I haven’t been to Philadelphia in years, and my husband – who is from Wisconsin – has always wanted to check it out. Because we had such a great 4th of July in Washington, DC a couple of years back, we thought it would be fun to celebrate the 4th in yet another very patriotic US city, so we made plans to check out what Philly has to offer.
It was quite possibly the hottest few days of the season, but with so many museums to visit we actually managed it all fairly well. The crowds were never too much, lines never too long, and Center City, where we stayed, is pretty manageable by foot.
What We Drove
We did, however, have a really nice ride from New Jersey to Philadelphia, courtesy of the GM Northeast team (@GMNortheast), who lent us a beautiful, white 2012 Chevy Suburban – or what my husband calls “the land yacht”. This baby is definitely that with all its cool features – like the dual DVD player and portable headphones that allowed the kids to watch movies, while we enjoyed listening to music through its Bose sound system. The wide, soft leather seats were soft as butter, and there was so much space that we were able to pick up some items we had in storage and comfortably bring it home.
For such a big vehicle, it was easy to drive and even easier on the gas budget. We didn’t drive it while in Philly, but we also didn’t go past half a gallon to and from NJ. Suh-weet! I’m sure that’s all to do with the “Active Fuel Technology” that helps conserve energy along the way. This is a $42,000+ vehicle, and it shows! Loved that SUV.
Where We Stayed
We got to check out two hotels in two different parts of Philadelphia.
The Omni Hotel on Independence Park was a great place to kick-off our trip because the area is where Philadelphia displays a lot of its national history and exhibits. If you pace yourself, especially on hot days, you can easily walk to all the museums and even to a few great eateries and shops.
Walking into the Omni hotel, especially on a hot July day, is like walking into heaven – Ok. I will admit that this impression might be highly influenced by the fact that it was freakin’ hot and I was melting away, but still – with the coolness of its open lobby with warm marble decor, cool to the touch, was a welcome reprieve from the heat. And, it smelled pretty, like “spa” pretty. I couldn’t figure out what that scent was but I liked it. The staff was lovely in every way, and our room was comfortable and served its purpose with two double beds and a roll away. What my kids most loved about the hotel? The free chocolate chip cookies and milk that come on your first night there as a welcome to the hotel.
But, a definite bonus is how it is so centrally located in the Independence Hall district of Philadelphia, a huge plus for us, as driving in around the city of Philly is like driving in NYC – not fun.
The Residence Inn Philadelphia Center City is also at a great spot because it is where all the art museums and natural science museums are. It’s in the “business” part of town, but it is a fun place to be, and had we been here on 4th of July, we would’ve had views of the fireworks right from the comfort of our suite (something to keep in mind).
Of course, the Residence Inn delivered with all the family-friendly amenities I love – the kitchenette, which we used for dinner, and the space. Our suite was a two bedroom, two bathroom suite with a living room space that had a pull out couch, and a small dining area adjacent to the kitchen. A home away from home. Then there’s their complimentary breakfast, which is always good and always so packed. My favorite item? The waffles. Get them every time!
What We Saw & Did
Similar to my approach when visiting any city (like our recent weekend in New York), I try to limit the amount of activities we do and pace ourselves so that no one is terribly irritable or exhausted before the day is over. This was our approach as well while in Philly, though visiting more attractions was easier because they were all at such short distance from one another.
We started our journey by visiting the Independence Visitor Center, a must for anyone visiting the city. This open, airy, cool, contemporary space has everything: from information and tickets to every attraction to be found in the city to bathrooms, food, and a place to get out of the harsh weather. I was pretty impressed with the center, and the lines for tickets move really fast.
Tickets to Independence Hall are free, and they are for tours which are timed and handed out on a first come, first serve basis. Because our tickets would have been for much later in the afternoon, when I knew our kids would’ve been worn out we decided to pass, but it was still nice to walk the grounds and take in the views of this historically monumental building.
Visiting The Betsy Ross House is a nice, short tour with lots of history and a great glimpse into the life of the woman who stitched the stars and stripe of the American flag. During our visit, we were able to watch children reenact a pie making scene in the kitchen, which my kids thought was fun. They host different activities throughout the year, but another fun thing to witness during the summer months is the raising of the flag by Betsy and her Colonial friends every morning at 10AM.
The African American Museum is relatively small in comparison to some of the other museums we visited in Philly, but their exhibits are powerful. Watching real news footage of events that occurred during the Civil Rights movement had an affect on my children and helped to generate that conversation on what it all meant, and still means to this day. I really loved the “silent bells” outside the museum, which are bells with no clappers, representing the silent struggles of African Americans in our country.
Another powerful site exhibit was President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, right next to the Liberty Bell Center. It’s less than 2 years old, so if you haven’t been to Philly in some time, it’s worth the trip to check it out.
It’s a unique exhibit in that it brings to surface an unspoken and sad reality, and that is that the man who symbolizes freedom for our nation, our first president George Washington, was a slave owner. This exhibit was put in place to honor those nine slaves. I thought this was a beautiful testament to our willingness (or at least the power of those willing) to represent our entire history, to provide a true image as well as full education, of our past. Its placement next to the Liberty Bell is a symbolic message that we are more open to discuss the true meaning of freedom and how some struggled more than others, and for a longer period of time to truly attain it. I was delighted to share this with my children.
It was an interesting perspective to go from the President’s House exhibit to the National Museum of American Jewish History, where their exhibit “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom” is being displayed. It’s the kind of balance I want to expose my children to and one I need to expose myself to as well. While one exhibits highlights the injustices by one man to one group of people, another celebrates the same man’s efforts in promoting and supporting their religious freedoms. A symbol that history has more than one face, and that the celebration of incidents in time, as well as people, is not only relative, but to some extent personal. This level of exposure, in my opinion, is conducive in trying to develop a willingness to understand others and their point of views, and an ability to respect them, regardless of our own personal opinion and feelings on the matter. The museum is massive, with several levels detailing the history of the Jewish community in this country. I thought it was quite beautiful and walked away learning a lot.
Please Touch Museum was the highlight of our trip for my children. Located in the beautifully restored Memorial Hall, this museum is such a sweet place full of fun and opportunities for education and exploration. We loved this place and the way it tapped into my children’s curiosity and really allowed them to take part in the various exhibits and play area. With a name like “Please Touch” it’s impossible not to, no matter what age.
The Federal Reserve Bank was a fun stop. Who knew the history of money was so interesting? It’s a small, but well displayed exhibit and at the end of it you get $100! Well, in old shredded dollar bills anyway.
The Love Park – or JFK Plaza – is a fun destination to visit with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as the Academy of Natural Sciences just steps away. Robert Indiana – the designer of the famous LOVE sculpture first placed in the plaza in 1976 as part of the United States’ Bicentennial celebration – never did secure the copyright for this image, a fact that broke the heart of my designer husband and many other pop art devotees worldwide.
When our feet were tired, but our sense of adventure was not, we ventured further throughout the city on one of The Big Bus Tour rides. A great way to hop on and hop off throughout Philadelphia, as well as get some insider’s tips and details often not given in on-sight location tours.
Another fun stop that appeal the the comic geeks in my crew, was at Brave New World, where the guys indulged in some new toys, posters and other collectibles of their very favorite super heroes and cartoon characters.
Where We Ate
I wish I had more to really experience the Philadelphia food scene, especially taste a few more Philly cheese steak spots. I am not really sure how I feel about Philly cheese steaks. I’ve tried a few of them and always find them to be bland, regardless of how many different toppings one puts on them. But I think it’s just me, and my cultural inclination for flavor and seasoning and spices.
My husband had his very first Philly cheese steak at Campo’s. He thought it was ok, though I can tell you without a doubt that their macaroni and cheese was off. the. hook. delicious.
Right up the block from the Omni, we found Mrs. K’s Koffee, a local diner, serving the basics of breakfast (I mean real basics) at the lowest of prices. Over the counter serving, tough-don’t-mess-with-them waitresses with a soft heart for families and kiddos – who know how to behave. We went hear a few times, just because we like the local atmosphere, the vibe, and the price, of course!
We had some really amazing pizza (and an oyster dish) at Lulu’s Pizza Bar. I really wasn’t expecting much as the place was completely empty for lunch, but the food was some of the best we had while in Philly – granted we didn’t eat out much as we really took advantage of in-suite kitchen at Residence Inn for meals.
I do know that you can find some amazing food in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, as well as some delicious high-end eateries worthy of a date night splurge in Rittenhouse Square.
We were in Philly for about 6 days, and can tell you we hit but only a fraction of all the city has to offer, especially in food and entertainment.
As we left Philadelphia we made the must-do stop to Sesame Place. It was 102 degrees that day and with all the water slides and splash areas we didn’t even notice. The parade with all our favorite characters never gets old, and though we didn’t do the character lunch this time around, we certainly do enjoy it and the kids always have a blast when we come here – including the 14 year old who has been coming to Sesame Place since he was a little one himself.
I’m sure you are wondering about 4th of July in Philadelphia. Well, I can honestly say that, to date, their 4th of July Parade has been the most fun, most inclusive and diverse 4th of July parades I have enjoyed to date. It wasn’t hard to find a shady spot, even closer to parade starting hours and we had a blast, staying till the very end of it.
The fireworks, however, are another story. We didn’t see them this year. The official Philadelphia fireworks take place along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, by the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But, before that happens, a huge concert, with big artists takes place.
During the day, leading up to the concert, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is filled with food vendors and games often seen at street festivals like the ones here in NYC, but as the hours pass the family-friendly vibe turns into a scene more appropriate for the college, party crowd. We waited till 10:30PM – yes, even with kids in tow – trying to enjoy the music from the ongoing concert because that’s when it was said the fireworks would go off. But, they never came. We finally walked away from the party scene, past other families who had come out to catch the display, past ambulance sirens, past bored teenagers, crying babes, and speakers sounding a concert that would never end, without once seeing a burst of light in the air.
We later read that the fireworks did actually happen, though no one seemed to make mention of the fact that it was an hour late – as a matter of fact, no one seemed to make mention of anything gone wrong at all. We also learned later on from Philly families that there are other fireworks that take place at different times, in different areas that are earlier and more geared to families – but as far as the official 4th of July firework displays, I would say that for all the great things Philadelphia has going for it – this was not one of them.
I’m really glad that we took the time to visit Philadelphia and that my family and I got to enjoy such great exhibits, such a fun parade, and walk this really great, art-filled city. I was reminded of what a great place it is to visit with kids in tow. It’s proximity to the city is fabulous too, only a 2.5 hour drive away.
When it comes to choosing road trips destination that will both educate and inspire, my family and I agree that Philadelphia is worthy of consideration.
Disclosure: Attraction admissions and some hotel costs, were courtesy of Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC) and their partners, to whom we express our deepest gratitude for inviting us to explore their fun city!