My family’s not much on Halloween. My parents would find a reason to be out of town when I was little so I didn’t want to do the whole dress up, trick or treat, get candy-wasted thing, and that translated to a lot of apathy surrounding it in my young adulthood. So when I was asked whether I’d rather disguise myself and get actually wasted for Halloween or take a three-day trip up to Philadelphia, I answered in a split second.
We visited family friends. Or, really, family of friends, but my mom has a knack for turning strangers into our version of family in minutes, so it’s no wonder that by the time we left we’d been invited back to Philadelphia for Easter. Let me just brag on our hosts for a second. Their house is a little over a half hour away from the city and is nearly 300 years old (the original farmhouse was built in 1720). They bought it when it was essentially in ruins and have renovated it into looking like my dream home Pinterest board. If I ever decide to write a book, I’m pulling a Thoreau and retreating to their house. To top it off they are the consummate hosts with the most. It was like going on a three-day cruise, but with people you actually like. I hadn’t been that spoiled in ages, and my parents do a pretty good job at it by themselves.
Anyhow, onward to Philly! Philadelphia has played a massive role in the United States’ history. From being a city of revolution and democracy when the first Americans were busy throwing tea into harbors and overthrowing our pinkie-lifting overlords, to the modern-day cultural melting pot, Philadelphia has a rich background and is rife with things to explore.
Quick history lesson: In 1681, William Penn gets a charter from the British king to found what would become the colony of Pennsylvania. He wants to create a religious-inclusive-brotherly-love place as the center of his new land, and so he sends out a bunch of people to build a city in a grid-shaped pattern. They buy a bunch of land from settlers in New Sweden and start building. More people move in, effectively turning the city into a cultural melting pot of English, German, Finns, Swedes, Dutch, Welsh, etc. By the 1750s, Philadelphia was easily one of the biggest and most influential cities in the colonies, and was home to Benjamin Franklin, who it seems was the epitome of a workaholic (fireman, postmaster, inventor, fund-raiser, militia recruiter, college founder, fort builder, ambassador, printer, writer… just google it). Franklin and a handful of other elites essentially put Philadelphia on the map. The colonies’ first library and hospital were all implemented in Philadelphia, and Franklin brought over the British fire brigade model, first trying it on Boston before transferring to Philadelphia. It’s no wonder that when the founding fathers were wondering where to gather, Philadelphia was the answer. Two very important historical documents and a cracked bell later, the United States had Facebook-officially broken up with England and was well on their way to greatness (MAGA is not what they were envisioning).
Given that Philadelphia is synonymous with American history, our first stop had to be an ode to times past. The Liberty Bell, a symbol of freedom for multiple groups of people – first the founding fathers, then later abolitionists, suffragettes, US military forces, and the common man – is much smaller than you’d think it’d be to have had such an impact. Don’t get me wrong, it’s big for a bell, but it’s not Quasimodo big. We walked into the Liberty Bell exhibit, which is delightfully free, like a middle school field trip. The little kids were less than enthused about learning about a large metal thing, and Faerie asked me who Susan B. Anthony was, which made realize I’d failed as her older sister. The most interesting part of the Liberty Bell wasn’t the history, much of which would be interesting if it wasn’t already known, but rather watching everyone try to crowd around one side of the bell – despite it being circular. I guess taking a picture in front of a bell isn’t cool unless its crack is showing.
We wandered around Independence Hall, took some pictures with the Father of the American Navy, solemnly walked (I’ll be honest, with 10 kids it’s more like a brisk jog) past the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, and then Lora, our beyond excellent tour guide/commander, led the way to my first Philly cheesesteak experience. While there are many places to eat a sandwich, Geno’s and Pat’s are two of the most famous and are across an intersection from each other. During peak hours, lines nearly block off the intersection entirely, which is definitely hazardous, but I will brave almost anything for good food. Pro tip: Get the original cheese whiz (not at all like that abominable stuff that comes out of a can). It makes an absolute mess but it makes the sandwich at least 10 times better.
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We put our lives in peril for some sandwiches. They were 💣 though. Geno's is right across the street from Pat's King of Steaks – two of the most famous Philly Cheesesteak creators in Philadelphia. There are lines nearly blocking off the intersection throughout the day, so come prepared! We strongly recommend the original cheese whiz. It might be messy, but it's so so good.
Philadelphia is home to Isaiah Zagar, a mosaic artist who has seen fit to turn walls into masterpieces, using glass, tiles, quotes from his inspirations, folk art, and other materials to transform parts of the city. As we were walking we saw several of his works, and then went to view his largest installation piece on South Street called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. The kids spent an inordinate amount of time surveying a toilet he’d cemented to a wall. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a comment on modern times or if it was just a convenient conversation piece. Either way, very… interesting.
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PHILADELPHIA 🚲 The Magic Gardens are the largest installment of work by local American mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, spanning three city lots. Many of his other works can be found around South Street and often feature folk art or poetry that has inspired the artist's vision. 📷 @reaganleah
We spent the whole of the second day in Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. Nerd that I am, I was a bit more excited about the art itself than posing at the top of the flight of stairs like Rocky Balboa, but for the sake of being an impeccable tourist, I begrudgingly waved my wimpy biceps around.
Conservative estimate: we spent 4 hours in the museum, and saw (liberal estimate) half of the art. It’s huge. Massive. And packed. There weren’t ridiculous amounts of people so much as endless halls of history. And, according to Lora, there are massive vaults below the museum that are only open on special days for members filled with even more art. Needless to say, I was in heaven.
It may have been my favorite museum to date. It didn’t have my favorite pieces (although there were several that made top 20), nor did it have a bunch of renowned works. Rather, what made it special was the way they took whole entire rooms and turned it into an art installation. Instead of walking through white rooms with Han Dynasty vases in glass cases, you walk into a room paneled in dark wood with jade accents, the ceiling carved with dragon motifs and what looks like little bird houses (they’re homes for tiny Buddha) around the entirety of the outside, and three massive Buddha sitting at the head. It feels like walking into another time, another culture, and it wasn’t just in the Asian art wing – they had full rooms from late 1800’s New York City, a home taken straight out of 17th century England, and countless more.
I feel like I got a good dose of the city, and an equal dose of fun with friends, but I’ll be returning. I still have 1/2 a museum (plus a half dozen others) to visit. And there’s always Easter!
I know this was a month late. Food has given up entirely on writing and is sticking to taking photos, which honestly takes so much less time. I’m just trying to keep up! I’ll be back soon – once I find somewhere to go. XoXx Fernweh (& Food?)