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Friday, May 26 Living

Medical oddity museum and Italian-American kitsch in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has gotten a lot of tourist mileage out of cheesesteaks and people running up the stairs at the Museum of Art, a la Rocky Balboa.

While I wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s Philly fun, the city is packed with things to do the travel brochures often overlook. I grew up there, and go back at least a half-dozen times each year to visit family, so let me tell you about a few places that are slightly off the beaten path.

Don’t get me wrong, a visit to Independence Hall to check out the Liberty Bell is a must and it’s always a kick to walk down one of the city’s oldest streets — Elfreth’s Alley — which probably looks the same way it did back in the time of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. But I’ve enjoyed introducing friends to Philly institutions and neighborhoods that are often overlooked by first-time visitors.

When I was a kid, my friends and I loved to sneak off to the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for its more than slightly creepy displays of skulls, medical oddities (some in jars) and other educational but morbid displays. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the place was an almost completely hidden gem, with few visitors. I first heard about it from a teacher who warned my junior high class that the museum might be too much for us (of course, we rushed down to South 22nd Street as fast as we could). The profile of the nonprofit rose when former Philly resident, writer-director David Lynch, cited the Mutter Museum as one of his favorite places in the city (and a possible inspiration for that very creepy baby in “Eraserhead”).

Now the Mutter Museum has turned hipster interest into a good source of extra income, with weird calendars and other publications, and oddball dinners where the food Civil War soldiers ate is re-created. If you have teens who are fans of the macabre, taking them there will definitely elevate your standing. The current exhibit, “Tracing the Remains,” by Philly artists Sabrina Small and Caitlin McCormack, turns “consuming pathologies” into intricate beadwork, layered drawings and thousands of stitches.

Two of my favorite Philly places are outside the Center City area, but are easy to access by public transportation (parking is a hassle in both areas).

Chestnut Hill in the northwestern corner of the city is one of the most elegant neighborhoods, a world unto itself with neat little shops and restaurants strung along the main drag, Germantown Avenue. Preservation efforts have saved much of the historic architecture, but you don’t get the feeling of being inside a museum; that is true of so many blocks in Center City. Chestnut Hill is celebrating the 20th anniversary of being dubbed “Philadelphia’s Garden District” by then-mayor Ed Rendell, for its green landscapes, lush gardens and public parks.

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Manayunk is adjacent to Chestnut Hill on the banks of the Schuykill River, but it has a completely different atmosphere because of its very hilly landscape and history of being a working-class manufacturing area. Most of the factory jobs left in the mid-20th century, but the buildings were gradually taken over by struggling artists and young people who didn’t mind walking up streets that rival San Francisco in terms of steepness. The 1970s and 1980s brought more gentrification and dozens of restaurants, shops and galleries to Main Street, the only level thoroughfare in the neighborhood, which runs parallel to the river.

To see a newly gentrifying area of Philadelphia, a visit to Fishtown is a must. Just north of Center City, the neighborhood’s main artery is Frankford Avenue, which has elevated train tracks running above it for several miles. If you’ve seen the original “Rocky,” filmed in 1975, Fishtown is the rundown neighborhood where the boxer lives and where his girlfriend, Adrian, manages a pet shop under the Frankford el.

A no man’s land a decade ago, Fishtown is looked upon as the burgeoning Williamsburg, N.Y., or Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., of Philadelphia, a funky collection of bohemian shops, coffee houses and restaurants that couldn’t afford the higher rents elsewhere in the city. It’s a fun place to hang out, with great people-watching. Locals are hoping the changes on Frankford Avenue will keep extending northward into another long-troubled neighborhood, Kensington.

If you’re looking for a quintessential, albeit unfashionable, Philadelphia restaurant that has weathered every food trend, I would suggest the kitschy but wonderful Victor Cafe on Dickinson Street in South Philadelphia. The restaurant will be celebrating its 100th anniversary next year, but the atmosphere has always been more notable than the basic Italian home cooking. The restaurant was founded by an opera lover who had worked at the RCA Victor plant in Camden, N.J., and named the joint in the company’s honor. For the past 99 years, the waitstaff has consisted of opera singers and students — some from the city’s famed Curtis Institute of Music — who burst into song every 15 minutes or so. I’ve had many wonderful nights there, so I teared up when I watched the latest adventure of Rocky Balboa, “Creed,” and saw the Victor Cafe had become “Adrian’s,” the Italian restaurant the old boxer named for his deceased wife.

Philadelphia is a perfect destination for a no-driving weekend trip from Connecticut, with several direct Amtrak trains leaving Stamford and Bridgeport every day. In less than three hours you will arrive at one of the best starting points in the city — the gorgeous 30th Street Station, which gives Grand Central Terminal a run for its money in terms of old-fashioned railroad grandeur.

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com;

Twitter: @joesview

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