Philadelphia is a place I’ve been to many, many times. My parents were born and raised in Philly. We used to travel by plane, train and automobile to get there growing up, and I’ve covered it from head to toe in my lifetime. Now my dad and sister both live there, and our visits are often and generally entail being with our loved ones and eating (if you know food in Philadelphia, you know what I mean). So, when we were given the opportunity to be tourists for a day by the folks at Visit Philly, we jumped at the chance.
We kicked off our day at the National Museum of American Jewish History, a museum that I have been dying to visit after watching its creation transpire during all of our visits over the last ten years. The 100,000 square-foot, five-story museum’s mission explores 350 years of Jewish life in the U.S., and highlights themes of freedom, civil rights, prejudice and assimilation. My husband and I were personally so impressed and enamored with the depth and amount of research that went into this museum as we have yet to visit a museum with the focus as American Jewish History. We could tell that every dollar that went into building this museum was well-spent.
We started our tour on the 5th floor and made our way down and witnessed the museum’s first special exhibition, To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom. It showcases his historic letter from August 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in which Washington avowed rights and privileges to Jews that had been generally unknown to them for centuries, all the while underscoring the new nation’s commitment to religious liberty and equality for all faiths. It was a wonderful introduction to the museum and what we were about to experience as it proves how America has long been a haven for persecuted peoples. The museum traces the history of the Jewish experience from the arrival of the first Jews in 1654 to the present and uses films, displays and artifacts to trace and prove this history. There are activities for kids throughout the museum that held my kid’s attention and it filled me with pride to watch my kids learn about their place in American history. There’s also a pipe that belonged to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein; a glove used by record-breaking baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax; and a piano played by composer Irving Berlin – complete with his lyrics to “God Bless America.” The museum houses a torah – used in Jewish services – that dates from Colonial times, when Jews first came to the New World.
The museum focuses not only on the high achievers among American Jews, but also on everyday people who escaped persecution in their home counties relishing the joys of life in America. After hearing and reading about one immigrant’s experience after another, we all left feeling that anything is possible.
The museum is located at 101 South Independence Mall East – Tel: 215-923-3811. Tickets can be purchased here.
After our visit, which my kids were able to sustain for much longer than we anticipated, we walked a few short blocks to restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Jones Restaurant on 700 Chestnut Street. Super convenient to all the main sites (like the Liberty Bell and the Museum of African American History), this restaurant is a real find for families looking for quality food without giving in completely to kid culture. It’s stylish and has a retro vibe, while staying down to earth, and offers “comfort food” like macaroni & cheese, meatloaf and brisket. I have to agree with the restaurant’s press release: “Jones offers all the warmth of the Brady Bunch’s sunken living room – with rough stone walls and columns, a see-thru fireplace, cork flooring, swivel chairs, and oversized, nightlight-lit booths.”
Jones is also reasonably priced and includes options for all ages. We read the menu out loud in the car on the way to Philly and my kids excitedly chose their options in advance. It’s a really wide variety and is pretty eclectic, which I like because my kids were able to order their kid-friendly food, and I was able to choose food for my more diverse palette. In addition and as an added bonus, the staff could not have been nicer, considering the fact that on occasion, my sensory-sensitive son gets annoyed by loud music and the music, albeit lovely, got to him. The manager immediately turned down the volume, no questions asked.
For appetizers, we tried their delicious monkey bread, which is a sweet bread with dipping sauce on the side. They have an interesting selection that includes Cheese Pierogies, Potato Pancakes and my kid’s favorite, Matzo Ball Soup. I had the daily soup special, Gazpacho, which was truly yummy, and then for my main course, the Seared Tuna Tacos. The kids loved the mac & cheese, which isn’t your typical kid’s dish; it’s gourmet and served with breadcrumbs on top. My husband and friend both enjoyed egg dishes, both of which they enjoyed.
If you’re not in the mood for “comfort food”, you can try the Tandoori Chicken Kabobs or Sushi-grade crusted tuna served atop coconut rice. I was also smitten with their made to order Bloody Maries. Upon arrival, I filled out a form selecting the type I wanted (think extra spicy). and within minutes I was sipping a delightful homemade Bloody Mary just the way I wanted it.
To top it off, the dessert menu isn’t shabby either, and you have a choice of Duncan Hines Chocolate Layer Cake, Mud Pie, Oatmeal Raisin Bread Pudding, Twisted Key Lime Pie and other delectable items. My kids chose the Duncan Hines Chocolate Layer Cake, a clear-cut kid’s choice, which was devoured in minutes.
Jones Restaurant is a welcome, off-the-beaten path choice for family dining and I implore you to make a mental note to check it out on your next visit to Philly.
After lunch, we headed back to Independence Mall where we started our day at the museum and jumped on the Big Bus Tours. Even though we visit Philly several times a year, as I mentioned it is to see family and I don’t think my kids had fully experienced the city. Jumping on this tour was the best idea. There is no better way than to show them up close and personal the many facets Philadelphia has to offer. We saw the Betsy Ross House, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin’s house, the “Rocky” steps, the famous Love Statue, the Rodin Museum and we got a really good look at Town Hall with the statue of William Penn looming over the fantastic edifice.
But our final destination was my son’s choice: the Eastern State Penitentiary, located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue. A bit obsessed with crime, robberies, murder (yes, I have a future lawyer or judge, I do realize that), he was determined to go check out this very famous prison.
The prison was operational from 1829 until 1971. It refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration first pioneered at the Walnut Street Jail which emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment. Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside (we saw the chamber which housed Capone and the entrance to the tunnel through which Sutton escaped). When the building was erected it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed, quickly becoming a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.
We all took the audio tour, hosted by experts who work in the museum now and who worked in the prison once upon a time, and my kids walked around the prison intent to find out about its history, hanging onto every word. Interestingly enough, the prison was first to institute solitary confinement. Prisoners lived alone, ate alone, and even exercised alone in individual yards. When an inmate left his cell, a guard covered his head with a hood so that he remained in confinement. Although the solitary system was quickly discarded due to overcrowding, Eastern State is widely believed to have caused mental illness among its prisoners. It operated as a regular prison from 1913 until it closed in 1970 and now serves as a museum and haunted house (it must be pretty frightening around Halloween time). After spending the morning at the Jewish Museum, I was pleased and surprised to find the prison’s shul, which at one point provided solace for a group that was bigger than a minyan in the 1940s when young Jewish men were convicted for Underground crime. It was interesting to read (and hear via audio) about the care and work put into restoring the shul to show people what it looked like today. We also learned about women who were prisoned, always a minority, and the tales of their imprisonment, one who was imprisoned for giving another woman an abortion and many for killing their husbands (most likely in self-defense). Their stories all gave me a real inside glimpse of prison life.
At the end of the day, we jumped back on the bus and returned to my sister’s house ready for dinner and the Olympics. We are all already looking forward to our next visit to Philadelphia and our list of places to visit is already set. If you’re looking for a weekend getaway from New York or elsewhere within several hours away from Philly, plan your weekend with the kids. It’s educational, fun, interesting and easy to get around. And the food, besides Jones, there is so much to eat (Cheese steaks, soft pretzels), that’s for another article soon to be featured on this blog.
Disclosure: I partnered with Visit Philly on this visit and most or all stops were complimentary. But, as usual, all opinions are my own.