For all of the great reasons to visit the city of Philadelphia—it’s America’s Birthplace, the City of Brotherly Love, cheesesteaks, etc.—we chose to visit for the best reason: for a good friend. You see, on our visit to New York City this past March, Cindy and I found ourselves close to our friend Jose. We hadn't seen Jose since he travelled to Europe with us, 18 months prior. As Philadelphia was half-way between our hotel and his home in Delaware, it seemed to be the perfect rendezvous point. And I’m all about a day-trip to a new destination.
And so, in the middle of our trip to New York, we took the train to a gloomy and rainy Philadelphia. We arrived around 9:30 in the morning. It was the first time Cindy and I had travelled by train since the Europe-trip I just mentioned, although this journey felt much less glamorous. Arriving in Philly, we met Jose and his friend Karen at the 30th Street Station and quickly huddled into their car to avoid the rain. We said our “hello”s, made small talk, and Karen drove us towards the massive Philadelphia City Hall, in route to the Independence National Historical Park. When we emerged from the adjacent parking garage, we found ourselves just a block away from Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States of America.
It was at this point I warned the others that I fully intended to geek-out over all of the historical landmarks. I’m not confident that this is what Jose and Karen had in mind when they made the trek out to visit with us, but on this point, I couldn’t be shy; there was too much history to ignore.
Being good friends, they politely agreed to do whatever.
Independence Hall accepts tours by reservation only, so we grabbed the first available tour slot in the Visitor’s Center. We would have to wait just over two hours to enter the building and so, we figured we’d start our day by seeing the Liberty Bell.
It was cold out so naturally, we were all bundled up. Which made it even more laborious when the seated, unenthused security guards required that we unzip our jackets, lift them up, and twirl around for them. I suppose that I understand security theater, but this show at the entrance of “The World’s Symbol of Liberty” was particularly ironic, elevating an annoying nuisance to a perceived violation of everything the bell symbolized. Maybe if they were nice about it. Oh well.
The set up inside the long, thin building was nice. Several exhibits chronicled what liberty has meant to different Americans over the years. At the end of the building stood the Liberty Bell itself, brilliantly juxtaposed with its original home, Independence Hall, stately in the background.
Though the lovely set-up, the Liberty Bell is ultimately more of a symbol than a sight. We grabbed our photos, looked at some of the displays, and stared at our watches, quickly realizing that we still had over 90 minutes to our reservation at Independence Hall. Hoping to kill time, we decided to trek a half-mile up Market Street to the Reading Terminal Market.
Once the terminus of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway (exactly as it sounds), the Reading Terminal once housed an elevated train station above a ground-level market. The train has since gone away but the market has remained for over a century.
Simply put, the Reading Terminal Market is a farmer’s market. But a really good one. The building is full of intersecting corridors lined with farmers, fishermen, merchants, bakers, cooks, craftsmen, and everything in between. Though we didn’t see any on our visit, apparently on some days you can find the neighboring Amish in the market, selling their goods. The vendor's confinement to the space beneath the former train station makes the market feel cramped, bustling, and authentic.
The intention was to just stroll around the market, burning time. But the feast for the eyes soon became a feast for the mouth and we indulged in some snacks. We all tried a whoopie pie (two large, cake-like cookies held together by creamy filling, like a big Oreo) and Jose was nice enough to share an amazing 4-cheese grilled cheese (where the vendor made all the cheeses).
With all of us pleased with our market-visit and worried that we might fill up on so many goodies, we departed for Independence Hall.
In case you were asleep through your American History class (or have never visited Knott’s Berry Farm), Independence Hall was the location of two of the most significant events in American History: the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the debates and adoption of the United States Constitution. The building is a monument to the ideals and ingenuity of America, and is also a World Heritage site.
After shuffling through another security check and queuing in the rain, we and a group of 50 or so entered a side-annex to the building. Inside, we received an introductory talk down from a middle-aged park ranger, warmly enthusiastic about the founding of America. Afterwards, he would take us to four or so stops inside the building. The most famous site, the one we were all there for, was stop number two—the main assembly room. This is the room where the magic happened; where the Declaration and Constitution were signed. It was all mocked up, as if Washington was going to walk in at any moment and drop some leadership on us tourists.
After the main assembly room and the various rooms upstairs, we concluded our tour of Independence Hall. Out back, we all kind of had a “now what” moment. Naturally, we goofed off a bit around the building and in the local souvenir shops.
Knowing we weren’t quite ready for lunch, we opted to go check out the arts district. Starting near City Hall, the massive Benjamin Franklin Parkway juts out at 45-degree angle from the rest of the city and stretches towards the imposing Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is renowned as one of the largest art museums in the United States, home to “more than 227,000 objects that include ‘world-class holdings of European and American paintings, prints, drawings, and decorative arts’.” Most people, however, probably know if for the 72 steps out front that Rocky runs up in the Rocky films. In fact, located at the base of the stairs is a statue of Rocky in his famous arms-out pose. We couldn’t resist.
I don’t know why this trip became the trip of posing as statues.
Either way, it was apparent that many people were visiting the Museum for the “Rocky Steps”; we saw a few people racing to the top of them. It looked so enticing, that we had to try for ourselves!…
…until I was reminded that I despite running, particularly uphill. Cindy seemed to do just fine though.
Knowing we didn’t have enough time to go in and get even an ounce of the museum accomplished (for a $20 admission), we opted to head down the street to the Rodin Museum, where some of his famous artwork was on display to the public. These included the massive sculpture The Gates of Hell and The Thinker, so famous even I have seen it before (in cartoons, perhaps?).
I’m shocked that I posed in front of every statue in Philadelphia but The Thinker!
After our art walk, it was finally time for lunch. Knowing where the good restaurants are, Karen and Jose drove us into a trendy South Philly neighborhood. Sometimes, I don’t have a good barometer for authenticity—I tend to stick to touristy areas. But when we arrived, I got the distinct feeling that the stretch of South Street they brought us to was a legitimately cool, local spot. Part college-town feel, part hipster district, there was a lot of color to neighborhood.
We walked down the street, peering through the windows of bars and taking in the scene. Eventually, we reached the end of South Street and looked over the river. My favorite sight was the group of locals dressed up in green tights, makeup, and hair dye, bar hopping for St. Patrick’s Day.
We all had a lengthy conversation about grabbing an authentic Philly Cheesesteak sandwich but ultimately, we decided against it. None of us have ever had a cheesesteak that absolutely blew our socks off and we weren’t convinced that this would be any different. Seven years ago, I had actually driven past the outskirts of Philadelphia and had one. It left me feeling a solid “meh”, an opinion that has yet to change. We decided to settle on the more reliable option of wood-fired pizza at some hipster joint.
After lunch, we trekked over to the other side of South Street where we found the local art installation called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Essentially a pretty large multi-room and outdoor space, completely covered by mural, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was a pretty funky place.
For me, the art at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was somewhere between abstract, thought provoking, and childish. It felt both tremendously open and personal, yet at times it felt as though the artist was just trying to fill up space for the sake of the project. Despite my feelings, it was clear that these mosaics, as well as others in the area, were a huge part of the neighborhood's identity.
After getting our monies worth of art (and trying to not slip and die on the slick ceramic floors), we ended our visit to the Magic Gardens and returned to the car. Nearly 8 hours had passed since we arrived in Philly and it was almost time to catch our return train to New York. Karen and Jose drove us back to the 30th Street Station and we said our sad goodbyes.
We rested on a bench in the great, main hall of the train station, tired but pleased with our day and with the time we got to spend with them.
Less than an hour later, we were back on our train and in route to New York. We were still a few subway transfers away from our hotel room. We had a lot more of New York City to see the next day.
And that was our visit to Philadelphia! To see more from this wonderful day-trip, please check out more in the gallery below!