By Shuan Butcher
The one city that is synonymous with our independence from Great Britain is Philadelphia. It was there, in July 1776, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted. The U.S. Constitution was also drafted, debated and signed in this city. So, a pilgrimage to the City of Brotherly Love is a must for anyone who considers himself a patriot.
Old City favorites, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center, located across the street from each other and operated by the National Park Service, are no-brainers. But there are many other sites you may not be familiar with that should be added to your Philly Bucket List.
My favorite is the National Constitution Center, a few blocks from Independence National Historical Park. This museum tells the story of “We the People” and the U.S. Constitution through fabulous interactive and multimedia exhibitions. For example, you can enter a mock voting booth that pairs former presidents against each other and asks you to choose between them based on their actions and words.
A highlight is Signers’ Hall, a room filled with 42 life-size bronze statues of the Founding Fathers. While you are there, you also must catch the moving theatrical show “Freedom Rising,” which former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once called “the best 17-minute civics lesson in the country.”
The center’s new Virtual Museum Experience includes signature features of the on-site experience, including live interactive tours of key spaces, including Signers’ Hall, the Civil War and Reconstruction exhibit featuring more than 100 artifacts and the newest exhibit about the 19th Amendment. Participants can join from the classroom or from home through a secure Zoom link, accessible from a home computer, laptop or phone.
A few blocks from the Constitution Center sits the Betsy Ross House, a small home where Ross reportedly sewed one of the first American flags at the request of Gen. George Washington. This brief and inexpensive tour provides insight into what life was like for working class families in the 18th century. After your visit, pop over to Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continually occupied residential street in the country.
Old City’s 18th Century charm and cobblestone streets are also lined with great restaurants, theaters and galleries. You won’t have any trouble finding a place to eat. For a treat, try Shane Confectionery, billed as “America’s oldest candy store,” was owned and operated by the Shane family for nearly a century. Their handcrafted candies are made with 10 ingredients or less, all locally sourced. Walk away with a box of custom chocolates or order a “Thomas Jefferson Nightcap” from their café. This historical drinking chocolate consists of milk and dark chocolate, vanilla and cream.
Walk off some of those calories by exploring more historic sites in the area. The Ben Franklin Museum, part of the National Park Service, features artifacts, computer animations and other hands-on activities, demonstrating the life and legacy of one of our country’s most beloved characters.
Just a few feet away is the National Liberty Museum, dedicated to heroes using art as the medium. Here, you will see more than 200 contemporary works of art that highlight heroism. The primary art form is glass art, making the point that “freedom is as fragile as glass” (Dale Chihuly’s “Flame of Liberty,” which stands 21 feet high, is stunning).
Find accommodations at Sonesta, a hotel located in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. It has a modern and chic feel and the rooms are well appointed with artwork and unique color schemes. Adjacent to the lobby is Art Bar, which features artwork curated by the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.
Philadelphia has more than just history to enjoy. Spend a day with cultural and culinary treats. Though Philadelphia is a pretty walkable town but you may have to get in a car for a few destinations. One of them is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For any art lover, this truly is a must-see. As one of the largest art museums in the country, it houses 2,000 years of artwork from the United States, Europe, Asia and South America. Be sure to allow time to take in the iconic exterior as well, with stunning views of the Schuylkill River and Boathouse Row. While outside, you can do another patriotic thing and climb the “Rocky” steps or pose with the Rocky Balboa statue at the bottom.
Just a few blocks away is the Barnes Foundation. This cultural institution has been open for about four years and can still be difficult to get tickets to visit. Admission is based on timed tickets and I recommend not only getting them in advance but also going earlier in the day. It will be worth the effort. This museum houses the art collection of Dr. Albert and Laura Barnes, including pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir, but also includes old master paintings, African sculpture, Native American ceramics and antiquities from around the world.
The collection consists of about 3,000 pieces of art and is one of the world’s most important holdings of French impressionist and post-impressionist artwork. When you first walk into some of the rooms, you may feel overwhelmed by what you see. Pay special attention to the folk art and Pennsylvania German furniture, favorites of mine.
A really unique place to visit in the city is a place called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a nonprofit organization that runs an immersive outdoor art installation spanning a half block. Visionary artist Isaiah Zagar created the space in 1994 from a vacant lot, using nontraditional materials such as folk-art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, handmade tiles and thousands of glittering mirrors. For dinner try Tinto, a Jose Garces wine bar and restaurant. This place specializes in mouthwatering pintxos, the variety of tapas found in Spain’s Basque region. Before leaving Philadelphia sneak in one more culinary delight at The Dandelion Pub. This Stephen Starr eatery is cozy, modeled after the contemporary gastro pubs in Britain. Deviled eggs and bangers and mash are a delicious end to a wonderful adventure in one of our country’s most historic cities.