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Philadelphia travel primer

The Liberty Bell is housed in the Liberty

The Liberty Bell is housed in the Liberty Bell Center, which offers images and guides to the history of the bell. It is protected behind a rope, but visitors can get pretty close for a photo. (Jan. 17, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

When it comes to Philadelphia, there's no doubt that Benjamin Franklin remains by far the city's most well-known resident. But there are several other faces in Philadelphia joining the famous founding father as a reason to visit the City of Brotherly Love.

Bruce Springsteen. Van Gogh. John Adams. Barbra Streisand and Bobbi the Penguin are just some of the new notables Philadelphia and its environs are hosting.

The city is easy to get to from Long Island (about a 21/2-hour drive) and is also pretty easy to navigate when you get there, with most historic sites and attractions in a compact area. Dining opportunities abound, from gourmet restaurants to namesake Philadelphia cheese-steaks. About 37 million people visit the city and surrounding region each year, according to tourism officials.

There's history and culture: A certain percentage of public space is set aside for art, and murals are found throughout the city. "Van Gogh Up Close" is an exhibit of the artist's works in the years just before his death that runs through May 6 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As for nature -- the city's Fairmount Park is home to famous Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River, and the Philadelphia Zoo is the country's oldest, with animals from ape to zebra and a new $17 million avian center.

Independence National Historical Park -- home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall -- has been transformed over the years to include several new attractions and interests.

"People that haven't been here in 10 years will be blown away," says Cara Schneider, media relations director of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

Here are five things to see in Philadelphia:

 

1. Meet the boss 

A short walk from the Liberty Bell is one of Philadelphia's newest exhibits, "From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen," which is housed in a separate section of the National Constitution Center.

There, visitors can see more than 150 artifacts chronicling Springsteen's rise from the streets of the Jersey Shore to iconic rock star who is still releasing music and selling out arena tours. The early years are here, too, from rare family snapshots of a young Bruce Springsteen and his parents to the formation of what would become the E Street Band.

OF NOTE Who knew Springsteen surfed? Apparently he did, and his surfboard is on display. Visitors will also see the 1994 Oscar he won for "Streets of Philadelphia," the handwritten lyrics to "Born to Run," several favorite guitars, plus the iconic white T-shirt, blue jeans and red cap Springsteen wears on the cover of "Born in the USA." One wall is covered with Post-its from fans who write a quick sentence about what Springsteen's work has meant to them. One read: "Thunder Road -- Got Me Through High School."

INFO Opened in February, the exhibit runs through Sept. 3. Admission is $24.50 ($12 ages 4-12), constitutioncenter.org/springsteen

 

2. We the people 

The National Constitution Center is an educational powerhouse. Opened in 2003, it's America's first and only nonpartisan, nonprofit institution devoted to the Constitution. More than 100 multimedia exhibits and artifacts tell the story of the Constitution, and several special events are planned to mark this year's 225th anniversary of its signing.

OF NOTE Don't miss "Signers Hall," a recreation of the Assembly Room where the signers of the Constitution met on Sept. 17, 1787. The life-size bronze statues of such notables as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison are created in great detail, from the strands of hair on their heads to the buttons on their coats.

INFO Admission is $14.50 ($8 for ages 4-12, constitutioncenter.org). 

 

3. Jewish museum 

Opened in 2010, the National Museum of American Jewish History is the only museum anywhere dedicated to chronicling the American Jewish experience. Just steps from the Liberty Bell, this new museum building covers 25,000 square feet and 31/2 floors where visitors can explore more than 350 years of Jewish life in America.

"You start at the top and follow the chronological story of the American Jewish experience," says Schneider.

OF NOTE the "Only in America" Gallery/Hall of Fame celebrates the achievements of 18 Jewish Americans such as Sandy Koufax, Estee Lauder and Barbra Streisand in a high-tech video gallery.

INFO Admission is $12 ($11 ages 13-21), nmajh.org

 

4. Adventure Aquarium 

The biggest renovation in the aquarium -- a new children's section -- opened this weekend at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, a short ferry ride or car ride over the Ben Franklin Bridge. Kidszone is designed to appeal to kids 6 and under with interactive activities and exhibits that invite they to hide inside a turtle shell and pose for photos with Bobbi the Penguin mascot.

The aquarium is home to sharks, exotic jellyfish, penguins and even a massive hippopotamus habitat where two hippos can be viewed from above or below (an underwater viewing window often captures these submerged giants floating gracefully underwater).

OF NOTE The aquarium also touts itself as one of the most touchable, and opportunities abound to pet stingrays, starfish and even small sharks. Be warned that splashing stingrays may lead to the need to purchase a dry shirt in the gift shop.

INFO Admission is $23.95 ($17.95 ages 2-12), adventureaquarium.com.

 

5. Honoring presidents' slaves 

On Independence Mall, the President's House commemorative site is an open-air installation at the home that housed presidents George Washington and John Adams when Philadelphia served as the capital. It wasn't until 2007 that construction work unearthed a new find: an archaeological site that pays homage to the nine slaves of African descent who were part of the Washington household.

OF NOTE Only an earthen floor and a few piles of bricks are visible though a clear viewing partition at this site, which opened in 2010 -- but the impact of what had taken place there years ago is very strong.

INFO Free admission, phila.gov/presidentshouse

 

AND SOME CLASSIC SITES  1. The Liberty Bell 

It plays an important role in the identity of Philadelphia, and visitors will find it on all sorts of souvenirs, from T-shirts to paperweights. One hotel even has a waffle iron that bakes the bell shape -- complete with signature crack into the middle.

The bell is housed in the Liberty Bell Center, which offers images and guides to the history of the Bell. It is protected behind a rope, but visitors can get pretty close for a photo (tinyurl.com/367zag). 

 

2. Independence Hall 

This is where history happened. Free guided tours are available by National Park Rangers and visitors can see where 12 state representatives gathered to shape the U.S. Constitution -- and an original draft of the document on display (tinyurl.com/y7k6n33). 

 

3. Franklin Institute 

Pennsylvania's most-visited museum is dedicated to science education, with scores of hands-on exhibits covering topics from electricity to physical force. One of the more famous features is a giant walk-through beating heart ($16.50 adults, $12.50 ages 3-11, fi.edu).

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