Philadelphia turned out to be a great place to hang out for a couple days. It is only a short flight from Toronto, which made this a great candidate for a weekend getaway!
Getting there was half the fun!
My journey actually started one day earlier. I was originally scheduled to fly into PHL on the evening of October 9, 2015 and stay there that night.
As it turned out, many flights to and from the US Eastern seaboard were delayed or cancelled due to weather. My flight was unfortunately cancelled.
It was late in the evening, and all flights for the rest of the day were fully booked, so the best I was offered was the same flight scheduled for 24 hours from my original time.
I can’t lose a day like that!
So the calls to American Airlines began. I managed to call them 4 times while waiting in line at the AA customer service counter at Pearson airport, each time getting a different flight.
The customer service counter turned out to be not helpful, so with one last call after waiting an hour, I got myself an early morning business class flight to New York La Guardia instead. I planned to make my way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, then a Greyhound bus towards Philadelphia arriving just after lunch.
My flight arrived at LGA on time, and I made my way to Port Authority Bus Terminal in good time, but the earliest I was able to purchase a Greyhound bus ticket was for a departure 4 hours later!
Obviously, I did what any crazy normal person would do: stand around the departure gate for the next hour to snag a stand-by seat on the next trip.
The broken free wi-fi on the bus turned out to the literally the least of the issues on this journey!
Now on to the good stuff!
Did you know: the world’s largest operating pipe organ is in the Macy’s store in Center City Philadelphia?
This is the best free thing in Philly. What a great show, in such an unlikely venue!
The organists only play at certain times of the day, and not everyday, so be sure to check the schedule on the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ website.
Sound fills the entire grand court, so you can hear it well in any area. However the best spots to view are on the 2nd floor balcony directly opposite.
At the end of the concert, visit the console itself and have a chat with the organist. Be sure to sign the guest book!
Bonus: if you tell the Macy’s information desk that you are there to visit the organ, you can also get a Macy’s shopping discount.
There is no doubt the the city’s central focus is the city hall. It is the largest municipal building in North America, and it is magnificent!
The centre courtyard is a great place to sit down for lunch and for people watching.
Of course, many people come to Philadelphia just for the historical sites in and around Independence mall. It is not surprisingly one of the most popular domestic travel destinations for Americans to learn about the birth of their nation.
For visitors, the best thing is all the sites are free, except for the long lineups to get in. Best advice is to arrive early at opening time.
Entrance to Independence Hall is only by guided tours, held every 15 minutes. One would need to get a free timed entrance ticket from the visitors center, and you will only be admitted at the specified time. Arrive at the visitor center early for the best chance of receiving a ticket. They usually run out of tickets by mid-morning.
Reading Terminal Market
Pop in for lunch, or any indulgence that tickles your fancy.
Just don’t come on Sunday expecting the famous Amish bakery to open though. That is their rest day.
Squares, Plazas, Statues
Many elements of the city’s original master plan were actually realized. The most visible elements are the geographically symmetric squares and plazas. Four squares form the corners of a rectangular area, while the city hall represents the centre square. It is always great to see park space in the middle of downtown.
As you walk along the streets, you will encounter at least a few pieces of street art along the way.
Even the bus shelters became art pieces.
This is a great city if you like statues and memorials, everything from larger-than-life former presidents to an Irish famine memorial to an art installation dedicated to dominoes in JFK Plaza.
Speaking of JFK Plaza – it is otherwise known as LOVE Plaza, for obvious reasons.
There is always a lineup to get a photo taken with the LOVE sign, so be prepared to wait, or just come really early or really late at night!
Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul
This is the largest Catholic church in the state, and played host to Pope Francis during his US visit in 2015.
In each city I visit, I always try to seek out churches to just stroll inside and take a break for a few minutes. These really are quite oases in the middle of hectic city centres.
The fact that these church interiors are almost always fascinating and beautiful never hurts. This cathedral reminds of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
In front of the main entrance are the dancing fountains of the Twin Cities Park, which is in front of the larger iconic fountains of Logan Square. All of this includes a view of city hall in the background, and a prime view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I think this is the most beautiful spot in Philadelphia.
Geno’s and Pat’s are the most well-known cheesesteak haunts in the city, but really, any specialty cheesesteak restaurant in town will blow away any “imitation Philly cheesesteak” you have eaten anywhere else.
There is no need waste time to read the menu. You only need to decide:
– with Cheez Whiz or without
– with onions or without
These places are always packed, and you don’t want to the dumb tourist holding up the line!
I would not go as far as declaring this place a shoppers heaven, but one major advantage is no tax on apparel!
So, go nuts on the Chestnut Street shopping district. Or if you have a car, King of Prussia’s giant shopping mall is just a short drive away.
SEPTA is the agency that operates subways, trolleys, buses, and regional rail.
Service is good, especially in and around Center City, but be aware that there is no free transfer from one vehicle to another, except at City Hall stations (transfer between Market-Frankford subway line, Broad Street Line, and trolleys), and 30th Street station (between Market-Frankford line and trolleys). No free transfers at all to/from buses or to/from regional rail.
If you arrive from the airport, the best way to the city is the Regional Rail Airport Line. There is a station at each terminal.
Be advised that there are no ticket machines or vendors at the airport. You must first board the train and buy your ticket from the conductor (which unfortunately costs more)
Indego Bike Share
Indego is a bike share programmed launched in spring of 2015. It is a fair deal for locals, who can buy subscripions for $15/month that entitles them to unlimited 60-minute rides.
Unfortunately, visitors get a raw deal: $4 for each 30 minute trip. I recommend finding a rental at a bicycle shop instead.
A final note about accomodation: hotels are not cheap, especially anywhere in or near Center City. There are unfortunately only 2 hostels in the city, so they are relatively expensive as well.
Notwithstanding that, I personally recommend the Apple Hostel. Its best features are the daily organized events that bring everyone together in the lounge.
Bring your ISIC or Hostelling International membership card if you have them. Either one will save you $3 per night.