Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pennsylvania the Beautiful: Part 5 Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Love August 1 to August 4, 2013

A rainy afternoon met us as we trekked out of Lancaster County due east to the big city of Philadelphia, otherwise known as the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia is of course a city steeped in history.  Our nation declared its independence from England in this city in 1776.  Besides the great review of American history and government you can take advantage of while you visit the Old City, there are plenty of colorful neighborhoods to experience, plenty of good food to eat, and art and culture to behold.

To really take advantage of Philadelphia, I recommend three full days. We had two.

One of the best parts of our stay in Philly was that my sister in law, her husband and daughter joined us here.  We had a great time catching up with Cindy and Dave who we hadn't seen in five years, and my kids got to spend time with their only cousin, Hannah, who is delightfully animated, talkative, and precocious beyond her eight years.

Where to stay--

Chances are once you have parked your car in your hotel garage on arriving in Philly you are not going to want to retrieve it until you leave, so to minimize your walking distances and cab fares, it really is best to be near what you want to see.  For us, that meant the Old City and Independence National Historic Park.
Finding a hotel room in Old City, however, was no picnic!  Literally by January, everything in the
Old City that could accommodate our group was sold out.  So we opted for the Embassy Suites at City Center, located at 1776 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, an easy 1.1 mile walk to INHP.
The Embassy Suites is great.  The room was quite spacious, with two double beds and plenty of drawer space in a bedroom separate from the living room where there is a desk, a table with four chairs, and a fold out sofa.
Once again there was a refrigerator, a microwave and some counter space for preparing food if you so desired.  The living room has a balcony which, from the 15th floor, had an absolutely gorgeous view of City Hall in one direction and Logan Square in the other.
Three fantastic amenities not found in many hotels these days:  1)  Coin-op laundry, 2)  a nightly reception featuring snacks and unlimited drinks--easy to spoil your appetite here!, and 3) cooked to order breakfast every morning in the TGIFriday's restaurant downstairs.

Not a bad view of Logan Square
from a room at Embassy Suites

Independence National Historic Park

Day 1

Really I have to start with this because, if you are coming to Philadelphia, the Independence National Historic Park is the one thing you must see. It took us the better part of two days to see what we wanted to see here, and we didn't see everything.  Aside from the National Constitution Center, which is an absolute must see, admission to the buildings in the INHP is free.  There are other sights within this general vicinity, such as the Betsy Ross house, which are interesting but are privately owned and therefore have an entrance fee.
You must start your day at the Independence Visitor Center.  Here you can get maps and information about the daily happenings in the area but more importantly, it is here that you are going to get tickets to see Independence Hall.  Tickets are free, but you are assigned a specific time to go.  You can reserve tickets in advance (we did) by going online to www.recreation.gov, for $1.50 per person.  I thought this quite worth it.  These tickets also are picked up at the Visitor Center.
Right across the street from the visitor center is the Liberty Bell Center, which is great to get done early as the security line gets quite long.  Half an hour is enough to see the LBC, once you get through the doors.  My son was quite impressed by how large the bell was and wrote a short paper about his experience seeing it when he got back to school.
Independence Hall
Your visit to Independence Hall and it's neighboring Congress Hall are actually tours led by very talented and knowledgeable NPS guides.  You get to see the actual room where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Truthfully, the rooms themselves in either hall are not in and of themselves very exciting.  It is the knowledge of the guides that really ties this whole experience together.
After lunch on this day we headed to the National Constitution Center.  This in my opinion was the highlight of our time in the INHP.  We spent nearly four hours in here, and finally had to be kicked out at the 5pm closing time.  The NCC is open from 9:30 to 5 daily and costs $14.50 for adults and $8 for kids.  It is worth it.
Your tour of the NCC begins with a 17 minute 360 theatrical production, "Freedom Rising," which vividly illuminates the history of the US Constitution.   Audience members are transported through 200 years of constitutional history, and are inspired by a live actor to consider what they will do with their freedom.  It is well done, though borders on melodramatic at times.
You exit the performance directly into the main exhibit, titled "The Story of We the People." This exhibit is unique arranged in three concentric rings.  The outer ring chronicles the role of the US Constitution throughout history and the inner reviews the inner workings of the three branches of government through interactive displays and hands on experiences.  It is very interesting and very well done, and in my opinion had little political bias.
It took us a good 90 minutes to get through the main exhibit.  Thereafter, it is interesting to see
Nicholas meets some signers of the Constitution
"Signer's Hall," which is a room housing 42 true to size bronze representations of the men who signed the US Constitution.  Some are seated at desks, some are standing, but overall all are very lifelike.  A 6'4" George Washington stands at the front of the room, leading the proceedings.
A temporary exhibit going on while we visited was "1968," which happens to be the year that both Craig and I were born.  The exhibit spread out the year month by month and even day by day within those months. The week I was born was the bloodiest of the Vietnam War.  1968 also witnessed the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of Richard Nixon.
The exhibit also broke down all aspects of pop culture including sports, music, and fashion.  Televisions played montages of movie and TV clips from the year. While sitting on bean bags in a flower power room watching scenes from The Monkees, closing time arrived and we were told it was time to leave!  How rude!

Day 2

We started out this day by heading to the US Mint, which is not officially part of the INHP but is right there at the same area.  Coins are still produced at the Philadelphia US Mint, but unfortunately we went on a Saturday, and the factory was not in operation.
Your self guided tour begins with a little presentation reenacting our founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, debating the establishment of a national currency in the US.  We take for granted that our currency is based on a dollar which is broken into 100 parts, but it wasn't always so.  The first coins were hand poured and stamped.
 The rest of the tour pretty much breaks down the history and process of coin making in the US.  It is interesting, though not fascinating, and it's free, so it's worth a stop.
Right across the street is the Christ Church cemetery, where Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried. The burial ground belongs to the nearby Christ Church (which you can also visit and sit in Ben Franklin's pew!) where many of our founding Fathers, including George Washington worshipped.  The cemetery is comprised of 2 acres and 1400 grave markers.  It is not free to get in, it's like 3$ per person.  Worth it?  Probably not.  But, we were able to merge with another large party to get a group rate, so we went.
Probably the most striking part of the cemetery are the markers themselves.  Some have been restored by historical societies and the like, but many are broken, some down to just a chip of stone at the grass level.  The names, dates and sentiments on these stones have been completely worn away.  Someone's remains are buried there, and have been buried there for more than 200 years, but the 2013 passerby has no idea who.  Thankfully, I did find out that there is a book/map available that documents who lies where and the original wording on the markers, so these souls have not been forgotten completely by the passing of time.
Down the street is Betsy Ross's house which also costs 3-5$ to enter.  Cindy took the kids, while me and the guys sat outside.  Enough money spending.
A really neat children's program is Once Upon a Nation storytelling benches.  Ten story

Kids enjoy "Once Upon a Nation" 
storytelling outside Betsy Ross's house
telling benches are set up at sites in and around the Old City environs, including Betsy Ross's House, Signer's Garden, the National Constitution Center, Christ Church, etc.  There are also two benches at Valley Forge.  The program invites children to here creative but true stories about people and situations during the revolutionary times.  For each story heard, kids receive a stamp or a sticker, and if all 10 are completed (we didn't get this far) a prize is awarded.  Our kids ate this up!  We found them trying to find as many benches as they could, and on several occasions got the storytellers to start early.  The stories are very well told, take about 5 minutes, and are interesting for all ages.  Okay, after all this history, we are hungry!

The Reading Terminal Market

For at least one lunch during your time in Philly, the Reading Terminal Market is a MUST.
The Reading Terminal Market is an enclosed public market located at 12th and Arch Streets in downtown Philly walking distance form both our hotel and Old City.  The market is open 8-6 Monday through Saturday and 9-5 on Sunday, but many of the vendors, particularly the PA Dutch vendors are not open Sundays at all.
Anyway, there is no type of food not available here--cheesesteaks, middle eastern, Pa Dutch, deli, Mexican, Chinese, salad bar, any thing you want.  Forget agreeing on anything.  I went to buy stuff for each kid and then had to go out again to get my lunch.  Just make sure someone is holding the table, as this place gets really crowded!  The kids went for two deli carved sandwiches and one cheesesteak and I went for a burrito.  My silly husband sat around waiting for someone's leftovers and there were NO leftovers to be had!
After lunch we all split up just to walk around and take in all the vendors--candy stores, desserts, olives, specialty markets, ice cream, wine, cheese, fresh fruits and vegies, bulk foods, spices, pickles--the list seemed to be never ending.  It was hard to find a place to decide to spend your money!
Well we found a place.  Right in the corner of the market was Beiler's Bakery, a PA Dutch owned operation.  Now the Beiler's owned three stands there in the RTM, the bakery, a doughnut stand, and a pickle stand.  The doughnut line was seriously wrapped around and down the aisle at 4 pm.  Craig was certain that the doughnuts had been marked down at the end of the day.  Then we got in the line to see what all the fuss was about. Fresh doughnuts of every conceivable imagining--pumpkin, apple, cinnamon twist, blueberry, jelly filled, custard filled, crème filled--oh just stop me now!  We got three and we swore they were the best doughnuts we had ever had.  But I digress..
Okay, about 4 pm we figured out that Beiler's Bakery, as it was close to closing on a Saturday, was little by little marking everything down to 2$-slowly and steadily moving items to a separate counter.  This was not common knowledge or well advertised, but once we got the news we were set.  Both we and our daughters sat there gripping our dollar bills waiting to snatch up whatever might be the next appealing discounted delight.  We only spent about 12$ but we came home with cinnamon bread, cinnamon rolls, 2 half pies, lemon bread, and some cookies.  Serious home made dessert heaven.

Citizen's Bank Park

The first thing we did when we arrived in Philadelphia was to don the orange and black and head to Citizen's Bank Park to watch our San Francisco Giants play the Philadelphia Phillies. We actually altered our original itinerary to make this happen.
Our excursion to CBP was our only experience with SEPTA, the subway system in Philly.  It is as gross as you would expect it to be, with all its nasty smells and stale air.  We weren't exactly sure what train to board so I sheepishly approached a group of good looking Phillies fans, who looked like they were going where we were going, and asked them which train to get on.  No one killed me or threw me on the tracks--survival.
To get to CBP you ride the Broad Street line to the end, or the AT&T Station.  Both let you off at ALL the sports arenas.  It is a very short walk from there to Citizen's Bank Park. 
It is no secret that I don't like the Phillies.  Why would I?  My favorite Phillies memory is that of Ryan Howard striking out looking to end the 2010 NL Championship Series, to send our Giants to the World Series.  But Citizen's Bank Park is as lovely as baseball parks come, and, though rain threatened but did not materialize, what a beautiful night it was for baseball.  We were about in the 18th row let's just say, but we were able to hover right at the field level right up until game time.  We took pictures of our guys nearly as close as we did for spring training.  Phillies fans around us were warm and talkative.  Food was great, beer was yummy, seats were good, fun play spaces for the kids.  Oh yeah, the Giants won.

Our happy orange and black crowd at
Citizen's Bank Park
Where to eat

There is no doubt you can pretty much eat your way through Philadelphia, so choosing two restaurants that would envelop the spirit of the city proved to be a difficult task!
For the first night we settled on Ralph's Italian Restaurant, located at 760 S. 9th St.  Founded by Francesco and Catherine Dispigno in 1900, Ralph's has the distinction of being the oldest Italian Restaurant in America, a distinction it has held since May 2012, when Fior D'Italia closed in San Francisco. The food is good enough and the service is good enough and the ambiance is good enough and the price reflected such.  I don't have any complaints about this place but not particularly any rave reviews either.  I wouldn't kill myself to get here again but I wouldn't avoid it either.
We took a taxi to Ralph's, which was 1.9 miles from our hotel.  We walked home.  It was positively beautiful.  We took our time and saw many Philly neighborhoods.  At no time did we feel unsafe.

If Ralph's was not a Philly must, I say the opposite for City Tavern, located in Old City at 138 S. 2nd St.  City Tavern has been serving the Philadelphia public since colonial days.  Our founding fathers, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson came here on breaks from establishing our nation to discuss politics while sipping lagers and ales.  Congress held the first Fourth of July celebration in the Long Room of this establishment in 1777.
The tavern has a long history of fires, reconstruction, remodels, and general purposes, but today the National Park Service and the tavern's Chef Proprietor Walter Staib have made every effort to faithfully recreate the atmosphere to equal that of the period during the American Revolution.  The décor maintains a colonial theme and the wait staff is dressed in period style.  While you await your food a gentleman plays a historical instrument in the hallway.  The kids loved this and gave him quite an audience.
Enjoying the City Tavern
The food and the service at City Tavern are excellent.  "Ales of the Revolution"  give tribute to four of our founding fathers.  A tasting flight is available and all beers are available to take away (a strange service frequently offered by PA restaurants) to the tune of about 16$ for a six pack.  We left with Thomas Jefferson's 1776 Tavern Ale in tow, which we dolefully rationed during the remainder of our vacation.  All these beers are distributed by local Yard's Brewing Company, and we sadly discovered it was impossible to pick up any of these ales in California.  Sigh.
But I digress again...
Your meal begins with Thomas Jefferson's sweet potato biscuits and other warmed breads.  The menu boasts a lot of hearty American fare:  Turkey pot pie, Venison Medallions, Wienerschnitzel, West Indies Pepperpot Soup, Veal and Herb Sausage, Duckling, Rabbit, Pork Chop, and Chicken Breast Madeira, plus more.  I had the duckling and was quite happy!  There is a cookbook available for purchase:  City Tavern:  Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine which was quite tempting, but not very realistic cooking for this mom so it stayed on the shelf.
City Tavern was not exorbitant but was not cheap.  Most entrees were $25-35.
Reservations are a must.
We again taxied to City Tavern, which was about 1.2 miles from our hotel, but my husband and I walked home again through the beautiful city on a beautiful night.

Philadelphia is a great city and well worth your time!

Anyway, do you see the date on this trip?  Maybe don't look...  Is it okay to report on events that happened three months ago?  Let me know..I'm not so sure.  Well, now I go to Vegas this weekend and though I will NOT be reporting on anything that goes on there, I will have plenty of time with my laptop and maybe I can finish this whole Pennsylvania vacation!


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