There was a time when you did not visit Philadelphia. The northeastern cities of the United States, in general, were best avoided. People are flocking back to rejuvenate the downtowns and reclaim the good city life. We spent 10 days in Philly over Christmas. It has become a vibrant, historic city with more restaurants than you can enjoy in a year; neighborhood coffee shops and bars popping up like dandelions; and a newly opened, controversial, destination art museum. Much of our trip was consumed in the activities of Christmas. The remaining days constituted a perfect three-day vacation.
Day one must be allocated to the historic district and old city. Street after street of brick row homes stand renovated – proudly flying the 13 star colonial flag. Ben Franklin would approve of his old home town. The major sites revolve around the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historic Park. The Liberty Bell is free. Drop in if there is no line. The young ranger who “guards” the bell had a sweet, goofy, earnest “love of the bell” attitude. I told him the story we learned in school, that the bell cracked after a long and hard ringing to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He rolled his eyes, suppressed a “geesh”, and politely corrected me. I enjoyed his passion.
We did not visit another museum, electing instead to wander to our fancy – up and down lanes and into secluded courtyards – awed at the homes which stand 10 feet wide and 30 feet tall, crooked windows squeezed into whatever space allowed. The most famous of blocks, Elfreth’s Alley,stands isolated in a more commercial part of the historic town. Since my son’s friends live on this “oldest continually residential”
street, it was a treat to experience the alley from both inside and out. The house where Betsy Ross first whipped out a needle – piecing together red, white and blue fabric scraps into the first flag – is around the corner in a slightly crusty part of town.
On the riverside near the Chestnut Street terminus is the Irish famine monument. Boston has a cool memorial, but I liked Philly’s better. The emotion and suffering depicted in a motif of scenes is palpable. In this neighborhood, with a restaurant selection which would satisfy the United Nations, we choose a simple American hamburger joint. We live in Bratislava. American is our new ethnic cuisine.
Since our son lives in South Philly, we spent quite a bit of time in this area: Queen Village and South Street, the Italian Market, and East Passyunk. Each has a slightly different, bohemian vibe. Originally the settling spot for western European immigrants, it is now an eclectic area of all things hip. Each neighborhood houses an emerging enclave of local restaurants, beer joints, and coffee houses. I happily searched out a new coffee shop each morning before returning home using a different route.
Christmas Eve was a festive party in the Italian area. On 8th street, at the original Termini Brothers bakery, an Italian quartet performed in the store. The line zigged and zagged thru the store and into the kitchen. Chefs filled cannolis, giving them freely to the awaiting customers. My son had gone alone to gather up some Christmas Eve desserts – calling us to say “you gotta get down here.”
We walked some other neighborhoods – west Philly near the University of Pennsylvania campus. One evening we strolled through Northern Liberties and Fishtown before grabbing dinner. All three were wandering worthy. But if I only had one day, I would spend it in the South Philly neighborhoods. And I would certainly grab a cannoli.
Day three should be spent in the modern city. Time your day to arrive at the Reading Terminal Market during lunch. Peruse the entire market – there’s no rush. Decide what looks best and then convene at the common tables to eat. We grabbed sandwiches and divided up amongst
a couple of tables. The market was packed. If it isn’t Sunday, the Amish will be here serving up shoo fly pie. Everyone has a booth in the market. We didn’t save room for dessert but rather continued west to the City Hall building and the JFK plaza – home of the LOVE sign. It is a bit small and a bit cheesy. But you are in Philly – you gotta see it.
If you reserved ahead to visit the Barnes museum, you are nearby. If not, head further up the road to the Philadelphia Art Museum. We spent a few hours in the Barnes. It is a gem of a museum, albeit a controversial one, containing 181 Reniors – the largest collection anywhere. It is one of the greatest impressionist and post impressionist exhibits globally – a destination museum. Mingled with the Reniors are 69 Cezannes, 59 works by Matisse, 46 by Picasso and a smattering of others. This is the private art collection of Dr. Albert Barnes, a University of Pennsylvania trained physician and inventor.
Read about the controversy over his estate or watch the movie, The Art of the Steal. This will put the museum collection in context. The intent is to experience the museum as if you are a visitor in his private home. As a consequence, there isn’t a lot of information surrounding each painting. Refer to the maps tucked away in each room. Try to relax and just absorb the art. It is about the experience. Recently opened, tickets were sold out for several days during our visit. Attendance is limited.
End your day around Rittenhouse square. Sit in the center of the square and watch the beautiful
people scurry about, the young mothers mindful of their children playing on the goat. Pause for a bit before finding a local restaurant or coffee shop. Maybe stop at the corner of 18th and Chestnut to Di Bruno brother’s city location and ogle the cheeses and breads and meats. If you are hungry, meals and snacks are served cafeteria style in their cafe upstairs. This is the neighborhood for a night at the symphony or a show at the Walnut street theater. Enjoy your last night.
We left the city with much unseen and unexplored. We promised our son we would return in warmer weather as the outdoor city life returns. Our eldest son and his wife moved from Boston to Charlottesville recently. We were disappointed to lose Boston as our US destination city. We left Philadelphia reassured. There is a new city in our lives. We are looking forward to the return.
My daughter, Taylor, will be visiting soon – and we are off to Copenhagen (in January!). She gets a shout out for the cover photo of Old City taken with her Christmas gift. She and dad enjoyed some all too rare time taking pictures together.
Make it happen:
Morris House Hotel – Walnut Street near 8th. A more than 200-year-old historic home of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, now renovated into a romantic inn in the heart of Philadelphia. The perfectly attentive staffs, fireplaces in all the rooms, breakfast in the library and an afternoon tea were a bonus. We spent 3 perfect days here when we arrived.
Many restaurants in Philadelphia do not have a liquor license but allow you to bring your own wine (BYO). Some charge a corking fee per bottle.
Little Fish: Postage stamp size Queen Village restaurant on 6th street a few blocks south of South St. Tiny restaurant with a tiny menu – and all fish. Nearly perfect. BYO. Reservations a must.
Han Dynasty – Extremely popular traditional Chinese restaurant on Chestnut. Reservations a must. Food varies from very hot to mild – and is rated on the menu. Order a bunch of dishes to share. BYO with a corking fee offered optionally with served alcohol.
Eulogy Belgium Tavern: 136 Chestnut street. Good place for a beer and a burger in the old city.
Loco Pez: My son’s favorite Philly restaurant in Fishtown. Small tacos – (shrimp were my favorite). Great nachos. Cash only. Packed – arrive early or wait.
Tre Scalini: Formal Italian dining in the East Passyunk neighborhood. Very good appetizer selection and veal, chicken. BYO.
Core de Roma: A traditional style Italian restaurant on South St. near 2nd. fantastic veal. Wine by the bottle or glass.
Kanella: Delicious Greek bunch on Spruce Street just north of South Street.
Categories: The United States