A few years ago I was reading Hot Press Magazine, and in their travel section they had written this feature on Philadelphia (the online archive version doesn’t have all the pictures that made it so compelling). I read it, looked at the pictures and thought I’d like to go there, and since then it was always on my list when thinking about where I’d like to go in America. When I settled on doing the J1 in New York, part of the reason was it was a good location for travelling to other cities – I was able to get busses to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, and the time I spent travelling to all these different places was my favourite of the summer.
When I went to Philadelphia, I went alone. Given the short time frame and how much I wanted to do, this ended up being the best way to do it for me. I only had to worry about my own interests and my own schedule. The only reason I was able to fit so much into 3 days was because I had organised a schedule for myself that I had to stick to. This isn’t always the best way to travel, sometimes it’s better to be more laid back and free to wander, but if you’re determined to fit a lot in, the structure helps.
Here are the three key things that I feel made it possible to do everything in that time frame:
- Getting a Philadelphia Pass which gave me access to lots of different attractions and allowed me to save money too (I got a one day pass, so most of the stuff I fit into the second day. I visited four museums, went up the One Liberty Observation Deck, and got a free drink with my Philly Cheesesteak all in one day using the pass. I started early!).
- Figuring out the bus system from the get-go. This allowed me to get from one museum to the next quickly and keep within my schedule.
- Google maps. I am far too dependent on google maps, but it was especially helpful with the busses (it also helped I had an American sim with 2GB of data).
The first thing I did was book a tour because it would allow me to do something in a group, get to cover a number of attractions within a 2-3 hour time frame, and give me an opportunity to ask someone from Philadelphia for advice and directions. I did the Constitutional Walking Tour which took us to all the historical sites like the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin’s house. If you don’t have a lot of time when visiting a city, I definitely recommend doing this kind of tour because it allows you to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time!
The rest of my first day was spent at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and taking some time to walk around the downtown area of the city (I loved the city hall). I started my next day early so that I would arrive at the first museum on my list at the time it opened and I went from place to place, prioritising the things I knew I would be interested in and leaving out whatever didn’t grab me. The third day was the shortest because I was due to catch a bus to Washington DC in the early afternoon, so I had a quick look around the Reading Terminal Market and headed for my bus.
Below are some highlights from my quick trip to Philadelphia, at the top of my list for recommendations when you visit this city.
Top 3 things to do
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
After the tour on my first day I looked up a place called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. The gardens were created by an artist called Isaiah Zagar along with his wife, Julia. Using various materials like glass and mirrors and other “found objects”. The aim was to revitalise the area on South Street by creating murals and mosaics, and when you walk around the area you can see where these mosaics have spilled out onto the streets. I truly did find it a magical place and I spent a long time wandering around looking at all the art that surrounded me. The Magic Gardens are hard to describe using words (although I’m sure some writers out there could give a really beautiful description), so I feel it’s best to let the pictures do the talking themselves.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Aesthetically, Eastern State Penitentiary is quite the opposite to the Magic Gardens, but nevertheless was one of my favourite places that I visited on my second day. The penitentiary was first opened in 1829 and remained open until 1971. It was the first prison of it’s kind and became a model for similar systems around the world. Walking through its walls feels like walking through history, and the penitentiary was home to some notorious criminals like Al Capone and actually has a whole exhibition on gangsters who were housed in the prison. Here’s the most important thing you need to know, though: the audio guide is narrated by Steve Buschemi. I don’t see how you could need any further convincing now that you know this.
Probably the strangest part of my visit was the Mütter Museum. I made sure to visit this place on the recommendation of my AirBnB host. He described it to me as a “museum of medical oddities”, and it’s filled with a whole load of stuff I didn’t expect to be seeing that day – bones, organs, you get the idea. You can examine some brains, stare at some hearts, and adopt a skull if you’re so inclined. As you make your way to the bookshop, don’t forget to stop by the Soap Lady, a woman whose body was preserved by a fatty substance that had surrounded her body when she was buried. No pictures are allowed but you probably don’t want a visual memory of some of this stuff anyway. While the inside might be a little too unnerving for some, there is a garden filled with different plants used for medicinal purposes in the past and present and it was actually very peaceful to walk through.
Other places to visit in Philly
Other museums I visited included the Franklin Institute science museum (the Pixar exhibition is a lot of fun and very worth it) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where you can visit the Rocky statue and run up the steps if you’re into that), the One Liberty Observation Deck (going up tall buildings to look at the view starts to feel the same in every city you go to – I just went because it was part of my Philadelphia Pass). I of course also stopped for a Philadelphia Cheesesteak (while essentially a sloppy mess, I had to admit I liked it. I got it with the cheese whiz, the stuff they spray out of a can, because I was in America).
Travelling in this way can be tiring and I don’t always like to do it. It worked out for me on this occasion because I was willing to pass up certain attractions or different sections of museums to save time if I didn’t think I’d be interested in them. At least it goes to show though that if you are visiting Philly and you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, with a bit of planning (and maybe some coffee), it is possible to get a taste for all that this city has to offer!
All images my own unless otherwise stated.