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History and activities await LGBTs in Philly


History sites in Philadelphia include the footprint of George Washington's house, right, and Independence Hall in the background. Photo: Ed Walsh
History sites in Philadelphia include the footprint of George Washington's house, right, and Independence Hall in the background. Photo: Ed Walsh  

As I walked by the lesbian-focused Toasted Walnut Bar and Kitchen in Philadelphia earlier this month, the first panhandler who approached me in the three days I had spent walking around the city solicited me. The man stepped toward me and started to ask me for money, but before he could finish, the other man who was with him pulled him back and said, "Don't just approach people like that, stay back."

Coming from San Francisco, it was a bit of a shock to see relatively few people begging for money on the streets. It was even more surprising to see that there may even be a culture against aggressive panhandling. Although I was there during the winter, I didn't notice much of a difference when I was there in the summer about five years ago.

The streets are also much cleaner than San Francisco and, although San Francisco and many other cities brag about being walkable, Philadelphia may have them all beat. I stayed about a half mile from the city's gay neighborhood that locals appropriately call the Gayborhood, the center of which is around S. 13 and Locust streets. I could easily walk to the Gayborhood, downtown, and the city's historic center including Independence National Historical Park Pennsylvania (http://www.nps.gov/inde/index.htm), where the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and most of the city's museums are situated.

While Stonewall Inn in New York City gets all the attention — and even more so this year with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 riots that sparked the modern LGBT rights movement — one of the first gay rights demonstrations in the country was in 1965 kitty-corner from the Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. An official sign marks the spot of one of the city's most important historical sites.

Philadelphia was founded by William Penn in 1682. As one of the Quaker faith's most prominent members, Penn set a tone of tolerance in the "City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affections," as the city's full nickname is known. The Quakers were among the first faiths to denounce slavery and Quakers were among the first religions to support LGBT rights.

Philadelphia was also one of the first major cities to aggressively court LGBT tourism in 2003 with its popular campaign, "Get your history straight and your nightlife gay." Philly's Gayborhood is ideal for LGBT tourists who want to enjoy some of the best museums in the country and great LGBT nightlife, all within an easy stroll. The city's official tourism site, http://www.VisitPhilly.com, provides one of the best guides of any city on activities and nightlife directed toward LGBTs.


A sign marks the site of a 1965 gay rights protest in Philadelphia and is kitty-corner from Independence Hall. Photo: Ed Walsh  

Sights
You could easily spend a week exploring the museums and attractions around Independence Hall, about a 20-minute walk from the Gayborhood. You can walk around Independence Hall. If you want a tour inside free tickets are required and you need to plan ahead if you are visiting in the busy summer months. You can get tickets online or get a walk-up ticket on the same day. The guided tour lasts about 20 minutes and you can take all the photos you want. The room where the Founding Fathers first decided to separate from Britain includes the ornate chair with a half sun on it where George Washington sat. Benjamin Franklin famously said that at the start of the meeting he didn't know if the sun was rising or setting, but by the Declaration of Independence being approved, he knew it was a rising sun. By the way, an interesting factoid that I learned on the tour is that nothing of historical value happened on July 4, 1776. The declaration was agreed upon two days earlier, on July 2, and sent to the printer July 4. The printer put that date on the top of the declaration and it stuck. Most of the signers didn't even sign the document until August 4.

The Liberty Bell is kitty-corner from Independence Hall and just across the street from the aforementioned sign marking the 1965 gay rights demonstration. It's free to go inside but you first have to clear security and there is often a line. You can peer at the bell through the glass outside and push a button on the wall next to the window to hear an excellent summary of the history of the bell, which became a symbol of liberty based mostly on the mythology surrounding it.

Adjacent to the building that houses the Liberty Bell is the footprint of the house where Washington lived. You can look down and see the bricks of the foundation that archeologists unearthed. Washington rotated the slaves he owned between Mt. Vernon and Philadelphia because if the slaves stayed in Pennsylvania for more than six months, they would have to be freed. Videos above the house footprint use actors depicting the struggles faced by Washington's slaves.

Across the street from Washington's house is the Independence Visitor Center, where you can get same-day tickets to the Independence Hall tour. The center also has a great film on Philadelphia's attractions as well as a small exhibition space depicting the city's early colonist days. Be sure to go to the second level for great views of Independence Hall.

The National Constitution Center (https://constitutioncenter.org/) is next to the Independence Visitor Center and is another attraction not to be missed. It costs $14.50 to get in and is well worth it. Its multimedia show on the country's history presents a balanced view that includes the struggle for civil rights and equality for all people. After the show, the audience exits the second floor of the building where you can see some of the faces and stories of people who have shaped the nation's history, including San Francisco's own Harvey Milk.

The history of the early, free African-American citizens of Philadelphia is highlighted in the city's African-American Museum (https://www.aampmuseum.org/), just a short walk from Constitution Center. The museum uses actors who appear in videos describing the citizens' lives before the Civil War. The actor portraying one of the city's most prominent African-American leaders of the city, Octavius Catto, passionately talks of his support of the Republican Party and of his concern for corrupt Democrats who are wooing Irish immigrants and, in some cases, bribing African-Americans with drinks if they would vote for Democrats. Catto was shot and killed by a man of Irish descent during election day violence in 1871. He was just 32. Museum admission is $14.

Another great museum in the Independence Hall area is the National Museum of American Jewish History (https://www.nmajh.org/). It includes mention of the milestone of the acceptance of out LGBTs as rabbis. One exhibit showcases the fight for greater acceptance of gay people within the faith. The late gay San Franciscan poet Allen Ginsberg is prominently shown in a video loop on the Jewish support for civil rights. Admission is $15.

The Museum of the American Revolution (https://www.amrevmuseum.org/) is just a short five-minute walk from Independence Hall. It costs $21 to get in and is well worth it. The most memorable part of the museum is the tent in which Washington lived when he directed the battles of the Revolution. The tent is revealed after a brief film depicting the symbolism of Washington staying in a tent along with his troops and how that met with his philosophy of not sparing himself any discomfort experienced by his soldiers. Ironically, the tent on display had been owned by the family of General Robert E. Lee, who sold it after the Civil War to benefit wounded Confederate soldiers. The tent is kept in an airtight glass room to prevent mold and deterioration of the cloth. It is only exposed to light for very brief periods to help preserve it. Both the Revolutionary War museum and the Constitution Center have large exhibits dedicated to Alexander Hamilton, who is generating increased interest because of the award-winning Broadway musical.

On the way to the Revolutionary War museum, be sure to check out the Science History Institute (https://www.sciencehistory.org/). The small museum is free and it showcases medical science advancements. It includes a section on the first AIDS medications and has an exhibit of artwork showing alchemists who pioneered the use of medicine to cure illnesses.

While not in the Independence Mall area, other attractions include the Franklin Institute (https://www.fi.edu/), a museum dedicated to the study of science and experimentation that was such a big part of Franklin's life. The museum includes a planetarium and an Imax theater.

Philadelphia is very proud of the legacy of the "Rocky" films. A statue depicting Sylvester Stallone's character Rocky Balboa is next to the steps of the city's Museum of Art (https://www.philamuseum.org/), where Balboa famously trained by running up the stairs. While you retrace Balboa's steps be sure to check out the museum itself, one of the largest art museums in the country.

San Francisco is not the only city with a former prison as a major tourist attraction. Eastern State Penitentiary (https://www.easternstate.org/) is not-to-be missed. The prison once housed gangster Al Capone. His elaborately decorated cell is among the exhibits. Other cells were turned over to artists, who used the space to create artwork. One inventive artist found a way to assemble a car in a cell. Halloween is especially big for the prison, when it is transformed into a house of horrors.

One of the best ways to see everything in Philly without getting lost is by bus. The excellent Big Bus (www.bigbustours.com) gives you the option of hoping on and off at various attractions in the city, including the Rocky steps and Eastern State Penitentiary.

Be sure to check out the lobby of the downtown Macy's store, just across the street from Philadelphia City Hall. It features the largest playing musical instrument in the world, the Wanamaker organ (https://www.wanamakerorgan.com/). Free concerts are presented daily. Movie fans will remember this as the setting for the film "Mannequin."

For a great overview of the city, check out the One Liberty Observation Deck (https://phillyfromthetop.com/) in the heart of downtown. The views are spectacular. Admission is $15 but you can save money on this, and other attractions, by purchasing either a Philadelphia Pass (https://www.philadelphiapass.com/) or a City Pass (https://www.citypass.com/).


Women pose at Toasted Walnut Bar and Kitchen in Philadelphia. Photo: Ed Walsh  

The Gayborhood
Philly's gay nightlife, as you might expect, is centered in the Gayborhood, less than a mile from Independence Hall. Mainstays include Woody's (https://woodysbar.com/), a spacious bar and dance floor that always draws a crowd. Steps away, you will find Voyeur (www.voyeurnightclub.com), which is the Gayborhood's late night bar. It stays open until 4 a.m. and doesn't get going until after midnight.

People often forget that the nickname "City of Brotherly Love," also includes "and Sisterly Affections." And in keeping with that second part, Philadelphia supports the aforementioned Toasted Walnut Bar and Kitchen (www.toastedwalnut.com). It is on Walnut Street, just around the corner from Woody's. It has been open a couple of years and filled the void created after the closure of Sisters bar, which was in another location. The friendly bar is beautifully decorated in rainbow lighting.

The Gayborhood boasts a couple of sports bars, Boxers PHL (https://boxersphl.com/) and Tabu Lounge & Sports Bar (https://tabuphilly.com/). The leather bar Bike Stop (http://www.thebikestop.com/) has been going strong since 1982.

Accommodations
Hotel prices in Philadelphia are much lower than in New York or San Francisco. The city doesn't have any exclusively gay or lesbian hotels but some good options in the Gayborhood include the Independent (www.theindependenthotel.com) and the Alexander Inn (www.alexanderinn.com). Amenities at the Alexander include a gym and buffet breakfast. The Independent includes a continental breakfast that is delivered to your room and a complimentary cocktail hour with wine and snacks.

Of course, outside the Gayborhood, there are a number of excellent hotels that are more geared to business travelers. The four-star Rittenhouse Hotel (www.rittenhousehotel.com), of the gay-popular Rittenhouse Square, about a half-mile outside the gayborhood, is an excellent choice for a splurge hotel. Rooms start about $139, a bargain considering the quality of the hotel. Breakfast is not included but the hotel has a couple of bars and a restaurant famous for its afternoon teas. It also has a large fitness room and indoor pool and spa.

Gay events
Philadelphia Pride is Sunday, June 9, but one of its biggest gay days is in the fall, for OutFest, which this year is Sunday, October 13, from noon to 6 p.m. It's in various locations, including the heart of the Gayborhood at 12th and Locust streets. The city holds a huge block party and celebrates in style.

Philadelphia Black Pride is a four-day celebration of unity, held this year April 25-28.

Getting there and around
A number of airlines fly nonstop from the Bay Area to Philadelphia International Airport. A train runs every half hour from the airport to downtown and takes about 25 minutes. The fare is $5.75, a relative bargain considering BART charges $9.65 to get to San Francisco International Airport from downtown San Francisco and about $10.95 to get to Oakland International Airport.

The 30th Street station is closest to the Gayborhood. You can walk there in about 25 minutes from the station. You can also take the subway, but walking is a good way to see the sights as you go.

For more information on all things LGBTQ Philadelphia, visit https://www.visitphilly.com/lgbt/.


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