In last week’s list of 10 Things to Do in Washington, D.C., I mentioned I was headed there for New Year’s Eve. I've decided to take a 2-day detour thru Philadelphia since 1) I have the week off; and 2) I’ll be so close to it on the drive down.
I’ve been to Philly bunches of times for work or to hang out with friends, but never really “saw” the city outside of the typical tourist traps (i.e., run up the “Rocky Steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.) I wanted to get off “the beaten path”, so my trip required some research.
I’ve spent the last week pouring through travel sites to create my dream itinerary. These sites made the Top Ten on my dream list:
1. Mount Pleasant
This historic Georgian mansion overlooking the Schuylkill River was once described as "the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania” by John Adams, the second U.S. President. Not quite a surprise as the home to John Macpherson and his family, was built by the same designers as Independence Hall.
The interiors still contain the original paneling and ornamental carving, showcasing the "elegance of the lifestyle of colonial elites” as well as artifacts from Macpherson's life and times and period furniture from the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which restored the home.
Fun fact: the house was also used as the country estate of Benedict Arnold, who gifted it to his new bride in 1779, the year before he deflected to the British.
For more information: Mount Pleasant
2. Boat House Row
If you’ve ever looked out the window from the Amtrak train as you enter Philadelphia from the North, you’ve seen Boat House Row. Most people outside of Philly have no clue what it is. It is, in fact, a row of 15 private boathouses for social and rowing clubs on the east bank of the Schuylkill River. Even if you have no interests in rowing, the boathouses are worth a visit for their 19th century architecture, and for strolling along the Schuylkill River, and taking in the view across it.
For more information: Boat House Row
3. Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
The Kimmel Center is considered one of America’s “Big Five” symphony orchestras. It’s home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, the the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Philadanco, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and a performance series known as Kimmel Center Presents, which hosts a variety of jazz, classical, and world pop performers. You can always swing by for a show, but if you’re just curious to have a look around, the venue does daily tours at 1PM.
For more information: Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
4. Eastern State Penitentiary
I know it’s a little out there, but hear me out. Eastern State Prison (1829) is not an actual working prison. (It closed in 1971.) At its completion it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever, well, constructed. It was one of the earliest prisons to adopt a separate incarceration model and became a model for more than 300 prisons nationwide. Among its most famous prisoners? Bank robber Willie Sutton, and legendary mobster Al Capone, whose cell remains intact (and well decorated). It’s visible on the tour. Speaking of which, if you make to ESP, pay for the audio tour, narrarated by Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi (aka “Nucky Thompson).
To visit: Eastern State Pennitentary
5. Laurel Hill Cemetery
It’s not a creepy as it sounds. Since its inception in 1840s, Laurel Hill was always intended for public use. Case in point, nearly 30,000 people visited during the first eight months it was open in the 1840s.
The cemetery was the burial site of note for many of Philadelphia’s prominent political leaders and businessmen, and good money was spent for craftsman to mark their final resting place. Think less tombstones, and more Classical Revival, Gothic Revival, Egyptian Revival monumentsand mausuleums made of marble, granite, cast-iron and sandstone, and resurrected by the notable architects of the day. Laurel Hill is as much a graveyard as it is an outdoor museum.
For more information: Laurel Hill Cemetery
6. City Hall
Upon construction, one of the goals of Pennsylvania’s City Hall (1901) was to make it the tallest building in the world. During its 30 year construction, that distinction was eradicated by the rise of the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower. But it did become the world’s tallest inhabitable building for awhile, and remained the tallest building in Philadelphia until 1987. The statue of Philadelphia’s founder William Penn—one of 250 adorning the building-- is the largest statue atop any building in the world.
City Hall and its Observation Deck—just under the Penn statue-- are available (separately) tours on weekdays. For more information: City Hall Tours
7. Society Hill
Society Hill is a historic neighborhood in the Center City section of Philadelphia and contains the largest concentration of original 18th- and early 19th-century residential architecture in the United States. After decades of decline, in the 1950s, the city, state and federal governments launched one of the first “urban renewal projects” (aka gentrification) to returnthe neighborhood to its glory days, restoring homes and adding replicas of 18th-century street lights and brick sidewalks to enhance the colonial atmosphere. The upkeep has remained in the passing decades.
For more information: Society Hill
8. Fairmount Waterworks
Situated just behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art (aka The Rocky Steps), Fairmount Waterworks was the nation’s first municipal water treatement center. But that’s not why I’m telling you to go. Go for the Classical architecture of the buildings that house that waterworks, and have a sundowner at Waterworks Restaurant and Lounge, a Mediterrean restuarnat overlooking theSchuylkill River and Boathouse Row.
For more information: Fairmount Waterworks
9. The Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania
The medival style Masonic Temple (actual name: The Right Worshipful Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania and Masonic Jurisdiction Thereunto Belonging) serves as the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, Free and Accepted Masons. It is one of the oldest Grand Lodge’s in the U.S. and the largest, in terms of membership in the U.S. It is the second largest Grand Lodge in the world.
If you’re planning a visit expecting to learn the secrets of the Masons, let me warn you: you won’t. But if you’re interested in architecture, interior design—the interior took fifteen years to complete, if that gives you any idea of how elaborate it is— or the very general history of the Masons, it’s worth a visit.
Online Tour: HERE
For more information: Philadelphia Masonic Temple
10. Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
Watts has its Towers, Rio has its 'Selaron Steps' and Philly has the Magic Gardens. Located on Philadelphia’s famous South Street, artist Isaiah Zagar’s largest public artwork uses nontraditional materials (colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors, etc) to create mosaic murals. It’s weird and beautiful all at once.
For more information: Philadelphia's Magic Gardens