After almost a full year working for a university based in the United States, this month I finally got to go there. Based in a suburb of Philadelphia, its environs are quintessentially American: houses which, to the British eye, seem almost eccentrically large, with the stars and stripes hanging proudly over door and neat little verandas overhung by a mix of red and yellow leaves straight out of a holiday brochure waxing lyrical about Fall on the east coast. The town center, such as it is, sports an underwhelming diner, a generic and characterless bar, a 7eleven, two gas stations and a notable lack of anywhere selling decent coffee, unless you count the inevitable Dunkin’ Donuts. Transport links are sporadic and bear no resemblance to the timetables, and everyone is disconcertingly friendly.
It surprised my colleagues that I would want to stay anywhere in the vicinity beyond the allotted period, and they enthused about the ease with which you can get to Washington DC or New York from there. But I’d already been to Washington DC and New York and had never been to Philadelphia, a name which conjured up any and all of eclectic memories of history lessons about American independence, Tuesday evenings after school joining in with the opening theme to Will Smith’s Fresh Prince, overpriced cream cheese that probably has nothing to do with the city, and the image of a resolute Sylvester Stallone punching the air at the top of a big flight of steps. The City of Brotherly Love that lovingly decapitated a hitchhiking robot last year then dumped him in a ditch, Philly is famous, for all the right reasons and a lot of the wrongs ones too. Why would you pass up on the opportunity to go there?
I had all of a day and a half in Philly. The half day, at the start of the trip, clouded by jetlag, the remnants of travel sickness and general disorientation, was a good opportunity to get a feel for the city, to get vaguely oriented (though after 18 years I still get lost in London, so it’s all relative) and get an idea of the scale. I was very lucky to be accompanied by two ex-students who showed me some of the main sites (and indulged me in running up those steps – of which more later), so that, after a week of meetings, I could unleash my over-excited little English self on a city that promised much and gave even more. So, if you want to see Philly and have 24 hours, here are my tips, opinions and general ramblings:
1. Stay centrally. Philly is expensive and a lot of the chain hotels are overpriced, but I found an amazing new place called Pod Philly. It’s one of those trendy places whose style could be most politely described as “warehouse chic” and would not have looked out of place in Shoreditch, but the staff were great, the minuscule rooms cleverly designed providing you don’t value privacy in the bathroom, and the location brilliant. It even had a gym.
2. Don’t miss the nightlife. If you’re in Philly for at least one night, GO OUT! The aforementioned hotel is in an area called Rittenhouse. The square and area around it is jam packed with fashionable restaurants and bars. I was lucky to have a local with me who a) knew the area and b) was in desperate need of a night on the tiles. Her choice of venue was Village Whiskey, somehow cosy and swanky all at the same time, with an impressive choice of drinks and unnecessarily large portions (note to self: in the US, don’t order a salad because you want something light.)
3. If you manage to wake up the next morning (I recommend a brutally early phone call from someone in the UK who doesn’t know there’s a time difference to shake you out of bed) you’re ambling distance from the most incredible selection of hangover-curing breakfast choices at Reading Terminal Market. I chose Dutch Eating Place, surrounded by a mass of what looked like reliable locals waiting for their orders and shouting incomprehensibly at one another in that unmistakable accent which is 90% jovial with a hint of “cross me and I’ll kill you” thrown in, and it was brilliant.
4. By the time you’ve reached Reading Terminal Market you’re then half way to the historic district where you can – and should – visit the historical sites that fall both loosely and loftily under the heading “The Birthplace of America” (or perhaps more accurately “the birthplace of the modern United States”, but that isn’t quite as catchy.) One of the huge benefit of the sites and museums in this area is that, unlike many attractions in the US, they’re free to visit. For the Liberty Bell, you can just wander in (or if, like me, you’re trying to warm up with a coffee and are reluctant to throw it out just to be allowed to join a long line of people, nip around the side and take a photo through the big glass window without having to queue). Independence Hall requires a ticket, which you can get (for free) from inside the Visitor Center, which will get you into a timed tour. (If you’re British, you may want to be quiet for this bit, lest someone hears your accent and decides to make this a Thing.) The tour was actually fascinating (I know shamefully little about this particular period in history, apart from the fact we were the bad guys, it sort of kicked off with folks wasting good tea by chucking it into the harbour, and Lin Manuel Miranda has since made a not unsuccessful musical out of the life of a certain Mr Hamilton) though at one point he stressed that we MUST NOT lean on the walls as the building was extremely old – 280 years! At this point the Americans gasped, and the European visitors gave themselves away by raising their eyebrows.
5. Elfreth’s Alley claims to be one of the oldest continually inhabited streets in the US, and however accurate this may or may not be, it’s well worth the diversion to have a look. Cobbled, unspoiled, and almost devoid of tourists on the cold Fall day when I visited, it’s really very beautiful.
6. At the other extreme from Elfreth’s Alley and a brisk walk across town, the One Liberty Observation Deck is the inevitable Very High Thing That Charges A Lot For A View. It does it well, though, and on a clear day this is worth a visit to get an idea of the sheer scale and variety of a city whose views extend to three states.
7. Admittedly a little left-field, and also not the easiest place to find, I visited the Mutter Museum on a detour on the way to lunch after it came highly recommended by a friend who described it as “bits of humans in jars. You know, stuff like that”(?!) and as I didn’t know, I went to explore. Technically a museum of medical science, it’s apparently hired out by goth couples for weddings and other events, which I find strangely pleasing.
8.Talking of lunch, you could probably eat out somewhere different every single day in Philadelphia and still have places left to explore. Controversially, I found myself underwhelmed by the famous cheesesteak (anything called “cheese whizz” should be given a wide berth – I’m by no means a gastronomic expert, but cheese that comes in a jar and has the same name as British slang meaning to urinate is, well, offputting.) It should be tried once, though, and there are a myriad of places with modest names like “King of Steaks”. But once you’ve had one, I’d recommend the Italian District, which has some incredible pizza restaurants. Oh, and, um, Rocky stuff.
9. If you come to Philadelphia, you’d be forgiven for thinking one Rocky Balboa is actually held in higher regard than the Founding Fathers. Made all the way back in 1976, it has inexplicably spawned seven sequels, and I’d guess that easily as many if not more people visit the city to pay their respects to this indomitable fictional character as they do to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and their mates. And the city has done very well out of it – apparently more people run up the eponymous “Rocky steps” as visit the (incredible) museum that they lead to. At the bottom, people queue patiently to pose for photos next to the statue of Rocky (which has apparently moved around over the years, not least because it pissed off the museum so much.) Even the Independence Visitor Center was selling Rocky keyrings and Rocky bottle openers and Rocky hoodies alongside the Liberty Bell fridge magnets and Birthplace of America t-shirts. There is a thriving trade in Rocky guided tours of the city (beware – the pilgrims who go in these tours take things very seriously: if you don’t have any quotes beyond the second film and aren’t prepared for your fellow tourists to turn up in grey tracksuits hopeful that at some point they’ll get to neck a tumbler of raw eggs and punch the crap out of some meat, this tour isn’t for you.)
Oh, in case you’re wondering, yes, I did run up the steps, and yes, it was, genuinely, the highlight of my week. I have never pretended to be an intellectual.
10. Refreshingly for a US city, Philadelphia has a pretty good transport system, so you can set out for the airport, which is only a half hour or so from the center by a cheap and comfortable train, a sensible amount of time before your flight without the fear of being stranded in some faceless railway station. In fact, the main stations themselves in Philadelphia are worth a look, as the city is full of grand, confident art deco buildings, of which 30th Street is one of the grandest.
So, if you’re looking for an east coast destination, Philly has far more to offer than I’ve been able to see, or indeed fit into a blog post. And Rocky.