky Dr. Barnes. The sheer quantities of Renoir alone will take your breath away. But the true genius of the works comes through in the unusual way they are displayed. Barnes had his own very particular theories about grouping the works together, frequently involving furniture, candlesticks, keys and pottery (made by his son no less). He focused on line, color space and light, at least that’s what our most charming tour guide, Sheldon, informed us. A tour of the Barnes illuminates the experience of Art in a most memorable and unconventional way.
Where to stay for your sojourn? There are numerous options, of course. I lay my head at the spruced up Loew’s. Ensconced in a repurposed bank building, the Loew’s presents a certain grandeur perfect for Philadelphia. The sheets are soft, the robes cozy and the pool is a dream. The restaurant downstairs, Bank & Bourbon, serves up a delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner, and The Lounge was hopping at all hours, a perfect place to have a drink and a snack.
All in all, the only complaint I can lodge against my time in the City of Brotherly Love is that there is too much to do! My short trip exposed my naiveté in imagining I could take in most of the sites. Art, history and food all called out to me for further inquiry. Oh well, I’ll just have to return soon. I am definitely in a Philadelphia State of Mind.
For more information see: Visitphilly.com – Official Visitor And Tourism Website For Visit Philadelphia