While Philadelphia is internationally known as an ideal city for exploring the history of the United States, many visitors overlook some of the lesser known sites that await on the outskirts of town. Plenty of guides have been written about popular cultural destinations within Philadelphia’s city limits, but few venture to the surrounding towns. Here you’ll find historic and cultural gems that you never knew existed.
Begin your day with an early morning exploration of one of several beautiful parks in the King of Prussia area. Valley Forge National Park is an obvious destination that is rich with history and offers plenty of roads and walking paths with scenic vistas. If you are looking for something a little less traveled, head over to the nearby John James Audubon Center for over 9 miles of nature trails. Go on a Saturday and enjoy a free guided bird walk on the beautiful grounds of this historic center. Either way, venturing out early to these hot spots is the best way to see more of nature and less of the crowds. Depending on the time of year and how early you go, you will also catch better light for scenic photographs than if you visited later in the day.
Next, explore the eccentric studio of the late wood sculptor Wharton Esherick, now a national historic landmark. An artist who never made it in painting, Wharton Esherick developed a passion for 3D art with wood and built this peculiar studio tucked away on the curvy, hilly roads near Valley Forge Park. You have to be searching for it to find it, but it’s definitely worth it if you enjoy history, art, or unusual attractions.
You will have no shortage of lunch options in the King of Prussia area, but if you’re looking for locally-owned restaurants, head into nearby downtown Phoenixville for plenty of exceptional choices. If you have really worked up an appetite, indulge yourself at the Irish pub, PJ Ryans, or savor lighter fare and peruse local art at the family-owned Artisans Gallery & Café.
Spend the afternoon by taking in the stunning sights at the Bryn Athyn Historic District, another national historic landmark. Explore the quiet paths that lead around the exquisite façade of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Step inside to witness some of the unique stained glass, crafted on site in the 1920s and 1930s, and unusual medieval-influenced architecture.
Just across the lawn are two fascinating former homes of the Pitcairn family—the yellow Cairnwood Estate on the right and Glencairn on the left, both of which are open for tours at various times. Meander across the lawn, taking in the award-winning gardens as you go, and head into the Glencairn home through the museum entrance at the back.
The mission of the Glencairn Museum is to teach about the history of religion through art and artifacts, and you will have the chance to explore collections from around the world as you tour through former bedrooms in this impressive mansion. Enter the still-intact library, master bedroom, and bathroom, and stir your imagination about what life was like for this family who lived less than a century ago, yet a world away from our present time. Don’t miss the pinnacle of the home, the tower, with its breathtaking panoramic views of the greater Philadelphia area and the Philadelphia skyline to the south.
Finish off your day by taking in a sunset from the lawn of the cathedral, a favorite spot for locals to enjoy a respite from the busy world outside. Perhaps it grounds one’s spirit, to enjoy the unchanging rituals of nature in a place filled with history, leaving the ever-changing world behind for just a few hours. This is the perfect place to end your whirlwind of a day in greater Philadelphia with some contemplation and a bit of rest for your mind.
What and Where:
Valley Forge National Park (http://www.nps.gov/vafo/index.htm 1400 North Outer Line Drive, King of Prussia, PA)
John James Audubon Center (http://johnjames.audubon.org/ 1201 Pawlings Rd, Audubon, PA; 610-666-5593)
Wharton Esherick Museum (http://www.whartonesherickmuseum.org/ 1520 Horse Shoe Trail, Malvern, PA; 610-644-5822) *Ask for Bob as a tour guide for the most fascinating storytelling!*
PJ Ryans Pub (http://pjryanspub.com/ 233 Bridge St., Phoenixville PA; 610-933-5600)
Artisans Gallery & Café (http://www.artisansgallery-cafe.com/ 234 Bridge St., Phoenixville PA; 610-935-1965)
Bryn Athyn Historic District (http://bahistoricdistrict.org/ 1005 Cathedral Road Bryn Athyn, PA; 215-947-2004)
Bryn Athyn Cathedral (http://brynathynchurch.org/cathedral/ 215-947-0266) *Not open while religious services are being held.*
Cairnwood Estate (http://www.cairnwood.org/ 215-947-2004) *Tour reservations recommended, not fully handicapped accessible.*
Glencairn Museum (http://www.glencairnmuseum.org/ 267-502-2993) *Tour reservations recommended, not fully handicapped accessible. Tower will not be included on tours from January 11 until April 2016, as the elevator will be closed for major renovations.*
Naomi Liz is a writer and photographer based in the Philadelphia area. She has traveled extensively in Latin America but also enjoys local travel in the United States. Naomi is a lifelong learner, book nerd, and coffee connoisseur. She seeks out authentic, sustainable travel in order to learn and support local communities. Find her freelance work at NaomiLiz.com and her travel blog which focuses on responsible travel at roamingtheamericas.com