Looking for an easy weekend getaway, but tired of the same old “drive” destinations near New Jersey? Consider following in my family’s footsteps, and get a fresh new take on an old destination. In our case, we hit up Philadelphia, but with a twist: We skipped our usual historic downtown tour and focused instead on the cultural side of the city. Can you spend a weekend in Philly without seeing the Liberty Bell and still have a good time? Yes! (But no need to skip the cheesesteaks….)
For our Philadelphia road trip, we decided to concentrate on the Fairmount neighborhood with its multitude of museums. Basing ourselves at the perfectly located (and perfectly plush) Four Seasons, we were able to stumble out the front door and onto the museum-filled stretch that begins at Logan Circle with the Franklin Institute and shoots straight up Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum and Rocky’s famous steps – one jam-packed mile of culture, science, and art, and, I’m happy to report, fun for everyone.
Want to try a family museum getaway in Philly for yourself? Use our handy guide, below:
Where to visit:
Franklin Institute – With a giant, walk-through model heart; hands-on science displays; flight simulators; and live demos that include ice cream made with liquid nitrogren (Aidan was so impressed he wrote an essay for school about the smoke-filled frozen dessert creation) this is a sure-fire family pleaser. Note: If you have a full day, check out the Imax Theater and Planetarium, too.
Academy of Natural Sciences – Just across the street from Franklin Institute, this museum run by Drexel University has the biggest dinosaur display in the city as well as a lab where Drexel’s paleontologists often work on real dinosaur remains and are available to answer questions (cool!) Our favorite activity was a fossil dig where replica dinosaur bones are encased in limestone; kids receive goggles and a chisel and get to work. (It takes about 6 months for the bones to become free). Also here are live animals, a butterfly habitat, and natural history dioramas.
Barnes Foundation – The sleek, contemporary exterior with a huge courtyard and reflecting pool (great for kids to explore) hides cozy room after room stocked ceiling to floor with works by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Manet, and Cezanne displayed exactly the way they were at the private home of Joseph Barnes. Something about the homey atmosphere and bright impressionist paintings really appeals to kids, even thought the museum has a quiet library vibe. Tips: Make advance reservations for weekend times and pick up the “Riddle of the Room” audio tour for families when you arrive.
Rodin Museum –You don’t even have to step inside to be wowed by this sculpture museum. The exterior gardens are free and open to the public (much like the Musee Rodin in Paris) and contain bronze casts of both the monumental Gates of Hell AND The Thinker. Aidan was super impressed by his close-up access to the famous art works, plus the fresh air viewing revived him for further art outings.
Philadelphia Museum of Art – They had us at “Rocky.” Actually, they seem to have every visitor between the ages of 3 and 83 at Rocky, as you’ll notice from the crowds lining up to have their picture taken with the bronze fighter statue outside before they run up the museum steps, hands held aloft over their heads at the top (Aidan ran up and them twice (!) …. and then wanted to lay down). To put it mildly, this museum is HUGE with more than 80 art-filled galleries – research before you arrive so you can take advantage of family programming (free with admission) which ranges from sketching in the gallery with the help of an artist to “Tours for Tots.”
Please Touch Museum – Although we’ve aged out of this museum (it’s best for 6 and under), and it’s not quite on the Ben Franklin Parkway, I still have fond memories of visiting this great children’s museum when Aidan was younger and wanted to include it here. Highlights include dress up areas, water play, puppetry, and a multitude of “touchable” play opportunities.
Hint: Look into purchasing a Philadelphia City Pass for your museum weekend. It provides reduced admission and front-of-the line access to five Philly institutions, including the Franklin Institute and Please Touch Museum, plus hop-on/hop-off access to the Big Bus Company’s sightseeing tour bus.
Where to Eat:
Pizzeria Vetri – This Philly insider’s spot for gourmet pizza spot in dough throwing distance from the Barnes Foundation, and the perfect museum break spot. The pizzeria has communal tables and a limited menu, but easily serves the best pizza I’ve had in Philadelphia. Take a seat at the counter to watch the wood-oven pizza masters create personal pies in less than 3 minutes. Don’t miss the cappuccino soft serve for dessert.
Sabrina’s Café — Decorated like a retro-dining room, this casual diner-style spot serves HUGE breakfasts such as stuffed challah French toast to fuel you up for your museum adventures. They also offer comfort food classics for lunch and dinner.
Other dining options: Cheesesteaks and Donuts — It’s hard to talk about Philly without mentioning cheesesteaks, but the best aren’t served in the museum neighborhood. Our family’s steak sandwich of choice is a short cab ride away at Jim’s on Second Street, which has a dining room upstairs (we order ours with provolone). Also, just outside the museum area, near Rittenhouse Square, is Federal Donuts, which specializes in two items: crisp fried chicken and heavenly hot donuts. Don’t question this combination, just join the line and plan to hit the treadmill when you get back home.
Where to Stay:
The Four Seasons – From the self-serve hot cider in the lobby to the heated pool to its ideal location directly across from the Academy of Natural Sciences and Franklin Institute, we loved everything about this posh hotel situated right at the beginning of Museum Row.
At check in, kids get to choose a welcome gift from a red wagon overflowing with crayons, Matchbox cars, and books. At turn down, children receive milk and cookies. Even better, when I mentioned this was a special trip for Aidan, the hotel sent up a plate-size cookie with his name in icing one night and a platter of un-iced treats and buttercream frosting another evening so he could make his own dessert! Downstairs in the lounge, the addictive cheesesteak spring rolls (don’t question the mash-up, just order them), was just the right size for a kids’ dinner. And for grown ups, there are gorgeous cocktails and delicious bites with only an elevator button to push to get back home.
It was the perfect antidote to our regular road trips – only this time we’d be happy to come back and do exactly the same again!