24 hours in Philadelphia

When I realised the train from Washington DC to New York goes right through Philadelphia, I couldn’t resist adding a stopover to our schedule. However, we could only spare a day there to fit in everything else we wanted to do.

24 hours in Philly – what can you pack in?

11.00am – Arrive at Philadelphia train station

We used the Amtrak Northeast Regional train from Washington DC to Philadelphia. We’ve had some great, some good and some horrendous train experiences in the past, but this one rates really well. There were charger points for our iPhones/iPads etc in each set of seats (always appreciated), comfy spacious seating, passable restrooms.

11.30am Check-in to the Hotel Monaco

IMG_8455 (1024x768)Hotel Monaco is one of the Kimpton chain of boutique hotels, a chain to which I have become a total convert. They are fitted out in an eccentric style with a quirky sense of humour, plus there’s a complimentary happy hour in the lobby each evening. Bonus.

The Hotel Monaco is in the iconic Lafayette Building, an architectural landmark built in 1907. From the outside it’s all formal Greek Revival-style – grand and constrained.  Inside, the rooms are decorated with what I thought was a touch of the Alice in Wonderlands – lots of eccentric detail.   They have retained the building’s historic integrity though, including original marble elevator banks and the coffered ceiling in the lobby.

12.00pm Philadelphia cheesesteaks at Jim’s Steaks

IMG_8474 (768x1024)The concierge at the hotel recommended his favourite place to get a Philadelphia cheesesteak – Jim’s Steaks at 400 South Street.

Cheesesteaks are a Philadelphian cultural icon that has been around since the 1930s. They consist of a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese. At Jim’s Steaks there are three choices of cheese – Cheez Whiz, American and provolone. Then there’s fried onions as an optional topping.

There’s a whole etiquette about ordering cheesesteaks – you need to have your cheese decision and your onion choice ready, and communicate them in a fast, concise manner. So, those in the know would waltz up to the counter and say, “one wiz with” (i.e. one cheesesteak with Cheeze Whiz, and onions). In my case, I went with “one provolone without”. Very tasty for a quick lunch.

12.30pm Walk along South Street

IMG_8488 (1024x768)South Street is known as Philadelphia’s ‘hippest street in town’. There’s a range of bars, eateries, sex shops, gift shops, and shops offering street, hip hop or punk fashion. Plus there’s some fabulous mural art on the buildings. Some of the shop window displays were a little more explicit than we’d see at home, and I tried to avert the girls’ eyes to the other side of the road at certain points on the walk!

1.00pm National Liberty Museum

IMG_8511 (768x1024)We stumbled across this museum, which is a very quirky museum dedicated “to preserving America’s heritage of freedom by fostering good character, civic responsibility and respect for all people”. There’s displays which include stories of leadership and good character; diversity and inclusion; peaceful conflict resolution; and civic engagement;  and the primary medium for the main display is glass art as it, according to the website “promotes non-violence and acceptance of others by showing visitors that freedom is “fragile,” like glass”. Also on display are some of the china dinner settings used by various American Presidents, which were fascinating…and a very random, but delightful sculpture called “The Jellybean Children” which consists of kids made out of jellybeans against a background of paper butterflies.

1.30pm Ben Franklin’s house

IMG_8513 (1024x768)Known as one of the founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous Philadelphians. He helped found the new nation and define the American character. He was a writer, inventor, diplomat, scientist, leader…there was no end to his talents. His actual house was torn down in the early 1800s. However, the site where it stood is called Franklin Court, and it features a steel-framed outline of Franklin’s home with sealed ‘portals’ over the remaining foundations, so you can see the footings of the house where they still exist.

1.45pm Old City t-shirts

IMG_8528 (1024x768)For great value Philadelphia souvenirs, Old City T-shirts is the place to go. With a huge range of designs to choose from, you pick your size and colour of t-shirt, choose a design and within about three minutes, the design is printed onto your t-shirt and you’re ready to go. All for $5 a t-shirt! Multi-coloured designs are also available for $15 a t-shirt. It was all too much for The Impossible Princess to make up her mind…so we planned to come back the next day once she’d had time to think about it.

2.00pm Betsy Ross’s House

IMG_8534 (1024x788)Betsy Ross is the woman who (legend claims) sewed the first Stars & Stripes flag. This house is where she purportedly lived (it seems there is some doubt as to whether it was this actual house or one nearby, and as to whether she did in fact make the first Stars & Stripes). All of that doesn’t matter as far as I’m concerned, as the house is a great representation of 18th century Philadelphia life – tiny rooms, furnished as they would have been.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

2.45pm Benjamin Franklin’s grave

IMG_8537 (1024x768)Benjamin Franklin (and his wife, Deborah) are buried at the Christ Church Burial Ground (as are a number of other signers of the Declaration of Independence). It’s an old burial ground (started in 1719) but is still an active cemetery. For a small fee, you can walk inside, but Benjamin Franklin’s gravesite can actually be viewed from the sidewalk outside the grounds through a set of iron rails which were added for public viewing at the request of Franklin’s descendants in 1858. It is traditional to leave pennies on the grave.

3.00pm Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall is the largest municipal building in the United States with over 14.5 acres of floor space. The tower of the hall was the tallest building in Philadelphia right up until the 1980s and has an observation deck open to the public.

There is a statue of Philadelphia’s founder, William Penn on the top of City Hall and historically, no building in Philadelphia could be built higher that it.  However that ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ was broken in the mid-1980s, and a taller tower was built. From that point on, Philadelphia sports teams found no success – which became known as “The Curse of Billy Penn”.

In 2007, when Comcast opened an even taller tower, it placed a small William Penn statue on top of that tower…and The Phillies won the World Series the following year.

There’s now plans for 59-story building next door to that tower, but Comcast will be moving William Penn up too when that tower opens in 2017.

3.15pm Afternoon tea at Le Pain Quotidien

Le Pain Quotidien is a chain of bakeries that originated in Belgium, but now has outlets all over the world. For a ‘chain’, they’re really good, offering delicious bakery and patisserie items and good coffee, and also an interesting range of foods made with seasonal and/or organic ingredients.  Each outlet has a signature communal table in the centre of the cafe, and serves the coffee in bowls. I’m excited that several have just opened in Sydney and, I hope it will be in Melbourne soon! We ate, or had a coffee in, several of them while in the US.

3.55pm Arrive at Independence Hall to go through security

The information for our pre-booked Independence Hall Tour recommended arriving 45 minutes prior to the tour time to collect tickets and clear security. We had already picked up our tickets earlier in the day, as we walked past the visitor centre, so arrived 20 minutes early, which was plenty of time for the security checks.

4.15pm Independence Hall tour

The guided tour of Independence Hall, led by National Park rangers, starts with a brief overview of the significance of the building. This was the location where in 1776, 56 men gathered to draft the Declaration of Independence, and then 11years later representatives from the 12 states met to shape the US Constitution, which finally created one unified nation. The rooms are furnished as they would have been, which really brings the stories of the guide to life.

4.50pm Liberty Bell

Our tour of Independence Hall finished with just enough time to squeeze in to see the Liberty Bell. The bell was cast in a foundry in the East End of London in 1753,  and sent to the building which is now known as Independence Hall, then the Pennsylvania State House.

The bell is quite large with a 20kg (44 pounds) clapper. Inscribed at the top of it is part of a Biblical verse from Leviticus, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof”.

Unfortunately, the clapper cracked the bell on its first use. It was recast twice to make it less brittle, but not overly successfully. It was put in the tower of the Pennsylvania State House anyway, and since the 1880s, has been an iconic symbol of American independence. The current crack in the bell occurred sometime between 1817 and 1846.

In the 1970s it was  moved from its longtime location in Independence Hall to a nearby glass pavilion on Independence Mall and then to a glass pavilion in the larger Liberty Bell Center in 2003.

5.00pm Happy hour in the hotel lobby

I love a hotel that offers a complimentary lobby happy hour! As it was opening day of the baseball season, this day’s happy hour had a Phillies theme.

6.30pm Dinner at Zahav

IMG_8625 (768x1024)Zahav (237 Saint James Place) is a modern Israeli-Mediterranean restaurant. We chose many (probably too many!) options from the menu to share: chickpea hummus with Turkish bread, Saltima (a selection of six salads), then crispy haloumi, roasted brussel sprouts, veal stew with fava beans, duck kebabs, chicken filo cigarello with apricot and rib eye cap.

When we spotted konafi on the dessert menu, we knew we had to have that! And also a cinnamon babka with a Turkish coffee icecream to round it off.  

The service at Zahav was excellent. Not only did we have a friendly, attentive and knowledgable server, we were also visited by the Manager, who had already been briefed about where we were from and how long we were in Philadelphia, and offered suggestions of where else we should go. Highly recommended!

8.10pm walk back to the hotel

IMG_8638 (1024x754)A walk back to the hotel allowed us to enjoy the illumination of many of the historic buildings, including the restored and reconstructed 18th century ‘row houses’ in Walnut Street.

The Society Hill area (where we were walking) contains many great examples of 18th and 19th century residential architecture. Next to the Walnut Street rowhouses is a garden planted in the style of formal gardens of the 1700s.

8.30pm Flip TV channels in a Rocky robe

One of the quirky features of Kimpton Hotels is the animal print bathrobes in each room. In the Hotel Monaco, they add a ‘Rocky‘ robe, which I commandeered, along with the remote for the TV. I love to flip channels in foreign countries, especially to watch the ads. US television features a LOT of commercials for pharmaceuticals, which are bizarrely fascinating.

The next morning…

8.30am Breakfast at the Red Owl Tavern

We started the day with breakfast in the Red Owl Tavern, which was in the Hotel Monaco. I tried the huevos rancheros which was a hearty meal that set me up for the day.

9.30am On a mission to find good coffee

IMG_8681 (768x1024)The Poolboy MUST find good espresso coffee each morning. Things turn ugly if he doesn’t. So we set out to find a little coffee roaster shop called Old City Coffee at 221 Church Street.

En route, we were passed by several fire trucks, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. As we rounded a corner, we encountered a huge building fire. A fire had broken out at 9.15am in the 60-year-old Suit Corner business which was a retail icon in the city. Flames were raging, and smoke was billowing as firefighters poured water onto the inferno.

After getting takeaway coffees from the nearby Old City Coffee, we joined the crowd in watching the drama.

10.00am Back to Old City T-shirts

With our decisions about t-shirt colours and designs made, we were back into Old City t-shirts to get what we wanted.

11.00am Check out of the hotel, taxi to the train station

IMG_8710 (1024x768)We arrived a little bit early for our train, so sat in the lobby of the Philadelphia Train Station. It is a magnificent building. They just don’t build train stations now like they used to.

12.16pm Depart for New York

We were back on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train for New York…just over 24 hours after arriving in Philadelphia.

It was a quick visit, but we were able to tick off the main sights we had wanted to see, and also get a bit of a flavour of the city. Definitely a worthy addition to the itinerary.

Have you spent 24 hours in a city?

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