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That Philadelphia Freedom  

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall PHOTO by B. Krist for GPTMC

Traveler had a few unscheduled days. Ahh freedom! So where was Traveler to go? Visitors from abroad always rave about two American cities—Las Vegas, because it's, well, crazy; and Philadelphia, because it's beautiful and its got an old culture imbued with a certain slowness and softness. It’s civilized here. It's a big, small town. And it’s the birthplace of American independence. Where better to celebrate freedom than Philadelphia.
The city was born in 1682. Its founder was English Quaker William Penn. Instead of naming the place after a corporation, as is the habit these days (Staples City? CapitalOneville?), he named it "city of brotherly love." (Only he did it in a sort of Greek.)

Where to Stay

Morris House

Traveler stayed in stately rooms in the Morris House Hotel, an 18th Century building. The sound of crickets outside and a lovely private garden offered a distinctive, restful pause right in the heart of the city.

Morris Hotel, Philadelphia 

PHOTO:: Courtesy Morris House Hotel

 

Suites with kitchens feature contemporary, attractive fixtures. All rooms Traveler stayed in or saw were, well, downright sedate and comfy. What with the antiques, stately furniture, highly polished wooden floors, and modern accoutrements (e.g. flat screen TV and wi fi access), Traveler felt as if he were chillaxing on his country estate. While the building is a legacy from the 18th Century, guests in no way feel as if they’re in a museum nor that they must tiptoe.
 
The furnishings and decorations represent the taste of the owners, one of whom had been an antiques dealer. Adding to the mystique are luxury bathrooms with large, marble-tiled big-headed shower with a big head of spray, bath with its Jacuzzi jets. A certain degree of eccentricity results from DIY decorating. A lovely black panther statue adorns a bathroom but there are no handgrips and hardly any place to hang towels.
Complimentary continental breakfast—fresh fruit, freshly baked goods—is served in a charming room study (muted tones, pale olive, gray, white, very Philadelphia) off the lobby.  Every afternoon, tea is served in the same location. One criticism: the fresh baked cookies are too good. For more information, call 215.922.2446 or click here.
 

Omni Philadelphia Independence Park

Omni at  Independence Park, Philadelphia 

Just a block away from Independence Center and embedded in Old City is the calm and elegant Omni Hotel at Independence Park. It is anything but revolutionary, and therein lies its charm. Some might see it as old-fashioned, and deserving of a bit of a modern touchup. That would not be entirely out of order. But nothing should tamper with its classic, muted vibe. Hip, self-consciously buzzy hotels may flaunt their mega-decibel technothump, screaming conversation soundtrack, as well as their anomie inducing minimalist décor. The Omni offers grace, quiet design and charm.

The room (Traveler stayed in 910) is, in a sense, a great serene cushion of a room, Beige, patterned wallpaper, dark hardwood desk and headboard, dark wood and marble topped credenza, Welcoming, oh so comfortable easy chairs, Navy blue, gold carpeting. Marble bathroom counters. A sense of place echoes through the room, thanks to a large gold-gilt framed print of Bucks County watercolorist Keith Mountford's. “Philadelphia Museum of Art & Fairmount Waterworks “ and just to remind you that you're in the 21st century, free Wi-Fi is available throughout the hotel and the room is equipped with a 27 inch LG TV (cable channels include MSNBC and Fox, Showtime and HBO. Throw in a friendly, eager to please, skillful staff and you've got a the ingredients for a wonderful hotel stay. It's no wonder that the Omni hotel Independence Park has shown up on Travel and Leisure Best Hotels and Top Business Hotels lists.

The Lux Spa at the Omni in the basement

We don't know about you, but Traveler likes a hotel with a pool. Without a pool, how would you chill out or float or stretch? Even if you're too busy to use the pool, it's relaxing to know it's there, softening the whole building and yourself with its do-drop-in, bloopy vibrations.

No pool means no blue magic getaway for mind and body to look forward to, no uncanny 22 minutes of zero-gravity flipping around in a chlorinated tank of aahhh, no tilting the familiar reality on its axis even a little. A hotel with no pool is sad, incomplete, a bed and breakfast, really. Not a game-changer. What's the point of it? Might as well stay home.

The Omni has a pool. It is nicely heated. Also, there's a funny-looking square whirlpool. And a sauna. Spacious showers. Fluffy towels. Swanky European Aveda products. Four treatment rooms, massages, wraps, facials, bla, bla, bla. It is often beautifully quiet. There's a fitness centre. Personal trainers are available. The only catch is, its hours are more limited than most places. You could organise your time around its stingy schedule, but ask before you come, all the same.

Spa Hours: Monday– Friday: 9:00 am – 8:00 pm Saturday: 8:00 am – 8:00 pm Sunday: 8:00am – 1pm (some Sundays are extended).

Omni Hotel at Independence Park
401 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106
For more information, call 215.925.0000 or click here.

What to Do

Armed with just a few days and mad to see as much as possible, Traveler resorted to one of his favorite tactics—a sightseeing bus. You pack a lot in; you can eliminate time wasters (how cruel and ghoulish is a tour of the ruined Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site).  And you can get off, step around one of the sites, and get back on the next bus on the route. So  there was Traveler on the Gray Line bus.

"Welcome," says guide Ernest. "Where are you from?"
The answers come quickly "Niagara." "Santa Barbara." "Holland." "Germany."

Looking through the bus window provides a comprehensive overview — or rather, street-level view — of Philadelphia. The guides interlace information about the must-see, must know sites with some of their personal and often quirky tidbits. They tell us that the Reading Terminal Market — now a fantastic indoor bazaar of foods gifts and garments — was inspiration for the "take a ride on the Reading" moments in the game of Monopoly. The first ice cream flavor offered by America's first ice cream manufacturer, Charles Bassett, was tomato (vanilla beans were too expensive). Another tells of a friend who kept getting into trouble and explains that the three themes of the tour are Ben Franklin, William Penn and Monopoly. Guide Ernest lovingly tells of all the free attractions and experiences you can find in Philadelphia.

And the bus rolls on to all the key city landmarks and there’s a get on get off element. (You don't want to walk to the Philadelphia Museum of Art unless you're Rocky Balboa).

 

Philadelphia Museum  of Art

Philadelphia Museum of Art 

PHOTO by B. Krist for GPTMC

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a massive neoclassical monument to the endurance of art. It opened its doors on 26 March 1928. Echoing the Greek influence on the structure are the polychrome terra-cotta sculptures on the north wing pediiment’s triangular area. These were installed in 1933. We are told that "this marked the Museum as the first major building in over 2,000 years to adapt polychromy in this manner." It was worth the wait.

Walk slowly as you make your way through this atmospheric museum. Art lives not just in the galleries; but also on the walls in between. A popular major exhibit  was “Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera.” It consisted of 35 paintings and seven sculptures, and deserves a resounding ooh-la-la.

The show noted the attraction the scenic, light-drenched Riviera has held for artists. In addition to Matisse, other artists who have called the Riviera home and are represented in the exhibit are Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Raoul Dufy (1877–1953), and Chaim Soutine (1894–1943. 

For information about current and upcoming exhibits, click here

The Thinker by  Rodin in PhiladelphiaTraveler promised himself he would not mention the Rocky steps, the museum's front staircase. Those steps, of course, achieved stardom for the role they played in 1976 film Rocky, and have become a symbol of endurance and achievement. It’s about more than climbing. When you reach the top of the stairs, you’ll see a statue of Rocky, and a splendid view of Philadelphia.

P.S.: The Rodin Museum, located a short walk (or shuttle ride) away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is administered by the larger institution. No, you will not find the largest collection of Picassos here; but you will find the largest public collection of Rodin sculptures. And if there were any doubt, you will see the iconic statue “The Thinker” right at the front gate. He’s a decent chap; but excuse him if he doesn’t get up.

  PHOTO by B. Krist for GPTMC
For more about the museum, click here

Museums Galore and More

Just how much wonder can you pack into a full square city block? The answer may be found in the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Crammed with exhibits that delight and challenge the mind, this is one rollicking, challenging science education that makes you want to come back for more and more. Exhibits include Space Command, Sir Isaac's Loft: Where Art & Physics Collide, the Franklin Art Show and the Giant Heart (it throbs). For more information call 215.448.1200 or click here

 

Welcome to the Independence National Historical Park and Liberty Bell. This is the source. This 42-acre park is the home of liberty and the founding principles of the United States of America. It contains several must-sees.  Independence Visitor Center is the portal, in a sense, to both the national Historical Park in particular and the city of Philadelphia in general.

A helpful staff, many of who are costumed in colonial period outfits, will direct you to exhibits, videos, kiosks, ticket windows and will give you information about the park and the city. It's all very jolly with lots of state-of-the-art.

Extra Treat: Imagine breaking bread with Ben Franklin. No need to think very hard about this, as a popular Independence Visitor Center fixture is "Breakfast with Ben." Every Saturday morning from 9 AM to 10:30 AM, an actor puts on the clothes, makeup and persona of old Ben and, over breakfast, holds forth on all matters of subjects drawn from "his" life and philosophy. To buy tickets or for information about Breakfast With Ben, click here.

 

Also in the National Park are
Independence Hall, the very site where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Liberty Bell Center, which honors the iconic bell and its "song" of freedom.

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia

 National Constitution Center. This landmark spot offers a thrilling tour through the highlights of liberty to mark moments of our history. It is filled with interactive multimedia exhibits plus photographs, texts and all sorts of items that document the Constitution
The President's House. This permanent installation on the Liberty Bell Center doorstep honors nine African slaves who toiled at the home of the nation's first Presidents George Washington and John Adams (1790-1800)
For more information about Independence National Park, call 215.965.2305 or click here.
The National Liberty Museum is new, as museums go (It opened in January, 2000 —but it honors freedom an idea that really is as ancient as history (As described in the museum’s mission statement) Among its holdings are over 150 original paintings, bronzes, and glass sculptures. (Equating glass with freedom is an integral part of the museum’s message. Exhibits emphasize essential components of liberty and harmony321 Chestnut St. 215-9253 800 www.libertyMuseum.org

PHOTO:R. Kennedy for GPYMC

Kimmel Centr, Philadelphia 

PHOTO: J. Smith for GPTMC

The Kimmel Center is a performing arts hive—home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadanco and eight other groups (Opera Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Ballet, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, American Theater Arts for Youth, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops)—and a work of art unto itself, with its glass roof and curving interiors.

 Free tours are available. The theater and building tour, which takes place 1 PM (Tuesday to Sunday) will lead you through the history of the Center, point out the various architectural and construction niceties, and will walk you through the Commonwealth Plaza, Perelman Theater, Verizon Hall, Merck Arts Education Center and the Dorrance H. Hamilton Garden. All in all, the tour takes one hour.

 On Saturdays at 10:30 AM visitors can take the free Arts and Architecture tour. This also gives an in-depth look at the building's architecture; but it also guides you along the Avenue of the Arts so that you can see how the Center has an architectural conversation with the surrounding area; and it gives you a closer look at the various works of art in the Kimmel's galleries and throughout the building. These tours are offered on a first-come first-served basis for more information call 215.790.5800 or click here

 
People first started living on Elfreth's Alley in 1702, and people still dwell there—which makes it, according to city guides, “the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the country.” The Elfreth's Alley Museum, a center for tours and exhibits is located near Second Street between Arch and Race Streets. For more information call 215.574.0560, or click here

Open for occupancy in 1829 as a (for that era) humane prison, the aforementioned Eastern State Penitentiary is now in aforementioned ruins. Traveler considers it bad luck to walk into prisons and so did not visit. Apparently  this is a popular tourist site. For more information call 215.236.3300 or click here )

The Bourse is a retail/office complex planted inside a fabulous building. It’s definitely worth a five-minute peek inside. The retail consists mostly of souvenir items and a food court— Sbarro, China Express, Salad Works, etc. — a quick predictable lunch time fuel stop. Sometimes that's just enough. The Bourse 111 S. Independence Mall East, *between Market and Chestnut streets. 215.625.0300

Shopping and Eating and Rubbernecking

Reading Terminal Market is a foodie’s dream. Better yet, it’s real.  In this garden of delights, you’ll find shoofly pies, apple fritters and all sorts of Pennsylvania Dutch baked goods at Beiler’s Bakery; Delilah’s at the Terminal, which evokes hearty visions of a Southern cafeteria (its mac and cheese was named “Best Macaroni & Cheese in the country by Oprah Winfrey in 2003); antipasti, imported cheeses and stuffed Italian sandwiches at Salumeria;. vegeburgers, tofu turkey, faux tuna fish and other vegetarian highlights at Basic Four Vegetarian Bar. Spice Terminal stays true to its name with its candied violets and rose petals, Komodo dragon coffee, and Russian Caravan tea. Here’s the spot to take you on a trip around the world, on the wings of taste and smell.

 Reading Terminal Market

PHOTO: J. Smith for GPTMC

And for a cup of Joe, head over to the Old City Coffee stand. In addition to the head-clearing array of familiar elixirs, it offers seasonal specials. Each of these is available for one week. Spring and summer brews might include Red Sea Blend, Burrito Brew, Bollywood Blend, and French Quarter Mélange. Another reason to stop at Old City Coffee is to get a chance to talk with Keith Rodemer. In addition to his advanced mastery of the art and science of Java he is an accomplished guide and regularly runs walking tours in Philadelphia. He happily shares tidbits and advice about Philadelphia, while dispensing coffee to those who ask.

If you don't see him at the market you can reach him through his website. For more information about Old City Coffee, call 215-592-1897, or click here. . For more information about the Reading Market, click here

Speaking of eating, Traveler did some investigating on your behalf, and has good news to report.

New Harmony Restaurant, Philadelphia

Located in the city’s Chinatown and looking like a generic Chinese restaurant (green wallpaper, artificial vines in the window, green prints on the wall, pink tablecloths), New Harmony is a Philadelphia treasure. It is a Chinese all-vegetarian restaurant. Whether you crave orange beef, sweet and sour pork or moo shu chicken, they’re all here; except they’re made the ethical way–without beef, pork or chicken or carne of any sort.  

The diced chicken with cashew nuts comes with plenty of vegetables—zucchini, broccoli, carrot, baby corn—and makes you want to eat all your vegetables. This is high praise from a vegetarian. Traveler thought there might have been a nice touch of garlic in the “chicken” but was told it was prepared sans garlic. Either way, mm-hmm!  

Also on the table were a tingling hot and sour soup and a nicely balanced sweet and sour pork. Check out the menu here. 135 N 9th St. (At Cherry St) For more information, call 215.627.4520

                                  
 
Starving, but unwilling to settle? If you're trolling for amusing restaurants in Center City, gracious, historic Old Town, with its charming streets and alleyways, serious taverns, ice cream shops, confectioners and unexpectedly delightful, quirky little restaurants, may be one of the most delightful and compact city walks on the Eastern seaboard.

Ben Franklin's house. Penns Landing by the big baby blue bridge to Camden on the river. Free concerts. Drummers drumming, walking along Market Street.

Fudge made the old-fashioned way at Franklin's Fountain. Nighttime comes and the flickering of the lamps welcome all the ghosts who laboured to make this beautiful old city the living time-travelling machine it has always been. Unbearably romantic, with something a little extra: a feeling of respect for the industry and intelligence for those who came before us, and a peaceful feeling, Gratitude.

And then we stumbled across this magical little Afghani restaurant, strong>Kabul..

The waiter brings two deliciously dressed little salads. We'd only ordered one. "On the house," the waiter says. Unusual? Anywhere else, definitely. But this is Kabul. Afghan hospitality is legendary and second to none.

First thing, absolutely: you must requisition a pumpkin dish. It will light a candle in your mouth and make you smile. Pumpy arrives in a sauce sweet, subtle and divine.

Then of course, you'd be mad not to have an eggplant thingy – there are many varieties – but perhaps have the one where a shy and sneaky eggplant hides beneath a glorious, fluffy and fragrant dome of sunny saffron rice laced with oranges, pistachios and heaven knows what else.

You will return tomorrow. When you're hooked on Afghani, that's how it goes, ferengi.

Kabul Restaurant
106 Chestnut Street, bet. 2nd and Front Streets in the Old Town district
Philadelphia PA 19106 tel 215 922 3676
 Click here

 

Meet Me on South Street

South Street, Philadelphia 

 

PHOTO by B. Krist for GPTMC 

 As New World cities go, Philadelphia is very, very old. You can see it as you walk and there‘s a lot of walking to be done. In fact, meandering along Pine Street one evening, Traveler passed a group engaged in a walking (and gawking) tour. They too were noting the wooden row houses tilting this way and that — pink and cheery and brown and white —and the cobblestoned streets and brick sidewalks of the old city and Society Hill and the Greek Revival palaces we all passed. As you stroll the peaceful evening streets, it is not hard to imagine Benjamin Franklin, himself, poking around in search of a scrapple and egg sandwich.

 One particularly popular amble is along South Street. The under-25ers flock to South Street for 21 kinds of beer in one pub and Philly cheese steaks and more. South Street is sweetly tacky in a retro kind of way with tattoo parlors, hair braiding shops, lots of old-fashioned frozen custard joints, pizza stops, pink wigs in store windows and the Living Theatre (Liz Phair was on that evening that night).

 

 If you're over 25 you'll probably prefer the part where South Street crosses 2nd to 3rd St. and the cafés get a bit more upmarket. Much of the culinary fare down here is fair to passable—if you’re in the mood for fast pizza and plastic fries.

That’s like knocking the culinary aesthetics of Atlantic City . . . hardly the point. South Street is not and should not be exactly a dining destination; but it's fun if you're looking for a quick fuel stop. Apparently someone bothered to do a count and we can say with some degree of certainty that there are 300 shops along South Street most of which are locally owned clothing stores and there are 60 restaurants where you can have a bite or wet your beak and there’s a good mix of theaters and live music joints.

There are loads of good shopping venues all over the place. Here are just a few of the many interesting shops.

The Joan Shepp boutique is currently in s temporary space (1625 Chestnut Street) near Rittenhouse Square (a urban oasis, dating back to William Penn). Its previous location excited shoppers with its 22-foot-high ceilings. (Joan Shepp declares, “Fashion is supposed to be fun.” ) Her offerings include stuff from Balenciaga, Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester, Christian Louboutin, Marni, and D&G. ,Her ne site schedued to open sometime in the spring will be 1811 Chestnut St. For more information, click here.

 The Bus Stop Boutique is an intimate (as in small) buzzy boutique on 4th Street owned by Elena Brennan. It is a tres, tres au courant emporium. Its fashions come from Lovely People, Farylrobin, F-Troupe, Corso Como, Kork Ease and Terra Plana. 750 S. 4th Street, (215) 627-2357, Click here

Vagabong boutique, PhiladelphiaVagabond Boutique pioneered the offering of indie clothing and yarns on Old City’s North 3rd Street. The pioneering continues with the latest fashions from Twinkle by Wenlan, Anzevino and Florence, and Built by Wendy. Also on sale are vintage garments and jewelry—as well as items from co-owner Megan Murphy’s line, City of Brotherly Love and co-owner Mary Clark’s Stellapop line. Vagabond Boutique, 37 N. 3rd Street, (267) 671-0737, click here


Also, you’ll find the antiques district along Pine Street between 9th and 12th streets. There's a great mix of European and colonial objects and furniture as well as Oriental rugs rare books and other desired products. For more information, click here.

Philadelphia City PassAnother way to get a logistical leg up is to use the Philadelphia City Pass booklet, which costs $62 (effective 1 March 2014), offers handy discounts to the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia Zoo, Franklin Institute and sells planetarium, Adventure Aquarium, Philadelphia Trolley Works double-decker bus tour and either the Academy of Natural Sciences or Eastern State Penitentiary. Furthermore, you get a bunch of discount coupons for use in places like Bookbinders Restaurant, Reading Terminal Market and Riverbank Ferry. City Pass also helps you to avoid most entrance lines. For more information, click here.
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Totally refreshed by Philadelphia’s respect for freedom, science and history, Traveler proceeded to ye olde Amtrak station. Separation anxiety was eased by the knowledge that Traveler would return