I had 45 hours in Philadelphia and was wow’ed by the “City of Brotherly Love.” I was excited to explore the historical place (WAY more than you can possibly visit in 45 hours). As I quickly found out, Philly is a lot more than history. I was surprised by its walkability, the friendliness of folks, and its diverse culinary scene. Yes, there’s a lot more than Philly cheesesteaks in the city.
I was with some great friends from San Antonio on a fun history tour to celebrate their son’s 21st birthday. After visiting Gettysburg and then touring the Yuengling Brewery we got into Philadelphia on a rainy Friday evening and checked into The Notary Hotel, a Marriott Autograph Collection hotel in a historical building. We happen to get rooms on the just finished sixth floor and I was upgraded to a corner suite. As soon as I walked in, I immediately knew I had the party room. The suite was huge.
We headed off to make our first historical stop in Philadelphia – the McGillin’s Olde Ale House. You have to walk down a dark alley lined with a row of trash dumpsters to get there. With the light rain coming down and the trash stench in the air, the neon light of McGillin’s was a beacon of light. The place opened in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected, and is Philadelphia’s oldest continuously operating tavern. We walked into the dimly lit tavern to Phillies fans cheering on their team and great tunes blaring on the speakers. Downstairs was packed so we headed upstairs. Same thing. All of us had the “uh oh” look on our faces, but as we walked back downstairs, we scored a table for 7 that was perfect for people watching on what turned into a great night of cocktails, laughs, and singalongs. I wasn’t really hungry so just opted for a Caesar salad. I paired with one of their “Spring with a Twist” cocktails. The cocktails were only $7, so I also tried The Cleanse made with “Philly’s Own” Stateside vodka, simple syrup, fresh cucumber, lemon, mint and topped off with water. The inexpensive cocktails were the first sign its way cheaper to eat and drink in Philadelphia than other major cities.
The next morning, we had grandiose plans of getting up early and being in the first tour group for Independence Hall. Well that didn’t happen. Plans change fast when there are 7-8 people involved! Three of use made it early enough to get in line before 8:30am to get tour tickets. The tours are free, but you do have tickets. We had just gotten tickets for the 9:20am tour when Jeff joined us and said no way the other three would be ready and Chrizney was arriving later than expected on the train from New York. We turned back in three tickets and got additional tickets for the 12:20pm tour. The four of use decided since we were already there that we would go ahead and do the 9:20am tour. After getting the tickets we had just enough time to grab a coffee at La Colombe. You have to allow enough time to go through security, so it’s recommended to line up 20 minutes before your tour. We met our guide, Stewart Berger in the courtyard between Independence Hall and Congress Hall. He’s a retired attorney. The tours last about 30-40 minutes. Our first stop was Independence Hall, which Stewart called “the most historical building in the national park service.” As we stood in the room where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed you could hear quiet “wow” and camera shutters clicking as we saw the chair George Washington sat in and the one used by Benjamin Franklin, which had a rising sun on it. It was my most prolific patriotic moment ever as Stewart said, “This room is and always will be the first dot in our country. As long as there is an America, there will be dots to connect and they all come back to this city, this room.”
Next we headed over to Congress Hall. When Philadelphia served as the capitol, this is where the United State Congress met from 1790 to 1800. This building was the site of many historic moments including where the Bill of Rights were signed, the first United States Mint was created by Alexander Hamilton, George Washington was sworn in for his second presidential term and John Adams was sworn in as president.
The rest of the gang joined just in time to see the Liberty Bell. It was getting pretty busy on a Saturday morning, so we quickly made our way to see the bell with a giant crack in it. I’ll admit – I was expecting it to be bigger but was still in awe of this symbol of freedom and justice. I had forgotten the crack that make the bell unprintable happened on Washington’s birthday in 1846.
It was such a glorious day we set out walking all over the historic district taking in the architecture and stopping at a few spots including the Second Bank of the United States, Carpenters Hall and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution, which is surrounded by a lovely park.
Just as we made it into the City Tavern, all but three of the eight had to leave to make the 12:20pm Independence Hall tour. We relished in a moment to relax and get a quick bit. I went for the smoked trout and salmon. It was wonderful and paired nicely with the raspberry shrub (with a little champagne added) drink I ordered. I knew shrub recipes are old traditional recipes, but I enjoyed learning Martha Washington made her own. You can also taste beer made in the traditional way as America’s founding fathers would have drank it. For a dose of history with a meal, I’d put City Tavern on your list when visiting Philadelphia. You do need a little time to sit and savor the meal.
After lunch the three of us walked to Penn’s Landing and enjoyed the view of New Jersey on the other side of the Delaware River. About that time the other group was finishing their tour and we were meeting them at Pat’s and Gino’s. All morning long I asked locals where’s the best place for cheesesteak…..even thought I don’t eat meat. All of them said Jim’s. They said Pat’s and Gino’s are good, but definitely touristy. It was about 50/50 on who like Pat’s and and who liked Gino’s. They’re owned by the same family and caddy-corner to each other. So, do what our group did and try both!
We continued strolling along 9th Avenue. I found it to be a melting pot of cultures including Mexican, Asian and Italian. There was a farmers’ market wrapping up for the day and folks basking in the sunshine at any and all outdoor seating areas. We popped into Bar One for a quick cocktail. That would be our routine for the rest of the afternoon – walk, cocktail, walk some more, cocktail and snacks.
I really wanted to see Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential street in America and dating back to 1736. It was late afternoon and a lot of the historic spots were closing. We saw Benjamin Franklin’s grave at Christ Church. Not far from here is Betsy Ross’ home. She made the first American flag with stars and stripes if you don’t remember from history class. Then we made a sweet stop for cookies and ice cream.
A little after 5pm we made it to Elfreth’s Alley. There is a museum, but it had just closed for the day. I chatted up a woman by the museum door and she shared a little bit about the history and homes. People still live in the historic homes lining the narrow street. We walked down the block then back up admiring the homes that are much larger than they appear from the front. Some of them are over 3,000 square feet. Of course, I had to ask what’s the real estate value of the homes. The woman told me they’re valued from around $400,000 to over a million.
Next we stopped in Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar for mojitos and Cuba libres paired with tropical chips and salsa and fritters. That was just our warmup to dinner at Pizzeria Stella in Society Hill’s historic Headstone Square. The wood-fired margarita pizza and dining next to an open window to the square was the perfect ending to a fun day exploring Philly’s culinary scenes along with all of the historical sites important to the country.
On Sunday morning we headed over to Reading Terminal Market, just a couple of blocks from our hotel. It’s in a building dating back to 1893 and is one of America’s largest and oldest public markets. Before finding a place to sit down for breakfast, we all split up to explore the market. My first stop was a locals’ favorite, Old City Coffee, to get an oat milk latte to sip while walking around checking out the vendor stalls including bakeries, artisan shops and restaurants. We were able to grab a table at Down Home Diner, filled with retro decor, for breakfast. Ordering a biscuit is a must as they are baked in-house daily and their jam is homemade. I went simple with eggs and grits.
We all had our workout clothes on so off we went to work off breakfast. As we walked to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we passed city hall. The architectural marvel stands 548-feet tall and is the tallest masonry structure without a steel frame in the world. We saw the giant Sorry tokens in Board Game Art Park then took pictures in the LOVE and AMOR statues in Love Park.
The competitive spirits came out in all of us as we arrived at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by Rocky. I took off running like Rocky up the 72 steps, and yes, did the punches at the top. You’re also treated to a great view from the top of the stairs.
Getting short on time to get back to the hotel for our late check out and to catch flights, we briskly walked back down Benjamin Franklin Parkway. There were a couple of stops including the Thinker sculpture at the entrance of the Rodin Museum and Lensfest Plaza where there’s a full-size airplane crashed into the sidewalk in a street art installed named “Grumman Greenhouse.” There’s also “Paint Torch,” a giant paintbrush sculpture. I thought of it as a poetic last stop in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection as the last stroke of our road trip painted into our memory.
Author Jennifer Broome road tripped in Pennsylvania as part of a 21st birthday celebration for one of her best friend’s son. The long weekend history road trip was spotlighted in her article “Best Historical Places to Visit on a Pennsylvania Road Trip” for AAA National. Check out the “3-Day (or Less!) Getaways” for more weekend road trip ideas.