Modern Getaway: Philadelphia

As a Toronto sports fan, it’s been ingrained in me to dislike Philadelphia based on the ’93 World Series and the many playoff rounds played between the Leafs and the Flyers. But these days, both the NHL and MLB teams in the 416 are… well, they’re… you could say…

You know what, never mind.

Putting competitiveness aside, Laura and I decided to take a two-day jaunt to Philly in early February. After an extended and scenic 10-hour drive or so (the quick route should take about 7-8 hours), we checked into the Sonesta Philadelphia in the heart of the city off Market Street. We were warmly greeted at reception and shown to our King Room on the 23rd floor. It was beautiful. The Sonesta had recently undergone a renovation, and it spared no detail in making us feel like royalty.

After a great night’s sleep, we ventured out to the Eastern State Penitentiary, which was an operating prison between 1829 and 1971. While my trip to Alcatraz a few years ago is my benchmark for historical value when visiting prisons, Eastern State is definitely a close second.[What’s with this guy and prisons? —Ed.]

Laura and I did a self-guided tour with headphones and a mini MP3 player, complete with narration by Steve Buscemi. There was an eerie feeling throughout the joint. As we walked the many wings of the prison, we saw several cells with rusted bed frames, tired and decaying wall paint and decrepit toilets. There was a huge 3-D graph sculpture in the centre yard that showed the consistent rise in American crime rates over recent decades as well.

After getting out of jail, it was off to the bustling Reading Terminal Market for lunch where (in perhaps record time) Laura and I devoured an amazing Philly cheese steak sandwich courtesy of the fine folks at By George!

The Reading is similar to the St. Lawrence Market in the GTA but without the international feel—it was more focused on delicious American offerings, complete with Amish baked goods and an array of local Philly fare.

At present, I’m carrying some extra weight—I’ve been playing “lose and gain” with it for many years—and though it hitched a ride with me to Philly, it didn’t stop me from running up the “Rocky Stairs,” more formally known as the front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I can hear you all snickering out there:

“Suuure you did, Jay.”

“[snort] Jay? Running?”

“Who’s Jay Kana? And why are you people in my washroom?”

Hmph. Fine. Video evidence it is, then.

After lunch, we visited the highly recommended Franklin Fountain, an ice cream shop with a 1950s feel to it, complete with unique flavour combinations and era-appropriate uniforms. Next door is the oldest candy shop in North America, Shane’s Candies, which is another must-see on the Philly hit list. Shane’s has been serving up delicious candy since 1863 and we took some of it home with us. Upon entering, we regressed a good 30 years, feeling like small humans in a confectionery selling establishment. Er, that is, we were like, um… kids in a…

Afterwards, we drove around the downtown core, doing some in-car exploring of the different parts/villages of the city. One prominent thing we noticed was that Philadelphia had incredibly clean streets and sidewalks. There didn’t seem to be an excessive number of garbage bins, or multiple signs saying “Don’t Litter.” It was just… clean. To whoever’s in charge of that area at city hall: good job!

As Philly is the birthplace of American independence, we couldn’t miss seeing the Liberty Bell. It stirred up similar feelings as when I first saw the Statue of Liberty; while American history is layered and complex, the bell is a national beacon representing freedom.

We needed a nap at the hotel before dinner - what can I say, eating candy and ice cream is tiring. Dinner was enjoyed at High Street on Market, where we each had a sampler menu, enjoying items such as BBQ lamb, fried broccoli, Brussels sprouts (really!), caraway rye rigatoni, and the daily in-house-made bread and spreads, among others. The service was wonderful, the food was delightful and I’m really thankful that the hotel was only a few minutes away—we ate so much that it was all we could do to take the elevator upstairs and collapse into that perfect king-size bed.

The next morning, we went back to Reading Market for breakfast at Market Bakery, followed by picking up some doughnuts from an Amish bakery called Beiler’s Bakery. We also made a quick stop into DiNic’s for a roasted pork sandwich, which, like all the other food we consumed, was great.

Our last stop was at the Philadelphia City Hall observation deck. This city hall is the world’s tallest masonry building and is astonishingly beautiful. But even more astonishing was the view. 

The photos are great, but you’ve got to see it for yourself.

We had a few chats with Donna Schorr at Visit Philly (the tourism board) during our trip, and she offered lots of great tidbits about the city, including some of her personal faves for sights and attractions. She was a terrific resource for our short yet fun-filled trip.

Thank you, Philadelphia, for a wonderful two days. I promise we’ll get together again.

And now to politely borrow a bit from the tourism board’s slogan as a sign-off:

“With Love, [Jay and Laura], XOXO.”