Philadelphia offers art, music, history, food and fun
I had five days off, and I had never been to Philadelphia. The flight from Chicago took less than two hours.
In the cab from the airport to the hotel, I began to see that I had really made a most interesting choice for a trip: I saw signs reading “Mt. Vernon” and “Walt Whitman Parkway,” and soon we crossed the Delaware River.
A bit later, the cab came near the famous City Hall, with the statue atop of William Penn, who founded Philadelphia way back in 1682.
By contrast, Chicago did not become a city until 1837, and had then a population of only 4,000. Philly has a much longer history and was the capitol of our country from 1790 until 1800.
That history is all around you here, and I could see it clearly in my central city hotel: red-brick Federalist houses abound. My cozy neighborhood was just a few blocks from Spruce Street, the Avenue of the Arts, with famous theaters and the Kimmel Center, home of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
My first day revealed that Philly is amazingly walkable city. Everything seems nearby. Cabs are also plentiful—much more so than in other big cities—and there are Uber and Lyft.
I took a photo of the William Penn statue atop that remarkably beautiful City Hall, from 1900. Across the street, I noticed Wanamaker’s Department Store. John Wanamaker, like Marshall Field in Chicago, was a pioneer of the department store. His giant store, taking up a whole block, is today—again, like Marshall Field’s in Chicago—a Macy’s. But it still contains one of the grandest organs in the world, with more than 28,000 pipes! Every day at noon, since 1911, the Wanamaker’s Grand Organ has been thrilling shoppers and visitors with a free organ concert that fills the magnificent seven-story atrium with stupendous sound. What a way to start my first day!
I visited the Visitor’s Center, in the heart of historic Philadelphia, each day. Sondra, who works there, is most helpful, and in four different languages! There, I lined up my ideas and tours for the day. I walked to nearby Liberty Bell, and remembered my father first telling me about it when I was a child.
I took a “Bow-Tie” tour, in which a guide, dressed in one, walks you around Independence Hall, where our Declaration of Independence and later our Constitution were signed. You can see where Ben Franklin lived and ran his printing business. I saw the first library, the house of Betsy Ross, and sites connected to Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and so many of our country’s founders, all within a few blocks!
Do NOT miss the “Big Bus” tours around the city. Sit on the open-air top near the guide and ask questions. I saw and learned so much: The Basilica, which contains no large stained-glass windows, since people were wary of bombs and rocks during anti-Irish Catholic riots in 1844. I learned things related to Philadelphia Irish, including Princess and Movie Star Grace Kelly and her brother, Olympic Champion Jack Kelly.
From the top of the bus, I saw the famous “LOVE” statue by Robert Indiana, and across the river to Camden, NJ. A bridge of 2.7 miles connects you to Camden, home of Campbell’s Soup.
A major attraction of Philadelphia for me was their renowned art museums, and I found them among the major highlights of my trip. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the largest in the world, contains incredible European, American and Asian collections. Their current show, “The Impressionist’s Eye,” contains 70 works of some of the most beautiful French paintings I have ever seen, by artists from Monet, Manet and Cassatt through Post-Impressionists Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Cezanne. It runs through Aug. 18.
Outside the museum, people often take photos of the sculpture of Sylvester Stallone as “Rocky,” and pose on top of the stairs as he did in the famous film.
The nearby Rodin Museum spotlights one of the greatest sculptors since Michelangelo. And the Barnes Museum is a major draw to the “City of Brotherly Love”: Dr. Albert Barnes assembled one of the most astonishing collections of Impressionism in the world. His way of hanging the pictures may strike you at first as merely eccentric, but a 20-minute introductory film shows us that his method teaches us to look and appreciate art in new ways.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the greatest anywhere, was founded in 1900. A chance meeting between their conductor, Leopold Stokowski, and the Chicago-born artist Walt Disney, led to the landmark 1939 movie Fantasia. In the 1970s, I had seen the Philadelphians and their esteemed conductor Eugene Ormandy at the Auditorium Theater.
What a treat when I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra on this trip! Violin virtuoso Nicholaj Znaider was playing the Elgar Violin Concerto, using the same violin played by the man who premiered the work, Fritz Kreisler. Suddenly, the concert stopped: a string on that vintage violin had broken!
Znaider and the conductor, French-born Stephane Deneve, handled the situation with humor and aplomb, chatting with the audience, until the instrument could be repaired. All then went well. The concert concluded with Deneve leading a fiery performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Despite the propulsive power of the performance, details emerged that reminded me of a terrific performance I heard with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti. It was interesting then to read that Deneve had worked with Solti.
Speaking of music, I also visited the ultra-demanding Curtis Institute of Music, which accepts only four percent of applicants. There, Fritz Reiner taught conducting, and gave an “A” to only one of his pupils: Leonard Bernstein.
I finished my trip with a Philadelphia Phillies game at Citizens’ Bank Park. You can see that the three sites where the Phillies, the basketball Philadelphia 76ers, and the football Philadelphia Eagles play are quite close to one another.
I walked all the way around Citizen’s Bank Park, with its big electric version of the Liberty Bell outside. Giant statues of Philly stars Robin Roberts, Richie Ashburn, and Mike Schmidt adorn the outside. The Phillies are currently in first place and have one of the best hitters in baseball in Bryce Harper. I saw them defeat the Detroit Tigers before an appreciative crowd including many families.
There is delicious food at the stadium, and the Italian sausage sandwich was one of the best I ever had. It ranks with the Philly Cheesesteak and the roasted pork sandwich on an Italian roll as things you must try. I also enjoyed local beers Yuengling and Victory. No wonder there are so many food tours in Philly!
I could go on and on—for example, the houses of jazz giant John Coltrane and of writer Edgar Allan Poe can be visited—but I am out of space. Do visit Philadelphia—it has so much to offer!
Go to visitphilly.com.