As an 18-year-old in 1853, a decade before he became Mark Twain and a famous writer, Samuel Clemens was impressed with Philadelphia.
I am decades past age 18—and decades away from becoming a famous writer—but I agree with Clemens/Twain’s sentiments. I found Philadelphia to be wonderfully amusing … and stimulating, invigorating, and illuminating.
It helps that I had the best of hosts during my three-day visit in June: Jim DePhilippo, the Philadelphia CVB connection known to many NTA members, and Anthony Stipa, the organization’s communications manager. These two introduced me to a city I should have visited sooner in my travels, but had not.
I’m so glad I did. It’s a major city with smaller-town qualities. The city center is entirely walkable, and the people are totally friendly.
On the first evening of my Philadelphia story, Jim and Anthony took me to One Liberty Observation Deck on the 57th floor of One Liberty Place (about three minutes from the Sonesta Hotel, my marvelous accommodations).
"There are any number of ways to see the city, but this is a great place to start,” Jim said. “You get a great view of the city.”
The observation deck is the tallest standing attraction in Philadelphia, and the first in the city to be built higher than the statue of William Penn atop City Hall. It’s open every day of the year and has a well-designed motorcoach drop-off and pick up area. Up top, photo ops can range from skyline sunsets to scenic selfies.
I expected to get a heavy dose of history in Philadelphia—we’ll get to that—and before I arrived, I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to Philly’s food. But after a series of epic meals there, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. We dined at both innovative new restaurants and comfy old eateries.
And Philadelphians own their foodiness, as Alethia Calbeck, also with the CVB, explained.
“What I love about our restaurant scene is the number of chef owners. The guy who’s cooking your entrée also owns the chair you’re sitting in,” she said.
Beyond the restaurants, I discovered two other food-rich arenas that will satisfy a wide swath of appetites.
The Reading Terminal Market is a beehive of food stalls and lunch counters, along with other stands featuring fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and flowers.
“There’s an area available for group seating,” Jim told me later, “but most tour leaders let the group loose to explore the market on their own.”
Another great spot for grazing is The Bourse, an upscale food court housed in a century-old stock exchange building. Vendors offer international cuisine, teas, cocktails, pastries, and cheesesteaks. It’s interesting food, and it’s near the major museums and Colonial hot spots.
Spirit of history
The spirit of the founding and the founders of the United States is palpable. History is celebrated here because so much of it was created here. Cooked up by Colonists. Produced by patriots.
My Colonial immersion began at the National Constitution Center, where I noted two absolute must-do’s. The first is “Freedom Rising,” a stirring presentation about post-Revolution America. A talented actress delivered a convincing soliloquy that, along with a multimedia display, explained how a truly national government was formed in 1787.
After the show, I walked through a series of exhibits that highlight the history and the enormous challenges of creating and preserving citizens’ rights as Americans—then and now.
The other must-do is Signers Hall, a room with 42 life-sized bronze statues of the Founding Fathers who signed the Constitution, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton.
The docent told me that kids really like this room … so I’m a kid. I was utterly fascinated by the faces—and the physical presence—of the nation’s earliest leaders.
I kept thinking about how these Constitutional Convention delegates traveled for weeks to get to Philadelphia to make momentous decisions that charted a nation’s path. I had made the 600-mile trip in one morning.
The attraction also has exhibits that make return visits a new experience. Opening in summer 2020 is one that will commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which 100 years before, gave women the right to vote.
For my next history lesson, Jim took me to the Museum of the American Revolution. Although there’s much I know about this era, I had never really felt it quite so much.
“We have audio-visuals, touch screens, immersive elements, and tableaus depicting real people,” said Alex McKechnie, the museum’s public relations manager. “We tell the story through the lens of those who are not often talked about—people on the margins: women, African-Americans, and laborers.”
They also tell a story—in a 12-minute multimedia presentation—about a person who is often talked about. And its focus of the show is a remarkable artifact: the tent that served as General George Washington’s office and sleeping quarters during much of the war.
“‘Washington’s War Tent’ is the gem of our collection. It’s the culminating event of a visit to the museum,” Alex said.
The art part
Before I departed the city, Anthony took a few travel writers and me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a law, I think, that you have to run up the steps and rejoice at the top, and then get a photo of yourself in front of the “Rocky” statue in that same celebratory pose.
But go inside, too. You’ll rejoice at seeing what the museum offers: from paintings by Renoir and van Gogh to the China sets of several U.S. presidents and fine examples of Philadelphia furniture with ball-and-claw feet.
What made the difference for me was having a knowledgeable docent who brought the art to life. After learning about a painting’s composition of elements and colors, plus background information about the artist and the time, I walked away feeling like an expert.
“We can help arrange admission and provide guided tours of the permanent collections, special exhibitions, and the Rodin Museum, as well as tours of the historical houses in Fairmount Park,” said Shari Feldman, manager of group sales. There are six such houses in the park, two of which the museum administers, and Shari can help arrange tours at all of them.
This was an eye-opening trip for me. I knew very little about the city, but through NTA, I connected with people who know everything about the city.
Ryan O’Connor, general manager of Entertainment Cruises, explained dozens of ways that groups can ply the Delaware River and eat (lunch or dinner), play (bingo, Gospel music, DJ jams), and enjoy the skyline views of Philadelphia. Ryan has two ships, one large and one small, and he can customize a cruise to fit the size or celebration of a group.
And Jim is such a remarkable resource. Walking through the historical district and discussing so many distinctive restaurants and hotel options, I was struck by the real value of working with a DMO. Jim understands price points and space, and given the age, aims, and budget of a group, his mind can sort through the options for lodging and food—computer-like—and he’ll produce a quick solution.
And then he can tell you about unique offerings and experiences at attractions I visited as well as others, such as the Ben Franklin Museum, the Betsy Ross House, the Liberty Bell, and Christ Church (the birthplace of the Episcopal Church).
Staying only two nights, I felt like I rushed past too many bits of history and art. And my talks with Jim and Anthony gave me more reasons to return. They include the Philadelphia Flower Show, Feb. 29–March 8, 2020; The Army-Navy football game, played this year the day after we leave Fort Worth; and the holiday season.
“We have fabulous opportunities at Christmastime, with fantastic hotel rates,” Jim said. “There’s a Christmas market outside of City Hall, and the new shopping experiences, especially the Fashion District, will be a bonus.”
The Fashion District, which opened in September, has nearly 900,000 square feet of shopping, dining, and immersive entertainment.
“Many cities have retail centers nearby, but Fashion District is in the heart of downtown with street access,” Jim said. “You can shop in the city and walk to the Liberty Bell. This mall is good for adult groups—especially when the weather isn’t great.”
I wouldn’t know about that, as I experienced nothing but sunshine and blue skies during my days in Philly. I’m willing to go back during more indoorsy times, though. Because just like that great writer, I didn’t get tired of Philadelphia.
Top photo: Museum of the American Revolution
Photo by Jeff Fusco