It all started with a farmer's generosity. In 1924, a civic-minded citizen handed over 16 acres of lush farmland and a small group of critters to the Borough of Norristown. Today, the Elmwood Park Zoo and the Norristown Zoological Society welcomes guests in hopes of creating a future stock of wildlife lovers and conservation advocates. A menagerie of around 300 beasts indigenous to the Americas—including jaguars, howler monkeys, timberwolves, and bald and gold eagles—peer back at visitors. Even though they're from Africa, giraffes get in on the fun too during certain seasons, grazing on foliage and the toupees of particularly tall patrons. Guests can also spy on more than 15 species that are threatened or endangered. All the while, smaller animals mosey around at the petting barn, tots climb aboard gentle ponies, and winged beauties sail through the air at the butterfly preserve.
Taking in all of Philadelphia's history could take days, but the folks at Philly By Segway somehow manage to compress the city's sights into two-hour tours. Starting along the Delaware River, excursions pass landmarks like Penn's Landing, Independence Hall, and Elfreth's Alley, the nation's oldest residential street. Besides historical attractions, tours stop by other notable spots, like the art museum's "Rocky steps," which Sylvester Stallone famously climbed in his one-man adaptation of Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Accommodating up to six participants, every tour is led by one of Philly By Segway's Adventure Captains. Besides narrating the entire trip, captains snap pictures throughout, which are available for guests to take home afterward.
Propelled by an affinity for fresh air, the family that helms Hispaniola Cycling fosters the same free-spirit mentality in its guests who embark on the outfit’s bike tours, which include cycles and helmets. Hispaniola’s guides are experts on the local topography, calling upon their respect for Mother Nature and a healthy fear of her mood swings to guide groups for spins around town or weekend jaunts through Valley Forge and along the Schuylkill River Trail. They can also expand fitness with wellness tours and camaraderie with corporate tours that follow custom routes around worksites, kick-starting employee heart rates a midday slump after they wrestle faulty fax machines.
Sensory overload doesn’t begin to describe Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. A seemingly boundless compilation of colors, textures, and shapes, the labyrinthine mosaic creation spans 3,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. The masterpiece originated in the brain of Isaiah Zagar, a Philadelphia native who grew up in New York. During his third year of art school, he stumbled upon Clarence Schmidt’s folk-art-inspired installations—assemblages of found objects and recycled materials—and the young artist’s view of the art world changed. “I didn't know that I was looking at art,” Zagar reflects in his mission statement. Self-admittedly, Zagar has been somewhat “copying” Schmidt’s dynamic, free-flowing style ever since.
The years after art school brought Zagar an onslaught of new opportunities. He spent time as an artist in China and India, joined the Peace Corps with his wife Julia, settled in Peru for three years, and even tried his hand at ceramics in Wisconsin. In the ‘60s, he and Julia returned to his birthplace—specifically, the waning South Street neighborhood. Isaiah quickly leapt into action, renovating dilapidated buildings and often adding mosaics to formerly barren walls. Eventually, Isaiah’s imagination outgrew their projects, and in 1994 he began constructing a new piece in a vacant lot near his studio—the project would become Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Isaiah spent 14 precious years, which he should have applied to Y2K preparations, scooping out tunnels, erecting multitiered walls, and splashing the entire space in colorful tile. The finished product stretches across half a block of South Street; the outside enclosure shimmering with vibrant tiles, the inside housing folk art, colored glass bottles, and countless sparkling mirrors. Now a nonprofit organization, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens invites visitors to enjoy its visual candy with guided or self-guided tours.
The National Museum of American Jewish History's core exhibition traces more than 350 years of American Jewish history, documenting their triumphs and struggles since first settling in 1654. Spread across 25,000 square feet on five floors, the exhibition's historical objects and lifelike environments cover subjects such as the late 19th-century Jewish immigration and the involvement of American Jews in the Civil Rights Movement. As the exhibition moves into the present day, visitors can share their own stories and opinions in two of the museum's interactive stations: It's Your Story and the Contemporary Issues Forum. After sharing their own journeys, guests can explore the Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame, where multimedia displays and original artifacts highlight the lives of prominent Jewish Americans, including Irving Berlin and Estée Lauder.
Cups of Old City Coffee, baked goods from LeBus, and vegetarian and dairy cuisine from Di Bruno Bros. reenergize museum-goers at the Pomegranates Café; kosher fare is also available. Additional museum programming includes educational opportunities for adults and kids, as well as live events such as lectures, discussions, and concerts.
Since its founding in 1976, the African American Museum in Philadelphia has worked to preserve and honor African Americans' heritage through exhibitions, collections, and cultural programs. Four galleries contain exhibits delving into themes including the African diaspora, African American life in Philadelphia, and contemporary African American narratives. The core exhibition, Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776–1876, showcases a timeline detailing how African Americans lived in that era, and brings key historical figures to life through 10 life-size video projections. Visitors can interact with each of the projections, listening to their stories and requesting further topics of discussion, such as the Internet's role in their lives. Another gallery focuses on African American life post-emancipation leading up to the modern day. In addition to engaging exhibitions, the museum also boasts an extensive collection of historical artifacts, including Negro league baseball memorabilia, records, musical instruments, photographs, and the time machine that was used to retrieve each item.