Philadelphia has always been in a shadow of sorts. Its megalopolis neighbor to the East by a measly 90 miles has, time and time again, stolen Philadelphia’s spotlight. So, while Philadelphia has existed for decades as New York’s younger, smaller, and more insecure sibling, it is finally peeking its head out of the woodwork and flaunting its fabulous self to the world. Philly is well on its way to holding its own as a final destination—rather than the derisory pit stop to New York that it once was.
I must admit, my first (and only) trip to Philadelphia was a bit of a fluke—and yes, my actual destination was New York City. However, being the effervescent penny-pincher I am, I discovered that flying back home out of Philadelphia was considerably cheaper than flying out of any one of New York’s airports. Plus, I had always thought it would be neat to check out the Liberty Bell. That’s really all there was to see in Philadelphia anyways, right? So, I clicked “confirm” on my online ticket and smugly smiled to myself for being so clever and finagling a far less expensive ticket.
"Philly is well on its way to holding its own as a final destination—"
After utilizing the ever-parsimonious, albeit slightly dodgy, Chinatown bus from Canal Street in Manhattan, I found myself dropped off and discarded in the midst of Philadelphia’s similarly chaotic version of Canal Street—Arch Street.
Surprise #1 came in the form of this exciting kibbutz of Asian vendors. Grocers hawked their latest exotic produce—durian, mangosteen, plantains, and papaya. A nearby butcher sat upon a rickety stool hacking away at a whole lamb. And the smell of Chinese herbs wafted out of a nearby medicine shop. It took a bit of effort on my part to remind myself that I actually wasn’t in Asia. It was pretty authentic nonetheless. I had been on Philadelphian terra firm five whole minutes and already its W.A.S.P.y reputation had evaporated into a cloud of odoriferous Chinese incense permeating from a close by Buddhist temple.
Surprise #2 came about the next day at Reading Terminal Market. After exploring the endless rows of confectionaries, delicacies, and gastronomical masterpieces, I finally settled on one booth in particular. Behind the counter, furiously working away was a bearded man with an old-fashioned cap and, presumably, his wife donning a pastel bonnet. She shot me a toothy grin and courteously asked me what I would like. I had no idea. The choices were plentiful and I was overwhelmed…so I did what any rational thinking individual would do in the same situation.
“What do you suggest?” I inquired.
A minute later I was devouring one of the most incredibly delectable confections my taste buds had ever encountered—pumpkin cheesecake. I was floored.
Surprise #3 was perhaps the most unexpected of my Philadelphian encounters. I had just made the loop around Independence Hall and found myself a few blocks away down a relatively quiet lane. Suddenly, a polite woman dressed in a genteel crimson dress approached me.
“Are you here for the service?” she queried.
No sooner had I explained that I wasn’t sure where I was or what she was referring to than I found myself whisked away and seated inside a Jewish synagogue. I was immediately and graciously welcomed by members of the congregation. I acknowledged that I actually wasn’t Jewish and apologized for my casual attire, but I was very much appreciative of, and interested in, the service and its significance. As I sat and peacefully observed the rituals and ceremonies of the service, I appreciated the kindness and acceptance of these caring strangers.
Philadelphia was becoming more and more captivating with each passing hour. What was I thinking only spending a day and a half here? I was just starting to uncover this city’s many clandestine surprises. Yet, the time had come to say farewell to the “City of Brotherly Love.”
“But I could never leave Philadelphia for too long.”
As I bid adieu, however, I reminded myself that returning to this former capital of the United States was an absolute must. I took my seat on the plane and gazed out over the tarmac, noticing the steady tempo of the air traffic controllers directing planes down the runway. An older gentleman took his seat next to me and wasted no time in striking up a conversation. I soon learned that he was retired and headed to the West Coast to visit his son for a few days.
“Do you like the West?” I asked.
“It’s nice to visit,” the man replied. “But I could never leave Philadelphia for too long.”
The man was a lifelong Philadelphian and proud of it, to be sure. He told me that Philadelphia was home to the first computer in 1946, implemented the first daily newspaper back in the 18th century, was the site of the first presidential mansion, and boasts 300 sets of city maintained steps—which, if stacked one on top of another would be significantly taller than Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. Having a skeptical, journalist’s mindset, I patiently waited until the plane landed and I once again had access to the Internet. I proceeded to verify this man’s claims, and felt a bit abashed to find he was absolutely correct. I didn’t know which surprised me more, the information itself or the fact that the man was spot-on in his hometown trivia knowledge. Either way, I respected him greatly for taking such pride in his birthplace.
He did have plenty to be proud of, though. Philadelphia is more than an insignificant globule of early American history—it leaves surprises down every winding alleyway and atop every set of steps. W.C. Fields, a comedian and “Philly-phile” perhaps said it best: “I once spent a year in Philadelphia, I think it was on a Sunday.” Since my Philadelphian tryst wasn’t that much longer, I can identify with Mr. Fields. It felt like a year given the sights I saw, people I met, and occasions I experienced. Philadelphia has a lot going for it.
Places to Stay
Philadelphia Bella Vista Bed and Breakfast
752 South 10th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
“When guests enter this stately Philadelphia town home they are immersed in an inviting world full of character . A complement of antique furnishings, eclectic design, decorative art, wonderful colors all make for a truly unique and wonderful place to call your home away from home.
You will be just a short stroll to many of the cities historic sites, museums, the central business district, the Pennsylvania Convention center, Antique row, and the Avenue of the Arts which boast the Kimmel Center, the Wilma Theater, and the Academy of Music.
Just up the street you can visit the hip South Street entertainment district that offers more than 75 restaurants, 150 stores, theatres and night clubs. South Street is adjacent to Penn's Landing water front along Columbus Boulevard where you will find more restaurants, history, boating and nightlife.
Oh, and by the way don't forget to visit Geno's and Pat's steaks located in the world famous Italian Market just around the corner. Bella Vista is the home to some of the country’s oldest and best Italian restaurants. There are also many fine French, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Mexican and Lebanese restaurants that offer a menu that is ready for your feast.”
Cornerstone Bed and Breakfast
3300 Baring Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
“Philadelphia’s Cornerstone Bed and Breakfast, an elegant and cozy urban inn located within walking distance to the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Philadelphia Museum of Art,
restaurants, and shops is an architectural gem.
Our meticulously restored 1865 Victorian stone mansion on a towering tree-lined street in the University City District accommodates both business and leisure travelers alike. Relax and enjoy one of our six beautifully appointed rooms and suites all with private bathrooms. Situated in a prime location, Cornerstone offers a unique opportunity to enjoy Philadelphia with Center City only minutes away and easily accessible by public transportation.”
The Gabels Bed and Breakfast
4520 Chester Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143
“The Gables is nestled in the middle of Philadelphia in a section known as University City. This is a residential community developed around the turn of the last century. It boasts an eclectic grouping of Victorian homes and Edwardian townhouses.
The University of Pennsylvania, The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and Drexel University are all nearby as are the University Hospital, Children's Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, Scheie Eye Institute and the Civic Center.
University City's location makes it a neighborhood for people from all walks of life, many of whom not only live but also work in the area. Center City Philadelphia is only minutes away by easy public transportation that stops right in front of the house. Philadelphia's Convention Center, downtown shopping, museums and historic sites can all be reached in less than 15 minutes.”
Things to Do
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Sure, maybe your visiting Independence Hall won’t lead you on a chase pursued by bad guys seeking out cryptic clues divulging the whereabouts of a mysterious treasure worth billions—but the place still has a pretty good National Treasure vibe going for it. History junkies will find themselves inundated with a whole slew of incredibly monumental moments from America’s past. Considered the “birthplace of American government,” Independence Hall acted as the gathering place for delegates from America’s 13 colonies to conglomerate before approving the final version of the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July, 1776.
S 9th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
This bustling ethnic enclave features robust Italian cuisine, quirky side stalls vending everything from freshly butchered pheasants and pigs to artisans’ masterworks, and Rocky Balboa (well… not exactly, but he is immortalized in many of the nearby souvenir shops). Gentrification has begun to seep its way into the Italian Market and, consequently, many new upscale restaurants, bars, and shops are beginning to spring up. An influx in immigrants has also led to the market becoming more culturally diverse. Cuban, Lebanese, and Laotian populations have taken root in the area, as well.
Betsy Ross House
239 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
Never has hearsay been so lucrative! Tromp on down to 239 Arch Street and check out the supposed location of the first American flag. The house commemorates the life and times of Ms. Ross through periodic re-enactments of events during colonial America. So travel back in time circa 1740 and enjoy the audacious (yet authentic) monologues and dialogues detailing the momentous happenings transpiring in America during one of its most vital periods in history. Admission is free, but donations of $2 or $3 are highly encouraged and graciously welcomed.