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Four Must-Do Philadelphia Activities (that have nothing to do with the founding of the USA)

After you’ve done the founding of the country sites, wander off the path of history and onto the path of penal institutions, pop culture, and wall art.

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Mosaic Walls and Huge Murals

Outdoor art thrives in Philadelphia. Yes, there are monuments and sculptures, but there is also wall art like few cities can provide. In fact, I don't know of any city that offers both 3,000 and growing murals along with extensive beautification by the folk art mosaics that grace the walls of South Street Philadelphia.

Philadelphia's Magic Garden

In the world of folk art mosaics, few can match the scope and complexity of Isaiah Zagar. Not only has he transformed blank (and often unloved) walls into vibrant art, glittering with mirrors, glass, and tile, but the Magic Garden itself includes a fully mosaiced indoor gallery and a massive outdoor labyrinth of tile, found objects, and mirror.

It began in 1994 in the vacant lot nearby Zagar’s studio where he spent years excavating and building tunnels and grottos, tiling and grouting the 3,000 square foot space.

Eventually, the actual owner of the lot decided to sell the land, at the cost of destroying this unique art project. But the community preferred art to destruction and worked to purchase the property. Now titled Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, Zagar’s work is protected and stretches over about half a city block.

Although Zagar is always adding more walls to the South Philadelphia neighborhood he calls home, you can put together a do-it-yourself tour by downloading a map of some of Zagar's murals

Or just stroll down South Street. It’s a good area to find some good Philly Cheesesteak places so you can eat as well as admire a rich and growing folk art legacy.

City of Murals

For history, art, and culture outside the walls of institutions, enjoy the city’s boisterous, colorful, inventive breath-taking murals, the creation of City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. There is an astounding variety to these huge works of art that blanket the city with color.

It began in 1984 as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. Muralist Jane Golden was hired to redirect the energies of the graffiti writers to constructive mural painting. In 1996, Mayor Ed Rendell announced that the Anti-Graffiti Network would be reorganized into the Mural Arts Program.

Over 3,000 murals later, the city of Philadelphia is transformed into a city of art, wall art. Huge, community-pleasing, tourist-attracting, artist-loving creations. Find murals at Explore Murals

Also, take one (or more) of their comprehensive mural tours. They offer walking tours of particular neighborhoods, and trolley tours to cover more area in style. Buy tickets online.

Eastern State Penitentiary and Rocky Balboa

Combine a trip to Eastern State Penitentiary with posing by the famous Rocky statue. These two places are so close it doesn’t make sense to visit one without the other.

Eastern State Penitentiary

This half-derelict half-stabilized campus is fascinating to visit (and photograph). It started out perhaps with the best of intentions, but used solitary confinement as the key principle. Even the name -- penitentiary -- tells a story. A word not often used today, penitents are people who are repentant, ashamed of their behavior and ready to be released to the world. Easterm State Penitentiary was thought to inspire prisoners with its architecture, and encourage penitence in the convicts.

Clearly developed by people who had never been required to be isolated from fellow humans, it was initially hailed as ground-breaking. Prisoners were well-treated, well-fed, and given constructive jobs to perform. The only problem was they were never to see or talk to a fellow inmate. Even when walking through corridors they were hooded.

Over time that had to change - if for no other reason than overcrowding. Visitors can trace the changes in penal theory and implementation in the buildings. But there is more here than prison philosophy gone bad. There are fascinating stories of prisoners stretching over a hundred years.

Explore the crumbling buildings, take guided tours, and listen to the audio tours. ESP has created an audio tour that goes beyond the standard description of what you're seeing and doing to add a whole extra dimension. You’ll find side stories that provide a deeper understanding of life within the prison with memories of guards, prisoners, including those incarcerated as runaway slaves, and stories of those who attempted, and who succeeded in escaping from the prison.

The old walls and decrepit cells have also become an art exhibition area.

It’s easily possible to spend a whole day here. Although it is open all year long, not all the activities and exploration are available in winter.

Rocky Balboa Statue

Rocky, the statue, is in a garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, located on beautiful Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Strolling along the Parkway is a wonderful activity and a way to reach not only Rocky and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but many of the other museums of the city. It’s a fun place to take a break on your walk to ESP (Eastern State Penitentiary).

Although Rocky isn’t at the top of the steps leading to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he still stands erect, arms raised in triumph. The statue, originally created for Rocky III immortalizing Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in bronze, was donated by Stallone. Today this iconic image from the first of the Rocky movies stands in a peaceful garden. Yes, it’s a bit odd, but you can still have your photo snapped standing next to Sylvester Stallone as Rocky.

Think you know Philadelphia? Think again. Learn more at Philadelphia USA

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016

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