Cityscapes Philadelphia – What To Do, Science & History Geek Edition

BenFranklinStatue 199x300 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek EditionOne full day of our Philadelphia weekend, our second full day of sightseeing, was the Science day.

We spent most of the day at The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s most excellent science museum. We saw the planetarium show, The Wildest Weather In The Solar System, which was included in our admission, and Kenya Animal Kingdom, the 3-D movie in the Franklin Theater, which had a small upcharge on our Philadelphia Pass admission. Exhibits we liked the best: the special exhibit on tech innovations, the gears and small machines, and the train factory. And of course, the gift shop where Doug found some great science and math books, including The Geek Handbook  and a super “Big Bang Theory” inspired t-shirt that spells out our favorite catch phrase using the symbols for barium zinc and gallium – BA ZN GA. Not exactly this one on Amazon, but close.

On this trip we did not have time for the nearby Academy of Natural Sciences, or the Mutter Museum of medical oddities, which was just a bit off our planned trajectory, but they are both on the list for our next visit.


We started our mini-vacation with a visit to the Ben Franklin Museum, which is part of the Independence National Park exhibits, but has a small admission fee. Located on — well strictly speaking underneath — the site of his home and printing business, the museum mixes interactive exhibits and historical artifacts to tell the story of Franklin’s life and role in American history.FranklinCourt 300x200 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek Edition

The rest of the National Park exhibits are free but you need a timed ticket for the guided tour of Independence Hall (get it free at the National Park desk in the Visitor Center or preorder online for a small charge) and there is a queue to see the Liberty Bell. Both of these exhibits also have security inspection of your bags. Our strategy was to go on a weekday first thing (Tuesday to be exact.) Exterior2IndepHall 200x300 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek EditionWe were able to do the first tour of Independence Hall at 9am, followed by Congress Hall (where the House and Senate met when Philadelphia was the US capitol), and there was no line to speak of for the Liberty Bell when we finished with those two important landmarks. Weekends especially later in the day the lines for the Bell are LONG!!!

Most of the rest of the historical sites we saw from the comfort of our seats on the Big Bus Tour, which we used to get around for the two middle days of our 4-day trip. We also did the duck tour, Ride the Ducks, since it was included on our pass, and we had a little time left at the end of Science Day. While it covered most of the same sites as the Big Bus, it was fun to get on the water for that perspective.

ElephantZoo 300x200 Cityscapes Philadelphia   What To Do, Science & History Geek EditionWe wrapped up our trip with a visit to the Philadelphia Zoo, which I am squeezing into the history category since it is America’s first zoo. Highlights for me were the Victorian-era animal statues throughout the zoo, and the Big Cat exhibit. It was too hot for the cats to be very active, but the exhibit was laid out in such a way that even sleeping cats were visible, without it being disturbing to their sleep. I’d love to go back on a cooler day, and slightly later in the day, when the chances would be better that animals would be moving through the catwalks featured in the exhibit.

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On our list for our next visit: I want to go back to The Barnes Foundation, and Doug never passes up a chance to go to the science museum. We also want to check out the African American Museum, and outside of the city — the Adventure Aquarium across the river in Camden NJ  and Longwood Gardens, which we visited briefly a few years ago and wanted to visit on this trip, but ran out of time.

Because there is A LOT to do in Philadelphia.

See all my photos from the trip on Flickr

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New York Staycation – It’s all happening at the zoo

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Lemurs, Bronx Zoo, July 2014

Living in the tri-state area, we are lucky to be close to many world class tourist attractions. Recently, Doug and I spent the day at one of my favorites, the Bronx Zoo.

Along with the American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo is one of my earliest “tourist” memories. When I was in first through third grade, my father was stationed at West Point and I distinctly recall a visit to the zoo with one of his academic advisees and his (the cadet’s) girlfriend. I couldn’t tell you how old I was, and don’t remember much of the visit, but obviously we had a good time since a faint memory of it still rambles around in my brain.

In the intervening, many, years, I have become something of a zoo aficionado. If a city or town I am visiting has a zoo, I try to squeeze in a visit. Small or large, it doesn’t matter. Some people like to walk around a golf course hitting a little white ball. I like to walk around the zoo enjoying animals and learning about the conservation and preservation efforts of the zoo.

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Butterfly Garden Bronx Zoo July 2014

On this trip, we hit most of the exhibits including the seasonal Butterfly Garden and the Asian Monorail, both of which are well worth the additional cost. The best value is to buy the Total Experience ticket, available online, but all the attractions are available a la carte with a general admission ticket purchased at the zoo.

If you only have time for one special exhibit, though, it has to be the Congo Gorilla Forest. It is just about the best view of these magnificent animals most of us will ever get.

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Mama and Baby Bronx Zoo Gorilla Habitat July 2014

Set well in from the main traffic flow of the zoo, the exhibit works so well because it brings you into the gorilla habitat — as though we are in the cage and the gorillas are watching us. Which may not be far from the truth in the end.

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Gorilla Bronx Zoo July 2014

On this visit, we also were lucky enough to witness a lovely moment between a momma and baby sea lion.

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Momma and Baby

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Nose to Nose

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Saying Hi?

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Or maybe

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it’s lunchtime!

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The Bronx Zoo is open 10-5 weekdays, 10-5:30 weekends (April 5-November 5). The Zoo is open year round but the hours are a bit shorter in the winter and early spring. If you get an early start you can cover most of the main attractions in a single day, assuming you don’t linger forever.  You can easily extract the full value of the Total Experience ticket. We are members, so we are a little more relaxed about things since we know we will go back 2-3 times over the year.

Food options are decent if a bit pricey, but you can bring your own boxed lunch so no one should go hungry. If you are in the market for souvenirs, the best selection is at the main Bronx Zoo Store in the Dancing Crane Plaza. Unlike most theme parks and yes, zoos, not all exits have a gift shop. We found ourselves wending our way back to the main store to get something Doug really wanted before we left because we had forgotten there was no shop at the Bronx River Gate where we parked. Learn from our mistake!

New York, New York: MoMA, Ellis Island, the Central Park Zoo and a shower curtain

Ellis Island 300x199 New York, New York: MoMA, Ellis Island, the Central Park Zoo and a shower curtainLast week, I was in New York City for the annual BlogHer conference, and even though I was pretty busy at the conference, I managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing.

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Originally, I planned to take the train first thing on Thursday morning to attend an event the day before the conference started on Friday  (more on that later), but a last minute change had me travelling down on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, I spent most of the day out in Brooklyn taping a roundtable conversation for Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project, but the shoot wrapped up in time for me to connect up with my BlogHer roommate Joanne Bamberger (PunditMom)  and go to the Matisse exhibit (Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917) at the Museum of Modern Art.

Joanne is a MoMA member so she didn’t need a timed ticket to see Matisse, and as her guest I could purchase a pass for $5.00. If you aren’t a member or guest of one, you will need a timed ticket for Matisse. Is it worth it? If you like Matisse, yes. The exhibit, which runs through mid October,  gives you a good perspective on the evolution of his art. However, as we wandered through the exhibit a recurring theme of my commentary was how disconcerted I might have been had I been one of his subjects. There’s a series of sculptures of a female neighbor that progresses from fairly realistic to very  stylized (and not very attractive), and some of the renditions of his children are downright disturbing.

One of the neatest parts of the exhibit though is his version of of deHeem’s La Desserte because the original is shown along with Matisse’s version. It’s surprisingly faithful in its own way.

Timed tickets to Matisse are $20 and include all the MoMA galleries. Children 16 and under are free, and there are senior and student discounts. The Museum of Modern Art is located at 11 West 53rd Street.

Ellis Island

On Thursday, I went to Ellis Island on a trip sponsored by  Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project. We took the Ellis Island Ferry from Battery Park ($12 adults, senior and child discounts available), had a lovely lunch at Ellis Island, and enjoyed a guided tour by Ellis Island expert Tom Bernardin. We were a private group, but Bernardin offers his guided tour for $30 per person 3-4 times per week at 9:45 am (not including the ferry ticket). Note that waiting for the ferry on the Manhattan side will give you a true appreciation for the concept of “huddled masses yearning to be free.”

We did not disembark at Liberty Island, but circling the Statue of Liberty gives you some of the most spectacular views of this landmark.  Ellis Island itself is fascinating, and Tom created a good picture of what it must have been like for immigrants from the late 1800s through the early part of the 20th century.

Some of my photos from the day. More on Flickr.

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Central Park Zoo

On Sunday, the conference was over, and good friend Celeste Lindell and I walked over to the Central Park Zoo and spent an hour enjoying the animals in this compact zoo before we departed for our respective homes later that afternoon. If you like zoos, Central Park is a great way to pass an hour, and it is the perfect size for small children who were out in force (with their parents of course). Be warned: once you’ve been, you’ll never view the Madagascar cartoons in quite the same way. There are no lions, hippos or giraffes, but there are plenty of lemurs and penguins. Selected pictures from the visit are on Snapshot Chronicles and the full set is on Flickr.

The zoo opens at 10am year round, and closes at 5 weekdays, 5:30 weekends in summer, 4:30 daily in winter. Adult admission $12. Senior and child discounts available.

The Shower Curtain

I have never wanted an item in a hotel room, with the exception of the executive apartment that Mir and I had at Mom 2.0 in Houston last February, and in that case, we wanted the entire apartment. Or, you know, to never go home. But last week at the New York Hilton, I fell in love with the shower curtain.

This one. New York, New York: MoMA, Ellis Island, the Central Park Zoo and a shower curtain (affiliate link)

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There was a waterproof liner attached to the curtain on the inside below the mesh panel, and the outer curtain was cloth in a white herringbone pattern. The mesh panel let in light while the opaque curtain protected privacy. It would be the perfect shower curtain for a shared bathroom when both occupants are on tight schedules and truly need to share.

Right now, none of our bathrooms would accommodate this type of shower curtain; the one with the tub is the bathroom Doug uses, and I am not so crazy to put a WHITE shower curtain in a room used by a 10-year old boy. Someday though.

Important: If you think you’d like this shower curtain,  the one sold in Hilton’s online shop is NOT the right one.  The one in my link is the correct one, and there are also similar less expensive options on Amazon.


On this trip I stayed at the Wellington Hotel for the first two nights. I went to New York earlier than originally planned for a taping of a roundtable panel for Liberty Mutual’s Responsibility Project and this was all they could get for a hotel. The Wellington’s rack rate ranges between $175-230 except during Fashion Week when it skyrockets to the $300-400 range. These rates aren’t that different than the advertised rates at much better hotels in New York. The rooms are very small, not unusual for New York, and very rudimentary. The ice machine is in the lobby. You get the idea. Unless you’ve got no other choice, and absolutely need the 7th Ave/Carnegie Hall location, you can do better with a little hunting. Start by checking Quikbook online. If you’re totally stuck? You can survive anything for a night or two.

I moved over to the Hilton on 6th Ave. for Blogher, which had a special conference rate of $199 per night. Hilton’s regular rates range from $329-400 per night, putting it WAY out of my budget for a personal trip. However, if you are a member of Hilton’s frequent stay program and you need to be in this area of Manhattan, look into using your points.

On my previous trip to NYC for the TBEX travel blogging conference, I stayed at the Hotel Indigo in Chelsea, also with a special rate of $199. Normal rack rate is $250-275, but the hotel, like many in Manhattan, offers packages that can save on the rack rate if you want the add-on (breakfast, sightseeing, sometimes theater tickets and restaurant vouchers.) An advantage of Hotel Indigo is that it’s owned by InterContinental Hotels. Join the Priority Pass frequent stay program and you can earn your points staying at budget friendly Holiday Inns and use ’em in Manhttan. Hotel Indigo in New York also has a nice little rooftop bar and free wi-fi. Very convenient to Penn Station, which is usually how I travel to the city.

Other hotels to consider in NYC, but note that I haven’t stayed at them recently (or in the case of one, at all): Affinia Hotel Manhattan, right across the street from Penn Station.  I think the Affiinia used to be a residence hotel, which is why all the rooms have a kitchenette. This makes it very appealing for trips to NYC with my son, as I can save a pretty penny on breakfast by “cooking in” before we go off on our day of sightseeing. Room size is variable.  Rack rate starts around $239 but there are discounts for AARP and AAA members.

The Paramount in Times Square. The rooms in this hotel are teeny tiny, but the Times Square location cannot be beat, and you can usually get a good rate. Rack rates for a one-night stay in mid-August ranged from $180-209. Definitely check Quikbook online before booking directly.

A hotel I have not stayed at but that gets raves from colleagues is the Roger Smith Hotel. Typical rates range from $189-249, although there are a few outlier inexpensive rates ($139 and $159), and like most Midtown hotels, rates skyrocket during Fashion Week in September. Free wi-fi.

Unless you are getting a conference rate (and even then) check the rate on Quikbook online before booking directly with a hotel. Sometimes you can get a better rate, sometimes you cannot, but it is always worth checking.


Meals are never a big part of a conference-based trip to New York. Especially with BlogHer. I find Iam so busy that I often forget about dinner altogether. Nonetheless, I had a few nice meals on this trip that merit a call-out.

Insieme, the Italian restaurant inside the Michelangelo Hotel on W. 51st. You can make a very nice meal out of a salad and an appetizer portion of pasta. Plus some bread and a glass of wine or two. We weren’t familiar with the wines on the wine list so to help us choose, they gave us a tasting of a few choices.  We also were offered an amuse-bouche of a cold tomato soup that was quite tasty.

My publisher took me to dinner at sushi/dim sum restaurant Ruby Foo’s in Times Square. The food was good, but the best part was the company and being served (versus the conference buffet line.)  Sister Times Square restaurant (also part of B.R. Guest Restaurants) Blue Fin is also quite good.

On Sunday after our trip to the zoo, we had lunch at the Brooklyn Diner on West 57th. I had scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and Celeste had a baked macaroni and cheese dish that looked absolutely decadent. You also might want to check out a classic in the area, the Carnegie Deli, but be warned, the portions are large (and pricey) and the service short.

Disclosure: The trip to Ellis Island was sponsored by Liberty Mutual. The trip to the zoo was the first (hopefully annual) self-sponsored BlogHer  zoo trip. I wasn’t even tempted to  liberate the shower curtain from the Hilton bathroom.  My hotel room at the Wellington was paid for by the film production company and presumably was part of the budget for the filming. The shower curtain link above is an affiliate link to Amazon.

 New York, New York: MoMA, Ellis Island, the Central Park Zoo and a shower curtain

It’s all happening at the zoo

I’ve always loved the zoo, and this month, I visited two.

Columbus Zoo

During a business trip to Columbus, Ohio, I had a a full day to spare before my flight home due to last minute changes in my travel plans. The good news, however, was that friend Christina McMenemy (A Mommy Story) was free that day and suggested we go to the Columbus Zoo. We only had time for a few exhibits, but I was impressed with the facility — especially how clean it was, and look forward to a future trip to Columbus to see more.

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Baby Elephant, Columbus Zoo

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Red Panda, Columbus Zoo

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Gray Wolf, Columbus Zoo

Stone Zoo

Douglas decided he wanted to go to the zoo too, so I took the afternoon off yesterday from book editing, and we went to a small local zoo, the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, Massachusetts.

You can see the whole zoo in about 90 minutes, but it is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and the staff is very friendly. One zookeeper pointed out a little turtle — wild — that had moved into their pond, and when we said we hadn’t been able to spot the Snow Leopard, offered to walk back and point her out to us.

The animals in the Stone Zoo are mostly American (North and South) native animals, with a couple of Himalayan species for good measure. Sister zoo, the Franklin Park Zoo, has the African mammals and will be our next zoo destination.

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Mexican Gray Wolf, Stone Zoo

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River Otter, Stone Zoo

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Douglas, Stone Zoo

Soundtrack for this post: At the Zoo, by Simon and Garfunkel.

Snapshot Recommendation: San Diego Wild Animal Park

One of the highlights of our trip to San Diego a year ago was a visit to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido. It’s one of those places that I wish were closer, as I could go back every day and not be bored.

The facility itself is remarkable, but I encourage you to save some of your splurge money for one of the Park’s special experiences.

We did the Photo Caravan Safari, and chose the last tour of the day, which departed after the Park closes. Being among the only guests in the park is in itself cool, but you cannot beat the experience of feeding a giraffe.

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New this summer at the Wild Animal Park, a Wilderness Ridge Mule Ride.

More pictures from our day at the Park.