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by Jamie Ross
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

I have a fascination with all things historical, and if ever a community has put its stamp on the face of American history, Philadelphia is it. It 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. As such, Philadelphia was a city I've always wanted to see. The trouble here was, it was a spring minor hockey tournament that gave me the opportunity to visit, so I was accompanied by my thirteen year old, hockey-playing son who felt the most important moment in history was the Canucks run to the Stanley Cup final a year ago.

Philadelphia's efficient train service allowed us easy access to the downtown core, and gave me the opportunity to share some literature with my son, and give him a synopsis on American history. Much of the United States that we know today began in Philadelphia. This was the birthplace of American democracy, site of the earliest public parks, first volunteer fire association and first hospital. It served as the nation's capital.

The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Franklin Institute are familiar landmarks ... as is the Philly Cheesesteak, my son points out, always thinking of his stomach. So, first stop is the bustling Reading Terminal Market, where we are drawn by the alluring aroma of the gooey sandwich. Here in Philadelphia, cheesesteaks are a civic icon, a tourist draw and a cultural obsession - a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sauteed steak, provolone cheese, served with or without onions.

A city tour is always my favourite way to learn about an unfamiliar city. You can get your bearings, and then decide what attractions need further investigation. We jumped on the Big Bus Company's authentic English double decker bus and enjoyed a narrated tour of the downtown. Passengers can hop off and on the buses at any of the 20 stops - say, to run up the "Rocky" steps and dance around with arms raised, just like Stallone. "Embarrassing," says my son - "and that's such an old, old movie."

As the bus navigates the city's tight downtown streets, our guide reminds us of Philadelphia's most notable buildings, including City Hall, which is the tallest masonry building in the world, with granite walls up to 22 feet thick. The building is topped by a 27-ton bronze statue of William Penn, the city's founder in 1682. He named the new town "Philadelphia," derived from the Greek words meaning "city of brotherly love." For a bird's eye view, we head up to an observation deck, right below the statue.

Philadelphia is an art and museum lover's paradise, which doesn't impress my son, but a visit to the Franklin Institute Science Museum does. Here is a hands-on, interactive museum with science exhibits to explore, including a "walk" through human heart. Our visit includes a special exhibition on Mummies, a suitably morbid display for a boy who has watched the movie "The Mummy" many times.

One stop my son looks forward to is the Eastern State Penitentiary. We wander its dank, dark foreboding corridors and I'm mostly able to convince my son that breaking the law is a bad thing, that is, until we check out the comfortable cell where Al Capone spent a year of his life. The prison initiated a revolutionary system of incarceration that focused more on reform than punishment. Prisoners had their own cell and were not allowed to communicate with one another. Needless to say, mental illness was rampant as a result of the isolation and confinement.

Our tour ends at the Independence National Park which includes the Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the small colonial home of Betsy Ross, who is credited with sewing the first American flag.

I think my son is suitably impressed, but he does hurry me off to an atmospheric restaurant that has been recommended by our tour guide, called El Vez. The guide had said that there was a motorcycle hanging from the ceiling. It turned out to be a fancy pink peddle bike, but the table-side guacamole and tostadas menus, along with a huge margarita selection for me, had our attention anyway.

Philadelphia reflects the ideals that can interest both father and son alike: a love of sports, good food, a strong arts culture and an interesting history. The locals have their own distinct, street-wise accent and they're known for their frank, straight-forward manner.


More Information:

The Big Bus Company Philadelphia,

Independence Visitor Center

Franklin Institute Science Museum

PHOTOS: By Jamie Ross

1. The Philadelphia City Scape
2. The Reading Terminal Market
3. City Hall
4. Benjamin Franklin Statue
5. Eastern State Penitentiary
6. Authentic English Double-Decker Bus

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