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Philadelphia once welcomed Founding Fathers on a mission. Today it welcomes fun-loving families on a budget.
This hotel on Logan Square (Benjamin Franklin Parkway) was once an exclusive apartment building -- Grace Kelly's brother lived here. The rooms are huge. For about $109 a night, we get a 1-bedroom suite with a pull-out sofa in the living room, an eating area and a kitchen, so you can refrigerate and microwave food. A full hot and cold breakfast buffet is included as well as an afternoon manager's reception with snacks and free drinks. Can't beat that in a city! If you snag a room during the city's Philly Overnight special, you get two nights for the price of one, plus free parking. (Otherwise, park in any garage in the neighborhood for better rates.) You're within walking distance of many attractions here, and on the tourist trolley route.
Around the corner from the hotel (1714 Cherry St.) is an old brick building housing Mace's Crossing Pub. Skip the long lines and high-priced food at the TGIF restaurant in the hotel and eat here. It's inexpensive basic fare that the kids will love -- hamburgers, chicken fingers, etc. -- but prepared well enough to please the parents. And you can't beat the pub atmosphere. We always head for the tiny corner window table where we can enjoy the panorama of streetlife. Bring doggie bags home to your refrigerator.
This is the way to get around -- an all-day family pass is just $10. The fleet of bright purple trolley cars ferries you around to 19 tourist locations. Look for the purple flags that mark the stops. One caveat: It's not always reliable. We waited a half an hour for the final bus of the day at the art museum. It never came; we had to take a cab.
Walk to the Franklin Institute -- be the first one through the doors in the morning. If you're a member of any of a few hundred other science museums around the country, as we are, admission is free. Head for the sports challenge area first -- it quickly becomes mobbed. Your kids can see what's it's like to surf or twirl on the ice like a skating star. They can test their pitching speed, compete in a wheelchair race or check their reaction time in a racecar start. The institute's human heart is still fascinating after all these years, and you can take in a planetarium show, too. Special events often add activities and interest. If there's an exhibit mom and dad might like, take the child care in turns and go in one at a time -- we saw the Titanic exhibit here.
You're literally steps from this museum. Its Dinosaur Hall, live animals and hands-on exhibits will delight the kids. It also has reciprocal agreements, so you may be able to get in free here as well. (We get an unadvertised AAA discount here.) We were the first in to see the Lewis & Clark exhibit here, which was fascinating.
If you have very young children, the Please Touch Museum (also walking distance) will keep them occupied for a morning. It has tie-ins to many literary classics, like Alice in Wonderland and the creatures of Maurice Sendak, along with the usual supermarket and farm areas. The museum has reciprocal agreements with many other children's museums around the country, which will get you in for free. By age 5, though, our son had outgrown it.
What a surprise this place is! It's an interpretive center housed in the old Philadelphia water works buildings -- a gorgeous complex of Greek-inspired late Victorian buildings on the banks of the Schuylkill River behind the art museum. Your kids will delight in the graphic exhibits on pollution and what happens when you flush a toilet. The exhibits are in restored underground areas of the buildings, which is eerie but great for lovers of old buildings. Walk out to the end of the complex at night and you can look across to the twinkling lights of Boathouse Row, the famous lane of Gothic revival and Italianate buildings that houses historic boating clubs.
This is a respite for the parents. Immerse yourself in these amazing collections. You've seen many of the artworks as images on TV or advertisements, but the real items are breathtaking. My favorite spot in the museum is the medieval cloister, where you can decompress in the hushed atmosphere of an ancient French monastery. Every Sunday the entrance fee is "Pay What You Wish" all day -- great for those on a budget.
Philly has lots of open green spaces, like Logan Square or the lawns surrounding the art museum. Bring a football or soccer ball, and the kids will love to just play for a while (perhaps while mom or dad visits the art museum).
Hop on the Phlash bus and spend an afternoon at the market. Browsing is free and you get an eye-full. Here you can satisfy everyone's cravings, without paying inflated restaurant bills. Mexican, Greek, Indian, vegetarian, Chinese, diner food, ice cream -- it's all here, along with produce, seafood, chocolate and many other stalls. My favorite is the Italian specialty stall Salumeria, with its display of cheeses, olive oils, sun-dried tomatoes and more. At 12th and Arch, the market is housed in a complex of late 1800s train sheds built for the Reading Railroad. Bring take-out items home for dinner in your room. (If your children are very young, though, it can be frustrating to keep them in tow here because of the crowds. I was a little nervous here when our son was very young.)
If your kids are too young to appreciate the major historical attractions of Philly, content yourself with a stop at Elfreth's Alley the day you head out to Reading Terminal. This quaint alley of brick rowhomes is the oldest continuously occupied street in America, dating from 1702. The museum house and garden can be toured for next to nothing ($2/adult; $1/child 6-18; under 6, free). During Fete Days in June, many of the residents open their homes to the public. It's my favorite tour in Philly.
If you can't get into any museums for free as reciprocal members of another museum, you might find the CityPass a good deal. It provides entrance to six of seven participating attractions for one price ($47/adult; $33/child). It can cut your expenses in half, depending on where you want to go.
Come again. Next time, do the historic sites on the self-guided Constitutional Walking Tour, including the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House and more. The Phlash bus will take you there, as well as to Penn's Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum, where you can tour two warships, and hop the Riverlink ferry to the Adventure Aquarium on the Jersey side (recently renovated). Or venture into Fairmount Park, 9,200 acres of green space that encompasses historic buildings, sculptures, picnic areas, a playground and walking trails. You can catch a tour bus outside the art museum. Another bus link outside the museum can take you to the Philadelphia Zoo, too. We never run out of things to do in Philly!