I lived in Philadelphia 10 years ago and loved it. This year, I went back for the first time. I was nervous. Would it have changed? Would it have enough new (and old) places to explore and keep me busy? Yes, and yes. I visited some revamped gardens, chowed down on luscious heirloom tomatoes, quaffed craft brews, took a boat ride and screamed my head off at the annual Terror Behind the Walls Halloween experience at the Eastern State Penitentiary.
I’m happy to say Philly is still one of my favorite American cities. Why do I love it so much? The history goes deep, the people are open, the food is delicious and overall, the city provides good value for the visitor’s pocketbook.
Home base – Hotel Monaco Philadelphia
A Kimpton property, this hotel sits kitty-corner to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. You can’t get a better location for exploring the old city by foot. Housed in the 1906 Lafayette Building, Hotel Monaco is full of whimsy, rooms inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and teapot shaped light fixtures in the elevator lobbies. I breakfasted daily at the Red Owl Tavern, which dished up a mean frittata, crunchy granola with Greek yogurt and my favorite, cooked oatmeal with brown sugar and dried fruit.
GARDENS – Botanic, historic and beer!
Near the hotel were a number of historic gardens. Some were reinventions of what once was there, others were commemorative. We started in Independence Square, went to Franklin Court, Rush Garden, 18th Century Garden, Rose Garden, Magnolia Garden and Washington Square. Susan J. Edens (nice last name!), with the Independence National Historical Park, guided our group.
Less than 15 minutes from Center City Philadelphia and in the heart of a marginalized neighborhood, this is where botany first took root in America. We got there by boat, on the Patriot Harbor Cruise Line.
The Bartram family is credited with identifying and introducing into cultivation more than 200 native plants including the rare and beautiful Franklinia alatamaha, named for family friend Ben Franklin. We toured the garden, saw the cider mill carved into riverside rock, marveled at an ancient gingko tree and took in the fresh air. No pesticides have ever been used in the garden. – bartramsgarden.org
WYCK HOUSE AND GARDENS
This National Historic Landmark is in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Dating back to the 1820s, the Wyck Rose Garden is the oldest in America still growing in its original plan, with 50 varieties of old roses. Some were thought to be extinct until they were discovered at Wyck House. The home farm was restored in 2007 and grows food for a weekly farmers’ market. It also provides an experimental outdoor classroom and perpetuates Wyck’s 300-year-old agricultural traditions. A house tour is highly recommended, since so many odd bits of family life have been wonderfully preserved over many generations. – wyck.org/garden
INDEPENDENCE BEER GARDEN
Across from the Liberty Bell, this 20,000-sq.-ft. outdoor drinking and eating space is in America’s most historic square mile. Seasonal with all-American food and drink such as pigs in a blanket, double-decker burgers, strawberry shortcake and beer from Victory, Deschutes, Yards, 21st Amendment and Fat Head. I enjoyed the Adirondack chairs, games, string lights and ivy-covered pergolas. – Phlbeergarden.com
EATS & DRINKS
Talula’s Garden, snugged in close to Washington Square, had a beautiful patio and sprawling interior. The owner is Aimee Olexy, who has a passion for farm-fresh ingredients locally sourced. My butternut squash risotto was amazing! Olexy also founded Talula’s Table in Kennett Square. Her “Garden” venture is a partnership with local restaurateur Stephen Starr. – talulasgarden.com
SPRUCE STREET HARBOR PARK
Celebrating its 3rd years, the Delaware River Waterfront’s Spruce Street Harbor Park offered local beer and custom curated grab-and-go snacks served from converted shipping containers. The seasonal pop-up park has a hammock garden, arcade games, fountains and walk-on barges with lily pad water gardens. Fun! – Delawareriverwaterfront.com
At one time the Schuylkill River was more of an open sewer system and avoided by Philadelphian citizens. Although it’s all cleaned up now, in many ways it is still forgotten. That’s why a trip with Patriot Harbor Cruise Lines is helpful. I saw old railway bridges, ducks and cormorants, fisher folk and Philly’s striking skyline. After boarding at Walnut Street dock (at 25th Street), our guide pointed out interesting landmarks, including the former waterside Howard Johnson’s Hotel that was turned into a methadone clinic, then a halfway house, and now sits empty. This is why I love Philly. Offbeat history is preserved through a mixture of financial constraint and circumstance (i.e. no political will to tear down old buildings, and not quite the same condo development that is killing some cities –Toronto– these days.)
Had a cheese and veggie sandwich here. My appetite wasn’t quite huge enough for one, but Chef Monterray Keys told us where to get the best Philly cheese steaks. “We make a good one here, but Larry’s Steak is one of my favorites, as is Gooey Louie’s in South Philly and Max’s in North Philly.”
This place has been in Old City for 15 years and is a highlight in the neighbourhood. Seasonal ingredients are a priority here. I had the seafood pasta and it rocked.
READING TERMINAL MARKET
Built as a train shed in 1893, Reading Terminal Market now houses 80 vendors selling everything from produce, to meat, fish, cheese and sweets. It is known for its Amish merchants who take great pride in their farm-fresh products. There are tons of places to pick up a quick meal, from cheese steaks to grilled cheese sandwiches, falafels, and more. Public seating is in the center, near the brass pig sculpture. – readingterminalmarket.org
CITY TAVERN GARDEN
Raspberry shrub! Back in the day when water was unfit to drink, Philadelphians would flock here for a shrub (simple fruit syrup, vinegar and a splash of alcohol) or beer. Revolutionary renditions of 18th century colonial fine dining were on the menu, including George Washington’s original recipe for ale. Servers were costumed, and well versed in the historic fare they presented. – citytavern.com
This gem of a restaurant was inside the historic Morris House Hotel and used locally sourced ingredients to create contemporary American dishes. There was a wedding the night I was there, but otherwise I would have sat at the lovely outdoor garden café. It is believed that Thomas Jefferson spent time at the Morris House with Robert Morris (not related to the owners), another signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
TERROR BEHIND THE WALLS
Whoa. What was that? Time to jump out of my skin. Animators were dressed in Broadway-ready makeup, asking if I wanted to be touched. What? Well, when in Rome…I nodded and ended up wearing a neon ring around my neck to alert possible staff touchers that it was OK with me. So did my travelling friend. It turned out to be nothing too onerous, sometimes a slap on the back, or ankle grabbing. But, scary when you’re not expecting it! I used to live right around the corner from Eastern State Penitentiary which was one of the largest and most expensive prisons in the world when it opened in 1829. Charles Dickens visited and gangster Al Capone was kept in a carpeted cell for a spell. Closed in the 1970s, it has become a tourist destination and along with the solitary cells you can often see art installations.
This goes on for more than a month. Scary, but good fun. Lots of black lights, ghoulish inmates, creepy doctors and dentists, and even clowns! Make sure you check into the Speakeasy bar when you’re through. You’ll need a stiff drink before going back home. – easternstate.org
OTHER GREAT PLACES TO SEE
Philadelphia Museum of Art – 3rd largest art museum in the country, made famous in the movie Rocky when Rocky Balboa ascended the steps symbolizing victory of the underdog. philamuseum.org
Penn Museum – Nearly one million objects, including a 12-ton Egyptian sphinx. – penn.museum
Rodin Museum – Largest Rodin collection outside of Paris. The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, plus beautiful formal gardens. – rodinmuseum.org
The Barnes Foundation – Amazing collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Modigliani and more. barnesfoundation.org