Philadelphia is the Cradle of the American Experience. The Declaration of Independence was written and approved here. The two Constructional Conventions that led to our Constitution and Bill of Rights happened here. It was the capital of the county from 1790-2000 (between the 1789/1790 year in New York and its 2000 move to Washington D.C.). The Liberty Bell is here. And, almost as importantly, it was the home of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was one of the most instrumental and respected of the Founding Fathers and the man who may have very well become our first President had it not been for his very advanced age and ill-health. How can any history buff not want to visit and understand the history of our country?
Independence National Historical Park
Philadelphia’s Independence park is a good place to start. It contains some of the most enduring symbols of the country’s birth, dozens of important buildings including the American Philosophical Society, First and Second Banks of the United States, U.S. Customs House, Christ Church (used by several Signers of the Declaration of Independence) and several museums. Unfortunately, the Independence Visitor Center was one of the most disappointing visitor centers we have ever visited. What a bad showing! It did very little to educate us on the park. Fortunately, that was the only low point. The rest of the park provided a lot of information and tours…many of them free.
You need to sign up for a free tour to get into this 1732 Philadelphia building that originally served as Pennsylvania’s colonial capital. The Second Continental Congress used it to where they decided to break with England. The Declaration of Independence was debated and signed here. Also, George Washington accepted command of the Colonial armies here. After the colonies won the Revolutionary War, the Constitution was signed here.
The tour included the building’s original Supreme Court Chamber and the room—complete with the “Rising Sun chair” from which Washington chaired the meeting at which the Constitution was adopted.
Also only accessible only by a free tour, the hall was originally built to house the Philadelphia County Court home. It became the home of the First and Second Continental Congress (who trashed the ineffective Articles of Confederation and replaced it with the Constitution that, along with associated amendments, is still the nation’s supreme law of the land and the document against which all other laws and acts are judged). It then became home to the U.S. Congress from 1790-1800. A Park Service tour guide, who was clearly tired of his job, unfortunately, gave a pro forma tour of the first floor House of Representatives and the more elaborate second-floor Senate Chamber. A handful of committee rooms were also available to explore, all of which have period-correct furniture and furnishings.
And then there is the Liberty Bell Center which tells the history of the bell. It was originally the State of Pennsylvania’s bell. It became a symbol of national unification, a rallying point for the abolition and the civil rights movement, and an international symbol of liberty. The large crack emerged after a then-accepted means of repairing a small crack expanded as the bell was rung to celebrate George Washington’s birthday.
While the house no longer exists here, Benjamin Franklin’s home was here until it was torn down. A steel structure outlines where it once stood. A reproduction of Benjamin Franklin’s printing office and a post office also are here. The Benjamin Franklin Museum is also located here (see our Philadelphia Museums blog for our visit).
Christ Church Burial Ground
Benjamin Franklin and several signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried here. While it charges a fee to enter, you can see Franklin’s grave from the sidewalk.
Robert Morris Statue
A status commemorates the wealthy trader. Morris organized the financing of the revolution and created the First National Bank before he ended up going bankrupt.
Other places to explore in Philadelphia
To really explore Philadelphia, take a walk by other colonial sites associated with the formation of the United States. Many have interpretive signs that provide background.
Thomas Jefferson lived here when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. While the original house was demolished, a replica has been built in its place.
Free Quaker Meeting House
Free Quakers were those who supported the revolution. They gathered here in 1783. The grounds were initially used as a Quaker burying ground. The Quakers opened up the burying grounds to all denominations during the city’s 1793 Yellow Fever Plague (which killed about 10 percent of the city’s population). None, however, have headstones in accordance with a Quaker’s belief that they were frivolous. Admission to the building is free when it is open.
President’s House Site
George Washington and John Adams each lived here during their presidencies. This was before the White House was completed in time for Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. While the house no longer exists, the site now houses an exhibit on the role of slavery in the creation of the colonies. It identifies the contradictions of men like Washington and Jefferson who owned slaves in spite of their oft-stated and written beliefs that the slave trade was immoral.
Betsy Ross House
The American flag was born here. Today it is a museum (fee charged) that tells the story of her life and the sewing of the flag.
This lovely park has a monument with George Washington overlooking a monument to the unknown soldiers of the American Revolution.
Fairmont Park is a large Philadelphia municipal park that is home to several of the city’s most important museums including The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Franklin Institute, and Rodin Museum. (See our separate blog on Philadelphia Museums). Its lovely 9,000-acre green space has gardens, playgrounds, a zoo, a historic town, the city water works, performance venues, and a number of grand, renovated 18th– and 19th-century homes (several of which are open for tours) that were owned by some of the city’s wealthiest families.
Other Philadelphia Sites
Among the many other important and interesting sites we visited were:
Philadelphia’s City Hall was the world’s largest free-standing mason building when it was built in 1894. This beautiful municipal building is dramatically topped by the statue of state founder William Penn. It was made famous in the movie Rocky (as commemorated by a statue at the base of its steps that has since been removed). The Old City Hall was home to the U.S. Supreme Court from 1790-1800.
This 1873-era temple is home to the Grand Lodge of Free Masons of Pennsylvania. Each of its seven ornate lodge halls has a different architectural style. See our blog on Philadelphia museums for an inside look.
The hill is a lovely, almost fully restored section of 17th-and 18th-century, primarily Federal- and Colonial-style brick homes with cobblestone streets.
The alley is a lovely, cobblestone block that claims to be the oldest continually inhabited street in the country. It is lined by lovely, relatively modest Federal-style homes.
The lovely square-block park was once lined with distinguished brownstone, greystone, and brick townhouses of Philadelphia’s elite. It is still exclusive but now it is now lined with soaring condominiums, apartments, and the luxurious Claridge Hotel. One side is lined with restaurants.
9th Street Italian Market
All manner of Italian shops and open-air markets line this several-block stretch. You can find stores dedicated to selling pasta, cheeses, olive oils, balsamic vinegar, kitchen utensils, and all manner of Italian products. At the base of the street lie two spots—Geno’s and Pat’s, both of which claim to have invented the Philly Cheese Steak. (See below for our less than satisfying experience at one of them.)
Reading Terminal Market
You can buy everything from fresh meat and vegetables to prepared cheesesteaks, pizzas, tacos and pastrami sandwiches to pastries and soft pretzels at this lovely and often crowded public market. Twice, we tried to get a cheesesteak here from Carman’s Famous. Both times the lines were too long for us to wait. Passing on the other cheesesteak spots with short or no lines, we ended up at other restaurants, a Jewish deli and a Greek restaurant (see restaurants below).
Philadelphia’s Magic Garden
Nationally recognized mosaic artist Isiah Zagar helped to revitalize an area of derelict buildings by cladding them with mosaics, folk art, and found objects. While you can see some of this from the sidewalk, you can take a tour of its indoor galleries and outdoor sculpture garden.
A trendy section of town where old brick apartments and storefronts are being increasingly replaced by newer apartment, condo, and office buildings. Old storefronts have become restaurants, bars, and craft breweries.
Our time in the city allowed us to explore three very different restaurants for dinner.
Get your reservations early at this restaurant which specializes in coal-fired grilling and offers a very unusual approach to ordering food. Order a grilled entrée and get a set three-course meal that avoids the problem of finding standard dishes that appeal to all. Or, if you wish, skip the entrée and just order the standard meal with a guarantee that you will find something for everyone. Your entrée choice is from roughly eight charcoal-grilled meats, fish, or vegetable dishes. We chose a whole trout and a lamb beef Koobideh (kebab).
First you get the appetizers that come with the meal. Three large, house-made pita breads with hummus and small bowls of nine other dishes ranging from Israeli pickled vegetables and gigante beans to spiced potato salad to mushrooms/sour cherries/Swiss chard to spiced pineapple/celery. It is a meal by self and wonderful. And If you want to overindulge on pita or prefer more of one of the ten accompanying dishes, no problem. Your server will be happy to bring you more.
As for entrees, we loved the moist, flavorful, crispy-skinned trout but were less than excited by the dry kebobs.
OK, now dessert which also comes with the meal. Who could not enjoy brown sugar ice cream with pistachio rice crunch and sour cherries?
We also enjoyed an Israeli Rhone-style blend of wines from Rhone vines that have been planted in the Galilee—a 2019 Cote de Galilee Village blend of Cinsault, Mouvedre, Grenache, Counoise, and Syrah. Definitely, a place to return to.
The good news is that we enjoyed the food and the pleasant, albeit often ineffectual staff at this Spanish-based tapas restaurant. Our experience began at the bar while waiting for our table. One bartender, obviously very new and without much of a clue as to how to work a bar, stood looking straight ahead while people tried to get his attention. When asked for something, he acknowledged the request, but little (other than bringing water) actually happened.
We finally got the attention of the other bartender to get a list of wines by the bottle. But then try to order from the first bartender. We finally managed to get his attention, he acknowledged our order and proceeded to work on other drinks at the other end of the bar. About ten minutes later we were seated at our table and reiterated our request for our wine. Again, no response.
Eventually, a manager came and told us we had been given an old wine list and that the wine we requested was no longer available. When we ordered wine from the new list, we were brought a glass (rather than a bottle we ordered) only to receive a white Verdejo (2018 Castilla-La-Mancha). While it was nice, it was not the red Garnacha (2018 Location E) that we had ordered.
When we finally got a bottle of the correct wine about 45 minutes later and with the intervention of no fewer than five barmen, servers, and managers (not to speak of two glasses of Lustau Fino Sherry). Whew.
We were finally ready to order our food. We shared four very good small plates. These were bacon-wrapped dates with almonds, serrano ham croquettes with Romanesco sauce, wild mushrooms with truffle oil, and lamb meatballs with manchego, sherry, and foie gras cream. As for the wine, which we enjoyed when we finally got it, the manager at least comped the bottle.
At this Asian restaurant where we ordered, fully enjoyed, and labored (more successfully than we imagined possible) to finish our order of a whole Peking Duck with an endless supply of Chinese pancakes in which to wrap the duck and hoisin sauce to slather over it. Although we can’t say much about other dishes, including several of which we would have been happy to try, the duck was delicious, the atmosphere was charming and the service was professional and responsive. Even after the duck, we still managed to find room for an intriguing dessert of chocolate mousse, hazelnut crumble, vanilla sauce, and coffee ice cream. For wine we chose a pleasant 2020 Domaine Billard Pere et Fils Cotes de Beaune red burgundy. They also have a location in New York City.
We had lunch at this restaurant on Rittenhouse Square. Our very nice meal began with cheddar biscuits with maple butter, followed by a lobster roll and lobster mac n’ cheese, and then grilled salmon with maple glaze, parmesan roasted potatoes, and grilled asparagus.
Geno’s is one of the two debated originators of Philly cheesesteak. While we are not connaissures of Philly cheesesteaks, we were surprised to see them put slices of the provolone directly on the bread rather than melting it into the thinly sliced beef, mushrooms and diced onions. And, after all the buildup and anticipation of going to the “home” of cheesesteak, we found it surprisingly tasteless compared to others we have had. This said Tom did enjoy the juicy red tomato pepper and the cream soda that he had with his cheesesteak.
We shared a very good pizza with fennel, sausage, mushrooms, and pepperoni for lunch accompanied by two glasses of wine: a Poggio Anima Nero d’Avelo and a DeAngilis Multipulciano.
We had lunch at the large, busy, and attractively laid out and maintained stall in the wonderful Reading Terminal Market after passing on waiting in a long line for a cheesesteak. We were less than impressed by the potato latkes we ordered although they did have good cream soda.
Another venue in the Reading Terminal Market where we had reasonably tasty, but not memorable gyros.
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