Archive for the ‘Philadelphia’ Category

Philly’s most underrated tourist attraction is open for the season

March 26, 2019


The road to Fort Mifflin leads past industrial fuel facilities, long-term airport parking lots and unidentified buildings surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. You’ll edge so close to the runways of Philadelphia International Airport that you might wonder if you took a wrong turn somewhere along the way.

But keep going: the roar of airplanes means you’re almost there. Soon you’ll pull into a small parking lot and walk across pristine grounds to a fortress with a thousand stories to tell.

One of the greatest bombardments of the Revolutionary War took place here in 1777. About 400 American troops garrisoned at Fort Mifflin frustrated British naval attempts to re-supply their occupying forces in Philadelphia. Hundreds of men died and the fort was decimated, but the standoff allowed Gen. George Washington and his troops time to arrive safely at Valley Forge and settle in for the winter. Also known as Mud Island, this multipurpose fort served as a federal prison during the Civil War and an ammunition depot during World War I and II.

Owned by the city of Philadelphia, Fort Mifflin tends to get squeezed out by more well-known historical landmarks like Valley Forge and Washington Crossing. But it’s an important stop on any Pennsylvania history tour, and in recent years, it has hosted renaissance faires, 5K runs and after-hours galas, and played up its reputation as a haunted destination with candlelight ghost tours and paranormal workshops.

Most days, costumed guides and interpretive signs are available to help navigate the grounds, and there are often cannon and musket firing demonstrations on weekends and holidays.


Ben Franklin Museum Gets a Makeover

September 12, 2013


The Ben Franklin Museum has a new look. Gone are the dusty marionettes, the Bicentennial-era mirrored hallway, and the old phones that let you “call” historic figures like George Washington and hear them praise Ben. In their place, the National Park Service has created an interactive, tech-savvy place that tries to capture the multifaceted spirit of the influential Philadelphian in a way that appeals to both kids and adults. (For example, you can play a computerized interactive armonica, then see the real one that Franklin invented in the 18th century on display nearby.)


The renovation took two years and cost $23 million. Thankfully, the Ghost House that outlines the spot where Franklin built his Philadelphia house is still there, just outside the museum’s entrance. Also, don’t miss Franklin’s Printing Office and Bindery, and the B. Free Franklin Post Office, a Colonial-themed operating post office which stamps your postcards with the same imprint used in 1775 by Franklin, the nation’s first Postmaster General.

Chemical Heritage: A Great Museum You’ve Never Heard Of

June 23, 2013


I recently wrote a story for the Independent Traveler website on 12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of. Philly’s Chemical Heritage Museum* (now known as the Science History Institute) made the cut, though I had a hard time choosing just one from Eastern Pennsylvania. There are so many unique, unsung places that are worth a look, from the Mercer Museum in Doylestown and the Mutter in Philadelphia to the Charles Demuth Museum in Lancaster. In the end, I chose CHM for turning such a seemingly mundane topic (the chemical and molecular sciences) into a sleek and fascinating experience (the periodic tables NEVER looked this good in junior high). Despite its free entry and location in the middle of some of Philly’s biggest tourist sites (Independence Hall is around the corner), it has managed to stay under the radar and is rarely crowded. As the weather heats up, it’s the perfect place to cool off and learn something to boot.


Child’s Play at the Art Museum

May 24, 2013

I normally don’t relish the thought of taking my two rambunctious boys inside the awe-inducing walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But this summer there’s an exhibit that should appeal to the child in us all. Design for the Modern Child is all about kids — through the eyes of some of the world’s top designers. Items on display include a 1965 hobby horse, shadow-puppet wallpaper by British designer Victoria Cramsie, and a giant house of cards designed by Ray and Charles Eames (of chair fame).

Also premiering is a custom-built, sustainable Cardboard Cubby House designed by Australian architects Bennett and Trimble. It will be on display in the atrium of the Perelman Building (a short walk from the main building; see photo below), where kids can explore it and learn to build themselves from plans provided by the architects. The exhibit runs through mid-October, so there’s plenty of time to catch it. Nearly in tandem with the design exhibit, the kid-friendly ArtSplash program debuts June 28 and runs through Labor Day.


It’s like God said, “Let There Be Wawa…”

December 27, 2012


Philadelphia Magazine does a pretty good job this month of coming up with 76 reasons to love Philly. There are a few entries I find questionable, like Main Line gossip and the Anthropologie store on 18th street, but most are spot on, like midnight pretzels at the Pretzel Factory, Kelly Drive, and the Curtis Institute of Music. My favorite reason of all is No. 27, that old standby that represents so many of the city’s good qualities: fresh rolls, chummy service, low prices, and 24-hour access to Tastykakes and soft pretzels. Here’s to Wawa.

p.s. photo courtesy of the 50 Wawas in 30 Days blog.

A Magical Trip to South Street

November 14, 2012

It’s a stretch of South Street that you once walked blocks to avoid. Now South west of 9th has a Whole Foods, a farm-to-table restaurant (Supper), and a hair salon that charges $50 a cut. It is also home to Philadelphia’s kookiest and most endearing attraction, known as Magic Gardens. As the story goes, artist Isaiah Zagar began tiling dilapidated South Street buildings in the 1960s with porcelain and glass discarded from the city’s shuttered factories and warehouses — and he never stopped. He tackled the vacant lot where the Magic Garden now sits in 1994 and worked on it for 15 years. The community stepped in to save Zagar’s work from demolition about a decade ago, when the lot’s owner wanted to sell it, and the half-block complex is now run by a non-profit. When I visited last year for the first time, it instantly reminded me of Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Simon Rodia’s stunning spires of found objects like porcelain, green glass, and sea shells. Watts also narrowly missed the wrecking ball in the 1950s when the arts community stepped in to save it.

Anyone can gape at the tiled courtyard from the street, but to fully experience Philly’s Magic Gardens, pay $7 and wander through the labrynthine rooms, closets, and basement. Even the bathroom is embedded with folk-art statues, cut mirrors, and tiles. It will take you at least an hour to soak it all up, longer if it’s a nice day and you have time to wander the courtyard and sculpture garden and view the documentary by Zagar’s son that chronicles the family’s life. On some Sundays, you’ll find the 73-year-old artist himself holding court in his studio and happy to answer questions about his folk-art masterpiece.

Mini-golf at Franklin Square

August 24, 2012

When the kids are about to wig out from Birthplace of our Nation overload, Franklin Square is where you want to go. An easy walk from Independence Hall and Constitution Center, it was transformed in 2006 from a neglected open lot into a kid-friendly oasis with a carousel, playground, hamburger kiosk and vintage marble fountain. Best of all, it has the most interesting miniature golf course around — one whose designer obviously knew how to showcase the city’s best features. All 18 holes are Philly-themed: there’s Old City, the Museum of Art, the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin bridge, and even the LOVE statue. At $9 a game for adults ($7 for seniors and kids), it’s no bargain, but it’s a fun break amid all the heavy history lessons swirling around it. Mini-golf and carousel are open daily through September, then they scale back to Friday through Sunday in October.

As summer nears: 5 life-changing Pennsylvania ice cream parlors

July 30, 2012



Ice cream is fun to eat all year round, but is there no better time to enjoy it than in June, July and August? As summer nears, here is my subjective short list of the best ice cream parlors in eastern Pennsylvania.

Owow Cow Creamery, Bucks County, Ottsville. O wow, indeed. Amaretto Fudge Ripple, Sweet Honey Cream, Chocolate Covered Lemon Peel. The flavors alone make this growing local ice cream business a winner. Add to that its local sourcing of organic milk, honey, eggs and other ingredients and an owner with a real appreciation for the beauty of rural Bucks County’s. There are also branches in Wrightstown, Easton, Chalfont, and Lambertville, NJ.

Bassett’s, Philadelphia. Reading Terminal Market. Even ice cream in Philadelphia involves a historic first. Bassett’s is America’s oldest existing ice cream company, established in 1861 when L.D. Bassett began selling ice cream he made via mule-driven churn at his South Jersey farm.  The flavors tend toward the familiar — cinnamon, rum raisin, cherry vanilla — but the ice cream stands out for its creaminess, thanks to an impressively high butterfat content of 16.4%. It’s available in stores all over the place, but the best place to enjoy it is by bellying up to the marble counter at Reading Terminal Market, where it has been a fixture since 1892.

Purple Cow Creamery, Easton. You can’t go to the Crayola Factory without stopping at this cheery family-owned ice cream parlor. The flavors are as colorful as the crayons next door: Chocolate Covered Bacon, Toasted Coconut, Birthday Cake Batter with Rainbow Sprinkles, and the marquee Purple Cow (black raspberry with fudge swirl and chocolate truffle cups). They also make their own waffle cones.


Freddy Hill Farms, Lansdale. Pretzel cones, low prices, plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and two goats and a kid named Frosty, Dip and Scoop. This may not be the finest ice cream one ever tasted, but it’s one of my favorite places to take the kids when I’m looking for an easy and fun dessert option. We get our ice cream, visit the animals and sometimes play a round of mini-golf. They also carry butter brickle, a hard-to-find flavor made of small, crunchy pieces of golden-browned toffee.

Perrydell Farm, York. Dolcezzo, the acclaimed gelataria in Washington, D.C., sources its dairy products from Perrydell and calls the three Perry brothers “some of the nicest folks around.” On their farm outside York, you can witness the milking of cows and feeding of calves (if you time it right), then indulge in a hand-dipped cone or shake. Their chocolate milk is pretty fabulous, too.

Finally, a eulogy of sorts:

R.I.P. Rosenberger’s Dairy Wagon, Hatfield. Whenever my dad is forced to pay more than $3 for a dish of ice cream, he grumbles that he would get double the amount for about half the price at the little cafe attached to Rosenberger’s Dairies. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but we can vouch for the tasty ice cream and all-around friendliness of the place. Sadly, Rosenberger’s was sold and closed its doors forever in 2014.

Rodin Museum Returns to Its Original Grandeur

July 17, 2012

The Barnes Museum’s new location may be getting all the attention this summer, but it’s worth noting that another superb museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has quietly reopened. The Rodin Museum, home to the largest collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures outside of France, underwent a three-year $9 million makeover that spiffed up all the sculptures, including “The Thinker” and “Gates of Hell,” and restored the French gardens, fountain and reflecting pool. As curator Joseph Rischl describes it, the refurbished building is “as sophisticated as a Parisian dress of 1929.” Wow. Plus, it now has air-conditioning.

Unliked the Barnes, timed tickets are not required. Even the pricing is easy: “pay what you wish” (suggested donation: $8) and the gardens are always free.

The Prettiest Street in Philadelphia

June 28, 2012

According to Inga Saffron, architecture critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, it’s the 2400 block of Panama Street in Fitler Square. She tells Philly Mag this month: “Every house is painted a different color. It’s very narrow and has Belgian bricks, and in the spring it’s overhung with cherry blossoms and magnolias and mimosas, a canopy of pink blossoms.”