My Philadelphia city tour clearly showed the city deserved its moniker as “City of Sisterly Love.” It offered me history, art and the best tomato pie on my recent trip.
Frankly, I never even thought about making a trip to sightsee in Philadelphia, pre-pandemic. It was just a city I waved at on I-95 en route to its International Airport. But now that I am grounded due to the pandemic, I choose to explore Philadelphia’s Parkway Museum District. It stretches from the City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Philadelphia Walking Tour
My first rule of travel is always book a walking tour on Day One of the trips so I can learn the good and the bad from your guide. So I had to laugh out loud when I saw a 2:30 pm tour titled “The Good, The Bad, The Philly” by Free Tours on Foot. I ended up with a private guided tour with Toni, one of the funniest walking guides I have ever encountered. She is 79 years old and loves to tell the occasional off-color joke.
Rather than parading by Philadelphia’s esteemed historical sites (with absolutely no idea of their significance), I chose to see Philly through a resident’s eyes (aka Toni). Expect a comedy routine.
For example, Toni’s advice if you are ever asked a question about who did what in Philly? “Say Ben!” Of course, she means Benjamin Franklin, the city’s biggest hero. He is even more famous than Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone.) But I expect more people try to run up “Rocky’s steps” than conduct Ben’s electricity experiments. (Fun fact: there are 72 stone steps leading up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
Our first stop is the Free Library of Philadelphia at Vine Street, which is a grand old dame. Due to the pandemic, we are not allowed to roam through the building. But the inside boasts a large foyer, an elegant staircase and intricate woodwork.
Ben Franklin Parkway
Next on our Philadelphia city tour we walk across the Ben Franklin Parkway to stand in the meridian. I honestly feel like I am at the United Nations. The Parkway features flags flying for dozens of nations. Technically the flags are supposed to be arranged alphabetically, but several are out of order, like Israel, Italy, Poland and the Vatican. (Israel’s flag is located near the Holocaust Museum.) The latter actually is missing. Toni says it is not unusual for the wind to wrap and twist a flag around the pole. Since my knowledge of flags is not extensive, I appreciate that I can see the country on a placard below its flag.
The BF Parkway is Philadelphia’s version of the Champs Elysees in Paris (or Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC). It is a grand cultural boulevard that clusters many famous museums in its vicinity. Designed by French architect Paul Cret and Jacques Greber, the Parkway points toward the Pennsylvania Museum of Art. The Free Library was first building to open in 1927, followed by the two art museums. (The Rodin Museum was also designed by Cret.) I am fortunate to spend some time with Rodin’s The Thinker but he is behind a gate. It is the only dedicated Rodin Museum outside France. Unfortunately, the Rodin Museum is presently closed due to the pandemic. It will be closed until spring 2021.
The Ben Franklin Institute moved to its new location in 1934, advertising itself as a “Wonderland of Science.” It was one of the first museum to introduce the hands-on style of learning.
Parkway Museums District
Today the Parkway Museums District comprises more than 23 venues competing for the visitors’ attention. You can download a free PDF featuring a map of all the venues in the district as well as special offers. The Museum District includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum, The Barnes Foundation, the Ben Franklin Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Please Touch Museum and the Eastern State Penitentiary, among others. (Several Philly museums offer name-your-own-price for admission on Sundays. Free tickets for Free First Sunday
Although it costs $23 (adult) to tour the Ben Franklin Institute, visitors can enter the foyer for free and see the Ben Franklin Memorial. The marble statue of Ben looks down upon his visitors who want an Instagram moment with “Philadelphia’s most famous citizen.”
But Ben also wore multiple hats, including Founding Father, inventor, printer, publisher and rake. His nicknames include The First American, The Newton of Electricity and the Patron Saint of Advertising. But I typically think of Ben as Poor Richard, whose sayings appeared in the annual Almanack. Ben’s byline In the Almanack is “well-known Savant, Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia.” One of Poor Richard’s sayings is a favorite quote:
“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.”—Poor Richard’s Almanack
But Poor Richard’s advice, which I follow now on my Philadelphia city tour, is simple: “Speak little, do much.” We have just 2 hours to cover a mile-long section of Philly’s museum district on our walking tour. So Toni and I reluctantly leave the Ben Franklin Institute and head to see a dinosaur. I believe he preceded Ben, so he is probably known as “First Dinosaur of Philadelphia.”
Chasing Dinosaurs in Philadephia
Located at the Academy of Natural Sciences, this plesiosaur dinosaur—“Elasmosaurus”—was discovered in Kansas, transported back to Philadelphia, and then mistakenly put back together with the creature’s head on the end of its tail rather than its neck. Oops. It was a big embarrassment in the city’s Bones Wars. The dinosaur now hangs above the reception desk. Cue another Instagram moment.
Toni likes to stop frequently for history lessons at outdoor parks . . . plus statues like William Penn.
Founder William Penn
For example, here I learn how Pennsylvania’s founder was afraid of a fire destroying the city. (Penn lived through the Great Fire of London.) He decided all houses built in Philadelphia must be brick, and there must be space around them.
Penn use green spaces to create “breaks” to stop a fire’s path. He strategically placed these parks (called squares) throughout the city.
“Under his direction, the city of Philadelphia was planned and developed. Philadelphia was planned out to be grid-like with its streets and be very easy to navigate, unlike London where Penn was from. The streets are named with numbers and tree names. He chose to use the names of trees for the cross streets because Pennsylvania means Penn’s Woods.”—The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Sculptor Alexander Milne Calder
Next we visit Logan Square. It was originally christened Northwest Square. Inside the pool are bronze statues designed by sculptor Alexander Milne Calder (a native son of Philadelphia) at the park’s Swann Memorial. My favorite sculptures are the frogs. Although swimming is not allowed in the fountain, try to stop the toddlers who cavort happily as soon as the temperatures start to rise.
From here Toni and I wander up the PW to get to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul at 1723 Race Street. The Neo-Classical design features barrel arches, Corinthian columns, and triangular pediments supported by columns at the entrances.
What does seem strange is the location of the cathedral’s windows solely at the clerestory level, which is a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level. This was done to deter anti-Catholic violence in the mid-1800s.
Philadelphia City Tour
Outside the church is Sister Cities Park, part of Logan Circle. It was dedicated in 1976 when Philadelphia joined this movement. Each sister city is recognized: Florence, Italy; Tel Aviv, Israel; Torun, Poland; Tianjin, China; Incheon, Korea; Douala, Cameroon; Nizhny Novgorod Russia; Kobe, Japan; Aix-en-Provence, France, and Abruzzo, Italy.
Our Philadelphia city tour ends at the other end of the Parkway where City Hall is located. It is the largest municipal building in the United States. It features a 548-foot masonry structure tower, the tallest in the world without a steel frame. Alexander Milne Calder’s iconic statue of William Penn gazes down on his “City of Brotherly Love.” He looks stately from many angles except from one perspective where you see a decidedly non-genteel pose for Governor William Penn.
Philadelphia definitely earned my affection. Next stop: The South 9th Street Italian Market. I need a Big Meatball with gravy.
10 ways to enjoy Philly in an afternoon
1. Book walking tour
2. Stop at Free Library & read a book
3. Pose with Ben Franklin
4. See Philly’s First Dinosaur
5. Meet the frogs at Logan Square
6. Honor black soldiers and sailors of All Wars
7. Give the finger to Comcast
8. Spend a quiet moment at Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
9. Meditate with Rodin’s The Thinker
10. Walk 1 mile from Philadelphia City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art & loop back
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