Catherine is an avid traveler and applies her experience in the environmental sciences to give a global view of travel domestic and abroad.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Philadelphia E - Penn’s Landing, an affordable but noisy hotel in downtown Philadelphia. Being from New York City, the noise of the cars crossing the major road outside the window of our hotel was worth the convenient location to all of the sights in Philadelphia. The hotel offered a convenient shuttle request service, so we had a reliable taxi service for exploring the town without our car since all areas of the downtown were only a short taxi drive away. We were ready to start exploring the historic sights and nightlife of the bustling, gritty city.
1. The Cheesesteak Challenge
Since it was our first trip to Philadelphia I knew I wanted to try Philadelphia's famous Philly cheesesteaks. After extensive research, we found the two most famous cheesesteak locations in the heart of the city and, to our surprise, were located directly across the street from each other: Pat's King of Steaks - Original Philly Cheese Steak and Geno's Steaks. These dueling sandwich locations have such a heated competition that they go so far as to not serve anyone seen coming from across the street from the opposing shop.
And don’t dare ask for a “Philly” cheesesteak; remember, to them, it’s just a cheesesteak. I would suggest getting the works at both locations for a fair comparison of their signature creation.
The Saturday we arrived we went straight to the corner of East Passyunk Avenue and South 9th street, where these two shops are located and decided to try Pat’s first for lunch. It was my first cheesesteak, I have to admit, and it was quite scrumptious.
2. Independence National Historic Park: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell
We decided to spend the day visiting the historic sites of Philadelphia all conveniently located in the same square in Independence National Historic Park. This is an actual national park located in the heart of the city featuring sites associated with the American Revolution and the founding of the country.
Independence Hall can be seen with a scheduled tour while the Liberty Bell Plaza has an entrance fee to walk through the museum, which leads to the Liberty Bell at the end. The Independence Hall tour is lead by a historian of all things American history, and he excites you in seeing the very room where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were not only debated but signed.
The park is located in the Old City and has art galleries, museums and other attractions within walking distance. However, because we went in the middle of a brutally cold winter, we only visited those sites in the park.
3. Mac’s Tavern
Being a huge fan of the FX show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, we knew we wanted to have dinner at the restaurant owned by one of the creators, executive producers and co-stars, Rob McElhenney. He named it Mac’s Tavern, paying homage to his character on the show.
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Located on Market Street within walking distance of the main downtown area, the ambiance is an old Philadelphia Tavern feel, though the food there was beyond 'bar-food' and the American cuisine was quite delectable. Their craft beer selection was outstanding and their signature dish—Mac's Chili—paired with the Chubby Knuckle Burger was everything you'd expect from this an all-American bar and more.
4. South Street
We took a walk to South Street to see the local nightlife and do some bar hopping. This main street is a hub for locals and tourists alike, with over 300 shops and 60 restaurants, cafes and bars. There are entertainment venues for all kinds from theater to live music. After we exhausted ourselves with the people watching and filled ourselves with delicious food and beer, we took the quick taxi drive back to our hotel for a good night's sleep to be well rested for day two of our weekend trip.
The next day we tried the second Philly cheesesteak location, Geno’s Steaks. There is no seating at Geno’s. You just walk up to the window and place your order outside. We enjoyed the sandwich in our car and gave our final judgment of which place has the better cheesesteak. My vote was for Pats and my boyfriend's was for Geno’s…the debate lives on.
Driving from Downtown Philly to Valley Forge
5. Valley Forge
We then bid our goodbyes to downtown Philly and made our way to Valley Forge National Historic Park, home to Washington’s Headquarters, soldiers’ log huts and authentic cannons and muskets you can walk right up to and touch.
Valley Forge was the site of the 1777–78 winter encampment of the Continental Army. No wars were fought here, but because of the brutal living conditions, many of Washington’s soldiers did die here. It's a drive north from downtown Philadelphia that can take 25 minutes without traffic but 40 minutes to an hour with.
We started at the Visitor Center to learn some history of the Park and receive a map of the grounds. Due to the cold weather, we were unable to enjoy the majority of outdoor activities available at the park and instead followed the guided driving tour around the facility.
We passed the artillery park, original lodgings used by Washington and his soldiers and many monuments dedicated to the army there. The sacrifices made by these soldiers that lived in log huts are brought to life on these grounds. It was quite fitting to visit here during the cold winter as a fog rolled in along the hills of the park to truly understand what Washington's soldiers may have experienced during their time here.
6. Washington Memorial Chapel and The Justice Bell
The only stop we made on the guided trail tour was the Washington Memorial Chapel. This is an active church open to the public for visitors. The church was built as a tribute to George Washington, which can clearly be seen in the stained glass windows display above the large entrance doors that depict scenes from his life. The cornerstone for this church was placed in 1903 and has been a community church ever since. There is some great history here, and even though I am not particularly religious, I could appreciate the beautiful architecture and historical significance of the church.
A replica of the Liberty Bell, the Justice Bell, is also housed here as a representation of the women’s battle to win the right to vote. It was used to draw attention to the suffrage movement until 1920, when the 19th amendment was passed. In these church halls are galleries and displays that show artifacts of the continental army and even personal possessions of George Washington including his surveying equipment, field cups, and the Commander-in-Chief's six-pointed stars flag.
In a long weekend, we were able to see historical sites and enjoy the downtown nightlife and restaurants located in the heart of Philadelphia and the countryside that surrounds it. This is a walking city, so I would suggest visiting in the spring months so it’s easier to get around. You should also make it a point to stay in the middle of the city since most things, besides Valley Forge, are within walking distance.
© 2013 Catherine Stolfi