Though Washington, DC, has taken Philadelphia's place as the capital of the United States, it remains a bustling metropolis rich with American history. Grim Philly's tour guides?all of whom have at least a bachelor's degree in history?dredge up past centuries' landmark events and scandals, even ghosts and pirates, during their 75-minute walking tours, which made the Philly Hot List three years in a row. Their narration blends historical facts and local insight, with stops at a theater that was once a prostitution mecca for working girls of the night, the site of the first bank robbery, and Independence Hall.
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 Old City, Society Hill and the historic district, and some parts of South Philly, such as the Italian Market and the Magic Gardens. Besides historical attractions, tours stop by other notable Philly spots some of which were frequented by Sylvester Stallone while he was in town filming 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.
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 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, gray wolves, and bald and golden eagles?peer back at visitors. Guests can also spy on more than 15 species that are threatened or endangered.
Part of the Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation?which also operates amusement destinations such as Dollywood and San Francisco's Classic Cable Car Sightseeing?Ride The Ducks ranks among the nation's largest amphibious-tour operators and is Philadelphia's only land and water experience. Captains welcome guests aboard amphibious vessels based on a 1940s General Motors military vehicle called the DUKW that served as an indispensable resource to both General Patton and General Eisenhower during World War II.
At Ride The Ducks' five locations?Branson, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Stone Mountain, and Newport?these vessels roam the streets and glide in and out of local waterways to give passengers views of each city's most noteworthy sights, from the Liberty Bell to the Bay Bridge. The captains narrate each tour as well as encourage guests to make calls with Wacky Quackers, provided they say nothing rude in duck language. Every vessel maintains US Coast Guard standards, such as maintaining a plentiful stock of personal flotation devices.
Just south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the Delaware River bustles with activity. On its western shore lies Philadelphia's waterfront, with destinations such as Penn's Landing. To the east is Camden, which holds its own against the Pennsylvania capital with attractions such as Adventure Aquarium, where Aquaman moonlights as a jellyfish. But perhaps the area's biggest draw is the meeting place between these two locales: the Delaware River itself.
RiverLink Ferry's two-story sightseeing vessel, the M/V Freedom, traverses these waters for sightseeing tours of the waterfront's architecture or fall foliage. The ferry serves a practical purpose as well; it regularly travels point-to-point between Philadelphia and Camden, so commuters can move between the two cities with ease.
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.