Even with the address in hand, I couldn’t be sure whether the steel gate on a nondescript building in Philadelphia’s Chinatown would really lead to one of the city’s hottest cocktail spots.
Once buzzed in to Hop Sing Laundromat, my partner and I got the once-over from the doorman — there’s no admittance if you’re wearing sneakers or are dressed too casually — and a rundown of the house rules: No photos or cellphones allowed, either. The doorman then led us into a candlelit space set with white-topped tables and a bar topped by thousands of nickels. We sipped potent drinks such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a mix of Jameson’s, rum and lemon, and met the mysterious “Mr. Lee,” who may or may not own the place.
This speakeasy-style nightspot is just one of many places in Philly that are hiding in plain sight in some of the city’s most visited neighborhoods. As a longtime resident who’s seen the Liberty Bell enough times to give my own tour, I’m always on the lookout for what’s new, different or just off the beaten path. I’ve recently come up with some new favorites.
Like the Benjamin Franklin Museum. Founding father Franklin, who lived most of his life in Philadelphia, has his name all over the city, on everything from a bridge crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey to one of the city’s five original squares to his namesake Franklin Institute, now a major science museum.
But the museum that directly celebrates his legacy is tucked away in a courtyard on the site of his former home. As a kid, I went to the underground museum shortly after its bicentennial opening and loved its centerpiece exhibit — a series of rotary phones connecting you to famous figures of the Colonial era. By the time the museum closed for a major renovation several years ago, the phones had long since gone dead, and the other exhibits had grown tired.
Reopened in August, the museum now seeks to engage a new generation with touch-screen devices explaining Franklin’s many accomplishments. With my 8-year-old nephew in tow, we learned about Franklin’s role in starting the first fire company and lending library, his work as a newspaper publisher and printer, and his inventions, such as the lightning rod, bifocal glasses and the Franklin stove, while getting a sense of his impish humor. One display, for example, focuses on his 20 pen names, which included King of Prussia and Silence Dogood.
The exhibits’ interactive tools clicked with my screen-savvy nephew, who got a kick out of hearing “Huzzah!” every time he completed a learning task. He also enjoyed a signature old-school element that remains from the original. The courtyard outside the museum features a steel frame evoking the outline of Franklin’s house, which was razed in 1812. We got to peer through glass window wells to check out the remains of the privy and the foundation.
On another day, I strolled from the historic district over the bridge spanning Interstate 95 to Penn’s Landing and the Independence Seaport Museum. As one who’s not especially interested in ship models and the like, I was intrigued by two exhibitions that seek to expand the museum’s purview.
Tides of Freedom, curated by University of Pennsylvania professor and PBS History Detectives host Tukufu Zuberi, looks at the history of African Americans through the prism of the Delaware River, showing the role the waterway played in the lives of local blacks before and after slavery, during the Jim Crow era and following the civil rights movement.