This year is the first time in my entire professional career that I had Memorial Day off. Until now – with the exception of 2020 and 2021 – I had always been flying off to a new city to kick off ACHA’s annual meeting. To celebrate, Sean and I wanted to get away for the weekend. There were two conditions. One, it had to be within driving distance, and two, we had to stay at a Marriott to use our free nights that expire next month. Thus our decision became fairly obvious: what better time than now to spend three days in Philadelphia?
Sean’s been to Philly several times, but this was my first visit. I hadn’t necessarily resisted in the past, but I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. To me, this city was simply the Penguins (EW), Eagles, and Philly cheesesteaks. Obviously, I’m an idiot because there is so much more to this eclectic town.
I’ll start with the food. Philly is truly a foodie’s paradise. I’ll discuss cheesesteaks in a minute, but there is something for everyone packed into this easily walkable and compact city. Amish bakery? Check. Chinatown packed with tons of unique flavors? You bubble-tea betcha*. An expansive indoor/outdoor Italian market? Yum. Upscale eateries? Yep. Funky coffeehouses? Check. And finally, old-timey candy and soda shops? Check and check.
Cheesesteak Deep Dive
For anyone who doesn’t know, a cheesesteak is a sandwich made from thinly sliced pieces of beef and melted cheese served on a hoagie roll. I’m not usually a history person, but I had to do a deep dive into the origin of this famous sandwich. In the early 20th century, Philadelphians Pat and Harry Olivieri originally owned a hot dog stand. One day, they decided to make lunch for themselves using chopped sauteed beef and grilled onions. While Pat was eating the sandwich, a cab driver stopped by and requested one for himself. The sandwich developed a following, and, well, the rest is history.
Today the recipe is largely unchanged. You can order a cheesesteak with or without peppers and onions, with or without mushrooms, and then choose between provolone, American, or Cheeze Wizz. I don’t typically eat beef, but I made an expectation for this time-honored culinary tradition. Typically if you’re asked where to get a cheesesteak, people will tell you either Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s Steaks. These two powerhouses are across the street from each other and engage in a friendly competition that has gone on for years.
We, however, got a recommendation for a third option: Jim’s South St. South Street is often referred to as the sexiest street in Philly and serves as the city’s melting pot. A wonderfully eclectic lineup of businesses includes over 300 shops and more than 60 eateries, cafes, and bars. Most stores are independently owned which is always a plus for us. It’s worth a visit for the people watching alone. And, of course, the cheesesteak from Jim’s was delicious.
On With the Story
Aside from the food, Philly is a funky mix of new and old. The Old City neighborhood boasts charming cobblestone streets and plenty of 18th-century charm. We signed up for a tour of Independence Hall and enjoyed a brief history lesson before wandering through rose gardens and carefully manicured parks. We spent an afternoon in Franklin Square which was the perfect spot for our daughter to run and play. These pieces of history are juxtaposed perfectly with the funkier neighborhoods like South Street and Chinatown. I didn’t meet a corner of the city I didn’t like.
On our final day, we visited Philadelphia’s Magic Garden which was easily my favorite part of the trip. The Magic Garden is the ongoing life’s work of artist Isaiah Zagar who uses tiles, bottles, mirrors, and even bike wheels to create two indoor galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden. I’ve never seen anything like this and highly recommend a visit.
Overall I enjoyed our three days in Philadelphia immensely. With the close proximity to our home, I’m sure we will be back again sooner than later. If anyone has recommendations for future visits please leave them in the comments.
Tips and Tricks
Where We Stayed: W Philadelphia (Marriott brand hotel); very comfortable modern rooms; our daughter loved the heated outdoor pool as well
Where We Ate:
- Dim Sum Garden: can get busy; reservations not required
- Jim’s South St.: long lines expected; mostly carry out
- Isgro Pastries: very close to the Italian Market; the cannolis are amazing
- Gran Caffe L’Aquila: vaccination records required for dine-in; takeout available
- Shane Confectionery: masks required for entry
- Vivi Bubble Tea
Where We Went:
- Independence Hall: reservations required for a tour inside the hall; entrance to the grounds is free but you do need to go through security
- Philadelphia’s Magic Garden: reservations/tickets required with timed entry
- Reading Terminal Market: tons of food vendors in one location; can get very busy; Amish stalls are closed on Sundays
- Italian Market/9th Street Market: indoor/outdoor
What We Missed:
- Please Touch Museum: children’s museum; reservations/tickets required
- Liberty Bell: lines get super long so we didn’t want to wait with a temperamental 19-month-old
*I hate myself for this pun but there’s no going back now.