Taking a Tour of Philadelphia — While Sitting at Home

The Philadelphia Magic Gardens offers a virtual exhibit. | Photo by Sophie Panzer

I moved to Philadelphia in late February, one month before the city was placed under stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus.

About six weeks into quarantine, I realized I had yet to orient myself to my new surroundings. Friends called me to ask “How’s Philly?” and I replied, “No idea!”

Disappointed that I couldn’t explore my new city in person, I compiled a virtual tour of some iconic Philly attractions. I spent a few hours perusing museums and parks, even popping into a couple of cafes and bookstores (thanks Google Maps), all from the safety of my couch.

I walked away from my computer feeling like I knew my new home a little better. If you miss some of your favorite places or just need a fun way to kill a rainy afternoon, you can follow in my footsteps.

Independence Hall
It seemed natural to start my virtual journey at Independence Hall, so I visited the National Park Service website and watched some videos about the site. Each video is a short documentary and moves audiences through significant moments in the building’s history, from the signing of the Constitution to the fugitive slave hearings held on the second floor.

Unlike other museums I chose, this tour was entirely video-based and did not include digital galleries or panoramic exhibit views. It was a fascinating glimpse into colonial history, but not as fun as blasting the “Hamilton” soundtrack at full volume while your roommate is out grocery shopping.

National Museum of American Jewish History
A tour of Philadelphia wouldn’t be complete without visiting NMAJH. Viewers can access the core exhibition on Google Arts and Culture, along with several lectures from staff and guest speakers on the museum website. I watched “American Jews and the Civil War” before heading to the actual digital recreation of the building.

Navigating the exhibits using the arrow keys was a bit of a headache — sometimes I couldn’t zoom in close enough to the artifacts and accidentally teleported through walls — but it was worth it. I was especially charmed by the recreation of the 19th century covered wagon and 1950s suburban kitchen. My favorite floor was “1917: How One Year Changed the World.”

Barnes Foundation
I was lucky enough to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art in person before the city shut down, but I saved the Barnes Foundation for another day. Visitors to the foundation’s website can view items from the Barnes Collection, including modern European paintings and African tribal masks, in the online galleries. I used the search function to make a beeline for the Van Goghs. The museum is also offering “Barnes Takeout,” a daily YouTube video series of museum staff discussing their favorite works of art in the collection.

The Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
This delightfully creepy museum is close to the Jewish Exponent offices, so I assumed I would visit soon after starting work. I was happy with the virtual tours available on the museum website when the pandemic changed my plans. I chose one led by curator Anna Dohdy. Highlights include the Hyrtl Skull collection grinning from the walls and the delicate notes of “Trois Gymnopédies” playing in the background as the camera zooms in on a giant colon. “If you know of a bigger one, please let us know,” Dohdy requests politely.

Fairmount Park
Fairmount Park is still open to visitors, but tricky for me to access from my home in Kensington since I don’t have a car. I’ll stick to Penn Treaty Park in Fishtown for now and rely on the magic of Google Maps while I wait for public transit to be safe again.

I started by taking in some stunning 360-degree views of the Fairmount Water Works and meandered my way toward Boathouse Row. I stopped by the Shofuso Japanese House and Gardens, which even online emanate a sense of serenity I haven’t been able to access since the beginning of March. I took in the cherry blossoms near the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center and the Historic Strawberry Mansion. I ended my “walk” in the Laurel Hill Cemetery, where I did my best to zoom in on gravestones and tombs.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Full disclosure: I visited these in person during an earlier trip to Philly in October and felt like Alice falling down a mosaicked rabbit hole. I’ve wanted to go back ever since, so I decided to stop by their website.

I was not disappointed. The digital version shows the exhibit in all its rambling glory. I could see the spoke of every recycled bicycle wheel and the glint of every tile. The best part? No one was elbowing me out of the way to take that perfect selfie.

spanzer@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729


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