Mention Philadelphia, and most people seem to think of two things: Philly steaks and history.
Regarding the latter, there are so many well-known places and items, including the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and many more. However, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection has much more to offer, as this writer discovered during a recent visitincluding historical spots that may not be as familiar.
Highs and Loews
During my visit, I stayed in the Loews Philadelphia Hotel ( 1200 Market St.; www.loewshotels.com/philadelphia-hotel )which offers several contrasts to the Loews in Chicago. As sunny as the one in the Windy City seems to be, the Loews Philadelphia ( at least the lobby area ) might seem darker and almost sterileand there's actually a good reason for that: This is the financial institution known as the PSFS Building, and it is considered the country's first modern skyscraper. ( Ties to the building's past are reflected in everything from the bank vault door to the Bank & Bourbon restaurant. )
However, being at this Loews provides infinitely more advantages than potential setbacks. The rooms are spacious, the views are breathtaking and the location is centralwhich means almost immediate access to so many spots.
Getting aroundand a special tour
When traveling to a large or even mid-size city, one of the best ways to find out where to visit is to take a tourand The Big Bus Company and Philadelphia Trolley Tours ( 5th and Market streets; PhillyTour.com ) provide the ideal, um, vehicle to do so.
The trolleys and buses offer 27 stops, and people can hop on and off at any of them throughout the dayall the time with guides providing loads of information about the neighborhoods, buildings and thoroughfares ( e.g. Elfreth's Alley, the nation's oldest continuously inhabited residential street ) they're going through ( although, sadly, my trolley guide didn't mention the LGBT neighborhood when we were there ). Whether it's the Rodin Museum, City Hall/LOVE Park, the Academy of Music, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Chinatown ( Philadelphia's being the third-largest in the nation ), the Museum of American Jewish History or other stops, this is a really convenient way to travel.
However, I was treated to a special tour. When they found out I was writing about this trip for a publication, Ray Nardi and Marcellus McDowell took me on a trip through the mural-laden neighborhood of Mantua. McDowell said the working-class, African-American area has undergone extensive changes, and there are murals dedicated to local and national heroes, including singer Patti LaBelle, community organizer Herman Wrice and HIV/AIDS activist Tim Spencer. It was a visit I won't soon forget.
Getting close to nature and art
Before the emotional visit to Mantua, however, I expanded my understanding of science and art.
The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia ( 19 S. 22nd St.; MutterMuseum.org ) presents medical history in a 19th-century "cabinet museum" setting. Among the features are a specimen from John Wilkes Booth's vertebra; the "Soap Lady," who has to be seen to be believed; Albert Einstein's brain; skeletons of extremely tall and short people; and the world's largest colon. ( Yes, you read that correctly. ) It's a fascinating visit ( with intriguing gift-shop items ), but be warned: Photos are not allowed of the exhibits.
With my love of animals, it made sense to visit the renowned Philadelphia Zoo ( 3400 W. Grand Ave.; PhiladelphiaZoo.org ).The zoo ( touted as the first in the nation ) is home to nearly 1,300 animalsmany rare and endangeredand greets more than 1.2 million annual visitors ( and there seemed to be 30,000 kids there when I visited ). Whether it's an aardvark, golden frog, Galapagos tortoise, sloth, bald eagle, beaded lizard or red panda, there's a creature that will intrigue.
However, I also wanted to see the city's art ( aside from the murals, of course ). The Philadelphia Museum of Art ( 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.; www.philamuseum.org/ )with its "Rocky" steps and statue in frontis, in a word, stunning. It, too has its esteemed history ( being originally chartered in 1876 for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia ), and the expansive venue has several exhibitions that warrant all-day visits, including "Fabulous Fashion: From Dior's New Look to Now," which closes March 3, 2019. To see the evolution of fashion is beyond fascinatingand be sure to stop by the gift store, which includes items such as bags that read "More Issues Than Vogue." ( Some of the other current exhibitions include "Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs," "Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal" and the guerrilla-art display "Arte Povera: Homage to Amalfi '68." )
Philly's LGBT scene
Despite the trolley guide not mentioning the LGBT scene, Philadelphia ( as many know ) has a wonderful gayborhood ( www.visitphilly.com/lgbt/ ), located in the Washington West neighborhood of Center City.
Nightspots include the longtime fixture Woody's ( 202 S. 13th St.; WoodysBar.com ), piano bar/restaurant/nightclub Tavern on Camac ( 243 S. Camac St.; www.tavernoncamac.com/ ) and sports bar Tabu ( 200 S. 12th St.; tabuphilly.com/ ).
In addition, there are highlights like The William Way LGBT Community Center ( 1315 Spruce St.; WayGay.org ), which has served the LGBTQ community for 40 decades; and the Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni's Room ( 345 S. 12th St.; www.queerbooks.com/ )formerly Giovanni's Room Bookstore.
Food, glorious food
Of course, this city has a wonderful culinary scene. The French-inspired spot Royal Boucherie ( 52 S. 2nd St.: www.royalboucherie.com/ ) is darkly atmospheric and offers some incredible culinary items, including a monstrous charcuterie board, garganelli with lobster, and duck cassoulet.
The Double Knot ( 120 S. 13th St.; www.doubleknotphilly.com/ ) I found absolutely fascinating. First of all, I visited at 4 p.m. on a Friday, and it was absolutely packeda testament to the Japanese restaurant's popularity. ( Fortunately, I managed to grab a table for two near the entrance. ) Double Knot offers a coffee bar, lunch ( 10 a.m.-3 p.m. ) and dinner; you'll love the sashimi.
And let's not forget the Reading Terminal Market ( 51 N. 12th St.; readingterminalmarket.org/ ), one of the largest and oldest public markets in the country. Dozens of vendors offer produce, meats, flowers, popcorn and restaurant foods. Just surrender: It's impossible to leave that market without purchasing something.
Many thanks go to Visit Philadelphia for arranging this trip.