State 14: Pennsylvania | Philadelphia

Apologies for the delay in blog posts as I have been quite busy starting a new job and in full swing with wedding planning. This post is about the state where I got engaged! If you’ve been reading my other posts, you know my strong affinity for zoos. I love visiting them in every state I go. My (now) fiancé knew that of course and planned to make one of the most special days of our lives include going to a zoo – and one that I’ve never been to before. Being so close to the Philadelphia Zoo, it’s very surprising that I haven’t visited before. It’s true that you don’t go to attractions that are right in your backyard because you feel like you can go at any time. It’s important to carve out an afternoon every once in a while to visit attractions locally. Most people think “I can go there any weekend,” but without actually scheduling it, years can go by without making the trip. I’ve built entire new state trips around flying across the country and visiting a zoo, but I hadn’t gone to one within short driving distance, and my fiancé took advantage of that!

Walking through the Philadelphia Zoo
Walking through the Philadelphia Zoo

I was as surprised as ever that he popped the question when he did. After all, I thought it was my idea to go to the zoo. The Philadelphia Zoo had been on my short list of local attractions to visit for some time. Almost every weekend in the summer was booked with other travel, so we didn’t have time to go earlier in the season. Now that it was the weekend after Labor Day, we finally had some time to relax. The weather was supposed to be perfect so I suggested doing something locally like going to the zoo. Little did I know that my fiancé already had plans to take me there. He already picked the date and time, went to the zoo the morning before and scoped out the perfect spot and even hired a photographer to capture the moment.

The Philadelphia Zoo is America’s first zoo and has been open since the 1800’s. It is not the biggest zoo I have visited, but it has a wide array of wildlife from all over the globe, from kangaroos to tigers and zebras. They have a Rare Animal Conservation Center which has several species that are unique to the zoo. Our favorite were the titi monkeys. These monkeys are known to sit next to each other for long periods of time with their tails interlocked. We went through the Conservation Center prior to getting engaged, which happened in front of one of my favorite exhibits, the giraffes. Unfortunately, once we went back with our photographer to get a picture in front of the monkeys, they tired of interlocking their tails. Inside the Center contained lemurs, parrots and even bats too (which do not smell very good), so we did get some other good photographs.

Monkey species at the zoo

One of the most intriguing facets of this zoo is that is has overhead tunnels called Zoo360 for monkey and cat species to roam over top of visitors. These tunnels are enclosed cages up high that inspire awe for visitors young and old. It was thrilling to see a two-hundred-pound tiger or snow leopard pacing feet above your head, or see a monkey family swinging and scampering across the tunnelway. I loved this part of the zoo and couldn’t get enough of watching animals so close to me overhead. Seeing “big cat’s” huge paws and underbelly up close was nothing short of amazing.

Another favorite was the rhinoceros and this was because of the design of their habitat, which was made out of the rocks the exact same coloring as the colossal animal. It was hard to spot this large beauty until you looked really closely. Then you could see its nose sticking out of the rocks that camouflage it into its surroundings. There was also a monkey house, petting zoo, penguins and various species of birds along the zoo trail.

I went back to the zoo again during the holiday season for their Luminature lights experience. We picked a warmer Friday evening to go and explore the zoo all lit up at night. It took about an hour to walk through and see the great flamingo tree and fountain all decorated. There were also stilt walkers to add to the excitement. What a great experience to go back to the place we got engaged and see it from a different perspective.

In this post, I will also highlight a few of my other Philadelphia adventures, both tourist attractions and gastronomic experiences. I can’t write a Philadelphia post without mentioning Zahav. This Michael Solomonov restaurant was voted the best in the nation at the 2019 James Beard Awards and it is incredibly difficult to secure a reservation, as you would imagine. We’ve been here four or five times, but each time we have to make a reservation exactly sixty days in advance, no sooner and no later. Reservations are available on their website opening at 7am sixty days prior to the date. Be sure to go on at exactly 7am to secure your spot, and even that can be difficult to get your desired time or number of guests due to the sheer volume of people trying to book simultaneously. This is the third year we went for my fiancé’s birthday and we’ve also gone a handful of other times with family, friends and for business. The food is unlike any I have tasted before. It is Israeli cuisine which is not as prevalent throughout the city. We have always done the Tayim, which is their tasting menu. It is quite affordable for city pricing at around $50 per person. However, each person at the table has to participate. We have been very full and satisfied every time.

The menu changes seasonally, but there are also some staples. The Tayim starts out with six small square dishes of different vegetables. Some we have gotten are eggplant similar to baba ghanoush, carrots, spicy fennel and cabbage. I prefer vegetables over meat so these are some of my favorites, but I have to be sure not to fill up too much as there are still several more courses. Next comes the hummus and pita, which is some of the best around. Zahav also owns Dizengoff, a grab-and-go casual hummus spot, which has the same hummus at Zahav. This is great for a quick lunch. Under their reign of fantastic eateries in the city by Michael Solomonov is also Federal Donuts, which serves donuts and chicken. I have only tried the donuts there, but they are delicious. There are a few staple flavors that are always made hot and fresh on the spot, and others that rotate and are ready to eat right from the case.

Back to Zahav. After the hummus, each guest can choose two small plates from a choice of eight. My favorite of the small plates is the cauliflower. There is a good mix of options from not too adventurous to very adventurous. The most daring being the duck hearts, which I will never try. I have heard they are good, but that is not for me. The seasonings and spices on each plate are so unique and will tickle your taste buds. After the small plates, each guest can choose one entrée. The entrees are not as large as an entrée at other restaurants. There is a choice of about six options, ranging from chicken, steak and lamb to fish and vegetables so there is something for everyone. The restaurant is also amazing at being cognizant of food allergies. I let them know in advance and they crossed out items on the menu for me that contained dairy. When someone else ordered a dairy dish to share as a small plate, the server was always sure to alert me. The meal is not over yet, dessert is included in the Tayim as well! These rotate seasonally too. My fiancé’s pick is always the custard and I am partial to the dairy-free sorbet option. If you know you will be in Philadelphia sixty days in advance, make your Zahav reservation.

Liberty Bell
Liberty Bell

For some background, and jumping back twenty years, I visited Philadelphia for the first time when I was on a class trip in fifth grade. We did all the typical historical stops including the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the US Mint. Since then I have walked by the Liberty Bell numerous times, but I have also made it a point to go to some of the smaller attractions.

Fast forward, I visited the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Ben Franklin Museum this summer. The Jewish History Museum offered free admission for the month of August. The museum was much larger than I expected. There is security including a metal detector and bag scanner upon arrival then the museum awaits with five levels of history. It is suggested to begin on the top floor, which includes the special exhibits. When we visited Sara Berman’s Closet was on display. What I found most intriguing was that her story was written on the wall seemingly handwritten. This gave it a more personal touch. Levels two through four included Jewish history divided by time period. The first floor included the Hall of Fame and was my favorite part. Artifacts from famous figures are housed here, including Albert Einstein’s pipe, Estee Lauder’s planner as well as belongings from Barbara Streisand, Emma Lazarus and Jonas Salk.

The Ben Franklin museum offers gratis admission on select days throughout the year. We went on the National Park Service’s birthday so admission was given free of charge. You can go through the entire museum pretty quickly, in about an hour, but it is worth the trip. The museum is downstairs on the bottom level and separated into four sections. It is unbelievable how much Benjamin Franklin did throughout his life and how many different professions he was involved in. From printing to scientific advancements to politics, Franklin was an intelligent man who had many interests. The museum had actual artifacts from their owner, including plates and a tea pot as well as his ink stamper. Each section shared stories from his life, some that were widely known and others that were new to me. There was a story from his childhood where he overpaid for a whistle and then learned the value of a dollar. One time when he had to share a room with James Madison, they argued over whether to keep the window open – who knew. Although not the most popular Philadelphia museum, it is only a few blocks away from the famous Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and worth walking down to explore.

Poe's Home
Poe’s Home

If you are interested in literature, Edgar Allen Poe’s home is in Spring Garden. The house is also free to visit and a quick stop. Patrons begin by watching a short video about him. This home is where he spent the later portion of his life. He also has a home to tour in Virginia. Here in Philadelphia he lived with his mother and his wife. You can tour the rooms of the house, which are mainly empty today. You can also tour the basement which is pretty eerie as this was the inspiration for his famous Black Cat story.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

I have also visited the Museum of the American Revolution. This is a relatively new museum. If you love American history, this is the place to go. A must-visit if you love art is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Marvel at works from Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso and don’t forgot to take a picture on the famous “Rocky steps” and Rocky statue out front.

If you’re interested in flowers like I am, once a year the Flower Show takes place at the Convention Center. This occurs every February and is the second largest yearly show held there, close behind the Auto Show. A little way outside of the city in Kennett Square is Longwood Gardens, which is beautiful in both the summer and winter holiday season alike. You can stroll the different areas and see all types of flowers from orchids to roses to desert plants. There is also a delicious restaurant called 1906 inside the gardens and you can choose to dine outside in the nice weather and pick from their “past, present or future” menu.

A little farther outside the city in Nottingham is the Herr’s Factory Tour. Here you can take a tour of the factory where their delicious potato chips and pretzels are made. I didn’t know the pretzel rods were handed packed, did you? You can also taste a fresh chip right off the line!

Herr's Factory Tour
Herr’s Factory Tour

I still have a list of more places to visit in Philadelphia, including the Magic Gardens and Betsy Ross House. Other suggestions welcome!

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