Travel Guide: Philadelphia
My mom and I recently took a day trip to Philly, and when I started adding it up, I realized that it was my fifth time in the city of brotherly love. Two of those trips were overnights and three were day trips. One of the joys of living in New York is its proximity to other places on the East Coast, and thanks to regional transit it's easy to take a day trip when you're in the mood for a change. Philly is an hour and a half away from New York by Amtrak, but if you're on a budget and don't mind some extra train time (🙋), regional transit will get you there in three hours (it will probably take you longer than that to read this travel guide).
If time is more of a concern than money, Amtrak is your best bet. It will get you from Penn Station to the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia in and hour and a half (an hour and 12 minutes if you take the express). The lowest price for a one-way ticket is about $39 if you book far in advance and tickets can be much more expensive than that—especially if you want reasonable times.
For most of the day trips, I've taken regional transit. It takes twice as long, but it's cheaper and more flexible—$56 roundtrip and trains run every hour. At Penn Station in the NJ Transit area, buy tickets for 30th Street, Philadelphia. You'll get two sets of tickets, and you have to transfer trains once. The first train goes from Penn Station -> Trenton, and then at Trenton you'll board a train that terminates at Philadelphia. In both cases you're getting off at the last stop so you don't have to pay much attention, and there's usually no more than a ten-minute wait at Trenton for your transfer to Philly. After you get out at the 30th Street Station, be sure to check out the four eagles on the Market Street Bridge—they're from the original Penn Station.
There are bus options as well—Greyhound, Megabus and others—but I get car sick and prefer the train so I've never taken one. Once you're in Philly, Uber is much cheaper than it is in New York, and they also have their own Subway and Trolley systems.
My favorite place in Philly, by far, is the Mütter Museum. The museum began as a donation of 1,700 objects and $30,000 from Thomas Dent Mütter, MD. It has grown to include more than 25,000 objects, including sections of Einstein's brain, a large human skull collection, the Soap Lady, the conjoined liver of Siamese twins Chang & Eng, President Grover Cleveland's jaw tumor, the tallest skeleton on display in North America and the world's largest colon (above). Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside the museum, but that hasn't stopped me from going three times since 2014. They have an exhibition space that hosts rotating art and photographic installations—Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work is on display now until September 16th.
Tickets to Independence Hall are free, but required if you're visiting in March through December. Tours are given every 15, 20 or 30 minutes, depending on the season and you'll see where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and adopted. The building was completed in 1753 and hosted the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Is it worth it to wait in a line that often snakes around the block to see the Liberty Bell? Probably not. But we did it on my first visit, so I can say I've seen it—and was frustrated with the inability to get a good, tourist-less photo of this iconic piece of American history. No tickets are required, but if you don't have much time, you can catch a pretty good glimpse of it from a side window without the wait.
Elfreth's Alley holds the distinction of being America's oldest residential street. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, but keep in mind that it is very much still a residential street, meaning that people actually live here. You can freely walk through the narrow street, but don't be a creep and peek into windows or linger in doorways.
I've never met a historical home tour that I didn't love, and while the Betsy Ross house may be geared toward school-age children, we still had a fun time on the tour. The best part was the historical actor who insisted to us that she was actually Betsy Ross, despite the fact that the real Ross's bones are interred just outside the house.
I love, love, love Eastern State Penitentiary, and I went to Philly for the day last year exclusively to tour the newly-reopened hospital wing. In operation from 1829 until 1971, Eastern State was considered to be the world's first true penitentiary. The tour is self-guided (which I prefer) and admission includes an excellent audio guide narrated by Steve Buscemi. Both times that I've visited I've spent several hours roaming around, and I'd love to go back for their Terror Behind the Walls haunted attractions in the fall.
This new(ish) art museum is completely overwhelming in the best way, and comprises the varied and exhaustive art collection of one fascinating man, Dr. Albert C. Barnes. I recommend watching this documentary or reading this book before you go—the art is impressive enough on its own, but knowing more about the eccentric Barnes and the turmoil involved in bringing his collection to the public will only enhance your experience.
Philadelphia's gorgeous city hall is the largest municipal building in the country. Construction began in 1871 and took more than 30 years to complete. The 548-foot tower is the tallest masonry structure in the world without a steel frame and it's topped with a 27-ton statue of Pennsylvania founder, William Penn. Until 1987, it was the tallest building in Philadelphia and a gentleman's agreement had prevented any building from rising taller then the statue of Penn. I highly recommend the tower tour, but be aware that availability is extremely limited (and the elevator is very, very small). Tours are offered every 15 minutes, weather and capacity permitting, Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m. and select Saturdays, 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
There are four large pieces by Swedish-born American sculptor Claes Oldenburg on display in Philly. In 1976, Oldenburg was commissioned to do a sculpture to celebrate the bicentennial, and a 45-foot-tall clothespin was born. His second piece is the 5000-pound, 16-foot aluminum Split Button, installed on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1981. His third piece is a ten-foot, three-prong electric plug made in 1970 and moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's sculpture garden in 2010 (I haven't seen the button or plug yet). The newest Oldenburg is the fifty-one-foot-tall, 11,000-pound Paint Torch, installed in 2011 in between two buildings that house the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
And of course no visit to Philly is complete without a selfie in front of Robert Indiana's surprisingly-diminutive LOVE statue, installed in 1976.
If you spend any time around South Street, you'll notice Isaiah Zagar's more than 200 mosaics scattered around the area on walls and down alleyways. You'll need tickets to get into his masterpiece, Magic Gardens, but it's worth it to see Zagar's extensive trash to treasure vision up close (I posted more from our visit here).
I just posted about our recent visit to the Christ Church Burial Ground, but if you like historical cemeteries this one is not to be missed. If the $3 admission fee scares you off—or if the cemetery is closed—you can see the grave of their most famous resident, Benjamin Franklin, through a break in the brick wall.
Mount Moriah Cemetery is located in southwestern Philadelphia and you can get there via public transit but I recommend taking an Uber (it's not in a great neighborhood). Long abandoned and badly neglected, this historic cemetery is slowly being brought back to life by a group of volunteers but parts of it are still quite wild and overgrown.
On my first visit to this oddities and vintage shop, I scored an eyeball medical model for $40. I haven't had such good luck in subsequent visits, but I make sure to stop here every time I'm in town to browse their medical oddities and check in on the Odditorium—their about section on their site simply states that, "Professor Ouch's Bizarre Bazaar & Odditorium is the greatest shop in Philadelphia," and I can't argue with that. If you strike out here, head next door to the Philly AIDS Thrift, a huge, multi-level thrift store with excellent prices and a blissfully organized book section.
Update: as of July 2018 Professor Ouch's has closed their 5th Street store (sad!), but they still have an online shop for now.
WHAT TO EAT:
I had admired this signage for years but I didn't know the Midtown III Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge was actually a diner until recently. My mom and I went here for breakfast before tackling the Mütter Museum and it was an exceptional diner experience—friendly waitress, strong coffee, colorful vinyl booths and delicious breakfast food.
Unfortunately, the other Little Pete's closed last year after 40 years and New York developers (of course) are demolishing the charming diner to build a luxury hotel. But if you are looking for a place to eat before or after visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary, Little Pete's at the Philadelphian offers classic diner food served in a slightly newer setting. I didn't realize it before I went, but the Philadelphian must be a retirement complex—every other person eating breakfast at 3pm was over 80 and accompanied by nursing aids—and I fit in perfectly.
You (and I) cannot go to Philly without having at least one cheesesteak (whiz, witout). I'm so partial to Pat's that I've yet to try another place—notorious competitor Geno's Steaks is right next door, but their signage is just too aggressive for me.
There are so many options at the Reading Terminal Market that it's probably wise to just try all of them eventually. I've yet to have a pie better than the one we got here on our first visit, and if you're in the market for some chocolate kidneys, noses or ears the Mueller Chocolate Co. has you covered. If you're not hungry (how?) it's worth a stop just to check out all of the beautiful neon signage.
McGillian's opened in 1860 and is the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia. We stopped here for a drink and while the atmosphere was a bit loud and raucous for me (hi, I'm also 158 years old), I will never pass up a chance to visit anything with the distinction of "oldest."
Want to know even more about Philly? You can see all of my individual Philadelphia posts here.