About a year ago, my sons (ages 10 and 13) started a campaign to get us across the border—the American one that is. Sure, we’d been to various parts of Canada and Europe several times, but it was the prospect of visiting our big neighbour to the south that had them most excited. Apparently they were the only ones in their circle of friends who had never been to the States. And no, they assured me that shopping trips to Buffalo didn’t count.
When I realized they wouldn’t be deterred, I pulled up a map of the U.S. on the computer and gave them a challenge. “Pick a place we can drive to from Toronto over a long weekend, give me a good reason why we should go and I’ll book it.” I heard them debating for a bit before they came back with their choice: Philadelphia! They wanted to channel Rocky Balboa in the famous fight film “Rocky” as he trained along the 72 steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Did you know they’re now called the Rocky Steps?” they asked me.
True to my word, we booked a long weekend soon after and packed up the car for the nine-hour drive. My husband and I had never been to Philly either, and as the first world heritage city in the entire U.S, our curiosity was piqued too.
What ensued over the next 72 hours was the ultimate educational experience, spanning history, art and social studies. In fact, we could have used another three days! Lesson learned? It pays to listen to your kids sometimes when it comes to travel destinations. Here are the highlights:
Touted as the birthplace of American independence, downtown Philly is brimming with historic buildings and artifacts. There’s the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Centre and Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. You can tour the home of Betsy Ross, who designed the American flag, and visit the site of Benjamin Franklin’s original home, which is now a working post-office and museum. We stayed at the Loews Philadelphia hotel, the city’s first skyscraper and home of America’s first savings bank. It provided a breathtaking view of the skyline from its 33rd floor and was conveniently located in the centre of town near several hop-on tour buses, trolleys and local transit.
In addition to the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art, which houses the largest collection of Monet outside of Paris, Philly has a bevy of museums for all interests. There’s the famous Franklin Institute, one of the leading science centres in the country which features amazing immersive exhibitions, such as the Giant Heart and Your Brain. For those who prefer something a little different, there’s the Mutter Museum located inside the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, where you’ll find the skeleton of the tallest man in North America along with microscope slides of Einstein’s brain. There’s also a collection of 2,000 objects removed from people’s throats. One of our favourite afternoons was spent taking a self-directed audio tour through the Eastern State Penitentiary, America’s most famous prison. Trolling through those crumbling cell blocks, which held notorious criminals such as Al Capone, was an eerie but altogether fascinating experience.
For a change of pace, there’s Franklin Square, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and features a giant fountain built in 1838 as its centerpiece. There are activities for the younger set here, such as the Parx Liberty Carousel and mini-golf, which is set up to mimic all the city’s iconic sites, including the “Rocky Steps.”
All four of us channeled the champ by racing up the steps to the Museum of Art and later waiting in a lengthy line to snap a picture with Rocky’s life-size statue. Thankfully, there were ice-cream trucks nearby.
The Reading Terminal Market, a former railroad station in the city centre, is the idea spot for breakfast or lunch with a wide variety of vendors selling locally grown fare and Philly specialties. One morning we had freshly made pretzels filled with egg and cheese that I’m still dreaming about, and my youngest loved his Philly Cheesesteak for lunch. For the sweet tooth, the Max Brenner restaurant is devoted to all things chocolate, including a yummy sweet pizza and chocolate-based cocktails for the adults. One night we stumbled across a local favorite called Insomnia Cookies, which serves ice-cream on warm, chewy cookies made on the premises (and they even deliver to the local hotels). It doesn’t get better than that.
Open until the end of September, Philly also houses a pop-up urban beach called the Spruce Street Harbor Park. It has hammocks, paddleboats and a floating restaurant, along with other carnival treats. There’s also free outdoor movies and live music. Did I mention we needed more time?