Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Love, Independence (& Cheesesteak!)

Published: July 23rd 2015
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Montreal, Canada to Philadelphia via NYC

Bloggers Note: Having returned home after 10 months on the road to get reacquainted with family and our beautiful young granddaughter we have been somewhat lax about getting this blog publish (not helped by an IT malfunction where we lost our blog material & had to redo this) – so bear with us if this seems a bit dated. Imagine Halloween & autumn in the US and this will take you back to a fun time in Philly. Enjoy!

We are up early to catch a cab at 7-15am to the Montreal (Canada) South St bus station to get the 8am Greyhound to Philadelphia via New York. The Bus is an ‘Express’ to NY and new with good seats, power points and Wi-Fi. The drive is pretty boring (it’s flat & agricultural land) though the fall colours on the trees (when there are some) helps.

Surprisingly, getting into NYC is not as jammed with traffic as we'd expected. We travel through the Bronx, Harlem and along Central Park, but it all looks very grey (the weather is cloudy & dull), dirty and in need of investment. Hopefully the sun will shine when we return in a week’s time and it will all look a whole lot better.

The trees in Central Park are still quite green so fingers crossed, we'll get to see the fall colours when we return and Louise (M’s daughter), Ben (her partner) and Olive (their 1 year old daughter & our granddaughter) join us.

We get to the bus terminal with about 20 mins to spare before our scheduled 1pm departure to Philly. But it then takes the driver over 10 minutes to find somewhere to park! It's total mayhem and no-one seems to take any responsibility until the driver gets cross and pulls into a blocked-off bay, when suddenly someone appears to help him find a spot.

Finally after some honking they shift another bus so he can let us off. We're told to go to gate 66 for our bus. However, there are no signs of life even though our bus is due to leave in 5 minutes. Then C spots that this one isn't due to leave until 2pm so a quick check with another supervisor and we're told to "Move it" to gate 68 as the bus is about to go! Great communications Greyhound!! We make it just in time.

We head off through New Jersey and see the huge port areas and industrial zones that spread for miles. This is not a view of NYC that one sees in the movies or on TV. Eventually we get onto the highway and again it's the autumnal trees that make the journey more attractive.

We arrive in Philly slowly, making our way through the local Chinatown. It's raining so all looks a bit grey. It's a short walk (15mins) to the hostel - Apple, which is in a great location in the Old Town. It’s about 15mins walk to most sights or 30 mins to the further out places. There's a metro system in the city but we don't use it as most of the places of interest we can walk to.

Apparently the hostel is one of the top 5 rated in the US though we're not sure why (or by who). We have private rooms which are fine but there are no windows in most of the common areas and the ones in our rooms don't open, so it's very claustrophobic and stuffy/humid. They also have a problem with the drains so most of the toilets & showers are out of use (& have been for a week apparently) - only one for all the blokes and this is a big hostel! They eventually get some of the showers sorted a few days later but not the drainage. We don’t think we’d recommend this place to anyone even though they had a few freeby nights – see below.

In the evening we go for a walk to orientate and realise how little we know about the place! It's got some great buildings architecturally and historically it's a major centre in the US as the seat of the American Revolution and Independence.

We head to Nicks Roast Beef for dinner - it's just around the corner and a cool neighbourhood bar with a very friendly barman. We get awesome roast beef and roast pork rolls with cheese and hot peppers Au Jus which really makes it all taste fabulous - proper Philly Cheesesteak which is what Philadelphia is famous for (other than the seat of American Independence, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the slavery abolition movement etc!! to mention a but a few……)

In 1682, William Penn founded the city to serve as capital of the Pennsylvania Colony. By the 1750s, Philadelphia had become the largest city and busiest port in British America, and second in the British Empire, behind London. During the American Revolution, Philadelphia was a meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787. It was also one of the nation's capitals during the Revolutionary War, and the city served as the temporary U.S. capital while Washington, D.C. was under construction after the Revolution.

As a Quaker, Penn had experienced religious persecution and wanted his colony to be a place where anyone could worship freely, so he named the city Philadelphia, which is Greek for brotherly love (from philos, "love" or "friendship", and adelphos, "brother"). Thanks Wikipedia for the above two bits!

Next morning starts with a walk around the city’s neighbourhoods starting in Society Hill, which is full of very smart and lovely 18th & 19th Century houses - brownstone and very elegant. Nearby are the Museums of Benjamin Franklin, Natural History and Independence. Independence Square is the main event here - the area that was the US Capital immediately post the Revolution before this title was bestowed on Washington DC. All the buildings are well preserved and mainly open for tours. It’s definitely worth a visit if you aren’t familiar with the American war of Independence. We weren’t and enjoyed the education. The US mint is in the city as well.

The Independence Visitor Centre has some good information and also runs two short films on the Revolution. The famous Liberty Bell is across the street in a high security building - originally the State House Bell which may or may not have been rung at the time of Declaration of Independence in 1776 (though the English didn't surrender until a few years later) and renamed Liberty Bell by the abolitionists (of slavery) in the 1830's. It’s best to visit early before the queues start due to security checks.

Our attempt at visiting the waterfront area is affected by the fact that Michelle Obama is in town supporting the local democratic candidate in forthcoming elections so all the streets by the Penn Harbour area are closed off with Police everywhere, so we have to leave this for another day. However, we do go to the Irish Memorial near the riverside. This is pretty impressive and very informative about the history of Irish immigration to the area & the US.

There are lots of historical site signs around the city including some proclaiming the city for its welcoming of diversity and all faiths. Not quite so according to the memorial which recognises the plight of the Irish refugees from the potato famine (1845-49ish). It states that the Irish refugees weren't welcomed at all as they were "papists" and regarded as animals and a lower form of human life by the local folk at the time. Penn must have been turning in his grave.

It’s also an eye opener for us as we didn’t know how badly the Irish were treated by the UK government of the day during the potato famine (Ireland was governed by the UK at the time). The ‘powers that be’ – mainly the landed gentry would rather export their surplus food abroad than help the Irish that were literally starving to death. It led the then PM to resign in protest but it did not change the discrimination against the Irish.

The history of how badly ‘Americans’ treat immigrants from wherever is a recurring theme during our travels through the country. It’s a hot issue even today with the estimated millions of illegal immigrants and the new phenomenon of children coming across the Texas border via Mexico – many are from South America. What people seem to forget in all this is that the ‘Americans’ of today are immigrants themselves or children of immigrants.

Next we walk to South Street area which is very grungy and has some great murals and colourful shops; a bit like the North end of Camden Town in London. It’s definitely an area to visit if in the city. It also has lots of eateries including a local institution for Philly Cheesesteaks - Jims Steaks, which we plan to try but don't quite make it. Unfortunately, instead we go to Campo's on Market Street (the main thoroughfare) for a late lunch - supposed to be one of the best for PCS; rubbish compared to Nicks we feel.

The Chinatown area here is supposed to be the 4th biggest in the US though it doesn't feel it to us - it seems quite small; lots of eateries and food shops, the usual Chinese Arch, and many packed restaurants.

We definitely like Philly a lot – while being a big city it has a sort of small town feel. Everything worth visiting is in easy reach and mostly walkable.

The hostel has a Free booze evening at the hostel between 8&9pm this evening (pre the pub crawl that we skip) so we enjoy some rum & cokes then cook in for a change – it’s Cajun chicken with rice & beans (from a pack so not great) plus broccoli rabe (the power food of choice here) and salsa.

We're up early to have breakfast as the kitchen is due to close so that they can fix the drains. After a lot of huffing and puffing the guys who were supposed to turn up don’t. They obviously have a more important job elsewhere - but magically they get three showers upstairs to work! Go figure….. Seems like total incompetence to us.

We decide to go into Independence Square to see what the fuss is about. Security is pretty tight and you can do tours but we just wander taking pics and reading the information boards (and listening in to some of the tours), then onto Washington Square and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s quite informative if you are interested in the history of the city.

Then it's through more attractive streets into the modern city area to Rittenhouse Square, passing some interesting murals, sites and shops en route. This Square is supposedly one of Philly's best but its splendor is somewhat lost on us. But on the way, at Broad Street, we get incredible views of City Hall - a very French Chateau style building with elaborate stonework.

Just nearby City Hall is ‘Reading Terminal Market’. It’s a large under cover market area with a mix of food stalls and Arts & Craft shops. All sorts of foods are available here including a Dutch section - Amish food stalls doing diner food, bbqs etc. There is a large community of Amish people not far from the city and they operate here in their traditional clothes. You can also find Chinese, Cheesesteaks, NYC style Jewish Deli food, fish & seafood, ice creams etc. Wicked awesome as they say in the northeast US!!! We decide to try a beef hoagie at Tommy Dinic's as the place has a queue round the hall – it’s pretty good but still not as good as Nicks. It’s a definite ‘must visit’ place and arrive just before mid-day to enjoy it and move around easily as later it just heaves with people from the local offices popping in for some lunch.

Not far away in a square near/opposite City Hall is the ‘LOVE’ sculpture and fountain which features on many of the pictorial images of Philly. The square has some interesting sculptures of an Iron (yes for ironing clothes) and very large Dominoes etc which makes it an interesting place to sit and chill out and enjoy the views or people watch.

By the ‘LOVE’ scultpture are a small group of black guys shouting into a loud speaker and for the life of us we couldn’t understand what they were ‘preaching/shouting/protesting about’. It was supposed to be in English or American but not a dialect we could recognise or understand. They definitely had issues!

Then it's back to the hostel to watch Lincoln as we haven't seen it before. We have a DVD player in our room which is neat and the hostel has free DVD's available to watch. It seemed appropriate to watch this film in this city given Lincoln’s standing in US history. It’s a good film & Daniel Day Lewis deserved the Oscar for his performance. It’s about how Lincoln (a Republican) managed to get Congress to pass a law to abolish slavery. It’s quite ironic as the democrats were dead set against it. How the wheels have turned given the values of the respective political parties in the US today. C had to read Wikipedia at the same time as watching the film to understand some of it as US history isn’t quite her thing…….

In the evening the hostel has a Cheese and wine (freebie again) with a film night ("A million ways to die in the west" - funny at first then gets boring). We have another home cooked dinner - Chicken sausage (not recommended), with rice and courgette.

On our final day we had grand plans of going out to the University campus and the area of the Museum of Art about 40 mins walk away (famed for the steps Rocky runs up in the film!). Instead we have a lazy start then first stop Penn Landing on the Delaware riverside. It used to be an active harbour but now has a few sailing ships moored up plus a museum which has a submarine and the first U.S. steel sided ship still in existence. It's overlooked by the Benjamin Franklin suspension bridge so quite photogenic.

Then it's off to Reading Terminal Market again for lunch. There's a harvest festival event on with music, a couple of roasts/BBQ, lots of carved pumpkin lanterns and tractor tours of the block for kids!! It's busy as hell inside and out as it’s a Saturday. We go for some of the spit roast lamb - not bad but small portion so then try Hershels East Side deli - the queue is round the counter and it has great looking meats. We try a meat sampler plate - corned beef, pastrami (best we've had) and brisket - pretty good and filling even without bread. We also get some ribs and mashed potatoes take out for supper from some of the Amish stalls, as they look so good, for dinner later.

Then it's back to the hostel to catch up on blogs and NYC trip planning, and packing up for an early start in the morning. The Big Apple here we come…. It’s been 10 years. We are also looking forward to meeting our friend Joan again (met her in Mauritius in 2002 & have kept in touch since) and meeting up with Olive, our granddaughter, after 10 months……It should be really special.

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