I like Philadelphia a great deal. It's not as glamorous or ritzy as Boston, New York, or Washington but in many ways it's more charming. There are the famous sights where America's revolution and government began of course, and all through the city are historic streets and neighborhoods. There are wonderful markets and foods, great art and architecture, but also a great vibe and soul. It's a city just that defined the sound of disco and 70s soul. There's a lot to see, hear, and taste on a trip to Philly. And best of all, it's only a 90 minute train ride from Manhattan. So head over to Penn Station, and get aboard the soul train.
Morning - You'll start the day in NYC by going to Penn Station to catch an Amtrak train. It's the simplest and most direct way to reach Philly. There are two classes of train, regular and Acela high speed. Unlike other countries, America's high speed rail isn't really very fast. The standard train takes 90 minutes and the Acela takes 70 minutes. But saving those 20 minutes will cost almost double the regular ticket. So it doesn't seem worth it to me. The tickets often cost about $100 round trip but there are cheaper options. Buses run regularly between the two cities and are closer to $30 round trip but they take a little over two hours, and can be slowed by traffic. If you were thinking of staying the night or are on an extremely tight budget the bus makes sense. But I think for a day trip taking the train--or even splurging for the Acela--makes the most sense.
When you arrive by train to Philadelphia, you will disembark in the beautiful 30th Street Station. The 1933 station is a grand art deco hall. It gives you a small sense of what New York's Penn Station must have felt like before being torn down in the 60s and replaced with the current soulless underground corridors. 30th Street Station is a nice photo spot and a fitting entry to such a splendid city. Philadelphia is situated on the west bank of the wide Delaware River. But the city is split through on the west side by the smaller Schuykill (pronounced SKOO-gill) River making Philly a kind of long peninsula between two rivers. 30th Street Station sits right on the west bank of the Schuykill and as you exit you can walk right across the river and walk down the stairs on the other side to the Schuykill River trail. This brand new waterfront walkway goes along and even over the river and leads to Fairmount Park. It's a little less than a mile to reach the Fairmount Water Works. The lovely buildings are an event hall today but they once pumped Schuykill River water to the top of the hill behind you to be fed into the city. The buildings and dam are almost two hundred years old and provide a lovely view of one of Philly's most picturesque landmarks: Boathouse Row. The 15 boathouses were built for rowing clubs and college teams to take advantage of the calm waters above the dam. Each is a unique style and reminiscent of quaint European villages. Next, climb the hill behind you and you'll be on the backside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Work your way to the front of the museum for one of the iconic sights of Philadelphia. The museums steps lead away in a wide, long, formal staircase and onto the long boulevard of Ben Franklin Parkway which stretches towards the city's skyline. Of course, the steps are immediately recognizable from the classic Philly film Rocky. The film is the quintessential underdog story and Philadelphians rallied around it when the film was released during the tough economic downturn of the 1970s. The film's training montage finishes with Rocky bounding up the museum steps and you'll see plenty of tourists recreating his famous run.
It's at this point that I would leave the Museum area since I would prefer to spend time in the historic old city, but if you're not as much of a history buff you can spend time at the art museum or the nearby Rodin Museum or Barnes Foundation Museum. You could even walk down to Fairmount Ave from the Art Museum and walk 10 minutes to the fascinating and spooky Eastern State Penitentiary.
|The Eastern State Penitentiary|
Unlike New York's humble 1811 City Hall, you can't miss Philly's government hub. The building sits in the middle of the intersection of Philly's largest streets: Broad Street going North to South and Market Street going East to West. City Hall is probably America's most under appreciated skyscraper. It was built in 1901 and was the world's tallest building when it was completed. To this day it remains the only skyscraper outside Chicago or New York to ever be the country's tallest. But what I find coolest about City Hall is that before it was built, all of the buildings that had ever been the world's tallest had been churches. Philadelphia's City Hall was the first ever building to rise above the spires of Europe's tallest cathedrals. And before you mention the Eiffel Tower, it's a towering structure but not a building so it doesn't quite count.
As you walk around City Hall, start heading East on Market Street. The first building on your right is Philadelphia's flagship Macy's store. It wasn't always Macy's, which is a NYC-based store. This was Philly's answer to Chicago and New York's grand department stores. It was Wanamaker's Department Store. Wanamaker's was the tastemaker of Philly in the era of grand department stores, but like so many local brands, it has been subsumed by Macy's. It's a fine example of a grand 20th century department store, but there's a musical surprise inside. The former Wanamaker's is home to the world's largest functioning pipe organ. It's a bit incongruous to have such an incredible instrument in a store and not a church or a theater. The massive organ has more than 28,000 pipes. That's more than double the size of New York City's largest organ at St. Bart's Church. And not only is it playable, but it is played everyday, except Sundays, at Noon. And if you miss the Noon concert there is another recital at either 5:30 or 7:30. The open atrium where the organ is located makes for a wonderful listening gallery and you can also go right up to the console and watch the organist play. Even if you're not a classical music fan, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
|The Wanamaker Organ, the world's largest.|
Today, it's a bustling spot, especially at lunch. Inside are over eighty merchants. Some merchants are selling groceries like meat, fish, or produce. Others make sandwiches or other prepared foods. There are longtime vendors, including some Pennsylvania Dutch who come in every day but Sunday and Monday. The oldest vendor in the marketplace is Bassett's Ice Cream which has operated in the market ever since the building opened. And there are new places opening all the time. It's a wonderful place to explore and a first-time visitor will likely be overwhelmed. So the question is, where to eat? The Pennsylvania Dutch--you may know them as Amish--spots are all great for a bit of traditional PA/German offerings. The Dutch Eating Place is a breakfast spot where local pork specialty scrapple is fried up with eggs. Bieler's doughnuts are one of the most famous offerings in the market. And if you've ever had a pretzel on the streets of NYC you owe it to yourself to have it from a city that really knows pretzels by heading to Miller's Twists. Diener's is one of the most popular spots in the market with big lines for their rotisserie chicken wings. In addition to the Amish offerings, Philly's Italian fare is on display. You can get a cannoli at Termini Brothers, an Italian hoagie--Philly's word for a what New Yorkers call a hero--at Carmen's. They also carry the famous Philly Chessesteak, which Philadelphians tend to downplay but is still a delicious sandwich. DiNic's is great for the alternative to cheesesteak, the roast pork sandwich. It's not just German or Italian either. Beck's does wonderful cajun food, Meltkraft does great grilled cheese sandwiches, and Molly Molloy's makes a great pot pie. There's lots more to choose from so take time to explore and try lots of different things. Just try not to spend the whole day.
Afternoon - Now it's time to head east and explore the rich American history preserved on the streets of old Philadelphia. The closer you get to the Delaware River on the east side of the city, the older a part of town you are in. The walk down to 2nd Street is about a mile, which is nice after a good lunch. There is also the option to walk down to 11th Street and Market and hop aboard The Market-Frankford subway line. The fare is $2.25 cash and you can take a train towards Frankford three stops to 2nd Street. Once you're at 2nd and Market, head north on 2nd four blocks and you'll reach Elfreth's Alley. This tiny street makes the bold claim to be the longest continually inhabited street in the country. I have no idea if that claim is accurate, but the houses are typical of the type that tradesmen would have lived in during the 18th century. Whether it's really the oldest anything, it's a great look at everyday life in Philly during the British Colonial Era. And it is quite unique that these are still private homes today.
Independence Hall is the most important historic sight in the United States. Not only was it the place where the leaders of the colonies declared the beginning of a new republic, but it was also the meeting hall for the Constitutional Convention, where the United States' Constitution was drafted. It is Philadelphia's most famous and popular sight and you can only go inside on a tour. You can, of course, see the building from outside any time. You can also go through the visitors center and see the Liberty Bell without a ticket. But the Liberty Bell is really just a minor part of the story of American independence and isn't the real highlight. If you appreciate American history in even the most basic way, you want to go inside Independence Hall. Tours run frequently throughout the day and are free. Tickets are given out in advance or on the same day. If you are just coming to Philly for a day trip it's worth reserving the tour in advance. Be aware that there is a $1.50 handling fee for advanced reservations. And if it's January or February there are no reservations required at all. The tour is quick but exciting. For a fan of history, particularly American history, it's awe-inspiring to be standing in the room where Thomas Jefferson introduced the Declaration of Independence and then to go across the hall and stand where Alexander Hamilton and James Madison led the negotiations for the Constitution. If you do reserve in advance, you should be at the visitor center to pick up your tickets at least 45 minutes before the tour time. And if you don't have tickets it's still worth walking up to see if any are available. If it's not a weekend or a holiday there very well could be walk up tickets available.
Independence Hall Park contains more than just Independence Hall and there are other buildings that might interest you. The American Philosophical Society building is just to the left of Independence Hall and was founded by Ben Franklin and his friends as a society for pursuing their love of art and science. Today the museum in the building rotates through different exhibits from their collection that highlight the scientific advancement of the founders and other figures in American history. Further along Chestnut Street is the portrait gallery inside the 2nd National Bank of the United States. On Chestnut between 4th and 3rd are the buildings of the Carpenter's Guild of Philadelphia. This organization was founded in 1724 as an alliance of builders, engineers, and tradesmen. They began construction of a meeting hall in 1770 which would be finished in 1774. The hall proved so attractive and pleasant a meeting room that it was used by the First Continental Congress in 1774 to draw up a list of grievances against the Crown. Carpenter's Hall was used for many other meetings and was so popular that the guild built an adjacent hall in 1791 now called the New Hall, which was promptly used by the War Department and Secretary Knox for offices. Today you can visit both halls for displays of military history and other relics from the Carpenter's Guild. This is one of my favorite quiet historical spots, though--full disclosure--the fact that one of my long-ago ancestors was a member probably has something to do with it.
After finishing up and Independence Park, walk south across Walnut Street and enter the neighborhood of Society Hill. This is one of the best collection of 18th and 19th Century homes in the country and it retains the air of a graceful merchant community. This area was the subject of one of the first urban renewal and preservation projects of the 20th century in the country. The neighborhood had declined into slum-like conditions and the city and state took over old homes and resold them to owners willing to restore them to historic splendor. But not everything was saved and there are odd mid-century townhouses and towers in the neighborhood too. But besides the odd bits of the 1960s, the neighborhood is one of the most charming in Philly. Plus it has some of my favorite laneway streets in the city, like the aptly named American Street. If there's time left before dinner, you can walk west through the Washington Square West neighborhood. The Pennsylvania Hospital on Pine Street is one of the grandest looking buildings in the country and is almost reminiscent of a European palace. There's also more quaint laneways between Spruce and Locust Streets, including my vote for most charming streets in Philly, Quince and Jessup Streets.
Dinner - Head west to Rittenhouse Square, one of the elegant green spaces scattered throughout Philly to sample some of the best dining in the city. The Rittenhouse Square neighborhood is one of Philadelphia's dining, shopping, and nightlife hubs. There's tons of options here but the neighborhood is dominated by the most famous chef to ever come out of Philadelphia, Stephen Starr. Starr had been in nightlife and food in Philly for years when he opened Buddakan in 1998. The hugely successful restaurant/lounge catapulted him to fame, especially for theatrical and exciting dining spaces. But the food proved a huge draw too and now Starr's group owns around 20 restaurants in Philly, not to mention half a dozen in Manhattan. Each restaurant is unique in style and food, and all of them are packed so try to make reservations beforehand. Along the square itself is Parc, his French brasserie, and Barclay Prime, a high end steakhouse. Along Walnut Street's main shopping drag are Alma de Cuba for latin fusion and Butcher and Singer for old school steaks and chops. But the best bet for matching the historic vibe of the city is The Dandelion on Sansom and 18th Street. The space recreates an elegant British pub inside of two stunning historic townhouses. The old fashioned Philly architecture matches the look of the restaurant perfectly. And while it may have been 240 years since the city was British, Philly's history seems to be honored in a very cool way in this modern but old fashioned gastropub. The fish and chips are the standout dish here. There are loads of other great places around the neighborhood. A few blocks west on Walnut is Vernick Food & Drink, serving oven-roasted contemporary dishes that wow everyone in the city. It's hard to get a table but you can understand why when American classics taste this good. Tequilas on Locust and 16th is a very hip Mexican eatery with an amazing tequila and mezcal selection. Their mole sauce is particularly delicious. And if all these more upscale places don't suit you, just head over to Good Dog Bar for some burgers and fries. After dinner, it's probably time to head back, so walk or taxi back to 30th Street station for the ride home to NYC.