There is no better way to understand a nation than to walk in the footsteps of those who helped to create her. And for those who want to know America — with all her faults, passions, quirks and customs — it helps to go back to the places where the very idea of this ever-changing nation was born. One of those locations is Philadelphia, located on the banks of the Delaware River in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Now home to some 1.5 million residents — with another 4 million in the surrounds — Philadelphia reflects the ideals that can be found in most American cities: a love of sports (the town has eight professional sports teams), good food, a strong arts culture and thriving businesses. The locals have their own distinct, street-wise accent (remember “Rocky” in the classic movie about the Philadelphia boxer?) and they’re known for their frank, straight-forward manner.
The fifth-largest city in the United States, Philadelphia is a town for every person, no matter their race, status or religion — and it’s been this way since the city’s founding in 1682 by Quaker Englishman William Penn. In fact, Penn named his new town “Philadelphia,” which was derived from the Greek words meaning “city of brotherly love,” in honor of his goals for the new city.
And if ever a community has put its stamp on the face of American history, Philadelphia is it. The East Coast town was a hotbed of activity during America’s struggle for independence from Britain, with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams walking her streets.
On July 4, 1776, those same rebels signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, which is now a museum. The famous Liberty Bell, which was rung to announce the declaration’s adoption, now resides in its own pavilion at Independence National Historical Park, a site visited by thousands of tourists each year.
Yet there was one man who stood at the center of all these nation-changing activities: Ben Franklin. An inventor, publisher, statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin wore many hats, and influenced the city — and the United States — in ways that are still obvious today.
The young boy who came to Philadelphia at 17 as a printer’s apprentice invented bifocals, the lightning rod, swim fins and the flexible catheter. He charted the Gulf Stream currents, and developed new community services such as one of the first fire protection programs in Philadelphia and the colonies’ first insurance company.
He came up with the colonies’ first philosophical society, the first public lending library, and was elected president of a group promoting the abolition of slavery. Franklin was a passionate spokesman for uniting the colonies, and he eventually became one of the rare American diplomats who was beloved by the French. In fact, his passionate words helped the colonists gain the military support of King Louis XVI during the American Revolution.
A man far ahead of his time, the outgoing Franklin was an occasional vegetarian who drank more water than beer, and a man who followed spiritual paths of his own. He was a pillar of strength to the struggling colonies, painting a vision for the nation they would one day become.
On January 17, 2006, this American overachiever turns 300 — and Philadelphia is throwing a humdinger of a party for its favorite son. The Ben Franklin 300 Philadelphia festivities run through summer 2006.
The centerpiece of the celebrations is the international traveling exhibit “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World.” Premiering December 15, 2005, at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, the exhibition immerses visitors in Franklin’s world, inspiring them by his example.
Those who want to experience Franklin’s adopted hometown from his viewpoint can take the Walking in Franklin’s Footsteps self-guided walking tour. The jaunt visits important historical locations (such as Independence Hall), as well as the places where Franklin lived and worked.
The party continues with Philomel, a string ensemble that submerses visitors in the sounds of the past by playing the tunes of the 1700s and 1800s. Orchestra members will play instruments such as the harpsichord, cello and recorder at historical locations throughout the city at locations including Christ Church, St. Paul’s and St. Martin’s. Tickets start at $30; it’s money well-spent.
For art lovers, the Pennsylvania Ballet offers Franklin Court through March 2006, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company debuts Ben Franklin: Unplugged, a hilarious monologue, in January 2006.
America’s untold stories will come to life this summer with Once Upon a Nation, a free, citywide storytelling event. Few people know, for instance, that Betsy Ross (who created the American flag) was a feisty twenty-something and an entrepreneur. These and other lively and little-known stories will be told at 13 different storytelling benches. (The city offers free maps.)
Children will also enjoy the Franklin Institute Science Museum, a hands-on museum with science exhibits to explore, including a “walk” through a human heart. The Museum’s new live stage show “Sparks!” exhibit (January 1 through December 31, 2006) is a high-energy, interactive show illustrating the power of electricity. (The show is available for school groups.)
The Lights of Liberty Show is a must-see when visiting Philadelphia. This spectacular 3-D media event takes viewers to sites all over the city, recreating the very instances that occurred at these locations. The show uses an excellent sound track (visitors wear headsets) and uses a five-story light display. Children have their own sound track, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.
Though Franklin was happily married, he was also beloved by the ladies — whether they were American, French or Russian. The American Philosophical Society’s new exhibit, “The Princess and the Patriot,” details the extraordinary friendship between Franklin and Russian princess Ekaterina Dashkova, who directed the most prestigious scientific organization in her country. The exhibit is free, and runs February 17- December 31, 2006.
Even local Philly businesses are getting into the party mood. Le Castagne, an Italian eatery on Chestnut Street, offers a three-course Ben-themed dinner. Just around the corner, Brasserie Perrier offers cocktails in cranberry and apple, two of Franklin’s favorite flavors.
This is obviously a town that knows its founding fathers, and Philadelphia’s moving tribute to Franklin is a testament to his outstanding life. And as one local resident said, it’s another great reason to throw a big party.
If You Go
Where to Stay
Continue your blast to the past with a stay at the Morris House Hotel, a small orchestral jewel that was built in 1787, during Franklin’s day. Restored with classical elegance, the Morris House is filled with 18th century art and furnishings. Best of all, the hotel is located just a few blocks from Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell Pavilion. The Morris House has 15 guestrooms and extended-stay suites, each offering modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi and luxury baths. Rates start at US$ 159 per night.
The Morris House Hotel
225 S. 8th St.
Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation
Independence Visitor Center
Corner of 6th and Market streets
Franklin Institute Science Museum
20th & Ben Franklin Pkwy.
Once Upon A Nation
+ 215-629-5801 ext 201
Lights of Liberty
877-GO-1776 (within the United States)
National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street, Independence Mall
Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World
December 15, 2005-April 30, 2006
National Constitution Center
525 Arch Street, Independence Mall
215-409-6700 or www.gophila/ben.com