It’s the birthplace of America, home of the Liberty Bell, the cheesesteak and the 2018 NFL champions. Here’s how to spend a day in the City of Brotherly Love.
Bernard O'Riordan visited in February 2018
For those who love nothing more than discovering a city by exploring its storied past, Philadelphia must surely rank at the top of the pile.
America’s fifth biggest city is, perhaps, only rivalled by Boston when it comes to its patriotic ancestry.
Founded by William Penn in the 17th century, Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation, and it was America’s first capital until Washington DC was founded in 1790.
Some of Philadelphia’s greatest achievements include many US firsts on the historical ledger: the first library, the first hospital, the first stock exchange, the first medical school, the first penitentiary.
While Philadelphia has rapidly become a very modern and vibrant city, especially for foodies, the historical centre of the city maintains its appeal for history buffs.
A day in Philadelphia will take you to Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written. The nearby Liberty Bell rang out the news of freedom in 1776 (before its famous crack silenced it 70 years later).
Dripping in history, there’s more to this no-frills, working class hub than meets the eye.
On Franklin Court, there is the office of the newspaper Aurora, presided over by Benjamin Franklin, as well as the Underground Museum, which houses a collection of his artefacts.
The picturesque Elfreth’s Alley is one of America’s oldest residential streets, and at the old-fashioned house at 239 Arch St, Betsy Ross is said to have stitched together the first American flag.
Although it’s dripping with history, there’s actually much more to this no-frills, working-class hub than meets the eye.
It’s a long-suffering, sports-mad city that is home to the Philadelphia Flyers NHL team; the Phillies Major League Baseball team; the 76ers basketball team; and, of course, the 2018 NFL Super Bowl Champions, the Philadelphia Eagles.
On the food front, Philadelphia has a booming restaurant culture with top notch chefs migrating to the city to launch pop-ups, food trucks and fine dining restaurants.
If you want a taste of Philadelphia, Reading Terminal Market is a smorgasbord of flavours, smells and sights. Good craft beer also seems to flow everywhere in this town.
But the food scene has been transformed by chefs and restaurateurs who are challenging outdated reputations and expectations.
The city centre has its fair share of admirable eateries – from the acclaimed Israeli cuisine at Zahav to the Walnut Street Café and Amada, which started a tapas trend in the city.
Thanks to its tax-free status on clothing and shoes, Philadelphia is also a magnet for shop-a-holics.
From the Shops at Liberty Place and King of Prussia outlet mall to department stores like Macy’s, Century 21 and Ross and the many concept boutiques and antique stores, there are no shortage of places to splash some cash.
You really need more than a day to savour all Philadelphia has to offer. Here’s how we spent a day in the City of Brotherly Love on a recent daytrip from New York City.
0630: Arriving at New York’s Penn Station in the middle of winter, before the sun was even up, was not exactly my idea of fun. But it’s amazing what a strong black coffee and a cream cheese bagel can do to change your outlook.
To be honest, I had no idea American train journeys could be so enjoyable. The early morning hubbub of the Penn Station terminal and the sight of the silver bullet pulling into the platform with its bell clanging, was truly like something straight out of an Agatha Christie movie.
We pre-purchased business class seats on Amtrak’s 0705 Northeast Regional service to Philadelphia, and were directed to a spot on the platform where the business carriage would stop.
I’m pretty sure we travelled in one of Amtrak’s newly refurbished carriages, with its faux leather seating, fresh carpeting and LED lighting. It even had that new car smell about it.
The seats were super comfortable with more lumbar support and a decent recline.
Even though it was a relatively quick trip at around 1 hour and 10 minutes, I think it was worth paying a little bit more for the extra leg room, the comfortable seats and the complimentary beverages of business class.
The free on-board Wi-Fi also means you can stay connected and productive throughout the journey.
The trip covered 95 miles (153 kms) as we clattered through small towns and along the Delaware River heading south.
This is one of Amtrak’s busiest routes, running from Boston to Washington (via New York and Philadelphia), carrying 14 million passengers each year.
After a smooth and uneventful journey, we arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on schedule, rugged up and ready to explore the City of Brotherly Love.
0820: We made our way up the escalator to the main arrivals hall at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station where we were amazed at the monumental architecture before us.
With its massive porticoes, its five-story-high windows and Art Deco chandeliers, 30th Street Station is a reminder of the grand American railroads of the past.
The ceiling is high with columns at either end of the station, giving it a stately presence.
In the middle of the concourse, a large, old-fashioned Solari board makes a comforting click-clacking sound as it flips through arriving and departing trains.
The old-time board was reportedly going to be replaced in 2016 with a more efficient LED display, but it was still there when I visited in February 2018.
We spent a good 10 minutes admiring this grand space before heading out the main doors and crossing 30th St for the regional SEPTA trolley to take us downtown.
The SEPTA station is about 500m from 30th St station concourse, they’re just not connected.
It couldn’t have been easier getting the trolley thanks to the helpful staff at the SEPTA ticket booth. They suggested we buy a One Day Convenience pass for about $9 that would let us hop on and off the trolleys, buses or subway up to eight times.
As it turned out, Philadelphia was such a compact and walkable city, that we only used the pass twice: to get to and from 30th St Station.
The SEPTA subway-to-surface streetcars are quite a thrill in themselves. These single cars (pictured) are a hybrid of subway carriages and buses, and they’re fast and efficient.
We take the trolley to 13th Street Station in the city centre, a quick four minute trip underground.
0850: Feeling peckish, we agree the first port of call should be the famous Reading Terminal Market for breakfast, before it gets crowded.
Located at 12th and Arch Streets beneath the Reading Railroad’s 1891 train shed, this is Philadelphia’s answer to Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and it’s every bit as impressive.
Amid the cheesesteaks and hoagies, Reading Terminal Market boasts a variety of vendors serving cuisine from around the globe, from noodles and curries to falafel and kebabs.
After doing a lap of this impressive marketplace, we head for the “Dutch Corner” for a taste of Pennsylvania heritage.
One of the more popular “Amish” stalls is the bustling diner called Dutch Eating Place, popular for its blueberry pancakes, egg sandwiches, apple dumplings, fresh cut fries, deli sandwiches, and scrapple – a Spam-like concoction made of pork meat and offal.
There was a short wait for a seat, but the line moved quickly and soon we were sitting elbow-to-elbow at the counter tucking into food that was fast and delicious.
I ordered the cheese omelette and it was hot, light and fluffy and served with a side of toast. The coffee also hit the spot.
It’s not hard to see why Reading Terminal Market is as engrained in the public’s perception of Philadelphia as the Liberty Bell. It’s really a must on any visit to Philly.
0940: We leave the market and head along Filbert St towards John F Kennedy Boulevarde and City Hall – an architectural wonder that soars 548-foot-high in the city’s centre.
City Hall – with its magnificent tower and bronze statue of the city’s founder William Penn – was the tallest building in Pennsylvania until 1986, when the 945-foot One Liberty Place was built.
City Hall still has the honour of being the tallest municipal building in the US and serves as the seat of government in the city.
For spectacular 360 degree views of the city, avoid the queues and the cost of One Liberty Place and head straight to the top of the City Hall tower and observation deck.
This really is one of Philadelphia’s most underrated attractions.
You’ll need to stop at the Visitors Centre (through the courtyard at street level) to purchase a timed ticket, with guided tours leaving every 15 minutes. But there’s rarely a queue.
The trickiest part is actually finding your way to the clock tower. You have to pass through security screening and take two elevators to get there.
After checking in on the 9th floor waiting room (where you leave your bags in a locker) you’re escorted in a rickety, cramped elevator to the enclosed observation deck on the 22nd floor.
Up here you are just inches from the massive bronze statue of William Penn that sits atop the tower.
On a clear day, you can see 60 miles in any direction. But make the most of it: you have just seven minutes up there before they whisk you back down.
Apart from visiting the clock tower, you can also tour City Hall’s interior – the City Council Chamber, the Mayor’s Reception Room, Conversation Hall and the Supreme Court Room.
All the rooms are beautifully decorated and well worth the visit.
The ice rink, which reminds me a lot of Bryant Park in New York, is open from November to March each year. In the warmer months, it makes way for a lush lawn with fountains and trees.
1025: We cross John F Kennedy Boulevarde and head for one of the city’s best-known landmarks – Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, located at John F. Kennedy Plaza, or LOVE Park, as it is more commonly known.
We were lucky because the Love sculpture returned to the Plaza on the very morning we visited – February 13, a day before Valentine’s Day. It had been removed 18 months earlier as part of a refurbishment.
On this day there was a hive of activity as TV crews and large crowds welcomed the return of the much-loved (no pun intended) sculpture.
1040: After taking numerous selfies – as well as taking some snaps for numerous others who were also caught up in the moment – we decided to head down Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, modelled on the Champs Elysees in Paris, is sometimes called Philadelphia’s most artistic mile. It’s home to the Barnes Foundation, The Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Rodin Museum, the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building and the crowning Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Museum, at 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is a magnet for tourists who come not only to admire the gallery, but to mimic the iconic scene from the Oscar-winning 1976 movie about an aspirational boxer named Rocky Balboa.
At the foot of the Museum’s famous “72 steps” is a 10-foot bronze statue of Rocky, donated to the city after the filming of Rocky III. The statue is Philly’s most asked-about landmark behind the Liberty Bell.
There’s even a Rocky Tour of Philadelphia for those so inclined, although many locals seem to have tired of the Rocky phenomenon long ago.
1150: We took the 48 bus from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Pennsylvania Ave) back to Market St in the city centre.
(If you’re visiting on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday, the Philly Phlash provides a shuttle connection between the Museum and other parts of the city. It wasn’t operating in February when we visited.)
At 1300 Market you’ll find the Wanamaker Building, one of the first department stores in the US. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, it’s now home to Macy’s department store.
It’s worth a visit just to marvel at the architecture, as well as the large bronze Philadelphia eagle on the ground floor. The day we visited – a week after Super Bowl – the large bronze bird had a New England Patriots jersey in its beak (pictured).
The department store also houses the largest operating musical instrument in the world, the famous Wanamaker organ, which is played every day except Sunday.
We inch closer to the Old City, with its simple grid design, and soon come to 6th St and Market, where our historic sightseeing is about to go into overdrive.
This, of course, is where you’ll find the Liberty Bell Center – which houses one of the most iconic symbols of American sovereignty.
Admission is free but every visitor here must go through a mandatory screening process, so be prepared to empty your pockets and remove your coats just like you do at the airport.
Once you’re through the screening area, you’ll catch your first glimpse of a 2,080-pound piece of history residing in a huge glass gazebo.
Since it first rang in 1753, the bell has become a symbol of freedom. Anti-slavery groups coined the term “Liberty Bell”, because of an inscription on the top edge.
However, the bell’s E-flat toll was silenced by a giant crack which occurred, ironically enough, on George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1846.
The Liberty Bell Center is open from 9 am to 5pm each day from September to May and closes at 7 pm from May to September.
1300: We cross Chestnut Street to Independence Hall where, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence and, 11 years later, the American Constitution was signed.
You can tour Independence Hall for free. A timed ticket is required from March to December while in January and February you can just rock up.
Next door you will find Congress Hall, which served as the seat of the US Congress from December 6, 1790 to May 14, 1800.
Across from Independence Hall and Congress Hall, in a quiet park where you can rest your feet, is an impressive 9.5-foot-high statue that really is a Philadelphia landmark.
The Signer, standing on a 6-foot granite base, “commemorates the spirit and deeds of all who devoted their lives to the cause of American Freedom”.
1325: We walk aimlessly down Chestnut St through the Old City towards the waterfront. Weary and hungry, we decide to stop for lunch.
Originally we had planned to eat at Amada, a raved-about Spanish tapas restaurant on Chestnut St, but at the last minute we opt for an easy, no-frills sushi lunch.
We stumble upon Roe, a small cafe at 138 Chestnut, that offers a strange blend of Japanese and Thai cuisine. Normally I’d run a mile when I find a restaurant that can’t decide what it is, but gamely (or foolishly) we decide to give it a try.
I’m glad we did because the sashimi and sushi rolls were fresh and succulent and the miso soup was also warming on this cold winter day. It was actually the perfect pit stop, and just proves you can never judge a book by its cover.
1410: Close by on the way to the waterfront is the Irish Memorial – a tribute to the more than one million who died during the great famine in Ireland in the 19th Century.
The Irish Memorial, created by artist Glenna Goodacre in bronze, commemorates those who perished due to potato blight, politics, and the fact that an abundant amount of food was being shipped elsewhere.
The waterfront area spans Front Street to the Delaware River from Spring Garden Street to Washington Avenue.
When the temperatures drop, the riverside spot features ice skating, a ski-style chalet and more. It is also home every summer to outdoor festivals, concerts, waterfront restaurants and the port of call for many tall ships.
1450: We head back up Chestnut St, take a right at 2nd St and walk north to the cobblestoned Elfreth’s Alley – reportedly America’s oldest continually inhabited residential street.
There’s some dispute over this as some people claim historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York, settled in 1677, is actually the country’s oldest residential street.
Elfreth’s Alley was born when two real estate owners combined their properties in 1706 to create a narrow residential street. Whatever the truth, we’ll let them slug it out for themselves.
On Elfreth’s Alley, two adjacent houses, built in 1755, now function as a museum and gift shop. The museum also offers tours, which tell the story of a pair of dressmakers who ran a sewing business there.
1530: We head south on 2nd St and then turn right onto Arch St where we find Betsy Ross House – the colonial-style home of the seamstress who, according to folklore, sewed the first ‘Stars and Stripes’ flag in 1776.
Located at 239 Arch St, the first thing you see when you arrive here is a replica of the 13-star flag stitched by Betsy. The house features period furnishings and Betsy Ross’ own personal belongings, plus an upholstery shop and special exhibitions.
1630: After exploring the homegrown brands, independent boutiques and galleries of 3rd Street in the Old Town, we head back to our starting point – Reading Terminal Market.
We make a beeline for Molly Malloy’s – a gastropub in the middle of the marketplace – where we’re delighted to learn that it’s Happy Hour.
Not only is it the only spot with a liquor licence in Reading Terminal Market, but it has an incredible 35 beers on tap, as well as bottled beers, wine and spirits.
It’s the perfect spot to relax before making our way to 30th St station and our Amtrak service back to New York.
1905: As we farewell Philadelphia, it strikes me that we only just scratched the surface of this historic city.
You might not be able to do and see everything Philadelphia has to offer in a day, but as we proved, you can still cover a lot of ground in under 12 hours.
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