City is a fine place for family fun Philadelphia: Ethnic neighborhoods, varied museums and historic sites will entrance children and adults.

September 21, 1997|By Diane Stoneback | Diane Stoneback,ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

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.

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