Franklin Institute Ben Franklin Memorial

Family fun at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia

This post is brought to you by Michelin Guides. If you’ve got East Coast travel planned, I recommend checking out their USA East edition; the Philadelphia section offers a great overview of the things I’d most recommend visitors to the city see.

I’m a big fan of fall family weekend getaways, and for the past few years we’ve had some wonderful trips to Fort Myers, Williamsburg, Chincoteague, and the northern Outer Banks. But this fall things have been a bit more hectic and although 11-year-old Tommy and 8-year-old Teddy had a long weekend at the beginning of October, we decided that a day out in nearby Philadelphia sounded more fun than an entire weekend away.

On an unseasonably warm early October Saturday, we headed for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a mere 45-minute drive from our house in northern Delaware. No need to pack suitcases, no reservations, just a plan for some family fun.

Special exhibits at the Franklin Institute are worth the trip

Founded in the early 19th century to honor Benjamin Franklin, this large, interactive science museum is dedicated to asking the scientific questions of why and how and letting visitors see for themselves just what the answers are.

One reason we chose the Franklin Institute for our outing was because the weekend of our visit was the last chance to see a special exhibit called SPY: The Secret World of Espionage. Even though this exhibit is no longer at the museum, I want to talk a bit about it because I think it is typical of the type of fun and deeply educational special exhibit the Franklin Institute hosts.

The first part of the exhibit displayed CIA artifacts, many of which looked like they could have come from a movie but had actually been used in real spying – including a poison-dart tipped umbrella.

This umbrella was actually used to assassinate a spy.

We saw a piece of the Berlin Wall and learned a bit about the tactics of Soviet Era secret police in various Communist countries. In East Germany for instance, the Stasi used to spray female dog hormones on the bicycle tires or doormats of people they wanted to track. Their tracking dogs could then follow them easily.

We learned about what “dead drops” are – hidden places where spies can stash stuff that another agent picks up later. There were a number of these to find and explore, including the inside of a dead rat. (The boys loved the ick factor of that one).

An exhibit showing how surveillance cameras work led us to try and figure out what furniture held the hidden lenses that were watching us.

Is the camera in the lamp?

We saw how film could be hidden in any number of household objects from wristwatches to shaving cream to shoes.

Better double check your iron – there might be something in there.

The boys crawled through a series of air ducts, unaware that I could watch them via hidden camera as they tried to find their way out. They disguised their voices and faces. And they tried to get through a laser maze without being detected.

Who is that mysterious man?

We probably spent over two hours exploring this exhibit, and all of us learned a great deal about the history of spying since the end of the Second World War.

The next traveling exhibit to come to the Franklin Institute will be One Day in Pompeii, which opens at the beginning of November, 2013.

Franklin Institute science for little ones

After a break for lunch, Teddy wanted to see the Kid Science exhibit, which is designed for children aged 5 to 8. This gated area is set up as an “Island of the Elements” where younger children are encouraged to “save the Earth” by fighting Lord Chaos using the elements of air, water, earth, and light.

Teddy didn’t really engage with the story of the exhibit but he did like exploring the mirror maze, playing in the water,

Teddy never met water play he didn’t like.

and directing air to make boats sail.

Learning how wind makes sail boats go.

Physics and more on the Franklin Institute third floor

If your children are at all interested in sports, they will love the Sports Challenge exhibit, which invites kids to explore physics and biology through a variety of athletic challenges. Tommy loved the chance to see the speed of his pitch using balls of different sizes.

Tommy threw a lot of pitches.

We also tested our reaction times against each other in the racing cars (I won, in case you’re interested).

Just try to beat mom, just try!

Teddy practiced jumping as high as he could.

How high can he go?

He also kicked a soccer ball against an imaginary goalie, rode the waves and tested his balance on a surfboard,  climbed a rock wall, and raced in a wheelchair.

Making the wheelchair go fast was hard work.

Nearby, Sir Isaac’s loft offers a compelling look at the intersection of science and art.  You’re offered a chance here to conduct clusters of experiments that illustrate different scientific ideas, some of them in aesthetically appealing ways. We explored patterns made in light and sand, learned how levers work, and lifted our own body weight.

Teddy said he wished he weighed less.

Cause-and-effect was a big aspect of this exhibit, and Tommy spent a long time building a domino run.

It probably took 20 minutes for Tommy to build this, and 10 seconds to knock it down.

After so much hands-on activity, we were ready to spend some time using our eyes, so the nearby 50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic was just the ticket. What made this exhibit so special was not just the opportunity to see iconic photos of people, animals, landscapes, and an 8-story high tree; each panel offered a description by the photographer of the picture’s circumstances and what techniques were used to capture it.

By the time we had looked at all of the photographs, the museum was close to closing. Tommy had just enough time to ride on the Sky Bike, which crosses the ceiling of the museum’s atrium, before we had to head out.

The Sky Bike is fun – if you like heights.

We were so busy that we didn’t have a chance to make our way to the second floor of the museum on this visit. There you’ll find exhibits on electricity, the Earth, and the human body including the famous Giant Heart, a huge human heart that kids can walk through.

Happily, I know we’ll be back – that’s the nice thing about day-trip travel and why sometimes I like to explore a bit closer to home with my kids.

Although I was compensated by Michelin Guides for writing this post, they did not pay for any of my travel expenses on my trip to Philadelphia. You can always count on me to tell you when I’ve received something for free and to share my honest opinion.

Travel-with-kids tips

  • Mussels at Monks The Franklin Insitute has a café, but if you’re planning to spend the entire day there, I recommend getting some fresh air and taking a stroll to one of the many excellent restaurants you can find after a mere 10- to 15-minute walk. I haven’t eaten at the nearby Sabrina’s or Pizzeria Vetri yet, but I have it on good authority that both are excellent. I also love the French restaurant Parc in Rittenhouse Square, although we learned the hard way that reservations are a must on a fall Saturday. Since the wait was 45 minutes, we decided instead to walk a bit further to Monk’s Café where we feasted on excellent mussels.
  • The museum has a parking garage but metered street parking is cheaper if you can find a spot (early in the day on weekends this shouldn’t be a problem). Just make sure you remember to put money in the meter as needed – parking tickets in Philly are expensive.
  • The Franklin Institute has an IMAX, a 3D theater, and a planetarium, which you can visit for an extra fee. Special exhibits like SPY also cost extra; you can purchase tickets in advance online.
  • The Franklin Institute is located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, also known as the Museum District of Philadelphia. The Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Academy of Natural Sciences are all nearby.
  • Feel like you need some playtime after your museum visit? Continue the day’s theme and head over to Franklin Square, reputed to be the spot where Ben conducted his famous kite-flying experiment. You’ll find a playground, carousel, and mini-golf.

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Reader Responses

2 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. This sounds like a fabulous place to visit with kids. It reminds me of a great museum in Budapest, Hungary, called the Palace of Wonders.

  2. Mara, I think our 7-year-old son would love this place. It looks like it covers the range of his interests. I haven’t been to Philadelphia in several years and have been thinking more and more that we need to get back up there.

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