Travel

By Jean Railla

Photo by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia™

Vacation Envy: a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s Caribbean island getaway. In the middle of this year’s brutal winter, I got well-acquainted with this affliction. As friends headed off to Tulum, Mexico and Vieques, Puerto Rico, I said “Bon voyage!” while secretly wishing them food borne illnesses, or at least a slight case of heat stroke.

It’s not that I didn’t want the best for my fellow New Yorkers. It’s simply that I was going mad from the endless snows days and single digit temperatures, and the fact that no matter how many times I went over our family budget, I could not find the funds to escape.

Out of desperation, I began to explore other, more affordable destinations that my husband and I, along with our eight and ten year old sons, could visit without going broke.

I found my answer in Philadelphia—but before you discount me as completely bonkers, consider the following. While Philly is certainly not the Dominican Republic, it is filled with historical charm, attractions for kids and well-priced hotels. It’s is less than two hours from downtown Manhattan. You can walk everywhere. And with lots of fantastic restaurants to choose from, with prices far fairer than you would expect in Manhattan, there is lots to love.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go on vacation with the budget you have.

During our four-day stay, we visited first-rate museums, ate at a hot new Cuban restaurant, stuffed ourselves with Philly Cheese Steaks and even attended a high tea service, all for less money than one might spend on a plane ticket to the Puerto Rico this time of year.

Here is my highly idiosyncratic guide to the best of what Philly has to offer.

Stay at the Loews Philadelphia

When I was in my twenties, I was perfectly content to crash on a friend’s couch when visiting another city. With a family and all the electronic equipment that comes with modern life—not to mention my sciatica that doesn’t take kindly to bad mattresses—I am no longer laissez faire about where I rest my head. After looking at several options online in the downtown area, I settled on the Loews Philadelphia with its well-appointed rooms, friendly staff, central location and wait for it, indoor pool.

Originally commission in 1929 for Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, the thirty-three story building that houses the hotel is considered one of the glories of 20th century architecture. In 1998 Loews bought the building and restored it to its former glory. Beyond the modernist architecture and interior design, the hotel is centrally located and comfortable. Did I mention the indoor pool? OK, so it’s not the Caribbean sea, but it was good enough to occupy my boys every afternoon during our stay.

Also check out: The Monaco Hotel, Philadelphia

Spend a Morning with Ben Franklin at the Benjamin Franklin Museum

Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia

There are several worthwhile museums in Philadelphia and you should certainly visit them— but do not miss the Benjamin Franklin Museum. After a two-year renovation by the London team Casson Mann, the museum is an exceptional example of “user experience” design. Using video, photography, and interactive games, the exhibit is designed to be enjoyed by all ages, and it’s entertaining as it is informative.

Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia™

We spent over two hours at the museum learning about Franklin’s work as a printer, a scientist, a diplomat and a founder of civic institutions. As a family with a somewhat rebellious nature, we appreciated how the exhibit focused on the different aspects of Franklin’s personality, including his quirky and curious sides.

Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia™

While there, check out the “ghost house” at Franklin Court. The structure designed by internationally renowned architects Robert Venturi, John Rauch and Denise Scott Brown is a clever outline of where Ben Franklin’s 1776 home once stood.

Photo by K. Ciappa for Visit Philadelphia™

Finally, we headed to Ben Franklin’s original print shop, also in Franklin Court. The small exhibit is run by knowledgeable guides who walked us through the printing process for during Franklin’s times.

Experience High Tea at the Rittenhouse Square Hotel

In Portrait of a Lady, Henry James writes  ‘There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’  After spending a late afternoon in the Mary Cassatt Room Rittenhouse Square Hotel, I tend to agree. The Rittenhouse is one of the hotels that borders on stuffy in a way that only older hotels in historic cities can. Ignore this and go.

We had spent the day running around in the cold, visiting the historical sites, walking in Benjamin Franklin’s footsteps and exploring the Constitution. How nice to end our journey through by sitting in a handsome room, sipping wonderfully crafted teas, enjoying small tastes and taking part in a hundreds-year-old (albeit rarified) ceremony.

By the first course— a selection of miniature savory canapés and tea sandwiches —the boys were clearly enchanted and my husband and I relaxed back in our chairs. We sampled beef tartar, cucumber sandwiches, exquisite scones covered in clotted cream. Our server kindly let us in on some tea etiquette—voices must be hushed, one must be careful not to touch the sides of the tea cup with the spoon—both of which are designed to not to disturb fellow patrons.

My sons Sydney and Sebastien dutifully tried all the sandwiches, even if it was just one bite, and did their best not to shout or bang plates or spill tea. They loved the scones and their herbal tisanes, for sure. But the dessert course with petit-fours and a selection of delicate pastries including the Gianduja made from Milk Chocolate Ganache, Hazelnut Chocolate and the piece de resistance—14 carat gold leaf—was of course, their favorite.

Today if you ask the boys what the highlight of their trip to Philadelphia was, they will say “High Tea.” I am not sure if it was the location (surely the fanciest place they have ever dined) or the etiquette or the sheer plethora of desserts, but it certainly left an impression.

Indulge in a Philly Cheese Steak

Photo by J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia™

At the opposite cultural spectrum of high tea lies the Philly Cheesesteak. For the un-initiated, the Cheesesteak is a glorious mountain of thin-sliced, tender fried steak, piled high on a roll and topped with caramelized chopped onions and, wait for it, Kraft Cheese Wiz.

While there are several “famous” places to sample the Cheesesteak, my suggestion is to go to Joe’s Steaks and Sodas in Northeast Philly. Opened in 1949 (under the unfortunate name Chink’s Steaks) this tiny eatery lies is a fifteen minutes drive from the city center. It is well worth the extra effort.

Dine at Rosa Blanca

Photo by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia

In an ode to the tropical vacation we didn’t take, I booked us a reservation at Rosa Blanca, a new Cuban restaurant not far from our hotel. Opened by the James Beard award winning chef (and Iron-Chef winner) Jose Garces, the menu promised over forty types of rum and Caribbean cuisine.

For starters, we ordered empanadas de jamon—smoky ham and creamy, mellow cheese stuffed inside a crispy pastry, a wonderful lentil soup and a delicately grilled veal tongue served on top of a deconstructed Caesar salad—romaine capers onions and anchovies. As Sebastien, my youngest said, “The veal tongue sounds disgusting but tastes amazing.”

Our entrees were mostly good. The Picadillo which is a classic Cuban dish of ground beef, green olives and raisins served over white rice was inhaled by my older son Sydney. My husband’s Masitas De Puerco, which is chopped, fried pork shoulder served in a bowl with pickled onions was wonderfully flavorful but almost too rich; a few bites was enough. It’s a great dish to share. My fish, a sea bass served with grilled green onions was good but not stellar. The service was friendly if not a bit organized—one of our dishes never arrived and the waitress was unsure of the wine list. Regardless, we had a lovely evening and I would love to go back one of these days to check out their brunch.

What else is there to do?

For kids interested in science, there is the Franklin Institute and the for older kids, the Mutter Museum which is dedicated to medical oddities.

History buffs can take in Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the New Hall Military Museum, Bishop White House and the Declaration House make up Independence National Historical Park.

Foodies can grab a pork sandwich and a cannoli at the Reading Terminal Market, one of the oldest food markets in the country.

The Take-Away?

While it is not Aruba, Philadelphia offers an abundance of family-friendly activities less than two hours away. Even if you have plans for sunnier and more exotic locales, the city of brotherly love offers plenty of fun for a long weekend.

Originally published April 2014
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