Road Trip! Destination: Philadelphia oddities
Pennsylvania is a state (sorry, Commonwealth) that isn't held together by much, other than tradition. It's so big that there isn't much shared identity between the heavily-populated East, vast rural middle, and us here in Western Pa.
For many of us on the western end of the state, after you get past State College, the eastern part of the map might as well say “Here There Be Dragons,” for all we know about it.
Or, perhaps, “Here There Be Cheesesteaks and Hostile Sports Fans.”
Yes, there are some differences. But not only is Philadelphia its own thing entirely, it's also unlike anywhere else.
How about doing a different kind of tour of the City of Brotherly Love? Forget about the “Rocky” steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Well, go run up and down them if you must. Yell “Adrian!” a few times, if you must. We'll wait. Then eat a cheesesteak. Get a picture pointing at the crack in the Liberty Bell. OK, got that out of your system?
There are so many strange, distinctive, wonderful and/or just weird things on that end of the state, that it's kind of a shame to just do all the usual touristy stuff.
Here are a few places to start. (The site roadsideamerica.com and the book “Weird Pennsylvania” are helpful in this regard). Pennsylvania is a weird state full of weird people, so the more you look, the more weirdness you'll uncover.
Don't sleep on the Mutter Museum — seriously, you may not be able to afterward — which can provide those with active imaginations decades of nightmare fuel.
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia hosts this awesome and frequently grotesque collection of medical specimens, anatomical models and instruments, displayed in a 19th-century Wunderkammer (“Cabinet of Curiosities”) setting.
Wall of skulls? Check. Two-headed skeleton? Check. One head, two-bodied skeleton? Check. More morbid, 150-year-old diseased body parts, removed organs and once-living stuff-in-jars than you ever thought you'd see in one place. Check.
Philadelphia is the cradle of American liberty. So, of course, it has a pizza museum.
Seriously, how did it take until now for this great nation to figure out that we needed a pizza museum? The world's largest (Guinness-certified) collection of pizza memorabilia, pizza history, pizza art and general cheesy awesomeness is here at Pizza Brain.
Plus, there's a really nice artisan pizzeria attached — that has grabbed a lot of “Best New Restaurant” honors — so any hunger rumbles generated by the museum can be instantly identified and dealt with. There are only six tables and 12 menu items, but it's worth it for pies like the “Queenie Delouche,” with fontina, goat cheese, mozzarella, shiitake mushrooms, portabella mushrooms, garlic and fresh rosemary.
Plus, right next door is Little Baby's Ice Cream.
Details: 215-291-2965, www.pizzabrain.org.
Podiatric Medicine Shoe Museum
Shoes. Some people buy dozens of them, obsessing over color and detail, make and model. Some people just put them on their feet and forget about them. This little museum, curiously enough, may have some appeal for both crowds.
At the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, there's a small, but amazingly curated by-appointment-only museum dedicated to feet and the things we put on them. Exhibits range from Egyptian burial sandals, to Bernie Parent's Stanley Cup skates and Reggie Jackson's World Series cleats, to Joan Rivers' Manolo Blahniks.
The country's largest bug museum is the Insectarium. Thousands of creepy crawlies, from the newly discovered to the endangered (to the extinct, both mounted and running free. Exhibits include a giant spider's web that you can get stuck in, a working beehive and a cockroach habitat that looks identical to a human kitchen.
Details: 215-335-1900 or www.myinsectarium.com.
South Street is kind of like Pittsburgh's East Carson Street on the South Side — a seemingly endless row of bars, clubs, restaurants and other assorted nightlife.
Yet, you can step inside the Magic Gardens and feel instantly like you've found a portal to a strange new world, from the imagination of sculptor-folk artist Isaiah Zagar. His works are in some of the most prestigious museums in America, but here they're liberated from staid white walls and formed into caverns and labyrinths covered in mosaics. Thousands of colorful, glittering tiles, bits of mirror and reclaimed trash cover every surface, and after you get a feel for their patterns and rhythms, stories and themes begin to emerge.
Details: 215-733-0390 or www.phillymagicgardens.org
Eastern State Penitentiary
One of Philadelphia's biggest tourist attractions is the massive Gothic stone fortress of Eastern State. The famous jail was actually considered an improvement upon the brutal methods of traditional imprisonment, when it was first proposed by Dr. Benjamin Rush in the home of Benjamin Franklin. The result was influenced by Quaker and Enlightenment thinking, and it revolutionized the concept of incarceration when it was finally built in 1829. It was closed as a prison in 1971.
Lots of bad people (including Al Capone) did really hard time here. Several tours are available, but you should probably try the audio tour “The Voices of Eastern State,” narrated by Steve Buscemi.
Details: 215-236-3300 or www.easternstate.org
Speaking of castles, this imposingly odd building looms above suburban Doylestown. It's also a museum showcasing all kinds of early-American artifacts, stuffed inside every conceivable corner of this massive structure — including stagecoaches and whale boats hung from the ceiling.
Nineteenth-century archaeologist Henry Mercer was a bit of a hoarder, it seems. Except, instead of old newspapers and garbage, he collected things like antique fire engines, cobbler's tools and tinsmithing equipment.
Outside of Philadelphia, in the suburb of Ambler, lies the headquarters of the Three Stooges fan club, still going strong. It's only open about once a month, but if you're the type of person who wants to browse through more than 100,000 pieces of Stooge-related memorabilia and/or attend Stooges film screenings, you'll wait.
Details: www.stoogeum.com or 267-468-0810