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Destination Guide

Philadelphia has always been one of those places that introduced new entertainment to the rest of the country. Broadway shows used to try out their material here before moving on to New York. The popular television show "American Bandstand" came from here, introducing rock and roll to millions of American homes.

This is still a big town for new plays and touring companies. This is still a town where they talk about the Philly Sound.

One of the worlds best collections of Impressionist paintings is the Barnes collection, in the suburb of Merion. All of the pieces here are instantly recognizable from reproductions; only a small number have ever traveled, and then only recently. The Philadelphia Museum of Art and its small companion, the Rodin Museum, represent a brief history of world art on the Ben Franklin Parkway: Ancient Egypt, Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism and Post-Modernism, with guided tours and souveneir copies in the gift shop.

Because of the citys rich history, there are plenty of museums chronicling national history, including the multiculturalism and technological innovations that came with democracy. These museums and historic sites are friendly to children, and innovative in the way they educate and entertain at the same time. Be warned, however: Like many American museums, the ones in Philadelphia generally make few concessions to foreign visitors. It can be hard to find non-English translations of signs or tour materials. But Americans like to be helpful, when they know how, so if you have a special requirement in this area it might be advisable to contact a place in advance to see what is available, or what can be arranged.

What you want to know is this: Every possible sound is available in Philadelphia Wednesday through Saturday nights. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, choices are narrower, but if you look carefully theres always something going on.

Rock, Pop, Soul
Philadelphia has always been a popular stop for national acts. There are concerts halls in all sizes here, from the massive stadiums of the First Union Center and the Sony Blockbuster E-Centre to the comfortably mid-size Trocadero, Tower, Electric Factory or Keswick right down to the overheated and cramped rooms of the legendary bars where everyone from Bruce Springsteen to hiphop stars the Roots paid their dues.

And though you'd never know it from the local radio stations, the local talent is worth a visit too. The Roots, Will Smith, Patti LaBelle, Bruce Springsteen, Teddy Pendergrass--these are the famous names, but the range of local talent includes just about everything, with a healthy mix of soul, hiphop, Americana, alternative, and even electric bluegrass. Some days it seems like everybody you bump into is in a band.

Dance Party
From disco to techno, with a healthy dose of swing and mosh pit, theres a large and growing number of places to dance in town. Maybe its because of the large student population here. Its very possible its because its done so well here: Local DJs such as Josh Wink and Robbie Tronco mix so well that they spend half their time answering invitations from places like Miami and London.

There is a string of clubs along Delaware Avenue, on piers jutting into the Delaware River. There are more clubs around South Street, such as Fluid, a place known as much for its no-right-angles design as for its techno mix. For swing or latin, try a place like the Five Spot, on Bank Street just off of Second and Chestnut. And if you're looking for grunge metal, there are events weekly in West Philly.
There are other places scattered all over town, too numerous to mention here. Fortunately, this site maintains a list.

It is possible to find a string quartet, opera or symphony performance every night of the week here. With the Curtis Institute and Settlement Music School, plus the 10 to 12 college programs, the quality of street performers brightens the parks and sidewalks in the spring. There are two radio stations that broadcast classical music: 90.1 programs classics from 6am to 6pm; 106 is classical at all hours, but hard to pick up in some parts of town.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been legendary so long that Philadelphians take it for granted. Conductors like Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Ricardo Muti and Sir Simon Rattle don't take it for granted. Current conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch has scheduled a season of 20th Century classics to celebrate the Millenium year. So far its been going very well.

In addition to the Orchestra, smaller groups fill the nights. Many of these groups are current or former Orchestra members, getting a chance to play more intimate works than they can on their day jobs.

Theater and Dance
For nearly a hundred years, Philadelphia was mainly known as a "tryout" town: New York producers would try out material here before opening on Broadway. These days theres still some of that, but its more likely a play will originate here and then become a success in New York. The Wilma Theatre has produced the American premieres of two Tom Stoppard plays that were hits on Londons West End but have never played New York. InterAct hosts a new play reading every January that finds new work for regional theaters across the country. Keep an eye out for anything by Brat Productions, a young edgy company usually staging strong works in a bar.

The first 10 days of September, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival takes over the Old City district with a mix of local acts and visiting troupes from the Edinburgh, Toronto, and New York Fringe Festivals.

There are still national touring companies that perform big Broadway musicals at the Merriam and the Forrest, maintaining a healthy balance of new and recognized work. (For some reason, this is a hard town for comedies, however. What local producers and critics proclaim hilarious often leaves the audience scratching its collective head, while mainstream comedies sometimes play to half-empty houses, even when theres a big star doing something funny.)

And for dance...The Pennsylvania Ballet. Philadanco. The dance performance scene here is low profile; the city acts as a lab for companies that are seen and celebrated in New York or Washington. Once again, because of the numerous collegiate dance programs, there are a lot of visiting professional and resident rising young performers to see.

The good news is that Philadelphia gets as many blockbuster, independent and foreign films passing through as New York or Los Angeles. The bad news is that sometimes these films pass through six or eight months later than they appear in New York or Los Angeles. The good news is you probably missed them there.

Theres also an Omnimax theater at the Franklin Institute. (An Omnimax is an Imax screen that wraps around the audience.)

If you check under the category "Visiting the City/Children," you'll see that Philadelphia pays particular attention to its younger visitors. The National Park Service provides tours and multimedia interactive educational displays at the historic sites of Independence Mall. At the Please Touch Museum, children are encouraged to put their mitts on everything; the entire museum is scaled to kids. There are similar setups in the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Franklin Institute. And don't forget the petting pen in the Zoo.

Many bookstores around town, such as Borders and Barnes and Noble, have Saturday programs for children, with readings and performances. The Free Library has activities scheduled on many days, including readings, films and performers. Then there are the childrens theater programs at the Arden and Annenberg.

Children under the age of 12 ride free on SEPTAs buses and subways on Saturdays.

Walt Maguire