By Edward Thomas
Savannah/Hilton Head International (SAV) to Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)
Duration: 2 hours, 1 minute
Airlines: American Airlines, Frontier Airlines
Availability: Year round
My first trip to Philadelphia was in college for the annual December Army-Navy football game. One of my best high school friends, Bo Bryant, was a Naval Academy midshipman, and we wagered a friendly bet because my dad was a career Army sergeant. Army won. Bo gave me his woolen pea coat as my reward. I still have it 50 years later, although it fits a bit tight.
Philadelphia was a lot of fun that night. And, it is even more fun now with the advent of Penn’s Landing, the 9th Street Italian Market Festival, Spruce Street Harbor Park, craft beers, Philly cheese steak wars, Rocky Balboa’s statue and the Philadelphia Eagles’ first Super Bowl victory among an assortment of other betterments.
From Historical Monuments to Craft Beers
Variety is the spice of life in today’s version of Philadelphia. Legendary history is still its tourism calling card, yet in recent years it has become an extremely enjoyable city for visitors, especially in warmer weather. It’s a place that both young and old can appreciate.
If flying into Philadelphia International Airport, the easiest and least expensive way to get downtown is by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) train line. It is just $8 on weekdays to get to Jefferson Station, which will put you near to the city’s best hotels and the heart of historic Old Town.
What I learned on my initial visit years ago was that Philadelphia is an American treasure which is a must visit for all who love our nation.
Little wonder that Philadelphia is one of only two American cities that has been designated as a “World Heritage City,” the other being San Antonio. Among the criteria to achieve this superlative designation is that the city must: “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius and exhibit an important interchange of human values over a space of time.” Among the other cities on this eminent global list are: Paris, Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, Kyoto and Quebec.
Philadelphia’s historic district covers 22 blocks and includes large museum-like facilities plus wide green spaces along with quaint passageways and alleys that date back 200 years. Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, is here.
It’s also the site of the 2,080 pound Liberty Bell (our nation’s symbol of freedom), Benjamin Franklin’s grave in Christ Church Burial Grounds and the Betsy Ross House, where Gen. George Washington asked the young budding seamstress to sew the first American Flag.
My personal inspiration on that first trip to this special neighborhood was reflecting on what our founding fathers must have been thinking as they walked along these very same pathways while giving thought to whether they would have the courage to sign the singular independence document that would set America free from British control and put our fledgling colonies on the course to war.
Planning Your Visit
When planning your trip, it’s definitely best to start at the Independence Visitor Center, the official welcome spot and the place to pick up tickets to more than 60 city attractions.
A lot of first-timers select the “all-day go-pass” because if it is attractions that you want to see, the pass is worth it ($59 for adults and $44 for youth). The go-pass includes admission to the Philly hop-on, hop-off bus which makes sightseeing an easy experience. In 90 minutes, the bus takes passengers to nearly every part of Philly and especially to the places with historic value.
Beyond the historic district, today’s visitor have more to enjoy than just a few years ago because of initiatives developers and city fathers have taken to revitalize the main city center.
Penn’s Landing Leads Redevelopment
Penn’s Landing is foremost among the upgrades. The waterfront area is in the Center City along the Delaware River and commemorates the landing of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania in 1682. Redevelopment of this waterside attraction began in 2009 and it has become a venue for numerous outdoor concerts and events.
The PECO Multicultural Series is a prominent event, celebrating the diverse culture of the city. The free festival series includes the Hispanic Fiesta, Islamic Heritage Festival, Irish Festival and Brazilian Day Philadelphia among others. (See VisitPhilly.com for more information.)
During the warmer months, the Spruce Street Harbor Park is a main attraction of Penn’s Landing. It is an “urban beach park” that includes a riverside boardwalk with a beachfront vibe, complete with lounge chairs, picnic tables and hammocks. Add in the cool colored LED lighting at night for pop-up food vendors and pubs selling craft beers.
Rocky Boosts Art
The 1976 triple-Oscar winning movie “Rocky,” plus its five sequels, has had a tremendous impact on the city’s tourism. Virtually every day, scores of people of all ages run, jog or walk up the 72 steps leading to the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art, mimicking the fictional Philly native prize fighter Rocky Balboa, played by Sylvester Stallone.
The museum has undoubtedly benefitted from all the added attention, and is one of the largest and finest museums of its kind in the country with more than 240,000 artifacts. It was originally built in 1876 to help celebrate our nation’s first centennial. Any day is a good day to check out the Philadelphia Art Museum, but Sundays are best, as admission is by donation only.
For more art, the Barnes Foundation gallery is considered a “don’t miss” gallery. This private collection was started by American inventor Dr. Albert Barnes more than 100 years ago and includes an exquisite collection of approximately 900 paintings and 3,000 other objects d’art valued at a staggering $25 billion. It includes 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 11 by Degas and seven by Vincent van Gogh.
For other museums, go to tripadvisor.com or VisitPhilly.com. The Please Touch Museum, geared toward youngsters and the Mutter Museum of medical history, complete with limbs and organs floating in apothecary jars, are my personal favorites. But beware, the Mutter is not for those with a squeamish stomach.
End of the Day
After a long day of touring, there are plenty of Philadelphia pubs you may want to familiarize yourself with. If you prefer an open-air spot with games, snacks and 40 taps, stop at Independence Beer Garden overlooking Independence National Historic Park.
Suggestions from a Local…
Alyssa Grugan arrived in Hilton Head Island from Philadelphia as a 12-year old girl with her parents Anita and Gary Frank and younger sister, Chelsea. After graduating from Hilton Head Island High School, and earning a degree in business management at the College of Charleston in 2008, Alyssa returned to Philly where she began her career in wealth management with Bank of New York Mellon. There, she met husband, Tom, and they decided to make their home in the heart of the city. Their family often returns to the island to visit their grandparents Anita and Gary.
3 Things to Do
Catch a Festival May through September has become festival season in Philadelphia with a rush of stimulating events. After months of hibernation, the city bustles as locals flock to the many outdoor pop-up beer gardens and food truck events. The impressive Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival kicks things off in May and continues through June. Now in its third year, it illuminates Franklin Square with grand artistic creations. A dazzling 200-foot-long Chinese dragon is the star of the show. South 9th Street Market Festival in May, the Philadelphia Latino Festival in June, and Wawa Welcome America (June 28-July 4) are also popular locally.
Spruce Street Harbor Park The city’s popular summer place to hang out opens for the season on May 11. This waterfront park has lavish lighting after dark, several pop-up places to eat and be entertained – some on floating barges in the Delaware River, plus hundreds of lounging hammocks. Later in May, the Blue Cross RiverRink Summerfest opens a few blocks away with a huge roller rink and outdoor concerts throughout the summer.
Unwind at Bok Bar A unique rooftop bar in South Philadelphia with a sprawling view of the city skyline. This pop-up bar is only open during warm months and is set along the roof of an old school. The building itself has loads of character and sets a cool vibe, especially at sunset and after dark. Enjoy wine, craft beers and Asian bites. Sunday afternoons are family days and dog friendly.
3 Places to Eat
Passyunk Avenue at 9th Street This South Philadelphia address is renowned as home of the great Philly Cheesesteak rivalry. It’s an experience rather than fine dining, where the smell of melted cheese, grilled onions and ribeye beefsteak radiates for blocks. No trip to Philadelphia is complete without a visit here. It’s where the iconic cheesesteak sandwiches were born and today serves as home base of the two most famous cheesesteak creators and rivals.
Pat Olivieri, who came up with the original concept in1930 and whose namesake Pat’s King of Steaks eatery shares one side of the street. Geno’s Steaks, whose originator, Joe Vento, lays claim to adding the melted cheese is on the other side.
Expect long lines that wrap around both establishments. Don’t be intimidated by the crowds (presidential candidates have stood in line here) or the rapid fire ways of ordering. Just grab a friend and enjoy the people watching, and when it’s your turn to order, remember to say “One wit onions and whiz,” meaning sautéed onions and Cheez Whiz on yours. And, don’t panic, if you mess up your order, just go to the back of the line and start over.
Noord for brunch Amsterdam comes to Philadelphia here at Noord eet Café at 1046 Tasker St. This is an authentic Dutch café where you can get stewed rabbit, herring sliders and mustard soup with a diver scallop. The sunchoke frittata brunch specialty with pear and leaks, plus a side of breakfast potatoes, is terrific. Delicious freshly baked breads await you as well.
The Saloon Restaurant The name doesn’t sound Italian, but this longstanding restaurant remains the best Italian steakhouse in Philadelphia. The Saloon is celebrated for its Beef Braciole, Linguine Pacatore, calamari and peas, fennel salad and assortment of veal entrees. It’s a favorite of Anita and Gary, who always remember to pick up cannoli from Termini Brothers Bakery (1523 S. Eighth St.). Cannoli shells are hand filled when ordered, so they are deliciously fresh and crispy.
2 Places to Stay
Rittenhouse Hotel Has long set the standard for Philadelphia luxury hotels. It’s located alongside the loveliest city square and wows its first-time visitors with a fabulous wood-paneled lobby. The hotel offers an on-premise spa and draws guest accolades for its room décor and attentive service.
Kimpton Hotel Monaco A lovely boutique hotel set in the heart of the vibrant historic district. It’s the top choice for visitors focused on exploring Independence Hall and the nearby historic streets and attractions.