On the Streets of Philadelphia

I spent a delightful four days in Philadelphia over the Thanksgiving long weekend, staying with my lovely American friend Katherine and her family. When I wasn’t eating colossal amounts of home cooked food or luxuriating in the double bed that was put at my disposal, I was exploring the environs of this fascinating little city and singing that  Bruce Springsteen song from the film Philadelphia in my head.

Philadelphia is like a compact version of Boston, with some lovely shops and restaurants, a cultural quarter, lots of historical buildings and museums, plenty of green space and a very relaxed, stress free atmosphere. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see a huge amount of it due to time constraints, and I was also reluctant to be outside in the cold too long as it actually was freezing and I may have forgotten my coat in my hurry to pack and leave the apartment on time to catch the train (don’t tell my mum!). However, I saw enough to know that I both like Philadelphia very much, and that I shall be coming back to see more in the summer when it is warmer, I have a better knowledge of colonial history in order to appreciate and understand the role the city has played over the centuries, and have a few dedicated days to explore at my leisure the lovely streets of red brick row houses and quaint museums.

What I did get to see was the Liberty Bell, which was a little bit of an anticlimax, especially as it turns out there is no evidence to support the common myth that the bell was rung to declare America’s independence from my dear homeland in 1776. Even so, it was very interesting to see this lump of cracked metal that has come to symbolise so much, and there was a good display of information relating to the women’s suffrage movement in America and how they cast their own Liberty Bell to highlight the hypocrisy of their situation in the 19th century. I also enjoyed looking around some of the small house museums, such as  Carpenter’s Hall and Physick House, all of which have very informative staff, excellently preserved interiors and lots of information for the interested visitor on their history. I was constantly irritated, however, by my lack of knowledge of American history, and found this quite a barrier in my ability to adequately contextualise what I was reading. I need to get cracking with my huge Howard Zinn volume, and then I will be quite the expert, ready to fire out facts on American history at any given opportunity!

There are plenty of pretty churchyards and graveyards too, which, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I have a particular penchant for visiting. Unfortunately the stone commonly used to make the gravestones in this region and the damp climate has caused a lot of erosion and I had trouble making out most of the inscriptions, but the ground was carpeted in beautiful Autumn leaves and the churchyards were surrounded by red brick rowhouses, and the sun was setting, and it was all beautifully atmospheric. I also learned terrible facts about how Native Americans were treated by the colonial Americans and were given smallpox blankets to infect and kill off their population, freeing up their land for use. Some Native American smallpox victims are buried in the churchyard I visited, and I felt so sad for them and all they have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of people determined to wipe out their history, culture, language and land.

After this sadness we walked down to South Street, which, as my friend said, is like the East Village all crammed into one street. There are lots of colourful, graffiti covered buildings, interesting shops, tattoo parlours, and little cafes and restaurants, and I would definitely like to explore this neighbourhood more when I go back. We stopped at Jim’s for supposedly the best Philly Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, and I tried my very first one. It was OK; not the best thing I’ve ever eaten but not the worst, either. The guys serving us were absolutely on the floor when I opened my mouth and declared that they wanted me to read them a bedtime story with my bee-yoo-tiful accent, which I realised I could either take as a compliment or a frightening harbinger of doom; I preferred to take the first route and nodded and smiled before snatching my cheesesteak and running for the door!

All in all it was an absolutely wonderful trip and I thoroughly enjoyed my whistlestop tour. Next time I go I want to get to the Art Museum and run up the Rocky steps, look inside the churches, wander more around the South Street neighbourhood, and soak up more of the history of the beautiful streets that ooze colonial charm. One thing I got told about was the interesting fire insurance plaques on the row houses that date from the 18th century, and though I think I have captured a few in my photographs, I didn’t really stop to look that closely, so I’ll be excited to open my eyes a little wider and take in more of the details of this beautiful little city next time I’m in town.

48 comments

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed Philadelphia and gleaned so much of the early colonial history in the short time you were there. We were there a few years ago and skipped the Liberty Bell because we really wanted to do Independence Hall. We had the most wonderful docent and Tom and I would recall how informative he was from time-to-time. You can only imagine the thrill we both had when your own Prince Charles was there a year or two ago and his visit was covered on all the television stations here. Our very own docent was there, on the screen, giving Prince Charles the very same tour and we were all agog as we watched.

    I wasn’t impressed with the Philly sandwiches either, but, I had the best crab cakes ever at a little old fish house.

    Now that you have been to Philadelphia, I would like to recommend a children’s book to you called Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. It is for young readers, so, you will whip right through it and the library should have it. It was well-researched and a well written novel. The story is about a 14 year old girl, Mattie, and her experiences in Philadelphia in 1793 during the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the city and killed a large portion of the population there. I think you would appreciate this book, Rachel.

    Is that you frolicking in the cemetery? You didn’t trip over Ben Franklin’s grave, did you?

    1. Wow! Your experience of Independence Hall sounds wonderful. Unfortunately all the tickets were sold out for the day by the time we arrived so I didn’t get to go in, but I’d very much like to. All of the people I met in Philly doing tours and such were so passionate and well informed, and I was very impressed!

      That book sounds excellent Penny! I’ll definitely look it up.

      It is me frolicking! I love messing about with leaves! I didn’t find Ben Franklin’s grave, no – I missed most of the good stuff because we literally had about three hours and it was a very whistlestop tour, but next time I will do all those things!

      1. We were able to grab the last two tickets into Independence Hall.

        When we went, Rachel, we got a special deal at a boutique hotel, two nights, a few meals, and free admission to the art museum that was featuring an Andrew Wyeth retrospective. It was absolutely wonderful, the hotel was walking distance to the museum as well as Independence Hall. I left wanting more.

        My, you have already covered more of the the East Coast than most Americans do, Rachel. My

  2. Another fascinating post, Rachel! ALMOST as good as being there myself! I’ve always been interested in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ since my former days as a Quaker…
    I know a bit about the history, but didn’t know about the ‘smallpox blankets’. How horribly cruel! But not surprising, sadly…
    ‘The other Penny”s book recommendation sounds very interesting. My daughter, Jane, was very ‘into’ the ‘American Girl’ stories when she was younger, and they contained a lot of historical information. I think that’s what inspired her to take an American history module as part of her History degree. You might want to look out for them, if you don’t know them already. Also, when I was home-educating the offspring, we used a series of children’s history books called ‘The History of US’ which we enjoyed very much. (I’m not saying you need children’s books to swot up your history (!) but they CAN give a lot of information in nice, easy-to-read form and you can then pick what you want to look into more deeply.)

    1. Penny, I couldn’t agree with you more about children’s literature. I love American history, but, am sorry to admit I didn’t know about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Fever is well written and compelled me to explore more on the topic.
      The smallpox blanket contamination was a travesty and I cringe whenever I hear of it.

      The American Girl stories are wonderful little books about different times in history.

    2. Thanks Penny! Glad you enjoyed it and got to have but a small peek at the streets of Philadelphia!

      Thanks for the book suggestions – I will look into them. I agree and think children’s history books are amazing – you can get the main facts then move on to whatever strikes your fancy in a more detailed ‘adult’ book, plus you tend to get more nice pictures in children’s history books too!

  3. You were in my neighborhood and maybe we even passed each other! Having moved to Philadelphia after living most of my life in Boston, I think I should tell you that you have it backwards: Philadelphia is three times the size of Boston. And although there are a few good things about Philadelphia, I can’t wait to move back to Boston! Much more charming, much cleaner, much safer, better public transportation, and the city is more efficiently run. Boston public library’s search engine is even much better than Philly’s cumbersome and frustrating one! Philadelphia may be fun to visit, but you don’t want to live here!

    1. Oh, really?! Philadelphia seemed so much smaller than Boston to me, and much less busy. However I was only in the very centre, so I must have missed an awful lot which skewed my perceptions. On another visit I’m sure I’ll get a better understanding of the layout and see more of the city.

      I’m sorry you don’t like living in Philadelphia as much as you did Boston – I love Boston and can well understand you preferring it. Philadelphia wouldn’t be the kind of city I’d enjoy living in, I don’t think – I like big capital cities with everything on my doorstep – bnut I can see why people do like it there. The history and the natural beauty of the area are very attractive.

  4. Philadelphia is a nice city, isn’t it? I live about an hour from there, in a more rural location, but when we need a “city fix” we go to Philly. The area you visited is wonderfully historic. The Art Museum is definitely worth a return trip.

    1. It is very nice! I am excited to go back and explore more. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t make it over to the art museum but at least that means I definitely have to go back. There is so much I DIDN’T see and I will make sure I do some research and make a beeline for the things I want to see next time I go.

  5. Great post. I’m from Philly but have been abroad for about a year and a half now, it’s nice to see some photos of my old streets.

    But (and this is partly hometown pride speaking) Philly isn’t exactly a “little city” – it’s one of the biggest in America.

    1. I’m glad I could give you a slice of home, Ellen!

      Well yes – the metropolitan area is huge, but the central part of the city felt very small to me compared to New York!

  6. Philadelphia is wonderful! You should definitely visit the art museum next time, also the libraries have some amazing rare things, like Dickens’ raven and I think some Jane Austen early editions. I was in Philly last year for the Jane Austen society meeting and it was wonderful. Reading Market is neat if you like visiting food markets. There’s also a park with a statue of Charles Dickens but I didn’t have time to see it.

    1. Yes, I am definitely going to go to the art museum next time and give myself more time to find the places like the libraries and such. There is so much to see and I am aware that I barely scratched the surface so I will be making another visit!

  7. I really do love Philly…there is something about it. I am disappointed in myself that I still haven’t made it to the museum but now that my sister lives close by, I hope to soon. I do admit to not being a big fan of the cheesesteak. p.s. I learned the hard way when I was in NYC not to “block the box”:(

    1. Well, it’s always good to keep a place in reserve that you want to visit, Stacey! I’m glad I’m not the only one…the size of the queue made me think I must be missing out on thinking that the cheesesteak was a delicacy!

      Oh dear!! :s

  8. I feel a bit bad about my previous post. Just so you know, I was born near Philadelphia and spent the first twenty years of my life here. Both sides of my family have lived in the area since the 1600’s and the 1800’s. I suppose the bottom line is that many people love this city, but I don’t. I love Boston and feel more at home there, but others may hate it. There’s a place for everyone, isn’t there? I’m glad you enjoyed your visit and I didn’t mean to take anything away from that.

    1. Oh don’t feel bad! We’re all entitled to have our preferences! Boston is a magnificent city and Philadelphia is also very charming but they are very different places and suit different temperaments. I couldn’t imagine myself living in Philadelphia but I certainly could in Boston. You didn’t take anything away from my visit at all, don’t worry! I had a thoroughly lovely day but I have no plans to pack up and move!

  9. Sounds like you managed to see most of the high points in just a short time. My brother lives nearby, so we often end up in Philly when we visit him. I share your opinion of the sandwiches…

  10. It sounds like a wonderful weekend, and I’m so glad you got a chance to experience American Thanksgiving. I’ve never been to Philadelphia, but it does look very like Boston from your photos!

    1. It really was! I am so glad I got invited to a real American Thanksgiving, it was truly lovely. Philadelphia reminded me of Boston a lot though I need to really see a bit more of Philadelphia before I start making too many comparisons!

  11. Sounds like a really fun long weekend. My most recent Philadelphia experiences have all been very brief – I think I did two day-trips for work last year, which involved getting up really early, taking the train down, and then sitting in an office building literally across the street from the train station until it was time to go home again. A few years back I went down for the Philly Zine Fest (http://www.phillyzinefest.com/), which was fun, but again, it was a sit-in-one-place-all-day kind of event, mostly, though I did meet up with some friends afterward. I think I saw the Liberty Bell when I was in 5th grade or so – my mom and I went down for a few days because she had a friend who was getting married in Philly, and my cousin and his wife were living there at the time. All I really remember is having very good Greek food for dinner.

    1. Oh it really was Heather! What a shame that every time you’ve been you’ve been stuck in meeting rooms! Good Greek food is a fantastic memory to have though!🙂

  12. Philadelphia is a terrific city. Some college friends and I were just there a few months ago for a fun weekend away, and it was great fun. The art museum and the Reading Terminal Market were definite highlights. I think we could have happily spent the whole weekend just in that market!

    1. I missed the two best bits, Teresa!! Next time I go I will have to make sure I visit the museum and the market – I love markets so I’m sure it will be wonderful!🙂

  13. Sounds like an excellent weekend — but, crucial point, how was your Thanksgiving dinner? Was it all traditional with the cranberry sauce and candied yams, or did your hosts shake things up a little bit?

    I am curious to see what you think of Zinn. He’s not exactly a comprehensive, kids’ textbook version of American history, which is probably what you need. I would offer to tell you lots of American history stories, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten everything since high school. I was much more interested in British history…

    1. Oh Jenny, we had every traditional food, right down to the yam and pumpkin pie! It was absolutely delicious!🙂

      I think you might be waiting a while for my thoughts Jenny but when I’ve finally finished we can tell each other history stories, me about your country and you about mine!🙂

  14. I love that photo of you waltzing among the leaves, Rachel! The only parts of the US I’ve visited are Montana, Idaho, Washington (closest to Alberta) and Florida (in-laws), but I think I’d like the east coast the best, I have an aunt in Boston now so maybe someday…!

    (And I will reply to your email soon, when life calms down a bit — I was moving half our furniture this last weekend — but I’m so glad you liked the book!)

    1. Thanks Carolyn! I just loved those leaves! You’ve seen loads of the US, and all the parts I want to visit! I’m desperate to get to the South and Mid West and West coast as I have only ever done New England and the East Coast. The East Coast is marvellous though, and for an Anglophile, I think you’d feel right at home in Boston especially!

      Take your time! Thank you SO much again for the book, I’ve been showing it off to all my friends!🙂

  15. Hahaha people are so funny about accents from other countries and I think your experience was cheery compared to what happened to my friend in Italy (she was blonde, people wanted to touch her hair – strangers on the street!).

    Aww this sounds like a lovely time was had and I enjoyed the facts about the Liberty Bell and the suffragette bell. So looking forward to you becoming a walking talking receptacle of American facts (Mastermind special subject potential there I think). But it does sound like there’s lot more for you to pack in – the Rocky steps, ahhhh borrow a dog, take pictures!

    1. I know, it’s hilarious! People try and copy me as well – it’s always an interesting experience!😉

      Oh goodness me! I will start to bore people soon! I’m glad someone enjoys my knowitallness! There is LOTS more for me to see and I am already looking forward to going back now I know more of what I missed.

  16. I have never, ever wanted to visit Philly, which I associate, not with Colonial history, but with tough guys in bars and boxing. This post charmed me; now my life will not be complete until I see Mr. Penn’s fair city!

  17. How great for you to experience a family Thanksgiving celebration. I’ve never been to Philadelphia and know very little about it. But it is in the title of one of my favourite cary Grant films!

    1. I know, it was so lovely. I would have been sad to have to eat in a restaurant like most of my friends.

      I hope you get to visit one day – in the meantime you can just watch The Philadelphia Story!

    1. Wow Simon, it’s certainly a place that made an impression on you! I’m so glad you had a brilliant time – I am desperate to go back and see more now myself!

  18. Yes, we Americans are utterly hopeless when it comes to accents. There’s that great part in Love, Actually when a guy comes over here because he KNOWS the girls will love him for his accent, and of course they do.
    There’s a movie you might like to rent called The Sixth Sense which is set in Philadelphia. Very good, very creepy, but is shows those houses, those streets. Bruce Willis is great in it. Don’t let anyone tell you what it’s about – just watch it. :<)

    1. I know, I love that scene Nan!

      I had no idea that The Sixth Sense was set in Philadelphia! Unfortunately I’ve already seen it so I know the twist BUT I will make sure I rewatch it soon to appreciate those Philly streets – thanks for telling me about it!

  19. When you come back to Philadelphia, make sure you go to the Rosenbach Museum (2008-2010 Delancey Street
    Philadelphia, PA 19103-6510
    (215) 732-1600). Dr. Rosenbach was an internationally know book dealer in the early half of the 1900’s. The museum owns some fantastic books and manuscripts, housed in the doctor’s former house. This is worth a visit – or two!

    1. Joan this sounds absolutely fantastic – I wish I’d known about that when I was there! I’ll definitely be going back though, so this will be one of the first places on my list! Thank you so much for telling me!

  20. I’m enjoying your words and pictures on American cities almost as much as your book posts! Please keep them coming – what a wonderful experience.

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