Fun things for a nerd to get into in Philly?
April 9, 2017 6:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about taking a weekend trip to Philadelphia (I live within driving distance, but have never been). What's cool and off the beaten tourist path? (The Mütter Museum is already on my list.) Snowflakes inside, of course!

Things I like:
  • synthesizers and electronic music (any music stores with good synth sections? or good venues for less-dancey electronic music?)
  • grand Victorian architecture (any cool old buildings open to the public?)
  • antiquing of the "funky old junk" variety
  • grass-roots/DIY experimental/avant-garde art scenes
  • record collecting (I'm more into curious odds and ends than scoring mint-condition collector's items)
  • modern, contemporary, and (especially) installation art
  • cats
  • morbid curiosity shoppes like the excellent Bazaar in Baltimore
  • bohemian neighborhoods full of locally owned cafes/shops/etc. (sounds like Fishtown is in this vein?)
  • science, computers, maker/DIY culture
  • delicious, casual, flexitarian-friendly food
  • anything else you think I might dig, based on the above
Any and all suggestions will be appreciated. Thanks!
posted by escape from the potato planet to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The Barnes is one of the most amazing museums I've ever visited. You have to reserve a ticket (I think? I just showed up first thing in the morning and got in, but by the time I left the line was out the door). It's not quite what you're looking for, perhaps, as the collection pretty much stops in the early period of Modern Art...but it is astonishing. If you enjoy Seurat/Gaugin/Van Gogh/Modigliani etc. even a little bit, it's worth the trip. Plus, the method they use to display the collection is fascinating and unusual.
posted by katie at 7:17 PM on April 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

A fairly popular tourist destination, but the Magic Gardens are definitely worth the price of admission. I'll be shocked if you're not impressed.

And one of my favorite spots for odd junk is Philly AIDS Thrift.
posted by xenization at 7:34 PM on April 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Based on "cool old buildings", "funky old junk", and especially "morbid curiosity shops", do not miss the Mütter Museum.

[Edited: though I did miss that you mentioned it in your question. Sorry!]
posted by nicwolff at 7:55 PM on April 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

without making any presumptions about what your definition of flexitarian is, we recently visited philly for a short weekend visit (the flower show is epic) and had really amazing food and a generally great time. South Philly Barbacoa was everything i had hoped and more - super limited menu of either lamb barbacoa or pork belly tacos - lamb soup/consome and a sweet corn tamale were the only other things available. they did make a a veggie taco by request which was squash and several other delicious things. the attention to detail and quality of every last thing down to the sauces and condiments is exceptional. it was named bon appetite's #6 best new restaurant in 2016, but lunch will run you less than 20 bucks even ordering excessively.

happened upon the magic garden and would agree its worth it.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 7:57 PM on April 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Harry's Occult Shop on South Street, and South Street in general
Not Victorian, and on the tourist path, but many Colonial buildings are open to the public, like Independence Hall.
Philadelphia has many murals.
Le Cat Café
The Wanamaker Organ, the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world.
Philadelphia Salvage Company maybe? for funky old junk.
Tour South Philadelphia mob hits (murders committed by organized crime families) with the self-guided Sleep Wit' the Fishes Tour.
See Ben Franklin's privy pit at Franklin Court. (a little touristy, but c'mon Ben Franklin pooped there)
The USS Olympia, an armored cruiser from the Spanish American War and the oldest steel warship afloat. (You can stand where Admiral Dewey said, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.")
I like the Philadelphia History Museum (in my day it was called the Atwater Kent museum).
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania.
posted by Rob Rockets at 8:03 PM on April 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is pretty cool. Every first Friday of the month they are open late and have a pay what you wish event. Each one has a different theme and a presentation by the staff. Also check out a website called You Wish You Knew Philly.
posted by k2x4b at 8:20 PM on April 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

When I visited Philly, on top of the standard stuff (liberty bell, rocky steps) we did Harry's Occult Shop, The Mutter, and the Eastern State penitentiary. They were all excellent. I have to say the whole city is really fun to explore, but I enjoyed south philly and west philly the best for general vibes, restaurants and shops.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:00 PM on April 9, 2017

You can see the original ENIAC (or 10% of it, anyway) in its shrine at the University of Pennsylvania.
posted by moonmilk at 1:17 AM on April 10, 2017

I though the Tiffany Glass Mural was really neat - free, too.

Also, I would recommend the Wagner Free Institute - the museum there was really amazing, and I wish I could have taken photos!

When we went, we did the Magic Gardens, which were pretty fabulous, and also went to Eastern State Penitentiary which was really interesting.
posted by needlegrrl at 5:24 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I thought the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archeology was awesome.
posted by COD at 5:52 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

+1 to the Philadelphia History Museum, the Barnes, and the Magic Gardens.

Other options:
Go hunting for Toynbee tiles
Visit the current location of Leo Davidson's Neon Museum
posted by zamboni at 6:24 AM on April 10, 2017

Good recommendations above, including seconding the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
You can walk through the giant heart at the Franklin Institute.
Check out the food at the Reading Terminal Market (a bit of a "destination", but still worth checking out).
Endorsing the Magic Gardens, and check out Isaiah Zagar's other mosaic murals around the city.
posted by gudrun at 6:51 AM on April 10, 2017

There is a makerspace in Philly (Hive76), and a network of co-working spaces that have events showcasing some of the things you are interested in, e.g. IndyHall.

As far as bohemian neighborhoods, I'm pretty meeeehhh on Fishtown, it's a bit corporate. A little more gritty/real is the area around Clark Park (on Baltimore Ave) in West Philadelphia. Books Through Bars is a neat charity that runs near there and has volunteer hours, and there are tons of great quirky painted Victorians in the neighborhood, although I'm not sure if any are open to the public.
posted by permiechickie at 7:06 AM on April 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you want to see grand Victorian architecture, you should check out UPenn's Fisher Fine Arts Library, designed by Frank Furness.
posted by myelin sheath at 7:34 AM on April 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of Victorian architecture in Philadelphia. My favorite is Frank Furness. He designed the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art building, which is open to the public, and an interesting smallish art museum. He also designed the Furness Library at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm not sure if that is open to the public or not. Some of Penn's libraries aren't but I have managed to talk my way into one before. Call them up and ask.

I also love taking the elevator to the top of City Hall. City Hall is about as grand and over the top as 19th century buildings get. They have fixed up the outside but sadly the inside is still kind of a mess. But the old gated elevator that goes to the top is great and you can see the inside of the dome on the way up. The law library in City Hall is neat too and open to the public.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:35 AM on April 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's a secret little park in University City, the Spruce Hill Bird Sanctuary. It feels like you're sneaking into someone's backyard.

Not far from secret birds is the Second Mile thrift shop, which was amazing when I lived near there (I bought an accordion, a guitar tuner, a bicycle, an entire dining room furniture set...) but I haven't been back in ages.
posted by moonmilk at 7:38 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you have love nerd stuff off the beaten path, and enjoy old buildings, try Hidden City Philadelphia tours. In particular, if you like old-school Victorian architecture, the Forgotten Chestnut Street walk may be particularly worthwhile, as Philly has some incredible old buildings from the 1800's, when Philadelphia was a major financial power in an America on the make and the tour area is one of the richest in that kind.

(I haven't gone on that tour, but I can personally vouch for how interesting the Underground Philly one is, because it was a really interesting tour of 30th Street Station, followed by a deep dive into the warren of little-used complex of underground tunnels that stretch under a significant part of Center City Philadelphia, with some absolutely beautiful bits from the days when some of the fanciest department stores around were on Market street and paid extra to have their own entrances from the subway, then outfitted them in pink marble and all kinds of now-faded amazingness.)

Shane Confectionary's behind-the-scenes tour might also tickle you.

We also have competing cat cafes (Le Cat and Kawaii). In addition, the animal rescue at 2nd and Arch has three kitty rooms where you can go and hang out with some cats if you need a quick dose and happen to be in the neighborhood.

(You don't mention pastries as being an interest, but once you've hung out with the cats, I'd recommend stopping by Old City Coffee on 221 Church Street, then going a block up to stop by Tarte, which is a cotton candy pink single-story, single-room, can't-go-in-stand-on-the-sidewalk-and-order-through-a-window bakery run by an incredibly brusque woman who also happens to make truly great pastry. I highly recommend the mini-pound cakes and the tiny hand tarts, particularly the pear-and-frangipane. The brownies are also fudgey GLORY. )
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:08 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm legally obligated to mention Eastern State Penitentiary. They have a few cool events coming up. 2017 Reception is on May 5 (free!), Masquerade Ball is mid-May (creepy dance party!), Game Of Thrones Ommegang beer release party is mid-June (lots of drinking!) and the annual Bastille Day celebration is mid-July (Tastykakes from the roof!).

You may want to grab a SEPTA pass and hop on the Route 15 trolley. This will take you from Fishtown to Fairmount to Brewerytown to West Philly.

All of the above suggestions are great but you should make the time for Reading Terminal Market. It's the one Philly tourist trap that will exceed your expectations.
posted by Diskeater at 9:32 AM on April 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also please be aware that if your weekend is in April, there will be a good number of street closures due to the NFL draft festivities. I don't recommend coming the last weekend in April if you want to see the Barnes, Art Museum, Penitentiary (probably) and be aware of the rolling street and sidewalk closures leading up until then. I assume most attractions will be open (other than maybe the main Art Museum that weekend), but getting around might be a pain, particularly driving or on the bus.

Here is some info on that:
posted by Pax at 10:17 AM on April 10, 2017

Sorry, here's the link.
posted by Pax at 10:30 AM on April 10, 2017

Wagner free Institute of science, I haven't been but it looks wonderful. Many great suggestions above. Passyunk square area has better local shops than Fishtown, and is near the Italian market. You have to see at least one Furness building.
posted by sepviva at 9:31 AM on April 11, 2017

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