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Six Philly gems beyond the Liberty Bell

By Zach Pontz, Special to CNN
  • Lush Morris Arboretum provides welcome escape from urban landscape
  • Close to Old City, Northern Liberties area is home to trendy bars and clubs
  • Mural Arts Program's trolley tours give visitors sense of neighborhoods
  • Don't miss: Sarcone's bread, Walk a Crooked Mile Books, Rodin Museum

(CNN) -- Philadelphia is one of the few American cities whose history is a fully integrated part of the urban landscape. Cars still roll along the city's cobblestone streets, people live in homes dating back to the 18th century and bars Ben Franklin frequented are popular today.

Philadelphians don't neglect their history, and rarely do they cordon it off.

But apart from the tourist destinations that are synonymous with the place, such as the Liberty Bell, the art museum steps (you know, from "Rocky" fame) or Pat's and Geno's famous Philly cheesesteak shops, there is an often overlooked aspect of Philadelphia: its cultural depth.

So for the curious admirer, here's a list of some other interesting Philly destinations:

Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania

There are few places so close to urban centers -- the Arboretum lies on the northwest, and most rural, edge of Philadelphia -- that allow you to experience such natural diversity. More than 2,500 types of plants strew the grounds.

You can be strolling through an English rose garden and the next moment find yourself standing in front of world-renowned artist Patrick Dougherty's "Summer Palace," an art installation created by weaving sticks and saplings together.

In the summer, a miniature garden railway is erected, an always-popular amusement for children who get to experience the delights of a massive train set. And from summer concerts to a rotation of special exhibits, there's always something new taking place.

Northern Liberties

This once-floundering neighborhood has seen a rebirth in recent years. Frequently overlooked by outsiders because of its dubious past, it lies just a stone's throw away from the more friendly Old City neighborhood that houses the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Home to some of the city's hippest restaurants, bars and clubs, Northern Liberties is fast becoming a top destination for artists and other hipster types.

The Piazza at Shmidt's is a new favorite, a Philly take on the famous Italian communal ground, but don't overlook some of the older mainstays such as Ortlieb's Jazzhaus.

Walk a Crooked Mile Books

Perhaps it's the fortress of books that surrounds the entryway and patio, or the scattered $2 literature that welcomes you as you enter, but there's something unparalleled about this used bookstore in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. Just north of the main commercial strip of the neighborhood, proprietor Greg Williams converted a portion of this 1882 train station from the apartment building it had become into a bookstore 15 years ago.

"We think of ourselves as a cultural reservoir. We have books even the library wouldn't have," says Williams.

I came across early 20th-century originals and reprints among the dusty shelves and rickety wooden floors. And alas, if for some reason you don't find anything that you fancy, you can be comforted by the complementary coffee they serve.


The layers of delightfully flavorful deli meat would be cause enough for celebration if this hoagie (Philadelphia term for the sub sandwich) wasn't all about the roll. With a crusty exterior that slowly gives way to a soft center, it comes plain or with sesame seeds.

It's certainly a far cry from that mushy bread found at your local sandwich chain store. In a city where the hoagie is part religion, this is widely considered among the best. Sitting at the top of the Italian Market, Sarcone's is a perfect stop after a stroll through one of the city's famous landmarks.

Philadelphia Mural Arts program

There are more than 2,800 public art murals in the city of Philadelphia. Peppered throughout the city and painted by burgeoning and established artists, you can take tours by trolley, bus, bike and foot.

Ryan Derfler, the tour manager of the program, suggests the trolley as an introduction.

"It allows you to really get into the neighborhoods. You're not stuck in Center City. Philadelphia is a very neighborhood-centric city. [The trolley ride] allows you to see enough art that you see how the murals really reflect each neighborhood and the city."

Rodin Museum

Auguste Rodin is considered one of the greatest sculptors to have ever lived. I mean, have you seen "The Thinker"? This gem of a museum, which sits in the shadow of the Philadelphia Art Museum, opened in 1929 and is one of the legacies of movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum, whom in the early 20th century had accumulated the largest Rodin collection outside of Paris.

Luckily, he decided to share it with his fellow Philadelphians. And for just a $5 donation, it's one of the better cultural deals in town.