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Kid-Friendly Zones: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Benjamin Franklin's shadow is everywhere in Philadelphia.  The inventor-statesman and erstwhile kite flyer was also the country's first postmaster, and you can still visit his post office on Market Street in Old City.  Franklin's name is also on the august Franklin Institute, a world-class science museum, and on the Franklin Fountain, a down-home ice cream parlor.  His can-do spirit is all over the city of brotherly love, a place filled with magic, merriment and memories.  Let the fun begin!

Where to stay:  The Loews Philadelphia boasts an ideal Center City location, equidistant from the Old City historic district and the shopping/dining mecca that is Walnut Street and Rittenhouse Square.  A club level room is a must, since the city views from floors 30-32 are stunning – get ready to play “name that skyscraper” with your kids.  The hotel's deco-infused lobby is dark and brooding but the mood brightens in the rooms, with shots of copper and gold adding to the overall elegant feel.  A terrific continental breakfast is offered to club level guests in a lounge so inviting you may never want to leave.  1200 Market Street  (215) 627-1200; loewshotels.com.  Doubles from $179; package and promotional rates available.  At the Sheraton Society Hill, the nearby cobbled streets and horse-drawn carriages transport you to another era.  That's not to say you can't have fun in this era, as evidenced by the hotel's family-friendly pool (a big hit with kids) and an atrium-style lobby replete with coffee counter ready to dispense kid-friendly drinks.  The fluffy magenta comforters in the compact rooms let kids play hide-and-seek between peeks at the flat-screen TV.  One Dock Street  (215) 238-6000; sheraton.com.  Doubles start at $169; package rates and Internet specials available.

Let Freedom Ring:  The most surprising thing about the Liberty Bell is its size:  it's small!  Well, not that small, but trust me, it's smaller than you think.  Housed in its own glass-walled exhibit space across from Independence Hall, the Bell has come a long way since its early days.  Spirited out of Philadelphia as the British approached, the Liberty Bell was one of several bells that rang out for freedom during the Revolutionary War.  Its famous crack, the result of a botched repair of the original crack, only added to its lore.  A film about the Bell's history, along with numerous fact-filled historical exhibits, ultimately bring you within feet of the Bell itself.  Use your imagination, since ringing is not allowed.  6th and Market Streets.  Free admission.  A park ranger will guide you through Independence Hall, where our forefathers hammered out the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation and polished them up as the U.S. Constitution.  History buffs and curious kids alike will revel in the Assembly Room, which holds George Washington's chair (looks more like a throne) and Thomas Jefferson's walking stick (as upright as the man).  Among the many factoids dispensed is that delegates to the Second Continental Congress were seated left to right representing the colonies North to South, the better to avoid regional strife.  An adjacent chamber housed the Supreme Court in the late 1700s and the U.S. Congress met in Congress Hall around the corner during the same period.  The Long Gallery, on the second floor of Independence Hall, is home to a series of maps created by Peter Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's father.  Drawn without the benefit of satellite technology, they are surprisingly accurate.  6th and Chestnut Streets.  More info at nps.gov/inde.  Free, timed tickets must be picked up beforehand at the Independence Visitor Center.

Educational PlayRide the Ducks is a rollicking good time through the heart of old Philly in a mash-up of a monster truck and a ferryboat.  Resist the temptation to dismiss this as so much tourist schtick:  the ride is an absolute blast, and not just for kids, though it's they who will hoot and holler the loudest.  “Quackers,” a duck-sounding whistle, are handed out at the start of the tour and are to be blown at the driver's command.  The driver is also tour guide and sound man, relying heavily on an up-tempo soundtrack to make the city come alive.  The theme from “Rocky” blares as you cruise by Independence Hall while “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” is the selection for down 'n dirty South Street.  In between, you'll cruise by Society Hill's stately homes (take note of Delancey Street, one of the most charming lanes in town), gawk at narrow Elfreth's Alley (the oldest street in America) and peer into Betsy Ross' house.  The music, and squealing, reaches fever pitch as the Duck splashes into the Delaware River for a lazy loop and dazzling views of the Philadelphia skyline.  Getting the lay of the land has never been so much fun.  (877) 887-8225; phillyducks.com.  Maintain the frenetic pace (hey, it's vacation!) at nearby Franklin Fountain, an ol' time soda fountain which will keep your kids' heads spinning.  Pick a seat and take your pick from one of over a dozen flavors (all homemade) or heed the soda jerk's suggestion and go for an egg cream.  116 Market Street  (215) 627-1899.  

At Shane Candies a few doors down, let common sense prevail and take the goods to go.  In business for over a century, this confectioner is a pastel-hued fantasy, filled with the kind of candies we grownups remember eating as kids.  Not surprisingly, the chocolates, taffy and everything else still goes over.  110 Market Street  (215) 922-1048.   Walk the sugar off on your way to the Independence Seaport Museum, an ode to seaworthy vessels and the men and women who work (and play) with them.  Kids will ogle scale models big and small while pushing this (air horn) or pulling that (whistle).  Scuba suits and submersibles are also part of the mix while more cerebral young sailors may want to figure out  how boats float and how wind moves a boat.  The steel ship Olympia and the submarine Becuna are both stationed outside and ready to receive visitors.  211 S. Columbus Blvd. at Walnut Street  (215) 413-8655; phillyseaport.org.  Across town, the Franklin Institute is the best kind of science museum – one that makes learning irresistible.  Walk through a Giant Heart (really! each and every chamber), take charge in Space Command and get ready for The Train Ride on board a  Baldwin 60000 engine.  Exhibits on electricity and identity are also compelling, though the junior set will be most enchanted by the traveling “Star Wars” exhibit, an amalgam of interactive space stations that will bring out the Luke Skywalker in everyone.  There's even a ride – “The Millennium Falcon Experience” will send the family soaring to new heights.  222 N. 20th Street  (215) 448-1200; fi.edu.  General admission does not include special traveling exhibits.

Learn Your Lessons Well:  The National Constitution Center is the place where Barack Obama gave his much-lauded speech on race.  It's easy to see why:  the soaring, modern edifice is a valentine to the power of words.  Begin with a 20-minute multimedia presentation titled “Freedom Sings.”  This showcase truly brings the U.S. Constitution to life, especially for kids.  The American National Tree is another gem, a rotating display of faces that epitomize the American dream.  Touch any of them and you'll see and hear the story behind the person.  Whether you choose to read up on landmark Supreme Court cases or stand behind the President's “podium,” you'll walk away a patriot.  525 Arch Street  (215) 409-6600; constitutioncenter.org.  

At the Philadephia Museum of Art, it's a much more visceral experience.  While younger kids may be bored by the many paintings, they are fabulous, indeed, so think parental switch:  Mom (or Dad) ogles the permanent collection while Dad (or Mom) takes the kids over to Arms and Armory, an amazing collection of swords, spears and full-on body armor from long ago.  The rotating exhibitions at this world-class facility are always worth a visit as epitomized by the Frida Kahlo retrospective, which is making only two stops in the U.S.  Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street  (215) 763-8100; philamuseum.org.  Tickets to rotating exhibitions are not included in the general admission and should be obtained well in advance. Where It All Started:  Despite what most people think, there was no battle at Valley Forge – not even a skirmish.  Rather, this is where General George Washington turned his rag-tag Continental Army into a true fighting force.  A short 30-minute drive from Philadelphia, the Valley Forge National Historic Park commemorates the sacrifices made by more than 12,000 soldiers during the harsh winter of 1777.  Hunkering down for the winter after a series of defeats at the hands of the British, Washington and his men built over 2,000 log and mud huts and held out as best they could despite severe food and clothing shortages.  Thousands of soldiers perished in the brutal conditions while those that survived rallied around their general and the former Prussian army officer, Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, brought in as the ultimate drill sergeant.  With the Spring of 1778 came a renewed corps of soldiers which proceeded to win key battles of the Revolutionary War.  A compelling film in the Park's visitors center is the way to start your visit, followed by a 90-minute trolley tour and a ranger-led walk.  The more athletically-minded can rent bikes and enjoy a self-guided, five-mile tour of the Park's sites.  Among the highlights are replicas of the soldiers' modest quarters; George Washington's headquarters (the original house still stands); and the Grand Parade, where Von Steuben molded his soldiers into a cohesive force.  The Park is located near King of Prussia, PA; contact the Welcome Center at (610) 783-1077.  More info at nps.gov/vafo/.


Where to eat:  The Reading Terminal Market, a converted railway station, is the place for midday noshing in Philly.  Grab a silver stool at Pearl's Oyster Bar and load up on bivalves, then wash 'em down with an ice cream soda from Bassett's Ice Cream (their strawberry ice cream is also heavenly).  Delilah's offers up delectable soul food (think fried chicken and syrupy-sweet yams) while an assortment of bakeries, cheese steak emporiums and Amish food stalls round out the selection.  The Market can be entered at 12th Street near Arch Street.  At Jones Restaurant, the mod décor shrieks “Austin Powers” while the sturdy stone pillars evoke Frank Lloyd Wright.  No matter, it's all wonderfully cozy and the fun, inventive menu is terrific.  Kids may think they want the mac 'n cheese or tomato soup with grilled cheese but they'll wind up stealing most of your “Thanksgiving dinner,” succulent turkey breast wrapped around moist stuffing and napped in a rich gravy.  Jones is grown up enough for Mom and Dad yet ideal for kids – now that's a winner.  700 Chestnut Street  (215) 223-5663.  Wear your best to breakfast at Nineteen, a restaurant-in-the-round perched atop the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue.  It's a splurge, for sure, but where else will you find a “cafe table” filled with house made pastries and fresh fruit that positively glistens?  The crab cake Benedict is all crab and no filler and its hollandaise delights while the cinnamon raisin French toast will dazzle the kids.  Go for it – you're worth it.  200 S. Broad Street  (215) 790-1919.  “The most genteel tavern in America” is how former President John Adams described City Tavern.  Over two centuries later, it's hard to disagree.  Housed in a faithful re-creation of the original building, the restaurant is both a soothing stop and a great place to eat.  Kids should make a bee-line for the grilled ham and cheese while the poached salmon with bearnaise, mashed potatoes and grilled veggies is a treat for parents.  138 S. 2nd Street  (215) 413-1443.  At Taqueria La Veracruzana in the city's bustling Italian Market, mamas and their babies pack the place for some of the most authentic Mexican food in town.  Good news is they'll make room for your kids, too.  Order a plump burrito or crispy fried taquitos for the wee ones; the skirt steak, awash in grilled onions and served alongside guacamole, refried beans and rice, is another crowd-pleaser.  908 Washington Avenue  (215) 465-1440.  More refined Mexican cuisine can be found at Xochitl (pronounced “so-cheet”), a subdued yet attractive space in Old City.  Chef Dionicio Jimenez's food is so thrilling, it won't matter if you don't know what you're eating – it's that good.  The tortilla soup is spot on as are the various duck, pork and seafood dishes.  The pumpkin flan (Mexican pudding) is another marvel.  408 S. 2nd Street  (215) 238-7280.  Morning Glory is a breakfast spot guaranteed to put smiles on your kids' faces.  The cute, window-walled room is populated by moms with strollers and the slacker set, all sitting at tables thisclose.  There are nearly a dozen different frittatas to choose from, though the kids will prefer chunky French toast stuffed full of blueberry cream cheese.  Okay, Mom, you can order that, too.  735 S. 10th Street  (215) 413-3999.   When you finally get to Osteria, sit back, relax and say to yourself “wow, Philly really is a food town.”  The latest venture from award-winning chef Marc Vetri channels the trattorias of Northern Italy, in this case Bergamo.  You'll pay a pretty penny for the smallish portions but every bite of the “postage-stamp” ravioli is a revelation.  Kids will love the thin-crust pizzas and parents will savor their glass of fine Italian wine.  640 N. Broad Street  (215) 763-0920.

What else?  At the Independence Visitor Center, you can pick up free timed tickets for Independence Hall, peruse the well-stocked gift shop and make use of the cleanest public restrooms in town.  6th and Market Streets  (215) 965-7676; independencevisitorcenter.com...While you can sign up for a comprehensive tour of “Billy” Penn-topped City Hall, the kids may not find it all that interesting.  Instead, make your way up the building's tower for a panoramic city view.  Market and Broad Streets.  Tower tours available every fifteen minutes from 9:30 am-4:15 pm.  Call (215) 686-2840 for same-day reservations...The Philadelphia Zoo is the country's oldest and a breath of fresh air on a sunny day.  philadelphiazoo.org...Please Touch Museum is the place where learning is child's play, especially if your kids are under seven.  The museum will be moving to larger quarters in Fairmount Park in the fall of 2008.  pleasetouchmuseum.org...Two soulful strolls in this most walkable of cities:  the Old City Arts District, bounded by Chestnut and Race Streets from Front to Fifth Streets, and the Rittenhouse Square District, a commercial/residential enclave anchored by the lovely greensward at its center.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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