I had a birthday recently and I didn’t want to spend it doing the same old same old in New York City. I yearned to go somewhere I’d never been before. The only problem was, after my December travel extravaganza to Guatemala and Ireland, I was going to have to keep within a certain budget for my January birthday trip. That budget was exactly $0 (roughly equivalent to €0 or ¥0). It ruled out an overnight stay anywhere, so the search for a destination was immediately limited. It also seemed to suggest I would have to find somewhere I could walk to. New York’s quite big so it would take an awful lot of walking to get out of.
I pondered the conundrum as I stood in front of the subway ticketing machine, poised to purchase my monthly commuter card. Wait a minute, I thought, in a moment of blinding inspiration, what if I didn’t purchase a monthly commuter card (if I allow myself extra time and bundle up against the elements I can walk most places I need to get to in NYC), but instead used my travel allowance for the month to…. travel? How far could I get on a transit check card? With a little bit of help from good old Google, I discovered you can get all the way to Philadelphia. Hop the NJ Transit from Penn Station to Trenton, and then switch to SEPTA Transit which will take you right into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. So that’s exactly what I did.
I rose at the crack of dawn – earlier, actually, dawn was yet to crack – so I could make the 2.5 hour journey and still have a good chunk of day to explore Philly. My plans were thwarted by the unexpected closure of my local subway station – so I went with the flow and decided I wasn’t going to make the early train, and ambled leisurely along 9th avenue all the way down to Penn Station on foot. I was rewarded with views of the sun rising behind the city’s skyscrapers. There’s always a silver lining – or in this instance – a blazing orange one.
The journey itself was relatively uneventful but the time passed remarkably quickly as I pushed my nose up against the window and watched the New Jersey landscape whizzing by. Things got a lot more picturesque after New Brunswick, and the frosty morning made everything sparkle. A quick change in Trenton and I was in Philadelphia. The 30th Street Station is lovely; the main concourse is vast with cathedral-like windows and art deco features.
Off I set along John F Kennedy Boulevard to explore Philly. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised and a little deflated to see the way flanked by great glassy skyscrapers. I had skyscrapers galore in NY, I’d come here to escape them. My disappointment dissolved, however, when I spotted City Hall looming at the end of the boulevard. This was more like it.
I confess right now, I hadn’t done any research on what Philadelphia has to offer, preferring instead to happen upon things and discover my own version of the city, rather than follow some prescribed route of must-see things. It usually makes for a more personal experience. The first thing that leapt out at me was the abundance and beauty of the sculptures dotted around the city in the most unexpected of places.
The other aspect of this city that I adored were the murals scattered around, turning unremarkable buildings into something extraordinary. There’s actually a ‘Mural Mile‘ here, and a route you can follow to take in all the murals on offer, but I a) didn’t have a map and b) as mentioned earlier, was in the mood to just let things happen upon me. If I visit again, I shall probably explore the Mural Mile more, but for now, here are some of the wonderful murals I found.
Now I was leaving the shiny new part of Philadelphia behind and moving into the older quarters. Looking back it was interesting to see the clash of the eras jostling with each other for attention.
It was so much brighter now that there were no skyscrapers blocking out the sun. I started to feel like I was really on holiday. Straight down Market Street and to the right, there was a long line to see the Liberty Bell – now I’m not much of a stand in line person, but it seemed to be moving fairly quickly, so I joined in and pretty soon stood in front of the famously cracked bell.
I took a quick peek in Independence Hall too while I was there – it’s nicely staged to represent how things might have looked back in the day but I’m not big on staged history, so I didn’t dally too long.
And now I was off exploring the cobbled walkways of Independence Park. I wandered past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Carpenters’ Hall and Merchants’ Exchange, taking a quick detour to the 18th Century Garden, which is lovely, but goodness, it’s tiny. I’ve been spoiled by my European upbringing, where you practically trip over the most spectacular 18th century gardens on your way to the shops. OK I’m exaggerating. A little.
One of the more interesting structures in the park was the City Tavern. It’s still a functional tavern and restaurant, and although the period-dressed staff lends a rather Disney-esque air to the whole enterprise, there are some lovely details and the tavern itself was filled with the rich aroma of ales and lagers – the smell of the beer alone was enough to get you a little squiffy. It was a delicious change from the sterile, bleach-scented bars so prevalent in today’s world of hand sanitizer devotees.
Onward I pushed towards the waterfront, passing a crazily popular ice cream parlour by the name of Franklin Fountain. The huge line of people outside was enough to a) intrigue me and b) deter me. I did glance at the list of flavours, though, and have got to try the Teaberry Gum ice cream next time I’m in town.
When I reached the waterfront by way of Penn’s Landing, there was a strangely empty ice rink on the banks of the river – although the edges of the rink were filled to capacity with trendy teens looking… trendy. Perhaps the rink was getting ready to open, it looked terribly lonely on the empty ice. Apart from a lone yacht the Delaware river was quiet and not at all picturesque as I had imagined it to be, so I left the banks and headed northward. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I think perhaps I was still searching for that one experience or encounter that would define Philadelphia for me.
And then I found it. On 2nd Street, just north of the freeway entrance, Christ Church is a sweet little church known as ‘The Nation’s Church’; Benjamin Franklin is buried here, George Washington and John Adams attended services here. The church itself is lovely, and the church historian, Neil Ronk, is a wealth of information and an absolute pleasure to talk to. He regaled me with tales of the Irish in Philadelphia, the history of the church, and when I told him I’d seen the Liberty Bell his eyes lit up. He pointed to a rusty old bell hung on a wooden construction in the corner of the church and said ‘Let me tell you how we do things in Philadelphia.’ He went on to explain that this bell was Christ Church’s original bell, crafted in London in 1702. In 1845 it was loaned to the chapel at Christ Church hospital. They got it back last June. As they hadn’t figured out what they were going to do with the bell, it was still hanging from a wooden frame in the church. ‘Would you like to ring it?’ Neil asked, eyes glinting mischieviously. A chance to ring a bell that had pealed to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence? How could a girl refuse?
Slowly and carefully I struck the bell and the ensuing bong, deep and rich and deliciously melodic, reverberated along the walls and over the ceiling. I looked around this beautiful little church and breathed in the atmosphere. I had found my little piece of Philadelphia.
As I wandered back towards the station I let images wash over me. Doors hiding untold stories caught my eye – who knows why, perhaps I was still on a high from ringing the bell, perhaps the beer fumes from the city tavern were having an effect.
Streets opened up before me, begging to be explored, but the day was drawing to a close and I had a train to catch. Onward, past alleys and Chinatown and skyscrapers and English phone boxes.
A quick detour to Rittenhouse Square, a lovely little park which packs a lot of punch into a tiny little space, peppered with whimsical statues and follies guaranteed to bring out your inner child. It was filled to capacity with the oddest ensemble of disparate groups – disaffected youth, lone musicians, elderly gents playing chess, families out for an evening constitutional, toddlers tearing around at breakneck speed chuckling uproariously, dogs taking their owners for a walk. I loved it.
Crossing the bridge to the station, I caught the sunset over Shuylkill river and a stately eagle adorning the bridge.
But as I sat on the platform, flicking through the shots I’d taken that day, there was one image I kept coming back to over and over. I saved it for last, because it is my favourite. A dog staring out the window, perhaps waiting for his owners to take him for a walk in Rittenhouse Square.
Back in New York, I still had some money left on my transit check card to do pay-as you-go for longer trips, and have spent January walking the shorter distances. My month without a monthly commuter card is drawing to a close, but despite the plummeting temperatures and the extra time it takes for me to get anywhere, all I can say is this – totally worth it!