I have a new favorite city for family fun that's only four hours from Syracuse. It's got excellent hotels, scrumptious food, scores of family-friendly attractions and easy to navigate streets. Can you guess where it is? The answer might surprise you; it was a pleasant surprise to me for sure. It's Philadelphia!
If you're from the East Coast, there is a really good chance you've had just about enough of winter by the end of March. This year seems to be excruciatingly painful. My son had a long weekend from school and I knew we had to go somewhere to escape winters' fury. But where? It seems like we've been to all the interesting destinations within a weekend drive plenty of times. So how did I overlook Philadelphia? I flown through there many times but it never really occurred to me to spend a weekend there. As I researched the destination I realized it was exactly what I was looking for: just far enough south to make a difference in the weather and within a half day drive.
We left town on a Friday morning and it was a super-easy four hour drive. We hit just a little bit of traffic as we approached downtown. Here is how we spent out three day weekend in Philadelphia:
Make your way to the intersection of 17th and Walnut Street. Pull up in front of The Latham Hotel, where you'll spend the next two nights, and signal the bellman that you want to valet park your car for the weekend. Within a few minutes, they'll whisk your car away until you call for it again.
Tip on parking at The Latham Hotel - This was the only part of the journey that was a little bit stressful. Early Friday afternoon the streets were buzzing with cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians and it was a little hectic finding a place to pull up in front of the hotel. There aren't really any "parking spaces" so be strategic about your arrival. Things happened quickly though and we were removing our bags within 10 minutes and our car was swept away not to be seen again until Sunday.
Check in, drop your bags in your stylish guest room and get your bearings. The Latham's rock star location features compact marble baths, custom headboards and a decor that is elegant without being stuffy. Decorated in gold and silver tones, the hotel fares well on TripAdvisor. Our room (705) is reasonably sized and has a seating area tucked into a bay window overlooking a main thoroughfare. Street noise was barely audible.
Make a beeline to the Reading Terminal Market for a late lunch or snacks.
Tip on Reading Terminal Market: It wasn't too busy midafternoon on a Friday. What I loved about the Terminal Market is that everyone in our family got to have exactly what they wanted for lunch. No compromising. No fast food. I could have the cheesesteak I'd been craving for weeks. My husband could have Chinese food. Our son could have his beloved pizza. And when we were done we could all have what we wanted for dessert: the legendary Beiler's donuts. I've heard tales of lines that stretch on forever but our strategic mid-afternoon visit proved wise. The line in front of us was just a dozen or so people; just enough time to figure out what kind of donuts we wanted to try. I had the incredible salted caramel doughnut, filled with white cream and topped with caramel icing and a touch of sea salt. I'm still dreaming about that donut.
You're now overstuffed and ready to sightsee. Just steps outside the Reading Terminal Market is one of the pick-up points for the Big Bus Tours Philadelphia hop-on/hop-off tour company. (Stop # 5, 12th & Market Streets.) It's a great value if you plan to use it for transportation or to orient yourself with the city. Our pass permitted us to hop-on and hop-off at any of the 21 stops over a 24-hour period.
Philadelphia Sightseeing Tip: Purchase a Philadelphia CityPASS to gain discounted admission into 5 of Philadelphia's most popular sites. You'll save 45% compared to combined regular box office prices and in most cases can skip the ticket lines. I've used CityPASS in countless cities and it's never failed to be THE most cost effective and reliable method to see multiple sights. The booklets feature reliable information on attraction hours and how to access via public transportation.
Tip: The weather was picture perfect (54°) so instead of waiting for the bus to arrive at stop #5 we walked a few blocks to stop #1 at 5th and Market. This allowed us to pick up the tour at the first stop so we could catch it in its entirety.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art stays open until 8:45 p.m on Friday nights. Get off at stop #12 and run up the famous "Rocky Steps". For a really special and unique way to spend the evening, grab a cocktail or light bite and join the lively but sophisticated crowd on the steps of the Great Stair Hall for Art After 5 - a cabaret-style live music event that is included in your regular museum admission. The performances are scheduled for 5:45–6:45 p.m. and 7:15–8:15 p.m. Most of the galleries remain open in the evening. Don't miss the stunning Treasures from Korea exhibit, on display through May 26, 2014. We had the most fun in the Arms and Armor exhibit, trying to decide which weapons and suits of armor we would use in the unlikely event of a family battle.
Beiler's Donuts are calling you back to the Reading Terminal Market. It's about 9 blocks from The Latham Hotel. If donuts aren't your way to start your day (I'd make an exception for these!) there are plenty of other breakfast options.
Your ticket for the Big Bus Tour is still valid this morning. After breakfast, hop on the bus outside the Terminal Market (stop # 5 at 12th & Market Streets.) Take the bus all the way to the manageably-sized Philadelphia Zoo (stop #10) where you'll spend the morning; about 3 hours should do it. You can return via the same bus that brought you there or do as we did and walk back towards Center City. It's a lovely walk over the Schuykill River and through Fairmount Park. Pass through the charming Fairmount/Art Museum neighborhood and grab lunch at Luigi's Pizza Fresca (24th and Fairmount Ave); a wide variety of ready-made traditional and specialty slices are available along with hot and cold subs, salads and traditional hot entrees. You'll be so happy you skipped lunch at the zoo!
Favorite Philadelphia Zoo exhibit: the PECO Primate Reserve is a bi-level gem.
Just a few blocks from Luigi's is the Eastern State Penitentiary (stop #9) where notable inmate Al Capone spent eight months in relative luxury (Capone was permitted to have upholstered furniture and rugs in his cell - a far cry from the cold and bare cells that the other inmates had). Take the self-paced audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. Plan to spend 1 to 1/2 hours at the complex.
Eastern State Penitentiary Tip: It's very cold and damp in the penitentiary. This will be a relief on a sweltering summer day but you'll notice the chill the rest of the year. Dress warmly!
You can hop back on the bus or walk the ten or so blocks to The Franklin Institute (stop #14), a gorgeous science museum that blends modernity with traditional architecture. You could spend all day here but you only have a few hours left before the museum closes at 5pm (except for the separaetely-priced One Day in Pompeii exhibit which stays open later than the general museum several nights a week). Kids go crazy over the two-story giant heart they can walk through, the interactive electricity exhibit and the activity-rich Sports Challenge area. Adults love the stunning National Geographic 50 Greatest Photographs (on display till May 15, 2014).
When the museum closes, head over to the Liberty Bell Center. It closes at 5pm but you can still view the Liberty Bell from outside through the glass windows. You'll need another full day to explore all of Philadelphia's history: Betsy Ross' house, the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Visitor Center and Independence Hall just to name a few.
Take a stroll around Rittenhouse Square Park and take in some retail therapy at one of the areas many fine shops. For dinner, hit up one of Rittenhouse Square's many fine eateries. A great place for dessert is the always crowded Max Brenner - known for ridiculously indulgent chocolate treats of every variety and of varieties that you can't even imagine.
Did I mention I would drive four hours just for the Reading Terminal Market? It opens at 9am this morning (Sunday) and we are gathered at the doors with a small crowd of others waiting for it to open.
Hot tip for Reading Terminal Market - The variety of meats, cheeses, produce, seafood and baked goods is overwhelming. At one meat market I counted no less than twenty varieties of gourmet sausage. Bring a small cooler and fill it with ice at your hotel. Before you leave town, fill the cooler with products purchased from the market. I found the prices to be reasonable and the quality excellent.
Top Philadelphia Tip - Our tour guide said it best - Philly has an early bedtime. Most attractions close at 5:00 pm and the last admission is often earlier. Plan to get an early start to your day (many attractions open at 9 or 10) and leave the evenings for the superb restaurants, shopping, bars and clubs. Some attractions stay open later in the summer months.
As is common in the travel industry, the writers stay was hosted by visitphilly.com. Hotel accommodations, parking and admission to most attractions were included. While this has not influenced this writers opinion of her visit, Examiner.com believes in full disclosure.