Philadelphia’s most iconic thoroughfare, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is populated by important art and cultural centers like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, and the Barnes Foundation. Directly east of there is the Liberty Bell viewing site, and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence took form. But what if you’re looking for slightly more obscure cultural references? It turns out Philadelphia has plenty of that, too, as long as you’re willing to seek it out. From mosaic-tiled houses to the world’s first pizza museum, here are a few places to spice up the usual Philly itinerary:
Benjamin Franklin Museum
Next month heralds the re-opening of an iconic Philly museum dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, the USA’s most eccentric Founding Father. Located on the site where Franklin himself lived in the 1700s, the underground museum is not visible from the street – instead, look out for the iconic steel frame structure outlining the shape of Franklin’s original house. Inside the museum’s five galleries, visitors can interact with different exhibits relating to Franklin’s many earthly interests, which range from electricity to flip books to chess and everything in between.
Thousands of hand-painted tiles cover the walls of this public art project, which occupies both indoor and outdoor space along a half-block stretch on South Street (about a ten-minute walk from City Hall). Begun by artist Isaiah Zagar in the 1960s, the Magic Garden itself is a small series of narrow passages decorated with stunning mosaics, broken mirror shards, and old car parts – all of which form a surreal labyrinth in the midst of Center City. Pedestrians can wander through the gardens (which host frequent special events and walking tours), or stop inside the interior gallery space, which shows works by Zagar himself, as well as a number of local artists; the collection rotates about once a month.
A quirky video series published on this museum’s website, entitled “Guess What’s On The Curator’s Desk,” should give you some idea of what to expect on your visit: in each episode, curator Anna Dhody reveals bizarre mystery objects sourced from the museum’s vast, slightly gruesome collection. Cobra venom, penile implants, dental saws (yes, you read those right) are just a few of the items you’ll come across at the medical oddity museum, which dates back to 1863, and is run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Yes, medical education is part of the goal, but so is getting you to go “ewww!”
Independence Seaport Museum
Rumor has it that Olympia – the 344-foot-long floating steel warship on view at the Independence Seaport Museum – will soon be retiring, so if you plan on seeing her in her natural habitat (ie, the Delaware River), you’d better act fast. Penn’s Landing, where the maritime- and trade-themed museum is located, is an easy walk from Philadelphia’s historic district, and there are gorgeous waterfront views to be enjoyed once you get there. Inside, choose from the various exhibits and collections (the recently-debuted “Oh, Sugar!” focuses on the history of the sugar cane industry in colonial America), or, if you’re in the mood for something more active simply rent a kayak ($8) or rowboat ($10) and head out on the water, where you can paddle alongside the ships themselves.
If you’re wondering why the world’s first pizza museum ended up in Philadelphia rather than, say, New York, or Chicago, let us stop you right there: the case defies reason. But who cares, when there’s delicious pies to be devoured (the gruyere-and-caramelized-onion-topped Felix Huppert is a favorite), and awesome vintage pizza memorabilia to be admired? Owners of this adorable shop-cum-gallery have gone the extra mile, plastering the walls with pizza-related vinyl records, pizza portraits, and oddball pizza-inspired souvenirs. You’ll have a hard time keeping a straight face amidst all the unbridled pizza-loving goodness, but then again, that’s kind of the point.