I visited Philadelphia for the first time in 2004 and was immediately enchanted by the history of the city. The Philadelphia I experienced was vastly different from the preconceived notion I had of the city. For one thing, even though Philadelphia is brimming with history, most historical sights and buildings are not cordoned off in typical “do not touch” fashion. For the most part, Philadelphia and Philadelphians live in and among history, not around it.
Sure, you can visit Christ Church and learn how it was customary for Philadelphia’s elite to buy their pew in the congregation. But you can actually sit in the same pew as George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, or Betsy Ross—take your pick. Not only that, but Christ Church remains an active house of worship to this day.
Independence Hall is a real treat. Quite possibly one of the most easily recognizable symbols of the United States, along with the Liberty Bell, just being in the same room where our nation was born is enough to send shivers down your spine. It was stiflingly hot inside Independence Hall when I visited during the spring what with it being a pre-air conditioning structure.
I couldn’t help but imagine the signers of the Declaration holed up in there with the windows closed in the summer for several days as they drafted the Declaration of Independence. Oh, and if your park ranger guide asks what the study of flags is called, it’s vexillology. I’ll never forget that tidbit of information now, but I didn’t know it then.
My favorite historical sight in Philadelphia had to be Franklin Court. If you go, be sure to check out the flagstones near Franklin’s home; they’re carved with correspondence of a domestic nature between Ben and his wife, Deborah. Also head into the Printing Office and Bindery. The printing press Ben Franklin used to produce Poor Richard’s Almanac is here and it’s still in use.
But Philly isn’t all about history. You must—must—have a cheesesteak while you’re in town. I had mine at Jim’s Steaks on South Street. Jim’s is definitely a busy place with a line that goes out the door, around the corner, and down the block. Don’t wait for the line to get shorter before queuing up, because it won’t.
The line does move quickly though, partly due to everyone knowing exactly how to order their cheesesteak just the way they like it. Being a cheesesteak virgin prior to my visit, I went with the tried and true “whiz wit.” Not being a whiz fan, I probably should have gone with the “prov.” If you want to sound like a local when you order your cheesesteak, check out our Cheesesteak 101 page.
Once you’re done at Jim’s, you’re going to want to walk off some of that cheesesteak. As long as you’re on South Street, check out some of the great shops. Home to the latest pop-punk fashion accessories, Guacamole is nearby. Garland of Letters is a post-hippy New Age-y bookstore and gift shop and you can try to find your favorite long-lost LP just down the block at Repo Records. (They have CDs too, for those of you that don’t remember LPs.) And if you’re a vintage diva, be sure to check out the quirky Decades Vintage a couple blocks off of South Street.
As you’re strolling South Street, keep your eyes open for Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar’s distinctive works of art. Isaiah uses found objects to create beautiful mosaics that can be found throughout the city. Better yet, visit the artist in his studio—The Magic Garden.
I was only in Philadelphia for a day and I wished I’d had more time then. When I visit again, I may have to time it for October. The Terror Behind the Walls tour at Eastern State Penitentiary sounds like a scary good time!