During his stint as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the 1970s, David Lynch became so obsessed with the disquieting oddness that seemed to flow through the streets of Philadelphia like expurgated cheesesteak grease that he was inspired to create Eraserhead. That, my friends, is just how much the City of Brotherly Love can fuck with you. As a lifelong resident of Philly, I just take the town's weirdness for granted. It's as much of part of daily life here as Tastykakes and angry sport fans. Yet in recent years I have noticed that the ever-present strangeness of the city--a phenomenon I chalk up to as a byproduct of Philadelphia's rich historical, cultural and industrial histories--has mutated into a fertile breeding ground for nerdery. These days Philly is overflowing with tech companies, comic stores, bars/restaurants and other business run by geeks, for geeks. It's a great time to live there...or at least visit. So for this installment of Topless Robot Road Trips, we are going to hop on I-95 and check out the nerdiest places Philadelphia has to offer. The city may not have Lynchian chicken babies, but there's still plenty of odd and wondrous sites to check out. Here's 15 of my favorites.
15) The Basement of The Garden of Earthly Delights on Any Given Weekend
In the Northeast section of the city lies the aptly named Garden of Earthly Delights, a cavernous space dedicated to comics/sport cards/collectibles/gaming/whatever that is seemingly forever stuck in 1989. Such reliable familiarity is a glorious thing, and part of the reason why the store is packed on the weekends with people looking for everything from the latest DC and Marvel offerings to the oddball comics like The Adventures of Kool Aid Man that garnish the bargain bins. Yet the biggest appeal of this four-color wonderland might be the basement. Jammed with hundreds of back issues and everything from forgotten VHS tapes to old McDonald's glasses for sale, this musty haven gives refuge to Magic the Gathering and other CCG enthusiasts who fill the space to near capacity every Saturday and Sunday. Sure, there's plenty of other spots in Philly where these types of games can be played, but for some reason this particular spot--with its hastily thrown down tables and chairs, decimated pizza boxes and a diverse assortment of clientele--feels so right. It's old school nerdery at its finest...and something to treasure.
14) Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
If R.E.M. were based out of Philadelphia rather than Athens, Georgia, chances are they probably would have written a song about Isaiah Zagar. A prolific folk artist whose unqiue mosiac work can be glimpsed throughout the city, Zagar is the increasingly rare example of a figure whose work is appreciated by critics and the masses alike. His masterpiece is Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, a maze-like triumph located on the city's legendary South Street (and, it's worth noting, one of the few remaining worthwhile things to see there). Fusing his works with everyday items like mirrors and bottles, Zagar has created a unique artistic landscape that you can easily spend hours wandering around in.
13) The Liberty Bell
Obviously a huge part of Philly's appeal is its historical significance. So this list would be utterly worthless if it didn't feature at least one traditional tourist attraction, so by all means check out the Liberty Bell you history-shunning heathens. Not only is it remarkable to witness in person, but it is amongst our greatest enduring symbols of freedom. Duh. Plus, there's some really stellar hot dog carts nearby. Just saying.
12) The Franklin Fountain
You'd be forgiven if the above video segment from Man vs. Food makes you think that The Franklin Fountain is the most hipster-baiting place this side of Williamsburg. But the flavor is what matters most here. This spot in Philly's Old City neighborhood deliberately recreates the experience of an old-timey ice cream shop so perfectly that you may find yourself having a hankering for some barbershop quartet music. Okay, probably not. But there is a delicate art to the ice cream dishes and sodas being sold that makes the Franklin Fountain feel like a place out of time. Beyond the carefully crafted facial hair of some of the servers lies a true passion and appreciation for crafting delicious ice cream dishes that are more than just mere dessert, but genuinely unforgettable.Try the pumpkin ice cream, and tell 'em Topless Robot sent you.
11) Pizza Brain
Speaking of food, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Philly is also home to the world's only Pizza museum--Pizza Brain. This cozy spot is wall-to-wall pizza memorabilia, featuring everything from the requisite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise to a impressive wall full of pizza-referencing comic covers. (Including plenty of old Jughead issues, natch). In a large space that connects Pizza Brain to the equally impressive Little Baby's Ice Cream parlor (which brought this viral nightmare into the world) you'll find various items on display that illustrate the profound ways in which pizza has permeated nearly every aspect of our lives. Seriously. And yes, Pizza Brain also serves up its own slices. Trust me, you'll be jonesing for them by the time you finish touring the museum.