There is nothing like a disappointing weekend getaway. Everything you expect it to be, it’s not. That’s why I love it when you go somewhere and your expectations aren’t high. You expect to have a good time but don’t expect to be blown away. This was my experience with Philadelphia. It’s what I would describe as a hidden gem of the East Coast.
I was expecting Philadelphia to be like a small town – a miniature, drab and slightly run-down version of Manhattan. How wrong could I be! The center of town is filled with greenery, and clean, open spaces. The city is full of beautiful architecture, and of course, a great deal of history.
One of the most important stops in Philadelphia is the Liberty Bell. The line to get past the guards is usually pretty long, but it moves fast and once inside there’s a very small “museum”, which basically tells you the history of the bell. It’s an iconic symbol of American Independence and Freedom. It was first commissioned in 1752 and was inscribed with the phrase, “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It has a big crack in the side, one that occurred over many years, and during its “lifetime” it traveled all around America being a symbol of hope and freedom in various different times in history. When you think about it, that bell has seen a lot!
Just down the road from the exit of the Liberty Bell is the Artist’s House and Garden’s. This was the house of the painter who painted the classic portraits of Washington and Franklin and the gardens are a great place to walk around and enjoy the sunshine. The house was part of the Independence National Historical Park which includes some of the oldest buildings in America as well as vast park-like spaces. The Independence Hall is a must-see, of course, as this is where the Declaration of Independence was signed! Entry is free; however you are required to have a timed-entry ticket from the Visitors Center. These run out around noon, so it’s best to get in early!
Once you’re inside the grounds you can check out the various buildings, see the actual documents of the Declaration and Constitution and go on a tour of the Independence Hall and Congress Hall. Both tours are very worthwhile and full of interesting facts. Make sure you also check out Old City Hall, which is set up to look as it did all those years ago.
For other areas of the National Historic Park you don’t need a ticket to get in. The first bank of America, Carpenter’s Hall (which is where the ‘plotting’ for the Revolution went down, and included some of the original chairs used by Benjamin Franklin), and City Tavern – the original ‘pub’ in the city which is still serving food and drink are all places of interest. They have a lot of character, and have been well maintained.
The National Constitution Center, situated behind the Visitors Center is worth a look. Filled with plenty of information and showcasing various exhibits, this is one place to visit if you’re interested in learning more about the Constitution. From there it’s only a few blocks to Christ Church’s graveyard which is the burial place of Benjamin Franklin and his wife. The grave itself is quite plain but it’s still a place to visit and pay your respects. The area beside his grave had been turned into a gate, as the site is right beside the road, so people can look through the fence at the tomb. Or you can pay $2 to go inside.
When William Penn first arrived in Philadelphia, his plan for the city was to have numerous public park squares. Washington Square is one of the most prominent of these spaces. In the early days of Philadelphia (1682), the square was used to graze animals and to bury the city’s African American population. Then, during the Revolutionary War it was used to also bury citizens and troops from the Colonial Army. To mark these burials they have a big monument in the park with a tomb and a statue of George Washington. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier marks the death of all the soldiers in the square and the statue of Washington is said to be looking over his troops. There is also an eternal flame burning in front of the tomb along with rows of flags from colonial America. I didn’t see any mention of the African American population buried in the square. The park itself is gorgeous and even had some cherry blossoms! The memorial is definitely worth a look.
The good thing about Philadelphia is that it’s very walkable and very tourist friendly. It’s all flat and all the main areas of interest are very close together, plus there are signposts EVERYWHERE pointing you in the direction to places of interest in close proximity.
Outside of the immediate Historic District there are plenty of attractions to explore. Betsy Ross’s house is a popular tourist spot. The house is situated in Old City in the next “section” of town. Betsy Ross is widely credited as the woman to first sew the American flag. The house is set up like any house that is a few hundred years old, but you can learn about how she came to sew the flag and explore the gift shop once you’re done. Old City itself is also very beautiful and you’ll want to set aside some time to explore the area. There are old style buildings, cobblestone streets, gorgeous street fronts…it reminded me of British towns. The British influence in Philadelphia is very evident.
Just around the corner from Betsy Ross’s house is Elfreth’s Alley, which is the oldest residential street in America. It’s been continually inhabited since the 1700’s and still has people living there. The houses are so incredible and very well maintained. It’s really like stepping back in time. There are tours available through one of the houses and a small museum to learn about the history of the street.
An easy walk from Old City will bring you to Penn’s Landing. This is the area William Penn docked his ship when he first came to Pennsylvania. It’s right on the river, you can see across the water to New Jersey and in the summer the place is vibrant and exciting! It’s certainly a nice place for a walk and to enjoy the river. In the summer, Penn’s Landing is packed with events, concerts and festivals. It’s also the place to be to go for a river cruise! Not far from Penn’s Landing is Society Hill. Well laid out, and decorated with fairy lights, boutique stores, cafes and restaurants, this part of town was certainly a little upper class and had a wonderful atmosphere.
City Hall is another building that must be put on your list. It’s huge, and heavily influenced by European architecture. You will definitely want your camera when visiting City Hall, and make sure you walk right around the building to see it at all angles. City Hall sits right near JFK plaza where you can find the JFK LOVE ‘sculpture’, and near the Municipal Services Building’s courtyard which has a number of interesting sculptures and statues.
If you to do something a little different in Philly, aside from the historical places and buildings, check out Mutter Museum. This is the museum of weird medical cases. It’s full of skulls, skeletons, “wet specimens” and strange odds and ends. It’s not huge but it’s certainly an interesting way to spend a few hours.
Finally, you can’t go to Philadelphia without trying a Philly Cheesesteak. South of the main town you’ll find the two most famous Cheesesteak outlets – Geno’s and Pats. Both are busy 24/7 and have lines stretching around the block. We were told to make sure you know what you want before you get to the front of the line or they’ll call ‘next’ and you’ll have to line up all over again! It’s quite a production line. There is no inside seating in this place, it’s like a drive through on foot. All the food making in done inside this one roomed building, then everyone lines up outside and there are a few tables on the footpath.
There is so much more to see in Philadelphia, and this is just a small glimpse. It’s one of those places that you should visit at least once; take in the architecture, culture and history. Enjoy the beauty of this hidden gem. I’m sure you won’t regret it!