Walking through history

Explore Philly, the birthplace of our nation, rich with history, art and fine food — and not just cheesesteaks!

A sculpture of John Barry — a famed Naval officer during the American Revolutionary War — stands outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is known as The City of Brotherly Love, as founder William Penn so famously penned.

It’s also the city where 13 wrangling colonies ironed out their differences and united to fight the English king to eventually create the USA.

It’s an upstart kind of energy you can still feel to this day: My heart pumped and tears filled my eyes as I surveyed the sites where the action played out in the 1700s.

The Liberty Bell Center
The Liberty Bell Center

Historic District

Begin your visit in the very spot where the United States became united, in Philly’s red-brick Historic District.

Normally, you’d start with a tour of Independence Hall, but during my visit, it was closed due to the government shutdown. Nearby — enshrined indoors — hangs the Liberty Bell. Its building was closed, too, but we visitors spied it through a picture window, murmuring in Spanish, Chinese and French while gazing at the symbol of our nation. Nearby, the National Museum of Jewish History, pays homage to escapes from European pogroms and life in the Land of Liberty.

Across the parkland, stand the skeletal remains of The President’s House, an indoor-outdoor museum that commemorates the lives of nine enslaved Africans at the site of the nation’s first executive mansion (yes that of George Washington himself), one of so many paradoxes that emerge in this great city.

Alexander Hamilton, National Constitution Center
Alexander Hamilton, National Constitution Center

Alexander Hamilton

And then there’s that other statesman we’ve been hearing so much about as of late — Alexander Hamilton.

Yes, fans of the blockbuster musical Hamilton who visit Philly can not only see the famed show on its three-month run later this year (Aug. 27–Nov. 17), but they can also go beyond the Broadway story to follow in Hamilton’s footsteps at sites throughout the Historic District.

Fans will find an exhibit at the National Constitution Center highlighting the competing ideals of Hamilton and his rivals. At benches in the district, Once Upon A Nation storytellers reenact the legendary Hamilton-Washington bromance and the Hamilton-Burr rivalry.

The Museum of the American Revolution currently includes a Hamilton Was Here interactive playscape for kids (open through March 17) about how Philadelphia and Hamilton combined forces to found the nation. (Find an official Guide to Alexander Hamilton’s Philadelphia, featuring 14 ways to retrace Hamilton’s steps in the city, at visitphilly.com.)

Museum of the American Revolution
Museum of the American Revolution

Building a new nation

All Hamilton hoopla aside, the Museum of the American Revolution really does help you experience the chaotic drama of breaking ties with England: Vivid films and interactive displays immerse visitors in General Washington’s challenges — a ragtag, undisciplined army; frigid weather; no funds. See housewives’ boycott of English goods following the Stamp Act — “no taxation without representation.” And imagine Paul Revere’s ride, plus — who knew? — his political posters and cartoons. The museum then asks, “Now what?” After gaining freedom, how do you set about launching a government from scratch?

The aforementioned National Constitution Center has a few of the answers: You start with a Bill of Rights.

Turned out, women, black people and Native Americans weren’t covered, so amendments were added later. Thanks to interactive exhibits, you can become a Supreme Court justice and register your opinions on the timely questions of today, or vote in fantasy elections, such as Eisenhower vs. Roosevelt or Obama vs. Reagan.

Freedom is again the theme at the National Liberty Museum, which leads off with Moses as a freedom leader, continuing with the Pilgrims’ quest and immigrants at Ellis Island. Peer into facsimiles of Nelson Mandela’s cell and the hideout of Anne Frank. Peruse accounts of those who aided others on 9/11 and also at the collapse of our own 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

The tiny house where seamstress Betsy Ross stitched the famous flag is yours to tour, too. It stands near Elfreth’s Alley, dating back to 1702 — the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street, still vibrant with 32 bright-shuttered brick homes (with tours on weekends). It’s mere steps from the antique edifices lining Arch Street, today the city’s Soho, lush with art galleries, wine bars, bookstores and designer boutiques.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Art central

But the city has more to lure visitors than the history that happened here. There’s art. Hoof it along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, called the “Champs Elysees of Philly,” until it dead-ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fronted by those iconic steps that Rocky pounded. It’s a veritable lexicon of painting, from Fra Angelico’s cherubs and Botticelli’s beauties to a sunny Matisse and misty Monet. Treasures of architec-tural beauty abound, too — an ancient Indian temple, a Japanese tea house and a Chinese palace hall.

Rest your feet at the museum’s fine café or that of another museum just down the Parkway: The Barnes Foundation is a treasury of all things Impressionist. See 81 Renoirs, 65 Cezannes, 59 Matisses and more, displayed in salon style. The nearby Rodin Museum features some of the world’s most renowned masterpieces of sculpture.

Next, head to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts — the oldest in the country — where Early American painters reign — Gilbert Stuart, Benjamin West, Thomas Eakins, the family of Peales. Outside, Claes Oldenburg’s tall glass Paintbrush beckons from the street, while inside, those famous portraits of George Washington face that of his foe across the pond, King George III.

A Philly cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market
A Philly cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market

Now: Eat!

Soul sated, it’s time to feed the body. You crave a Philly cheesesteak? Well, me too. I found mine at the legendary Reading Terminal Market, featuring 80 vendors boast-ing take-home treats from Amish loaves to whole lobsters as well as hot sandwiches.

New American fare is the forte at Fork, which one patron described as “reliably excellent, but not flashy” (and also in the historic district). You can’t go wrong with starters such as venison tartare spangled with crunchy hazelnuts, or crab salad jiving with daikon radishes and jalapenos. Move next to a lush mushroom risotto, then a succulent quail stuffed with orange-scented spelt bread.

Next door stands the more informal High Street, boasting “the best grilled cheese ever” (thanks to local cheddar), or you might gobble up the avocado toast, erected upon the oven’s celebrated bread.

Talulah’s Daily — in addition to being open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — also offers The Secret Supper Club near Washington Square, which serves changing prix-fixe menus every night (except Mondays). January’s edition led off with a rustic apple-quinoa salad, then cheesy tortellini in broth; tender beef in Bordelaise sauce; a trio of Canadian cheeses; and a wicked-good sticky toffee pudding, sided with Earl Grey ice cream.

Finally, have dinner — rather, a foodie immersion — in the rich cuisine of Israel, at James Beard winner Zahav. First, try a sextet of tasty vegetable salads, then your choice of small plates such as roasted cauliflower; broccoli with feta and almonds; and Brussels sprouts atop baba ghanouj. Hummus and flatbread, steaming from the oven, next vie for your favor.

Move on to grilled meats (and eggplant), including duck with walnuts and pomegranates or hanger steak brightened with harissa. Reservations are as hard to come by as a ticket to the Super Bowl, so set your phone to speed-dial. Then, while you’re on hold, check on visitphilly.com to plan the rest of your visit.


Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes articles for public-ations around the world. She lives in Uptown.