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March 21, 2016

Philly Spring Flings: 12 ways to be a tourist in your own city

Seeing the same old Philly in a whole new way

Lifestyle Tourism
Northbrook Canoe K. Ciappa/Visit Philadelphia®

Northbrook Canoe Company offers canoeing, kayaking and tubing along the Brandywine Creek, just outside Philadelphia in scenic Chester County.

Borrowing a tradition from the French, I decided to become a flaneur this spring. The name derives from the word meaning to stroll or to saunter, and it’s just what I did the first warm day this season. 

Armed with my iPhone, ready to capture a would-be masterpiece for Instagram, my sights started drifting from the usual graffiti and street scenes to the tourists ambling around Old City. As I stretched my legs in homage to the great French flaneurs of history like Charles Baudelaire, it occurred to me that these tourists were onto something I may have been taking for granted. I wanted to reignite my passion for the city I call home with the same bright-eyed enthusiasm. 

So, after quizzing friends about their favorite “staycation” spots on Facebook and taking several spins around Philly and its fringes, I created a list of seasonal adventures that will hopefully inspire other idlers and urban voyeurs to navigate familiar corners of the city and its suburbs in a new way – be it the sportsman, history buff or artist in each of us. 

After all, it was Baudelaire who said, “Nothing can be done except little by little.” 

Earthly delights

Shofuso Japanese House/for PhillyVoice

Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in Philadelphia.

Two words: Cherry blossoms. This season at The Shofuso Japanese House promises to be the best one yet with a summer camp and Nodate Tea Ceremonies. This Fairmount Park gem is also the perfect answer to an afternoon of Zen thanks to its stunning viewing garden, koi pond and tea garden. It also doesn’t get any more authentic as the house – originally built in Nagoya, Japan – was moved to the U.S. for a special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art before it found its longtime home in Philly. 

Tucked away in Germantown is the Wyck Historic House and Garden, which served as the ancestral home to a well-known Philadelphia family for nine generations. The Quakers who lived here were focused on urban gardening and horticulture on two and a half acres of farmland that now plays a vital role educating future generations. One of the highlights is the fruit and vegetable garden that feeds the on-site farmer’s market on weekends. 

Make way for adventure

Perhaps a more upscale water experience is in your future. Here’s how it works: Ask a few of your best friends, pick out some wine and cheese, and charter a private sailboat to cruise the Delaware in style. Patriot Harbor Lines offers a slew of different boats and tours, whether you want to celebrate a special occasion with a group or kick back with a few intimate friends and explore architecture. The sunset wine cruise takes you under the Ben Franklin Bridge as the city lights just begin to sparkle at dusk. 

File Art/for PhillyVoice

Or you could see Philly from a whole new perspective in the basket of a hot air balloon soaring over the countryside. Pros from the U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team (a real thing) navigate aerial adventures over Berks, Bucks and other neighboring counties. If you’re feeling especially romantic, book a sunrise or sunset cruise with a loved one … who isn't afraid of heights. 

K. Ciappa/Visit Philadelphia®

Northbrook Canoe Company offers canoeing, kayaking and tubing along the Brandywine Creek, just outside Philadelphia in scenic Chester County.

Hop into a kayak and paddle along the scenic Brandywine River in Chester County. In less than hour you can leave the macadam behind to commune with nature. The Northbrook Canoe Company offers several different canoe and kayaking adventures that vary in time and territory. For those who really want to get wet, there’s also tubing, which is a fun way to explore the Brandywine Valley. Not into water sports but like the idea of taking in the sights? Pack a lunch and hunker down at one of the many riverside picnic areas. 

Literary pursuits

Walking into Port Richmond Books is like walking into your favorite book hoarder’s basement and trying to find a tome. Located off the beaten path on Richmond Street just a few minutes north of Center City, this warehouse (it used to be a silent movie house) contains 200,000 titles. And while arranged pretty haphazardly, the jumble makes it fun to go book hunting for the special treat to take home. There are even several rooms dedicated to poetry, literary and special interests. Heck, just chatting Philly and books with the owner, Greg Gillespie, is well worth the trip. 

Another smart stop for reading nerds is Book Trader in Old City. The two-story shop is jam-packed with titles spanning art, travel and fiction – and a really noteworthy local history section that seems fitting being just footsteps from the historic Christ Church. The folks who work here really know their books and are happy to consider trades. You may even get lucky and snatch up a dollar book from the outdoor bin, perfect for keeping you company as you watch the tourists, art collectors and dog owners stroll Second Street. 

Calling all graffiti lovers 

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Pier 18, also known a Graffiti Pier near Philadelphia's Port Richmond neighborhood.

Port Richmond’s Graffiti Pier (the former Pier 124) has also become a popular destination for art aficionados and urban photographers alike. The open-air street gallery may be Philly’s worst kept secret as more and more hashtags seem to be popping up all over Instagram singing its down-and-dirty praises. The 500-foot pier has long been home to teenagers looking for a place to escape, while more recent adventurers have come in search of ultimate in ruin porn. Is it safe? It depends on whom you ask. Oh, and while it’s technically off limits to the public, it’s one of the last remaining post-industrial vistas on the city fringes, without a Starbucks or condo in sight. 

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The City Branch section of the former Reading Viaduct, the elevated rail system that historically brought freight trains to Reading Terminal, is part of Phase One of the Rail Park project to turn the abandoned rail system into an urban park.

Along the same vein is the Reading Viaduct, an abandoned railroad right-of-way with stunning views of the city. It had been used in the late 1800s as a way to get to and from the Reading Terminal Market (hence its name) but today it’s the focus of a major renovation project that would turn it into Philly’s own High Line elevated park. Before that happens, jump on the old tracks at the Callowhill Junction and explore the art museum, loft district and other hoods from a whole new perspective. Many graffiti artists have left their indelible marks over the years. 

Hidden gems of the 'burbs

You don’t have to travel to Europe to get a taste of castle life. Just visit the Glencairn Museum, a neo-Romanesque castle amid the rolling hills of Montgomery County. The former home of Raymond Pitcairn dates back to the 1920s and serves as a showcase for religious art spanning from the ancient Egyptians to the Native Americans and everything in between. A sure highlight is the stained glass and sculpture, which is one of the finest collections in the country. 

Keep the old-timey vibe in mind at the Wharton Esherick Museum in nearby Paoli. This quirky little museum honors the work of a local sculptor who handcrafted wood designs throughout the 20th century. His hilltop studio and residence has been preserved as a beautiful example of the Arts and Crafts Movement with an intimate look at the architecture and scenery that inspired his long and lively career. 

R. Kennedy/Visit Philadelphia®

Exhibiting art in a 19th-century grist mill, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford is internationally known for its collection of works by three generations of Wyeths. The museum also features a large collection of still life, landscape paintings and American illustration.

People can also sneak a peek at Andrew Wyeth’s studio at the Brandywine River Museum. The beloved artist worked in the space for most of his life, producing thousands of his famous paintings and drawings inspired by the region. The simple whitewashed building situated near the museum still showcases the original furnishings and art materials – like his famous egg tempera – with guided tours explaining Wyeth’s long life and lasting legacy.