Olde City. Fezziwig’s ice cream. An excellent pub an Race Street. A flawed bell.
I try to enter any travel experience with eyes wide open, so I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to America’s one-time capitol. My thoughts were, to no small degree, tinged by Bruce Springsteen’s sad, iconic “Streets of Philadelphia” which accompanied the 1993 Jonathan Demme film. (I was a relatively-cloistered eighteen-year-old when the movie came out.) Since then, tales of angry sports fans, crime statistics, a mean-streets boxer’s saga, and Mark Bowden’s Finders Keepers were my windows on a city that seemed forgotten. (Maybe it was thought of as New York’s lesser cousin, which is inaccurate.)
The Philadelphia I found was a trove of gems. We stayed in the Wyndham Historic District (very nice staff, great rooms, no complaints) which sits among the brick and cobblestone of the original city. The presence of Benjamin Franklin is everywhere, from his oversized bust beside a fire station to his actual grave (steps from the hotel) to his namesake blue bridge across the Delaware River. The guided tour of Independence Hall was short and sweet. I’m no history buff, but it was pretty amazing to be standing in that room looking at that furniture where the magical birth of our country took place (at least, in codified and legal form). Of course, we also took in the Liberty Bell, which is as much about the Abolitionist Movement as anything. Seeing the actual symbol of something so representative and positive was a first for myself and the kids.
Our discoveries went on. We stumbled upon brand-new Fezziwig’s Sweet Shoppe and quickly decided they offer the best milkshakes in the known world. (Their sandwich board outside compels one to indulge a little.) Olde City Grille offers excellent pizza, Stromboli and Spanakopita. The Race Street Cafe is really a pub worthy of any British city, tasty food modernized to present day. Beyond, the Race Street Pier juts out beneath the behemoth light-blue of the Franklin Bridge. Elfreth’s Alley, a centuries-old residential street, begs to figure prominently in novels. Lunch at Reading Terminal Market is a crowded but worthwhile mess of options. Nearby are numerous parks and green spaces for a few minutes of peace and contemplation (and shade for hot summer days).
Across town, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a gorgeous building flanked by amazing statuary (including the famous Rocky figure, removed to street level).
Yes, there are still problems and more than a few ruined people. The Delaware River is dominated by industry and rusting ships. The city is, naturally, far from perfect.
Many faces I saw, however, were happy and vibrant despite the heat and weight of the past. Philadelphia seems to be rising steadily, her people buoyed and her diverse gifts celebrated.
Sometimes, if we choose to focus on the positive of an experience, that’s what we’ll get in return. And we’ll feel welcome there.