Pivotal history, peerless art and powerful architecture converge during a long weekend in fabulous Philadelphia.
The country’s first capital and the birthplace of our nation’s Constitution, Philadelphia is the historic hatchery of everything that we have come to know and esteem about the United States. It was here, in 1776, that the Declaration of Independence was written and first read to the public, and here, in 1777, that the first Fourth of July celebration went off with a bang. The nation’s first stock exchange, first public water supply, first post office, first public library, first art museum, first zoo, first department store—they all originated in Philadelphia. Today, the City of Brotherly Love possesses a huge storehouse of American treasures that span the Colonial and Revolutionary eras and extend right to the present moment to include a brand-new museum that is the envy of every other art-attentive city on the planet. Our long-weekend itinerary plunges you into cultural highlights and momentous locations—both well-known and off-the-beaten-path—that vividly illustrate why Philadelphia is utterly and unequivocally first-rate.
Via taxi, pull up at the quietly tucked-away 23-room Rittenhouse 1715 Hotel, just off Rittenhouse Square, the verdant beating heart of Center City. This centrally-located historic hostelry encompasses several converted 18th-century townhouses and puts you mere steps from Philadelphia’s choicest restaurants, shops and cultural institutions. In the later afternoon, the inn invites guests to a complimentary wine-pouring in the public rooms, but if you are in the mood for something stronger, we suggest you toddle over to the bar at the horizon-spanning R2L in Two Liberty Place, third tallest edifice in Philadelphia and one of two 1980s skyscrapers in town that discernibly mimic the form of New York City’s Chrysler Building (thus the Art Deco-ish decor in the bar). From this 37th-floor perch, you can take in endless views (and perhaps the sunset if the time is right) and begin to get your bearings on the metropolis of 1.5 million that you will begin to explore fully tomorrow.
After a potation or two, it’s time to consider where you might want to have dinner. Options are as multifarious as they are multitudinous. If you are in the mood for an intensive and profound culinary experience, consider Vetri. Housed in the intimate townhouse that once contained venerable Le Bec Fin, this restaurant seats only 10 parties at its 10 tables each night. The knowledgeable waiter will take stock of your interests and inclinations, and from this insight, kitchen staff will individualize the multi-course Italo-centric meal, drawn from the very best of the season’s bounty, to reflect the affinities of your taste buds. Such diligence to detail is the reason why Chef Marc Vetri’s culinary Arcadia finds itself at the top of so many magazine and web lists as Best Italian Restaurant in all America.
Or if dining inclinations lay in a less thoroughgoing direction, maybe you would prefer to make The Farm & Fisherman your objective. This 30-seat BYOB establishment wholeheartedly embraces the locavore, farm-to-table movement, which by necessity entails an ever-changing menu. On a given evening, you might start with parsnip and Cameo apple soup, sprinkled with hazelnuts and ricotta agnolotti, before tucking into pastured chicken baked in hay and served with farmer’s cheese spaetzle, bacon, celery and Tuscan kale.
The Rittenhouse 1715 is nearby, so you can either walk or have the restaurant call for a taxi.
Downstairs at the hotel, there is a complimentary breakfast in the morning (breads, pastries, hot drinks and juices) that you can supplement with à-la-carte breakfast fare like eggs, and everything is served on individual tables set with cloth napkins and an endearing mixture of porcelain china in varying patterns.
The theme of the day’s tour is Outstanding Philadelphia Collections by Great Philadelphia Collectors. Today’s guide is the city’s most experienced, erudite and engaging: a former Olympic ice skater and a native of Finland who has lived in Philadelphia for more than three decades (her husband is a mathematics professor at Temple University) and knows far more about the city, its history and culture than most people born there. (Isn’t that just typical?) You can count on your guide to recount not only the important facts but also the lesser-known, amusing ones. First on the agenda this morning is a rendezvous at 9:30 with the collection of Dr. Albert Barnes, who amassed an aggregation of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern masterpieces unparalleled not only in America, but anywhere in the world. (your guide is likely to share with you what writer Gertrude Stein really thought of the Barnes Foundation’s patron: “Oh no, here comes Dr. Barnes and his checkbook again.”) To call the misanthropic Dr. Barnes quirky is being diplomatic. He certainly loved art (he snapped up 181 Renoirs alone, the largest concentration on earth), but he hated art curators, hated art critics, hated art museums of his day and hated the way they hung their art. So, in 1922, with the fortune he made inventing an antiseptic, he installed his exquisite hoard—some 2,500 items in toto—into a poorly lighted Neo-classical repository in suburban Philadelphia that was both inconvenient to get to and, unless you were a card-carrying student, somewhat hard to get into once you were there.
That all changed in May 2012 with the opening of a ravishing new structure on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia (which you’ll reach by taxi). Designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the new Barnes Foundation exactly replicates the scale, proportion and configuration of the fine doctor’s original 24 galleries. Still devoid of text panels and labels (just as Dr. Barnes insisted), the artworks are displayed in what he called educational “ensembles”—wall compositions of artworks combined according to his idiosyncratic principles of light, line, color and space. And what a crazy-quilt of ensembles they are, drawn from a reservoir of 69 paintings by Cézanne (more than are in all of Paris), 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 18 by Rousseau. . . well, you get the picture. Mixed in is an array of African artworks (the stonework pattern of the new building’s skin is meant to call to mind the motif of kente cloth), as well as ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman works, and American and European furniture, decorative arts and metalwork. Audio guides and well-schooled docents are at hand to help interpret this overwhelming stash, but, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith said in a rave review of the new facility, the best tactic is to “look at art and think for yourself.” (This is one art critic Dr. Barnes might have liked.)
After a bite at the Barnes Garden Restaurant (hot and cold entrées, salads, desserts), you’ll aim to taxi around 12:30 p.m. to your next destination, where the collection could not be more contradistinctive from the Barnes. Around 1 o’clock, along with your guide, you’ll step into the juicily offbeat Mütter Museum, America’s finest museum of medical history. (Philadelphia, by the way, was home to the country’s public hospital, co-founded by Benjamin Franklin.) Inaugurated in 1858 with the accumulations of Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, one of the American pioneers of plastic surgery, the museum holds a beautifully preserved and curated collection of wax anatomical models and bizarre medical instruments in a one-of-a-kind, Victorian-era Wunderkabinett. Taking it all in, you might think you wandered onto a movie set—perhaps one of Tim Burton’s. And it is hard not to think that a Roz Chast cartoon has come to life when you lay eyes on the Chevalier Jackson Collection of Objects Swallowed and Inhaled: a set of drawers carefully arranged with a couple thousand odds and ends (nuts, pins, buttons, bullets, false teeth, radio knobs) extracted from the food and air passages of patients treated by Dr. Jackson, the father of larynxology. Among many, many other curiosities, there is also the Hyrtl Skull Collection, comprising 139 grinning human skulls, as well as the skeleton of a dwarf who stood 3 foot 6 inches, displayed next to another skeleton, that of a giant from Kentucky who measured 7 and a half feet tall.
Around 2 o’clock, taxi or walk (it’s only about seven blocks) to your next destination: The Rosenbach Museum & Library, situated in conjoined 19th-century townhouses and containing the collections and treasures of Philip Rosenbach and his younger brother, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, preeminent dealers of rare books, manuscripts and decorative arts during the first half of the 20th century. As a lecturer in the Rosenbach’s outreach program, your guide is an expert position to lead on you a bespoke, hands-on tour of some of the brothers’ assembled abundance not usually on view to the public. (There’s also a good chance you will be joined by the director of the museum and library, Derick Dreher.) Depending on the day, your hands sheathed in curator’s gloves, you might pore over documents related to the Founding Fathers (the museum has more than 100 letters penned by George Washington and the only known first edition, first printing of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac from 1733). Or you might hold in your hand the original Resolution signed by both houses of the United States Congress proposing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery, this year celebrating is sesquicentennial anniversary. (And what could be more up-to-the-minute now that Spielberg has so effectively illuminated its tortured history in Lincoln?) Afterwards, encounter up-close-and-personal some of the literary jewels that the Rosenbach always has on display: James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript of Ulysses, original drawings by the late children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak (who before his death in May 2012, bequeathed 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books and ephemera to the Rosenbach), and the papers of poet Marianne Moore (whose Greenwich Village living room—complete with her baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle—has been recreated in the museum as a permanent installation). The Rosenbach’s absorbing hoard is endless: Bram Stoker’s outline for Dracula, Lewis Carroll’s own first-edition copy of Alice in Wonderland, the largest surviving portions of Charles Dickens’ manuscripts for The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, and even a lock of this towering scribe’s hair.
Say goodbye to your guide and walk or taxi back to Rittenhouse 1715 to relax before dinner. You can’t come to Philadelphia and not indulge in its signature food, the Philly cheesesteak, and why not make this the evening to try it. First concocted in 1930 by hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri near South Philadelphia’s Italian Market, the cheesesteak incorporates sliced sautéed ribeye beef and grilled onions in a long, crusty roll. Soon after Olivieri opened up a shop, Pat’s King of Steaks, he added cheese to the recipe. Or so one legend goes. Joe Vento, who founded Geno’s, the rival cheesesteakery across the street from Pat’s, claims that, no, it is he who first to put the cheese in cheesesteak. Today, both places are sizzling 24 hours a day in friendly competition, and it’s up to you, after arriving by taxi, to decide whose sandwich to try. Or try both and decide the better. Be advised that these are cash-only enterprises and at either place, you’ll dine alfresco at a picnic table.
Taxi back to Rittenhouse 1715 for the evening.
At breakfast in the hotel, you’ll meet your guide for the day, who is part of the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and one of the city’s premiere experts on Philadelphia. He’ll deftly shed insights not only on the architectural significance of an edifice but also how it plays a key role in the history of the city and of the nation. The first stop is Independence Hall. Within its hallowed walls the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Constitution was debated, drafted and signed, making this storied structure unquestionably the most important in the country’s history. It is also known as the site where George Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army and where the design of the American flag was agreed upon. Your guide will augment the Park Service tour (which will be reserved for you) with arcane facts (like how the basement of Independence Hall once served as the city’s dog pound, for example), as well as offer a more in-depth interpretation of the hall’s architectural features that combine to make it one of the consummate examples of Georgian architecture in the country. You’ll also see beautiful Carpenter’s Hall in all its original detail, the chamber where the newly formed U.S. Congress first assembled.
The next building on the tour is the 30-story Philadelphia Saving Fund Society building, designed in 1932 by William Lescaze and George Howe. The first skyscraper in the U.S. built in the sleek and elegantly sculpted International Style and rooted in the modernist theories of the Bauhaus, PSFS announced to Depression-era America a startling new direction for architecture—one adopted by every other city in the country. From PSFS you’ll head to the Reading Terminal Market, where more than 100 merchants offer all sorts of eats, including baked goods (many of them homemade by distaff members of the Pennsylvania Dutch community) and other local specialties that you can take home. You’ll pause here for a quick lunch. Next is a brief walk through the Wanamaker’s, Philadelphia’s first department store, which features in its stunning Grand Court the the largest operational pipe organ in the world, with some 28,000 pipes. (You might well hear a recital, which occur at various times during the day.)
Next you’ll visit massive Philadelphia City Hall. With 695 rooms, it is the largest municipal building in the United States (yes, even larger than the U.S. Capitol). At 568 feet, it is also the world’s tallest and largest masonry building, which, as your guide will tell you, is because the city’s key power-broker at the time of construction was brick magnate John B. Kelly (“Kelly for brickwork”), grandfather of Grace, possibly the City of Brotherly Love’s most beloved native daughter. Crowning City Hall is a 37-foot bronze statue of city founder William Penn (“Billy” to locals), one of 250 sculptures by Alexander Milne Calder that blanket every corner and crevice of the building inside and out. Together, they can all be a bit overwhelming, so your guide will put perspective on the composition by pointing out a lot of what a casual passerby usually misses (for example, a quartet of eagles with wingspans of 20 feet).
After saying cheerio to your guide, use the rest of the afternoon for your own discoveries. The National Constitution Center explains the history of the Constitution, and through compelling exhibitions, shows how the definition of “We the People” has broadened greatly over time. On view through spring of 2013 is an entertaining special exhibit on the rise and fall of Prohibition. You might also want to drop in to see that icon of our democracy, the Liberty Bell, which, as one historian put it, “is fragile and imperfect, but has weathered threats, and endured.”
Retreat to the Rittenhouse 1715 to rest before dinner. For this evening’s dining we recommend Zahav, an easily walkable distance from the hotel, orchestrates Middle Eastern, Eastern European, North African, Persian, Israeli and Eastern Mediterranean cuisines into a profusion of colors and flavors: fresh figs dressed with feta cheese, fried cauliflower with yogurt sauce, beef kibbeh with a core of pumpkin seeds, cubes of fried sheep’s milk cheese with fig jam and lamb shoulder slowly braised in pomegranate juice. Desserts include Turkish coffee ice cream with warm rugelach, a cup of custard with fresh blueberries on bottom and praline chickpeas on top, or chocolate in phyllo.
Return to the Rittenhouse 1715 for the evening.
Prepare your baggage for check-out and decide whether you’d like to breakfast at the Rittenhouse or if you’d like brunch farther afield. Options abound in the immediate area. If you’re not quite ready to leave town and have time, consider a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where there is always at least one super-special exhibition if not two. Or perhaps the Rodin Museum, which houses the largest collection outside Paris of the great sculptor’s works (rounded up by another notable Philadelphia collector, movie-theater mogul Jules Mastbaum). Another offering in this art-abundant city: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Housed in a structure by architect Frank Furness that is on the short-list of the country’s very finest, the Academy is the nation’s oldest art museum, renown for its collections of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. In the mid-afternoon, retrieve your luggage from the Rittenhouse 1715 concierge, bid bye-bye to Philadelphia—and begin contemplating your next adventure.