John had taken the boys on bike trips before so I knew they’d be fine. But me? I hadn’t set bottom on a bike since 2007 when we rode around Assateague Island during the island’s quiet car-free hours. I have a slew of excuses every time they ask me to join them. The fact that I don’t have a bike is my top excuse but in truth, I’m afraid I’m going to be the one person on earth who actually forgets how to ride a bike.
So the thought of tooling around Philadelphia by bike was pretty terrifying. Still, it was my idea. I knew the rest of the family would enjoy it and they’d been bugging me to join them on their weekend rides for months. Plus, the idea of touring a city faster than on foot, but unburdened by a car is appealing. And don’t you think “urban family mini-break on bike” has a sporty, extreme, REI-ish ring to it?
We pulled into the very-centrally located Residence Inn in our usual manner. The minivan door slides open and various boy shoes and hats spill out, a quick whiff of road trip escapes, and the boys come tumbling out. This time, we added four bikes to the spectacle and entered the lobby like we were part of a biking road crew, composed mostly of midgets.
Still, we were met with smiles and lots of curiosity from the desk staff, who told us Philly was a fantastic bike town and they’d be happy to store the bikes for us. John ran down to Independence Hall and picked up the bike we’d rented for me in advance from Wheel Fun. (You can find more bike rental options on the website www.bikecoalition.org).
I was a little shaky when I got on the bike and saw the midtown traffic but took a deep breath and rode off behind John and the boys. Before we knew it, we were on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Philadelphia’s Museum District) on a wide shady bike path. We stopped to admire “The Thinker” outside the Rodin Museum and went off in search of lunch.
We didn’t have to go far. We found a number of food trucks parked at The Oval, a new public space initiative in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with oversized board games, a sand box, table tennis, and live events. We loved the Lil’ Pop Shop’s popsicles, with flavors like lime mint (Jacques’ favorite) and coconut hibiscus (mine).
We veered off The Parkway for a few blocks to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829, the massive building’s deserted hallways and tiny crumbling cells echo of institutional despair. It might sound a bit morbid for family fun time but there’s plenty of space to run around for Jeremy and my oldest sons loved seeing Al Capone’s surprisingly plush cell, filled with oriental rugs and other luxury furnishings. And the lesson is…….OK, kids, let’s get back on our bikes.
We were lucky to arrive at the Franklin Institute just in time to see the automaton in action. The delicate drawing robot (which you might remember from the movie Hugo) is only taken out of its glass case a few times a year for demonstrations and it is a thing of beauty and grace. We were fascinated with the rest of the Amazing Machines exhibit, a steam-punk collection of beautiful mechanical inventions with hands-on demonstrations of the various machine parts. It reminded me of one of my favorite museums in the world, Paris’ Musée des Arts et Metiers. We kicked, surfed, drove, and threw balls in the Sports Challenge Exhibit, and the older (tall enough) boys rode the aerial bike before a quick ride back to the hotel.
As we entered the hotel lobby with our bikes, the desk clerk looked up and said something that I’m sure has never been uttered about my brood before, particularly by hotel staff: “Oh, there’s the cool family. Hi guys.”
The next morning, we took a quick ride across town and then down to the path along the Schuylkill River Trail. Built mostly on old railroad tracks, the26-mile River Trail is quite flat, shady, and perfect for family rides, although I’m sure it gets crowded on the weekends (we were there on a Monday morning). Our favorite spot was just outside the Fairmount Water Works. We didn’t visit the historic water treatment facility but climbed up the windy Alice in Wonderland-ish path to a series of little pavilions where we admired the insanely gorgeous view of the treatment center, the river, and boathouses in the distance.
We talked about riding the whole trail on our next visit, and maybe taking a little side trip to Valley Forge. See that? I’m talking like I’m a regular biker! Next stop–REI for a bike and maybe a cute urban biking ensemble.