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Go for the Cheese Steak, Stay for the Culture

Between the high art and deli cuts, Philadelphia is an urban gem that's worth the trip.
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The City of Brotherly Love has come a long way since the 1970s, when it sported one of the worst official slogans of all time: "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is."

These days the historical town is looking grand, with plenty of activities for day-trippers or for those planning an extended stay. From museums to restaurants, there's something to please every palate.

Among the hot tickets in Philly this summer are " Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" at the Franklin Institute Science Museum, and " Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun," at the Penn Museum, both running into the fall.

All That Glitters

Most of the 130 objects in the blockbuster show at the Franklin Institute have never been displayed outside Egypt. Items from Tut's tomb and other sites from the Valley of the Kings -- including a dagger from Tut's mummy, his crown, and remarkably well-preserved pieces of wooden furniture -- are presented.

A large carved head of Akhenaten, who was probably Tut's father, has an elongated, practically extraterrestrial look very different from the familiar stylized Egyptian sculpture.

The most spectacular piece in the exhibit is the coffin of Tuya, who is believed to have been Tut's great-grandmother. This gleaming 7-foot-long gilded wood artifact is embossed with hieroglyphics and inlaid with enamel. The serene representation of Tuya's face glows with so much personality that the queen almost seems to look back at viewers gazing into her eyes.

Don't expect to see Tut's golden death mask at the Franklin Institute. The image of the boy king used to publicize this exhibit looks remarkably like the world-famous showstopper from the 1970s blockbuster exhibit.

However, the gleaming visage used in advertising the current show is actually a detail from a small "canopic coffinette," which once held the mummified remains of Tut's liver. The golden vessel is inlaid with carnelian, crystal, obsidian and glass and is quite stunning in its own right.

The Amarna exhibit at the Penn Museum may be less glitzy, but it's more historically detailed. It focuses on the generation immediately preceding Tut, when King Akhenaten moved the royal court from Thebes to Amarna and attempted to establish a monotheistic religion.

This period is particularly fascinating because of its brevity and because many of the icons were destroyed, as they were considered heretical.

The exhibit includes more than 100 items, from monumental sphinxes to small personal items such as combs, seals and scarabs, and vessels.

Perhaps the most striking piece on display is a huge wall relief depicting Aten, the sun god. After Egypt returned to its traditional beliefs, the relief was cut from its wall, dropped face-down, and repurposed as a base for a statute, which is probably why it's so beautifully preserved.

And if mummies aren't your thing, head over to the

Barnes Foundation, where the extensive collection will quicken the pulse of anyone who enjoys Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early modern art.

This gallery contains a magnificent array of paintings from the early 20th century, most of which have never been loaned and only rarely photographed.

The Barnes boasts the world's largest collection of Renoirs -- 181 -- as well as 46 Picassos, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, plus works by Van Gogh, Manet, Monet and many others.

The building itself, located on a 12-acre arboretum in Merion, Pa., just outside the city, is adorned with Matisse murals and bas-reliefs by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.

Barnes had rather eccentric beliefs about how the works should be displayed, and personally decided where each should be positioned.

Some walls are covered practically from floor to ceiling with masterpiece paintings, displayed cheek by jowl with hand-wrought ironwork, African carvings, Chinese scrolls, Amish blanket chests and early-American ceramics. No informational labels are provided for the individual pieces, encouraging viewers to focus on form rather than fame.

From Bonito Flakes to Cheese Steaks

Philadelphia is a good town for eating everything from hot pretzels to haute cuisine.

At the top end, Chef Georges Perrier's

Le Bec-Fin continues to garner raves, though it's been around since before the bicentennial. The French-inspired menu changes seasonally. For summer, a $90 four-course prix fixe menu is available on weeknights; six courses, at $138, and 10 courses, at $165, are also offered nightly.

At

Morimoto, diners can order Japanese fare a la carte or

omakase

, which is a chef's choice tasting menu ($80-$120 per person).

For more casual dining, consider

Citrus Bistro for vegetarian and seafood dishes; the

Standard Tap for a wide selection of beers and an eclectic jukebox; or

Sabrina's Cafe for a tasty brunch.

And there's always the city's signature sandwich, the cheese steak: thin slices of grilled beef with a choice of cheese and toppings -- depending on the venue, ranging from pizza sauce, grilled mushrooms, peppers or onions, spicy cherry peppers, or sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce. Ignore the oft-repeated rumor that Cheez Whiz is mandatory, and opt for the less salty and more flavorful provolone.

Places like

Geno's,

Pat's and

Jim's get a lot of attention, but many Philadelphians favor other sources for their cheese steak fix. Stroll through any neighborhood in the city and you'll find tasty offerings, including Oscar's (1524 Sansom St.) in Center City,

Tony Luke's in South Philly, Dalessandro's (600 Wendover St.) in Roxborough, and

McNally's in Chestnut Hill.

Where to Stay

Philadelphia is renowned for its historical sites. But by choosing your lodgings carefully, it's possible to indulge in a little history without lining up to see the

Liberty Bell or

Independence Hall.

Housed in the city's first skyscraper,

Loews Philadelphia Hotel contains more than 600 rooms and suites, a private concierge library, a business center and a spa and fitness center, and offers services ranging from baby-sitting to dog walking.

The International Style building, which was once a bank's headquarters, has a sleek, midcentury look. Enjoy a panoramic view, including the statute of William Penn atop City Hall, while relaxing in the Presidential Suite's luxury bath.

The rooms at the

Park Hyatt at the Bellevue are decorated with an old-world warmth and charm in keeping with the 1904-vintage National Historic Landmark building's beaux-arts style. In addition to the standard four-star amenities, guests have complimentary access to the Sporting Club, a 93,000-square-foot fitness center.

Five-star luxuries with a country-inn feel are offered at the 23-room boutique hotel

Rittenhouse 1715, situated in a carriage house designed by architect Walter Cope around 1910. The two-story Presidential Suite features a spiral staircase leading to a king-size loft bedroom, a fireplace, luxury bathroom and powder room. Complimentary wine receptions, breakfast, and parlor games are included, and on-site spa services are available.

Other boutique hotels, some of them in buildings dating back to the 18th century, include the

Alexander Inn, the

Morris House Hotel and the

Thomas Bond House.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.