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Getting Your Philly

The Best of the Oldies, and Then Some

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2003; Page P01

I went for the cheesesteaks.

That's the part of Philadelphia I'd remembered fondly from my repeated visits as a college student, decades ago.

By the end of my recent weekend there, however, I was thinking that I'd either forgotten a lot, or Philadelphia had come into its own during my long absence. It must be a bit of both.

At Philadelphia's Constitution Center, there are no ho-hum history lessons. (R. Kennedy/GPTMC)

Certainly the world-class art and science museums were there during my former visits -- Philadelphia brags that it has more impressionist art than any city except Paris. The Reading Terminal Market hasn't changed a lick since my visits in the 1970s. Philadelphia was a great walking city then, and now.

But the city that once served as the U.S. capital feels alot more cosmopolitan, spiffy and energetic these days. And sometime during my absence, someone realized that the city's history was worthy of a bigger, better showcase.

Most recently, Philadelphia erected a $314 million monument to its past by totally making over Independence Mall, a square-mile swath of history that includes in its grassy spaces a new home for the Liberty Bell, a visitors center and a new museum that is so good it actually makes the Constitution interesting to children. And even to adults who burned out on that subject 'round about seventh grade.

The high-tech exhibits and theaters in the new National Constitution Center were good enough to make me laugh and -- to the amazement of the two children I brought along -- cry.

When you tire of history you can simply roam Philly's streets lined with stores, fine architecture and great restaurants, without getting lost: When William Penn designed this city between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, he laid out a nice straight grid of streets that are numbered north to south. East to west, streets named for trees flow in continuous parallel lines that don't suddenly run into circles that loop you off to who knows where, like some cities we know.

Arriving with my 11-year-old daughter and her friend on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, I immediately see a difference -- the grimy old 30th Street Amtrak station gleams. Golden statues and marble floors refract light off each other.

We get a driving tour that evening from an old friend who puts down the top of his convertible as we breeze by some of the 8,900 acres of Fairmount Park. The largest urban park in the United States, it dwarfs New York's puny 843-acre Central Park. The Schuylkill River twinkles with the reflection of lights from boathouses for crew teams.

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