Elizabeth Hey

Philadelphia: A City for the Senses


Elizabeth Hey
Published October 01, 2017

Philadelphia’s role in American history draws many visitors. Independence Hall, where America’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, connects us to our heritage. And Philadelphia’s Historic District includes sites that celebrate the American Revolution and that should be part of any visit.

But Philly’s arts-and-culture scene is worth some attention, too. Whether your group visits one of the city’s many museums, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose iconic steps were immortalized in the film “Rocky,” or takes in the prolific music, dance and theater scene, options are plentiful. Pennsylvania’s largest city is a delightful smorgasbord of visual and performing arts that deserves a place on your next itinerary.

“Our fabulous Museum District along Ben Franklin Parkway caters to many interests,” said Jim DePhilippo, tourism sales manager for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And the city’s youthful student population guarantees a wide variety of collegiate offerings from the Curtis Institute of Music and the University of Pennsylvania.”

Visual Arts

Headlining the city’s art scene is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With over 200 galleries and 240,000 objects, it ranks as one of the world’s largest art museums. Notable exhibits include impressionist and postimpressionist works, an American collection that features the Shakers and the Pennsylvania Germans, “period rooms” and architectural ensembles from around the world. Under the museum’s umbrella, the Rodin Museum contains the largest collection of sculptor Auguste Rodin’s works outside Paris. Also included are two Colonial houses in Fairmont Park: Cedar Grove and Mount Pleasant. Historic house tours, a holiday open house and Fairmount Park bus tours, narrated by museum-trained step-on guides, dive into the park’s history. Friday nights at the museum offer live music, gallery access, cocktails and tapas-style dishes.

Another of Philadelphia’s outstanding art museums, the Barnes Foundation, displays the world’s largest collection of paintings by Renoir and Cézanne, as well as significant works by Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and other renowned impressionist, postimpressionist and modern European artists. The collection was assembled by Albert Barnes between 1912 and 1951 and includes African art, Native American pottery and jewelry, Pennsylvania German furniture, American avant-garde painting and wrought-iron metalwork. 

In the museum, masterpieces by Van Gogh and Picasso hang next to ordinary household objects: a door hinge, a spatula, a yarn spinner. The ensembles, arranged exactly as Barnes left them, were meticulously crafted to draw out visual similarities among objects we don’t normally put together. Groups can opt for a one-hour, docent-led tour, a private after-hours tour or a self-guided tour that begins with a 30-minute introduction.  Upcoming exhibits include “Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema,” May 5 to September 3, 2018; and “Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist,” October 20, 2018, to January 14, 2019. Catered, private dining for up to 100 people is available in the tranquil Garden Pavilion, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a leafy courtyard.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, commonly called Penn Museum, is preparing for the opening of its Middle East Galleries next spring. Their special exhibition, “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories From Syria and Iraq,” runs through November 2018. After a tour, add on a visit to the Penn Museum Archives, a Q&A with an archaeologist, a behind-the-scenes workshop or a hands-on activity, such as Japanese woodblock print-making. Buffet or boxed lunches are available.

For 30 years, Mural Arts Philadelphia has united artists and communities to create art that transforms public spaces. Mural Arts engages communities in 50 to 100 public art projects each year. The tour season begins in April, and private tours through the city’s diverse neighborhoods are available by foot, trolley, train or Segway. Groups can add a visual scavenger hunt or help paint a mural.

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