A Weekend Visit to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

by Sarah Birdsong
The skyline of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Following our whirlwind tour of New York, we were off to visit Philadelphia. As previously mentioned, I found myself in the northeast visiting friends for a wedding I was to be part of. I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity to take advantage of my time there. This entry will continue where I’d left off in my previous piece, Visiting New York City. I’ve broken this trip into three separate installments: my brief stay in New York, my weekend in Philadelphia, and the wedding in Bensalem.

At this point, I’d enjoyed a brief and action-packed tour of some long-desired NYC destinations. I woke up sore from the many miles I’d hiked across the city with my wanderlust meter already brimming. That morning, we enjoyed one last breakfast with our Brooklyn hosts before piling into the 7th Avenue station for the train south. Sean was excited to get out of the city, but he was also bursting to show me Penn Station.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: a Brief History

The sixth most populous city in the United States, Philadelphia stands as the economic and cultural linchpin of the Delaware region. Originally inhabited by the Lenni Lenape, their territory included New York City, New Jersey, the Delaware River watershed, western Long Island, and the Lower Hudson Valley.

Within the borders of present-day Philadelphia, the Lenape traditionally met in a location the British called Shackamaxon to crown the chief of the Lenape Nation. The word Shackamaxon itself is derived from the Lenape phrase Sakimauchheen Ing. Modernly, this location became the neighborhoods of Fishtown, Kensington, and Port Richmond. It was here that the Treaty of Shackamaxon was purportedly drawn and sealed with a wampum belt.

In the 21st century, most Lenape reside in Oklahoma, though branches exist in Wisconsin and Ontario, due to the Indian Removal Policy of the 1860s.

Leaving Penn Station for 30th Street Station

Flush with cross-sections of people of every creed and background—the crush of Penn Station wore thin on Sean’s nerves quickly. I myself remained focused on the goal of keeping my luggage own its wheels while nursing on my burning heels. The densely packed station hummed with the morning throngs of travelers on their way out of the city. Booking windows were fed by queues of questioning commuters asking for directions, tickets, and advice. The Enquiry Office choked under the strain of questions for information on the arrival and departure of various trains. In short: it was a madhouse.

While Sean located our train’s board, I secured two over-priced cocktails in the local commercial pub. It might have been early, but I told myself it would ease the tension in my muscles. Before long, Sean located our destination, ushering us down various elevators and platforms beneath the station. The clank and screech of the locomotives pounded steadily beneath my feet, roaring to life as their engines kicked into motion their cargo along the tracks. Calves and heels stinging, I was all too glad to sink into my cheaply secured coach seating for the next hour.

30th Street Station was a far cry from Penn Station; though it thrummed with activity, the crowd’s swell wasn’t nearly so overwhelming. Its Art Deco architecture blended seamlessly with the Corinthian columns of the portico in clearly defined neoclassical architecture that so defined the 20th century. After retrieving our rental, we made were on our way to our new AirBnB.

Things to Do in Philly’s Northern Liberties

I’m never quite certain how Sean manages to secure such quality when it comes to where we’ll lie our heads at night. Located in Northern Liberties, our weekend home featured historic rowhouses backed by private patios. Historic brownstones comprised the lay of the neighborhood, evoking their 16th-century architectural origins. As we unloaded our vehicle, a small black-and-white patchwork cat greeted us, making short order of our affections and attention. He wore a prominent tag that bore the name “Mr. Meowgi”—which made me love him all the more.

Tucked mid-terrace, our BnB could be found through a shared gate and corridor, leading us behind the primary facade. Much to our surprise, Mr. Meowgi leapt through the gate, trotting down the corridor, chirping as he went. After letting ourselves into our BnB, our small friend also breezed past us and into the arms of our host. Apparently, Mr. Meowgi had free reign of the place, serving as our official welcoming committee.

Charming and rustic, our quarters were located in a loft to the back of the house. Precarious due to confined quarters, the stairs leading to it creaked beneath our feet as we quickly discovered that the loft itself was only big enough for a bed and a dresser. We would need to keep our luggage on the ground floor. Still, comfortable and quaint, we loved it immediately.

Northern Liberties is a walkable neighborhood and the easy access means that once you find a good parking space, you can keep it. Our host recommended El Camino to us for quick dining—and easy access. El Camino’s menu features something for anyone to enjoy, particularly a healthy plating of seitan wings which had us both keeling over. It’s something of a mission for us to find the “best” vegan wings in our travels and these gave Fire on the Mountain‘s from Portland a staunch run for their money.

Things to See in Center City, Philadelphia

You’ll find no shortage of places to visit in Philadelphia. But our first order of business? A surprise Sean had been mum about the entire weekend: a trip to the Mütter Museum. A lover of anthropology and macabre history, I loved it immediately. During my college tenure, I flirted with the idea of delving into Forensic Anthropology. In particular, I contemplated attending the University of Tennessee and making use of the Body Farm. Despite the hours I devoted to considering that path, it never unfolded. I went in a different direction.

Still, the years and subsequent changes haven’t dulled my appreciation for the intersection of medicine and anthropology. Some favorites include the Giant Mega Colon and the Kentucky Giant. Further, as someone who suffers from scoliosis, their display of fellow sufferers with a far more pronounced manifestation of the condition was particularly sobering. Tickets cost $18 and photos are forbidden. My readers will just have to visit the museum themselves and enjoy the sights in person; I can promise you they’re as fascinating as they are grim.

Generally, our plans for Philadelphia were far more relaxed than they had been in New York. We had the weekend to play rather than mere hours. Tourism in Philadelphia is easy to come by. We spent our time exploring South Street and its various shops. Many eschew an online presence, preferring to attract customers the traditional brick and mortar route. However, I did breeze through Armed and Dangerous, The Strange and Unusual, Retrospect Vintage, and Sazz Village. If you’re looking for an afternoon nip, Paddy Whack’s is both quick and convenient as you tour South Street. The evening hours saw us to The Tattooed Mom, a favored haunt we were instructed by friends to visit.

We split the remainder of our weekend between Philadelphia and Bensalem. When we weren’t at rehearsal or the wedding itself, we were wandering Philadelphia in our downtime. We intended on visiting the Edgar Allan National Historic Site during visiting hours. Alas, weren’t able to squeeze it in. That didn’t stop us from taking some stereotypical tourist photos in front of some beautiful street art, however. We ate every breakfast in town at North Third, simply because we’re creatures of habit. One evening we stumbled upon a small amusement park at Penn’s Landing, which made for a spontaneous and impromptu date night. I’d had my fill of cotton candy and fried food before I grew tired of the rides. It was perhaps my favorite adventure in the city.

All in all, Philadelphia secured itself another visit in the future as one of my favorite cities—bested only by Chicago.

Things to See in Philadephia: Eastern State Penitentiary

We had time to kill that Sunday before our flight home. The wedding had come and gone. Our bags were markedly heavier than when we’d arrived. I’d eaten my own body weight through New York and Philadelphia and was starting to feel it. That didn’t stop me from making Sean stop at One Shot on our way to what I thought would be the airport, however. No, Sean had one more surprise for me.

The famed Eastern State Penitentiary is known for its architecture and expensive history. Designed as the first true penitentiary, it was a prison designed to inspire penitence and true regret for one’s crimes rather strict punishment alone. Believed to be the kinder and more humane approach to reformation, it was considered revolutionary in its time. However, time ultimately revealed the Penitentiary’s tactics to be inhumane and ineffective, though its lessons did not go unnoticed. Interactive displays provided an immersive audio narration by way of an MP3 player guide narrated Steve Buscemi through the complex, making for a self-paced tour.

Derelict, the grit competing with the industrial skeleton for control of the crumbling walls, the Penitentiary was partially restored in some areas and condemned in others. Staunch reminders of mortality and modern comforts abounded as stories trickled through my earphones on what life was like for the prisoners. The halls were dimly lit but for the sun shining through the skylight into the gallery. I couldn’t help but notice a pervasive chill despite the warm summer day.

Perhaps the most remarkable, at least to my interests, was Cellblock 3. The medical wing featured an operating room, a psychiatric department, and a pharmacy, among other expensive and dated medical marvels of the time. Truly, a monument to human suffering. The wing featured thick doors, feeding holes for the confined, and a laboratory dedicated to researching so-called “social diseases.” Sufferers of consumption received hydrotherapy, sunlight in the solarium cells, a specialized diet, and mild exercise.

Significantly, Al Capone received two operations in this wing; tonsil removal, and circumcision—believed to be preventative for syphilis.

By the end of the tour, I was certainly ready to get on the plane and go home. As we left, Sean remarked it to be a rewarding experience to walk through the doors of the Penitentiary in a way that few of its prisoners had been able to. We left free, but like its former occupants, with the memory of the Penitentiary imprinted in our minds.


I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

Visit Philly: South Street: a comprehensive list of all the fun to be found on South Street.

Mütter Museum: a grim and visual delight if you enjoy strange and macabre history!

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site: I’m sure this place is much more enjoyable during visiting hours!

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site: fully interactive with celebrity voice narrators and local artist installations, Eastern State is a definite “must-see” for anyone who enjoys grim history.

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