From Manhattan, the trip to Philly is an easy couple of hours. On arrival, we checked ourselves into Apple Hostel, a clean, quiet, and IKEA-furnished place that really took its Philly-ness to heart, playing the Rocky theme song on loop in the four-story stairwell at all hours.
Otherwise, we had no complaints: the price was right and location central, in an area called “Old(e) City.”
Indeed, there are lots of bars in this ‘hood with “Ye Olde” somewhere in their name. The area is also home to the following greatest hits from your American History textbook: The Liberty Bell, The National Constitution Center, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, and more memorial plaques and bronze statues than you can shake a quill at, mostly of men wearing grimaces and wigs.
“Is this the spot where the Constitution was proofread or something?” Greg remarked. This wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibilities.
Lest we sound dismissive of history, I did read up on the founding of America’s former capital during our visit. Admittedly, this was done largely via plaques in Washington Square. This is one of five public squares laid out on a meticulous city grid by founder and fellow Type-A personality, William Penn.
A Quaker, Penn hoped to make his religious utopia a pastoral paradise, with wide streets free of the crowds and disease that ran rampant in Europe in the 17th century. Philly has maintained the idyllic nature of these squares with beautiful gardens, fountains, statues and greenery, though they now serve as grounds for area events (and occasional hordes of tourists.)
Penn’s plan for a well-mapped city paid dividends, in that it’s the one major city I’ve visited in which I haven’t gotten hopelessly lost. The squares played a role in this, demarcating neighborhoods and creating helpful pedestrian thoroughfares.
In general, the city does what few seem to have successfully done, which is remain green and navigable while still retaining urbanity and grandeur one seeks in metropolitan living. Such is found in its many architectural gems, including the palatial City Hall and the Greco-columned Philadelphia Museum of Art.
If you are in Philly and can do one thing, make it this. One of the world’s largest art museums, it houses incredible collections of paintings, sculpture, South Asian art (including the reconstructed Hindu temple pictured below), 20th century impressionist works (including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers), textiles, furniture and more. Our tickets also granted entry to the nearby Rodin Museum, a much smaller yet equally stunning building that houses the largest collection of the sculptor’s works outside of Paris.
Here you can glimpse casts of The Thinker and massive Gates of Hell in the courtyard, but it’s worth buying a ticket and going in if you’re a Rodin fan and want to see Balzac’s colossal head and/or escape the humidity.
Perhaps Philly’s greatest draw, though, is food.
This city knows how to eat. And I don’t just mean cheesesteaks (but there are those, too). On my first visit to Philly seven years ago, I had a near-religious experience with a sandwich, made from pork belly, broccoli rabe, and provolone. Even while living in the culinary wonderland of San Francisco for 6 years, I’ve yet to replicate the experience.
Reading Terminal Market, with its dozens of vendors, is a must-do for first timers. Or seventh timers. It’s also where I had the pleasure of meeting up with Jessica, a dear friend from high school.
We caught up over veggie pad thai ($6 and delicious) and talked of my upcoming travels to India. Jess had plenty of recommendations for where to go and what to do there.
(I should also mention that she’s a phenomenal human being who worked, married, and adopted an infant boy with critical medical needs in India several years ago. Tragically, her adopted son Adam passed away in 2016, after gaining a worldwide following from Jess’s blogging about the family’s adoption journey. She and her husband Raja are excited to add a girl to their brood soon. You can follow their journey on WeUnformed.)
Jess and I ended our lunch with donuts from Beiler’s, an Amish staple. Later that afternoon, I found other droolworthy pastries, along with fresh-baked bread and pizza, at Metropolitan Bakery near Rittenhouse Square.
But the South end is where you’ll find Philly’s greatest culinary treasures.
Foundationally Italian, this neighborhood is now home to hipsters and dozens of other cuisines. We dined there on a Tuesday evening with my best friend Ilana and her friend Tre at a cozy, rug-adorned spot called Marrakesh. It was about as close to a Moroccan dining experience as I’ve had in America, with a pre-set menu that starts with a communal rosewater handwash at your table. Pita bread is your given utensil, used to scoop up chunks of the delicious family-style dishes that come in luxurious succession: tender eggplant and carrot salad, stewed lamb falling tenderly off the bone, spicy lemon chicken, couscous with stewed carrots and raisins, and fruit and baklava for dessert.
Marrakesh also partakes of the cherished Philly tradition of BYOB. The state’s archaic alcohol laws have given rise to dozens of BYO restaurants (and even a BYO walking tour) in recent decades. We eagerly partook and had such a fantastic evening, a two hour affair that culminated with a walk by Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. This stunning half-block “art environment” truly looks magical, with its outdoor installations made up of materials that include thousands of mirrors, tiles, and found objects like bike wheels.
Our last night we saved, as usual, for Chinatown.
Greg and I have made a tradition of visiting Chinatowns, which one can find in nearly every major city in Southeast Asia and America. Each one is unique, but the common denominator is deliciousness. Often in the form of dim sum.
We were treated well at Dim Sum Garden, with an array of pork, beef, veggie and shrimp buns and soup dumplings. We left full but barely lighter in the wallet: a meal for four with tea set us back about 11 bucks a piece.
Thank you to our friends and their incomparable city for hosting us.
Oh, and here’s me at the Rocky Statue. You know, just because. Onward to DC!