36 Hours in Philadelphia
Featured destinations: Philadelphia
Published 30 August 2016
When my friend Vanessa invited me to visit her in the USA, I jumped at the chance. After all, a hop across the pond would allow me to combine a much overdue catch-up with some sightseeing in Philadelphia, where she works. Joined by another friend, Catherine, our only knowledge of Philly came from the theme tune to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, so this was the perfect opportunity to discover a brand new city.Philadelphia street art (image: Catherine Glover)
In West Philadelphia, born and raised
After an afternoon spent chilling out, maxing, and relaxing all cool in Vanessa’s West Philadelphia apartment, it was time to head downtown. Catherine and I had just 36 hours to explore before we left for New York City. Confident that we could do Philadelphia justice in less than two days, the three of us set out to see the sights.
Vanessa in Philadelphia (image: Catherine Glover)
36 hours in Philly
It was mid-April; the blossom was out on the trees, blowing in the air and forming a dusky pink layer over the streets. Vanessa informed us that just a few weeks earlier the whole city had been buried under a mound of snow. But for now, the sun was shining warm and brightly.
Blueberry pancake with bacon (image: Catherine Glover)
Reading Terminal Market
First up, Vanessa took Catherine and me to Reading Terminal Market for breakfast. A collection of food stalls, artisan shops and cafés, the market is housed in the former site of the Reading Railroad Terminal, which closed in the 1850s. Some of the businesses have been selling meats, cheese, chocolates and ice creams here for over a century. Vanessa lead us to a delightful Amish café called the Dutch Eating Place where serving staff in bonnets and long skirts served us blueberry pancakes with bacon and whipped butter. Despite being aware of the American penchant for giant portions, I was shocked at the enormous size of the pancakes and the fact that the man at the counter next to me drowned his in at least half a litre of syrup.
Angela and the bronze cat (image: Catherine Glover)
The Betsy Ross House
After breakfast, Vanessa had to work so Catherine and I called in at the Betsy Ross House, the place where Betsy supposedly sewed the first American flag in 1776. Slightly different to the current stars and stripes design, this one was made up of red and white stripes and a ring of five-pointed stars, which were apparently easier for her to sew than the original six-sided versions. The house is neatly furnished as it would have been at the time, and featured staff members dressed as Betsy and her family. Afterwards, while Catherine hit the gift shop in earnest, I sat outside and stroked a bronze cat ‘drinking’ from the fountain in front of the house.
The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell
In need of refreshment, Catherine and I gorged on pizza pie (a folded over pizza with twice the toppings) and milkshakes in the mall and then joined the queue for the Liberty Bell, one of the most famous symbols of American independence. After a short wait in the sunshine, we entered the Liberty Bell Center and filed past an exhibition telling the story of the bell, which featured photos of it with various well-known figures, including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Approaching the bell itself, I was surprised at its small size and how fiercely guarded it was. Selfie posers and anyone getting within a metre of it was loudly told to get back by the guards. Despite the distance, we could still see the famous crack and the inscription: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” words that have inspired civil rights leaders, the women’s suffrage movement and abolitionists over the years.
Catherine and Angela at Independence National Historical Park (images: Catherine Glover)
Independence National Historical Park
Continuing the history theme we walked across the road to the Independence National Historical Park, a World Heritage site and very attractive square, surrounded by neat lawns and statues of George Washington. This was the location for the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, and it’s open to the public. However as Vanessa reappeared at this very moment, we decided not to go in, instead heading straight for the nearest bar.
Yuengling lager (image: Catherine Glover)
Cooling off with a beer
Within two seconds of arriving, the barmaid had clocked our foreign accents, asking “You guys from outta town?” Yeah, just a few thousand miles! We asked for a local beer recommendation to cool off in the heat and she served us all a Yuengling lager, brewed here in Pennsylvania. And very refreshing it was too.
Angela at Eastern State Penetentiary (image: Catherine Glover)
Eastern State Penitentiary
After a decadent hollandaise sauce-smothered breakfast the following day, Vanessa recommended that we take a tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary, which was used as a prison from 1829 to 1971. Now a US National Historic Landmark, its audio tour is narrated by actor Steve Buscemi, who took us through its stark corridors and showed us Al Capone’s former cell. These days, apart from its chequered history, the place is notorious for its wild and spooky Halloween parties.
The Rocky Steps (image: Catherine Glover)
The Rocky Steps
Next up was the Rocky Steps, 72 stairs leading up to the grand façade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Made famous by Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies, the steps are popular with fans attempting to recreate his famous run to the top. Despite none of us having seen the films, we sprinted up the stairs anyway, and posed next to the Rocky statue with our hands aloft in triumph. From the top step we were treated to a far-reaching view of the mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stretched out in front of us and drawing our eyes towards the distant skyscrapers.
Philly cheesesteaks all round
With the clock ticking down on our 36 hours, Catherine and I crossed off the final Philly must-do with a visit to Jim’s Steaks, which has been serving up the legendary Philly cheesesteak since 1939. Vanessa had told us about the place earlier, saying that the last time she visited she had grease from her cheesesteak running down her arm. As calories officially do not count when on holiday*, this sounded like my kind of sandwich. And so, with wafts of frying onions in the air, we ordered. Naturally I went for the traditional cheesesteak, piled up with onions, mustard, ketchup and lashings of Cheez Whiz, a processed cheese that might resemble orange gloop but is mild and creamy, perfectly complementing the rich steak. The grease wasn’t quite dribbling down my arm, but it was a delicious sandwich, meaty, cheesy and filling, a great way to finish our Philadelphia adventure.
See the sights of Philadelphia with our Colonial America Journey, which takes you to the USA's most historical sites, including Washington DC, Williamsburg and Gettysburg.