Philadelphia – cheesesteaks, the founding of the US and a prison

Friday, 20/06/14
We had a megabus booked for our journey to Philapdephia from New York and it turned out to be a fairly cheap and easy way of getting there. We set off at around 11am and were in Philly and checked into our hostel by 2pm. We opted to stay right in the centre of the city as we didn’t have a car and were only in Philly for two nights so didn’t want to spend any time commuting.

The first afternoon there we wandered around the Old City and Historic District to get a feel for the sights. You can visit many historic places here, mainly to do with the founding of the United States and the start of the revolution. Being late on in the day we missed out on tickets to Independence Hall so opted to line up at 8:30am the next day to get our tickets for a tour, a free tour run by the National Parks Service who look after the buildings. It was in this hall that the Declaration of Independence was read that led to the revolution and in turn sparked the founding of the United States. Also on this sight the first Constitution of the United States was debated and finalised and George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the US. All in all a very monumental place for Americans.

With that decision made we walked down Market Street and had a look in at the Reading Terminal Market. We were both surprised at the quality and range of food and produce at this market. Being Philadelphia there was of course a variety of stalls doing cheese-steaks and other sandwiches but there were also bakeries, butchers, cheesemongers, candy stores etc. A lot of the stalls appeared to be run by Amish, with their distinctive dress and facial hair (the men that is). Again, surprising as we weren’t expecting to see Amish in the city but they do have to make money. Kirsty managed to find a GF cake here so with that consumed we walked towards South Street, a strip of cafes, eateries and shops to the South of the city centre. It seemed like a very diverse area with a strong African presence and there were murals and mosaics on the sides of many buildings portraying the history of the United States and Philadelphia. I had done my research and it was along South Street that I found ‘Jim’s’, the place at which I would try a cheese-steak sandwich. A cheese-steak is effectively a hoagie roll with that bizarre ‘cheese whiz’ substance spread all other and then filled with very thinly sliced and fried rib-eye steak and topped with fried onions. It did taste good as expected and the cheese whiz wasn’t too bad, in fact it kind of made the sandwich. I had now completed the holy trilogy of American sandwiches – the ‘Po-Boy’, the ‘Reuben’ and the ‘Cheese-steak’. I could rest contented.

Old City

Old City, Philadelphia


A customary Philly Cheese-steak sandwich

Cheese-steak out the way we walked back to our hostel through the Old City and Historic District, with the streets lined with beautiful 18th century houses. We also checked out the oldest, continuously occupied street in the United States, Elspreth Alley. This is a small cobbled alley with houses dating back to the very early 1700s, all lived in and kept in pristine condition. Kirsty almost tried to walk into one with an open doorway thinking it was one of those ‘living museums’ but saw someone making dinner inside so quickly retreated.

South Street

South Street, Philadelphia

Elspreth's Alley

Elspreth’s Alley, Philadelphia – the oldest continuously inhabited street in the USA

We rested our weary legs at the hostel before heading out for dinner, I had my cheese-steak earlier so it was Kirsty’s turn to eat. A simple veggie plate later and we wandered towards and around Franklin Square, one of the original parks back when Philadelphia was conceived. Being a nice balmy evening people were out and about, playing mini-golf, riding a carousel, playing stick-ball or just sitting around chatting. We called it a night and wandered back to our hostel (Apple Hostel) where we turned in knowing we had an early start the next day.

Saturday, 21/06/14
We lined up for our tickets at the Visitors Centre at 8:30am and managed to get a couple for the 9am tour so we walked over to the Independence Hall and waited for our guide to begin the tour. It was a brief, 30 minute tour but it have us a good run through of the Declaration of Independence, revolution, Constitution and founding of the United States of America involving, Washington, Franklin, John Adams etc. It was fascinating to stand in the building where these declarations and speeches were made that led to such a moment in human history. I couldn’t help but think what the world would be like if this event had not taken place. With our tour complete, we walked back over to Market Street to get a bus around town and saw the Liberty Bell on the way, we didn’t queue up but just saw it through a window. The Liberty Bell has become to be very symbolic for Americans and there was a massive queue to get in and see it ‘face-to-face’ but we were content to get a viewing through the glass.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall in the distance, queue for the Liberty Bell to the left

Independence Hall

Independence Hall, where the Declaration if Independence was debated and read

Feeling fatigued from all the walking of the past week we hopped on the tourist bus and just did a loop around town spotting various sights including the ‘Rocky’ steps and statue at the Museum of Art on the way. We got off at the Reading Terminal Market for an early lunch. I had heard about another sandwich, a rival to the cheese-steak and an award winner of best sandwich in America so of course I had to try it. It was from ‘Dinic’s’ and consisted of a hoagie roll with thinly sliced roast pork, provolone cheese and broccoli rabe (sprouting broccoli with garlic). It was delicious but in my very limited experience the ‘Po-Boy’ of New Orleans and ‘Reuben’ of New York City have Philadelphia beaten for sandwiches. We also tried some bacon dipped chocolate here. You may recall from our time in New York my idea of this, having tried some bacon chocolate. Alas, someone had beaten me to it but after sampling theirs I know I can do better so will be undeterred in my quest when I return home.

Reading Terminal Market

Some Amish pretzel makers at the Reading Terminal Market

Reading Terminal Market

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

In Philadelphia there is a popular attraction of ‘Eastern State Penitentiary’, the world’s first penitentiary. That is a building to house convicted criminals for them to become penitent about their crimes. It was fascinating to walk around and was in operation from the early 1800s through to the early 1970s. It is now in a state of ‘maintained ruin’. The only maintenance done to the buildings and grounds are those to make it safe for visitors and to prevent further deteriation. The prison sits amongst houses and at one point was 2 miles outside of the city atop a hill. It was built to look like gothic castle from the outside to promote fear into the citizens and deter crime. Inside, prisoners were housed in rather large cells, one to a cell and each with their own small exercise yard. They didn’t see anyone in all their time in the prison, spending all the time in their cell or adjoining yard. Later on in the history of the prison, this separatist style of prisoner reform was abandoned to make way for the congregation style where prisoners mixed. Al Capone was kept here for a time on a charge of concealing a firearm. One of his two criminal convictions along with tax evasion.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelpdia

Eastern State Penitentiary

One of the two storey cell blocks at Eastern State Penitentiary

We caught the bus back to the Historic District where we were staying and had a quick drink whilst watching some World Cup then had a lie down back at the hostel before the evening. We had made some friends in San Francisco through Drakey – Richard and Laura. Kirsty had kept in touch with Laura and she had arranged to meet up that evening as they had recently moved to Philadelphia. We met up and went for a trawl around some of the local bars, starting with the City Tavern. A tavern, re-built on the site and in the style of an olde world tavern. The founding fathers of the United States are alleged to have drank here and no doubt debated and talked through their plans for breaking free of the Empire. The beer was even made from original recipes of Benjamin Franklin, a brewer as well as philosopher, inventor and general all round genius back in the 1700s. With a founding father tasting paddle down the hatch, we went to an Irish/Polish bar for a beer and deep-fried goodness (tater-tot, perogies, chicken tenders, fries and buffalo wings) and then had one more around the corner in a standard tourist-friendly drinking hole. A great night and so pleased to have kept in touch with Richard and Laura. Hope to see them again some day. A lovely way to end out time in Philly.



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