My family’s week-long vacation in Philadelphia was a homecoming for me but new territory for my husband and two teenagers. I grew up on the other side of the Delaware River, in New Jersey, and spent a lot of time in Philly, eventually attending college in West Philadelphia. But I’ve lived in North Carolina for twenty-five years, so I was excited to visit some familiar spots and also see what had changed in the City of Brotherly Love in the last couple decades.
When I was growing up in South Jersey, The Franklin Institute was the go-to spot for school field trips. The only thing about The Franklin Institute that I remembered was the Giant Heart. Picture this: you walk up and down stairs, through the ventricles and atrium, entering the lungs, returning to the heart, while hearing the beating of the heart, the whooshing of blood. Tell me that’s not the best thing ever. No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it. My kids, who grew up in North Carolina, never got that experience and I have always felt that I let them down, that I neglected some essential childhood rite of passage, like catching fireflies or chasing the ice cream truck.
So on this trip I finally got the chance to take them, age age 16 and 19, through the heart. Really, it was the only reason we went to the Franklin Institute and they knew better than to resist, given that they’d heard me talk about The Giant Heart throughout their entire childhoods. If it had to be a forced march through those ventricles, so be it. They were going to walk through the heart.
But they didn’t resist. They walked through happily (or at least tolerantly) and one even went through a second time with me. It was exactly as I remembered. Just as cool. That would have been enough but, surprisingly, they wanted to stay and do “all the things.” So we did. The electricity exhibit, the Observatory, the “brain” room. Spoiler: you don’t walk through the brain. If you know anything at all about the anatomy of the brain you know that wouldn’t make sense anyway. However, there was a big play structure somehow related to brains that little kids were climbing all over while shrieking.
Which leads me to the next point. You might want to go after 4 p.m. I love kids. Children are our future and all. But when the hundredth group of kids in matching summer camp t-shirts tears through the exhibits at high volume you’ll excuse me for starting to have less than warm feelings toward the embodiment of our future. Trust me. P.M hours.
Big Bus Tour
My family did not reach complete consensus on the bus tour. My husband and I feel that bus tours are a great way to get an overview of a city and give us ideas of attractions we might want to visit. Plus you get to sit down. My kids aren’t sold. The Big Bus Tour uses open air double decker buses (as well as trolleys) so my husband and I sat on the top and the kids sat downstairs, inside, where I didn’t have to see if they were paying attention or not.
Our tour guide, Isaac, did a great job of familiarizing us with the history of Philadelphia in a hurry. I’m pretty sure that drinking is not allowed on the Big Bus Tour but if it were, a great drinking game would be to chug every time the tour guide said “Ben Franklin.”
Philadelphians tend to be opinionated about the best cheesesteak. The three biggies are Pat’s, Jim’s and Geno’s. Isaac’s opinion? None of them! He recommends Sonny’s Famous Steaks on Market Street between 2nd and 3rd. If you’re using this article as a resource for your own trip you probably won’t follow my next bit of advice but I’m offering it anyway. For the absolute best cheesesteak, cross the Ben Franklin Bridge, drive a few miles north on Route 130, and go to Gaetano’s in Willingboro, New Jersey. Order the small. You’re welcome.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Stark, gothic, creepy…Eastern State Penitentiary looms over Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood in stark contrast to the otherwise genteel surroundings. Used as a prison from 1829 until 1971, it’s now a tourist attraction. Visitors walk through the cellblocks, now in a state of semi-ruins, where, until the early 1900s, all prisoners lived in solitary confinement, even wearing hoods when leaving their cells so that they’d never see another human being. Some perspective, though: when Eastern State Penitentiary was built, its new “Pennsylvania system” was considered a humane alternative to the prison system of the time, and was emulated in many prisons across America and Europe.
Admission includes an excellent audio tour, narrated by—no kidding—Steve Buscemi. There was a guided tour available as well, but we didn’t take it because it was not led by Steve Buscemi. We learned that the most famous prisoner at Eastern State was Al Capone, although he served his time in relative comfort due to his celebrity status. Also, he had his tonsils removed right in the cellblock.
Although the tour is somewhat disturbing and sobering, it’s not scary. If you do want to be scared, during Halloween season the Penitentiary hosts a haunted house, Terror Behind the Walls, that is said to be one of the best haunted attractions in the country.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Magic is the right word for this place. Artist Isaiah Zagar, a long-time resident of South Street, has been beautifying his neighborhood with mosaics since the 1960s, and, in 1994, started working in the vacant lot next to his studio, excavating tunnels and grottos, sculpting multi-layered walls, and covering every surface with tiles. When the owner of the land decided to sell the lot in 2002, neighbors joined forces to support Zagar. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was incorporated as a non-profit and opened to the public.
Today 3,000 square feet are covered with mosaics and sculptures. Part of the magic is how there are so many ways to look at the artwork. Just when you think you’ve taken in everything around you, you notice a tiny scene made from figures, or the way a bicycle wheel frames a a window through a wall, or a collection of brilliant bottles jutting out of a corner, or a magnificent scene under your feet, or in the ceiling above your head. You can look at the art in an area as a whole, or in intricate detail. It’s like switching a lens on a camera between wide angle and macro, except it’s your eyes and mind doing the switching.
One would have to be very cynical to not be enchanted by this place.
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum contains a collection of preserved anatomical specimens, models and medical instruments. A few of the specimens on display are the world’s largest colon, the plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang and Eng, a slide of Albert Einstein’s brain, the skeleton of a 7’6” giant, and the “Soap Lady,” a corpse that turned to a soapy matter.
My kids are huge fans of medical anomalies so the Mütter Museum was a hit. Although less gruesome than many of the museum’s artifacts, I was fascinated by the collection of over 2,000 swallowed objects that Chevalier Jackson, MD (1865-1958) removed from patients and catalogued. So many pins! So many buttons!
Photography is not allowed, so don’t even think of taking a selfie with President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor. However, you can bring your memories home forever with a purchase at the gift shop. Some choices: the Mega Colon Plush Toy, conjoined twins cookie cutters and hand soap in the shape of the Soap Lady (rose or lavender scent.) You saw that coming, right?
If you’d like to contribute to the museum but don’t want to bring home a medical oddity trinket, you can “adopt a skull.”
The museum walks a fine line. Most visitors are attracted by the quirkiness and shock value of the artifacts, but the mission of the museum is to educate, and, gift shop notwithstanding, the artifacts are displayed in a serious, no-nonsense manner, with respect for human dignity. Or at least with as much dignity as possible for people whose organs are displayed in jars.
Photo credits: Philadelphia Skyline courtesy of M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia™. Franklin Institute courtesy of The Franklin Institute Science Museum. The Big Bus courtesy of B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia™. The Eastern State Penitentiary and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens courtesy of R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia. Mutter museum courtesy of George Widman, 2009, for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.