Vacationing in the city never appealed to our family. For us, there was nothing better than a week in the mountains or equal time at the seashore, complete with the beaches, salt air and boardwalk.
But then we took the time to discover the family side of Philadelphia.
We realized that riding over cobblestone streets in a horse-drawn carriage and into the city's 200 years of history could be as thrilling as topping a roller coaster's highest peak.
We learned that walking through the city's ethnic neighborhoods, such as the Italian Market or Chinatown, could be as interesting as people-watching on the boardwalk.
Touching the backs of swimming baby sharks and stingrays at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden and seeing exotic creatures in an exhibit named "WOW!" -- like hagfish that tie themselves in knots for protection and poison-dart frogs that supply the deadly toxin for the tips of South American blow darts -- was as thrilling as hooking a sunfish in a mountain stream.
For us, seeing the Academy of Natural Sciences' delicate and brilliantly colored tropical butterflies flying free in the rain-forest exhibit, viewing the animals at the Live Animal Center, and hunting for fossils at The Dig, were far more fascinating than the museum's dinosaur exhibition.
The children's thrilling ride on the two-person Sky Bike balanced on a bar 18 feet above the ground at the CoreStates Science Park (a summer-only and lesser-known attraction linked with the Franklin Institute and the Please Touch Museum) was a fascinating way to learn how lowering the center of gravity makes it impossible to fall off the bike.
Climbing inside the World War II-vintage submarine USS Becuna at the Independence Seaport Museum made watching the movie rental "Down Periscope" all the more fun a few weeks later.
Root-beer floats piled high with vanilla ice cream that made them bubble and overflow will never taste better than they did at the Phantom Fountain, a restored 1950s-era soda fountain and pharmacy in a quiet city neighborhood.
Philadelphia is alive with events that will excite and captivate children -- and with people like Ben Franklin, George Washington and Abigail Adams (all in Colonial costumes and portrayed by professional actors from Historic Philadelphia Inc.).
Where to stay
Center city is easy to navigate.
Stay for a weekend, or better yet, a week, at a hotel near the section of the city you want to see. The Sheraton Society Hill is ideal for Penn's Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum as well as the historic area. Holiday Inn Independence Mall, although in need of some redecoration, is perfectly located for touring Independence National Historical Park as well as the United States Mint and Fireman's Hall, National Fire House and Museum of Philadelphia. Both hotels have swimming pools.
Philly Phlash buses, cheap transportation at $3 for an all-day pass, 215-4-PHLASH, and Philadelphia Trolley Works trolleys (narrated sightseeing tours, $14 for adults and $5 for children, 215-925-TOUR, make the rounds of tourist attractions daily. Hop on and off at will.
Don't just walk through Independence National Historical Park. Strike a deal with a carriage driver from the '76 Carriage Co., 215-925-TOUR. Expect to pay about $15 for a 20-minute ride for four people. Early Sunday morning, we got a little longer ride for the money, and the driver allowed the children to take turns sitting with him.
Be prepared, however, for a question similar to the one I got as we rode over the cobblestones: "Mom, were the roads all this rough when you were a child?"
For the cross-river trip to Camden's New Jersey State Aquarium, use the RiverLink Ferry, 215-925-LINK, which turns what could be a seven-minute car ride into a pleasant, 20-minute mini-tour of the city's waterfront. (Package deals for the ferry ride plus admissions to the aquarium and the Independence Seaport Museum price the day's sightseeing reasonably.)
By planning wisely, you can sight-see happily on a limited budget.
Practically all Independence National Historical Park attractions -- including the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Visitor's Center with a 30-minute John Huston film, "Independence," Carpenter's Hall, Congress Hall and Franklin Court -- are free.
Have the children read "The Gold Bug," "The Telltale Heart" or "The Black Cat," and then take them to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site for a free tour of the house Poe occupied from 1843 to 1844.
The Betsy Ross House, home of the seamstress credited in legend for sewing the first American flag, can be toured for a donation.
From atop City Hall, you can get a birds-eye view of the city planned by William Penn; just take a ride -- it's free -- on the %% antique elevator to the base of his statue.
There's no charge for the children to board a restored 1947 trolley at the Transit Museum in SEPTA headquarters. I realized the thrill this would be when my son saw another "real" trolley operating on rails in the University City section of Philadelphia and asked, "What's the matter with the wheels on that bus?"
Penn's Landing Corp., in charge of developing the city's waterfront, 215-922-2FUN, offers free Children's Special Sundays in the International Sculpture Garden. From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., children can experiment with crafts, see musical and puppet performances and magic or juggling shows.
Admission is free to Fireman's Hall, which is full of historic firefighting apparatus.
Seeing more coins being made than most people will ever spend won't cost even a nickel at the U.S. Mint.
Some places offer price breaks. Enter the Please Touch Museum before 10 a.m. on Sundays and stay all day for any cash donation. Arrive before 1 p.m. on Sundays and admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is free.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau has created Big Value Family Vacation packages starting at $290 for two adults and two children for hotel, parking, breakfast and tickets to kid-pleasing destinations; call 800-307-8695 for reservations.
No matter how much time you have to spend, Philadelphia can fill it. But don't figure you can see all the sights in a weekend. A more realistic approach is focusing on one aspect or area of the city.
For example, many days could be spent along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway visiting the Franklin Institute (for children 7 and older) or the Please Touch Museum (for children 1-7) as well as the CoreStates Science Park, the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences. And Independence National Historical Park could consume an entire weekend.
Even when you think you've seen all that Philadelphia has to offer children, you can count on a new round of exhibitions and programs that could fill your vacations until the children are grown.
When you go...
Here are some family dining options that will help keep costs down, as well as some memorable restaurants in higher price ranges.
* Fresh Fields, 2001 Pennsylvania Ave., has fresh fruit and vegetables, salads, sandwiches, juices and breads.
* The Reading Terminal Market offers ethnic and all-American fare. You can see soft pretzels being twisted and then taste them.
* At the Italian Market, you can buy sandwich makings at #F Claudio's and Talutto's.
* No trip to Philadelphia is complete without sampling the cheese steaks. Top choices are Pat's King of Steaks, open 24 hours a day, and Geno's Steaks, both near the Italian Market but with little or no seating. Jim's Steaks, where the sandwiches also are very good, offers indoor seating on the second floor.
* Pete's Famous Pizza & Restaurant handles crowds from nearby museums. Chicken cheese steaks are massive ($4.30).
* The Snow White Restaurant is close to the Franklin Court section of Independence National Historical Park. Go two days in a row and the waitresses will call you "honey." Two eggs, potatoes, toast and coffee are $2.40.
* Rangoon, in Chinatown, is a Burmese restaurant that serves food close enough to Chinese to please children and enough like Thai to make parents happy. Entrees are $8.50 to $10. Lunch specials cost $4.50.
* City Tavern has a balcony overlooking Independence Mall and tables on the lawn. Servers in Colonial garb deliver historically correct foods in a reconstructed building where Benjamin Franklin ate. There is a children's menu.
* Zocalo is a superb Mexican restaurant. There is a children's menu ($3 to $7). Trolleys pass the front windows.
* The Phantom Fountain is a 1950s time capsule of the days when pharmacies had soda fountains. Kids can perch on soda fountain stools for banana splits or root beer floats.
Pub Date: 9/21/97