Stroll through the streets of Philadelphia to experience art, history, a macabre prison museum and food-filled markets
Though a mainstay of history lessons and school trips in the US, Philadelphia seems not to be high on many people’s to-do list when visiting the States from abroad. But, a comfortable hour-and-a-half’s train journey from NYC, it’s well worth spending a few days exploring.
In the UK, it is perhaps most famous as the erstwhile home of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a reference which tends to conjure up visions of a vast urban jungle. But the reality of the centre of Philadelphia is rather different: it is surprisingly compact, with historical sites, museums and old, winding streets full of shops and cafes, all within fairly easy walking distance of one another. This “walkability” was one of the things I liked most about Philadelphia; exploring on foot is a great way to get a feel for a place, but it’s often not a practicality in American cities. But for those less keen on pounding the pavements, or simply at the end of a tiring day, Philly also has a straightforward, one-line subway system that will take you from A to B without hassle.
It would be churlish to visit Philadelphia without taking in the obligatory historical sites. Both the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were ratified here and it was, for a time, the nation’s capital. If the visitors’ centre dedicated to these events is not necessarily the best of its kind, it nonetheless warrants a visit for the momentous significance of this chapter of US history. Best of all, it’s free – you just have to get a ticket with an allocated time slot for the tours of Independence Hall, and wander through to see the Liberty Bell at your leisure. I recommend going in the morning, before the school parties arrive.
Philly has an impressive array of museums, as do many American cities. There are the usual suspects, quality institutions dedicated to history, science and art, though the Philadelphia Museum of Art is perhaps most famous for its iconic steps, which appear in Rocky. But there are also more idiosyncratic choices, such as Fireman’s Hall, in the Old City district (147 N 2nd Street): a charming small museum full of historical fire engines and other fire-fighting equipment. My particular favourite was Eastern State Penitentiary (22nd Street and Fairmont, www.easternstate.org), the fascinating, crumbling shell of one of America’s first “modern” prisons – deemed revolutionary in its day, though the conditions seem horrifying to our modern gaze. I am not always a fan of audio tours, but in this case I found the commentary (voiced by Steve Buscemi and others) both informative and entertaining. And the decaying building itself, with its long, radial corridors, was enthralling and disturbing in equal measure.
Also of note are Philadelphia’s incredible murals. This public art project has been running for 25 years now, and the result is hundreds of artworks on building ends all over the city. It certainly brightens up the urban landscape, and a trail round various murals makes for an interesting way to explore (see www.muralarts.org/pdf/virtual_map.pdf).
If you’re a fan of all things foodie, be sure to visit Philadelphia’s markets. Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch) is a hall filled with every kind of food imaginable, from fresh fruit to chocolate-coated pretzels to Amish bread and honey, and there are stands selling hot snacks of all nationalities – a great place for a cheap lunch. Also worth a look is the Italian market on South 9th Street, though it isn't exclusively Italian. There are some Italian family-run stores that have been there for generations, selling cheese and cured meats and pasta, along with a jumble of other shops and street stalls with goods ranging from cut-price t-shirts to gourmet herbs and spices. I loved the fact it wasn’t too polished, and there were locals just doing their shopping alongside a few epicurean tourists like me.
I was on a budget when I came to Philly, so I chose to stay at the Apple Hostel. It was a clean, well-run and friendly place, with plenty of organised activities for those who were interested. The location is great, right in the Old City, with an ample choice of bars, cafes and restaurants just around the corner.
For breakfast, or an afternoon snack, I’d particularly recommend the Metropolitan Bakery (15 S. 3rd Street). They had a good range of cooked breakfasts, including options for vegetarians, and a tempting array of cakes and pastries at reasonable prices, all baked on-site. My favourite dinner was at Mi Lah (216 16th Street, www.milahvegetarian.com), a vegetarian BYOB restaurant with dishes inspired by various world cuisines. Both myself and my non-vegetarian companion enjoyed the interesting choices and generous portions. It’s not really a budget option (main courses at ≈ $16) but it was worth it as a treat.