Getting to the historic sites: trolley buses make it all easy

In many cities bewildered tourists clutching maps and asking directions are a common sight. But not in Philadelphia.

Getting around to Philadelphia's points of interest is surprisingly easy even for first-timers. Part of the reason is the Fairmount Park Trolleys, a fleet of city-operated Victorian-style vehicles stopping at museums, historic houses, and other attractions.

Anyone who can find the circular tourist center at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, where the bright red and green trolleys begin their routes, need not worry about finding the Liberty Bell, Fairmount Park, or the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And besides making regular stops at historic spots, the trolley service offers special guided tours that make a fine introduction to the city.

The Town and Country Tour is the best one to take if your time is limited. Leaving from the Tourist Center at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Monday and Tuesday during the spring and summer, the trolley covers 300 years of historic territory in just 21/2 hours.

On an overcast morning during a recent visit to Philadelphia I joined a dozen or so others on this tour. Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guide began with a few words on William Penn, the Quaker leader who founded the ''faire countrie towne'' and gave it its form and character, much of which is still evident today.

We saw how appropriate the reference to Penn was soon after the trolley began its way through the Center City, as Philadelphians call their downtown. Many of the streets and spacious squares along the route date from Penn's original late 17th-century plan for the city, our guide explained. And the 37-foot statue of Penn himself atop City Hall (the highest point in the city) is visible from almost any point downtown.

Then the trolley headed toward the charming 18th- and 19th-century brick neighborhood known as Society Hill.

Pausing in front of one house, she explained the function of a three-sided mirrored object hanging out of a third floor window. A Ben Franklin invention called a ''busybody,'' it enables the owner to see who is at the front door or coming down the street.

One of the brief stops on the tour was in Independence National Historical Park for an opportunity to view the Liberty Bell. Originally housed inside Independence Hall, this historic treasure has been moved a few yards away to its own glass pavilion. After this stop, the trolley progressed past Independence Hall, the Army-Navy Museum, Franklin Court, and other landmarks.

The ''country'' section of the tour comes when the trolley reaches Fairmount Park, the lush 8,700 acres that comprise the largest landscaped city park in the world. Among the park's many attractions are several magnificent 18th-century houses maintained by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A tour of one of the houses is always included as part of the Town and Country Tour.

Our guide chose to stop at Mount Pleasant. A Georgian-style house sitting atop a gentle knoll, it is a work of almost perfect symmetry and grace. While admiring the Chippendale-furnished rooms, we learned that an early owner of the house was Benedict Arnold, who purchased it for his bride, Peggy Shippen. But Arnold was convicted of treason before they could move in.

After Mount Pleasant, the trolley skirted around some of the other imposing park mansions such as Woodford and Lemon Hill. Once out of the park, we passed the gingerbread-style boathouses lining the Schuylkill River en route backto the tourist center.

For those who wish to tour Fairmount Park at more leisure, the trolleys also provide service between park attractions, including the historic houses and the zoo, every 20 minutes. A round-trip ticket ($1.75) lets one ride from the tourist center to the park and then get on and off at designated stops within its boundaries. This service is available Wednesday through Sunday in spring and summer.

A new guided tour called Wonders of the Wissahickon debuts this spring. Leaving the tourist center at 11 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the trolleys ferry passengers through some of the lushest drives in Fairmount Park and into the architecturally significant district of Chestnut Hill. Included in the $8.50 tour price is lunch at the 18th-century Valley Green Inn. More information on this and the other Fairmount Park Trolley tours is available from the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1525 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.

In honor of the Century IV celebration this year, the Fairmount Park Trolleys will be the transportation for several special tours sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tours will focus on such topics as the Quaker influence in Fairmount Park and the life and times of Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins. More information on these tours is available from the Park House Guides Office, Philadelphia Museum of Art, PO Box 7646, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101.

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