Falling for the City of Brotherly LoveBy Andrew Schaeffer
Checking out Philadelphia, PA
I admit, I didn’t know much about Philadelphia. The whole reason we were on the train to the 30th Street Station was to extend our Baltimore trip, and Philly wasn’t too far. My husband, Thaddeus, and I are looking to move to a bigger city and escape the heat of Arizona summers in the near future, so the East Coast was an obvious choice. But I wasn’t expecting Philadelphia to take such a hold on me.
One reason we want to move to a big city is to be able to get rid of our cars, and Philadelphia’s amazing rail system would make this possible. Navigating the extravagant architecture of the huge station was a breeze, and our ride on the subway to our hotel made us feel like locals. The added bonus, of course, is that if Philly were our home base, it’s just a short train ride for a weekend in New York or Washington, D.C.
As we ascended the steps onto Locust Street, we felt like we belonged in the hustle and bustle beneath the skyscrapers. The city is vibrant, and the Georgian Colonial architecture adds elegance and charm.
To get the full Philadelphia experience, we opted to stay in the lively Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in a historic brownstone renovated into a boutique hotel—The Dwight D. Beautifully kept, the accommodations were elegant without being over the top and had the perfect amount of historic character without feeling old or outdated.
Vittora, the manager of the property, was a lovely host who took the time to get to know us. During our stay, we often chatted with her in the lounge about our explorations in the city and our future plans. She recommended many sights to see to help convince us to choose Philadelphia as our next home.
For our first day exploring Philadelphia, we wanted to hit up the museums. Vittora suggested the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Mütter Museum, and she didn’t steer us wrong.
Fully embracing our desire to be car-free, we stopped at a bike-share station not far from the hotel and pedaled a pair of rentals along the streets to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I was not prepared for the beauty of the building itself. Sitting atop a hill right next to the Schuylkill River and framed with tall Greek columns, its stately prominence cannot be overstated. The view only became grander the further we climbed the steps, and, having never seen Sylvester Stallone’s most famous movie series (I know, right?), I didn’t even realize these steps were famous until we saw the Rocky statue at their base.
Inside, the museum was even more impressive. We admired the art in the upstairs galleries first, feasting our eyes on medieval European masterpieces in one wing and a beautifully constructed full-size Japanese teahouse in another. Glancing at the time as we took a break to rest our feet, we realized we’d already been at the museum for four hours and had only seen half of one floor. The museum’s full collection contains more than 240,000 pieces of art!
“Well, I guess we know now why the tickets are good for two days,” Thaddeus remarked as we made our way to the rotating exhibit on American art of the early 20th century.
We followed our oh-too-brief trip to the museum with a relaxing bike ride through neighboring Fairmount Park. After crossing the Schuylkill River, the park grew even more lush and secluded. Immersed in the mature trees and green landscape of the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden and the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center, we nearly forgot we were in one of the largest cities in America.
The break was perfect, but it was time to head back to Center City for the next museum. Making sure she wasn’t forgotten, Mother Nature graced us with cherry blossoms dancing in the breeze around us on our return ride.
Holding a vast collection of medical instruments, specimens, and models, the unusual Mütter Museum is well worth a visit. A wall that showcased more than a hundred skulls fascinated us. Old medical tools on display made me realize how terrifying it must have been to go to a doctor before our more precise and less-invasive medical practices had been invented.
Downstairs, real specimens displaying medical abnormalities and birth defects—including various organs with tumors and cysts—sat on shelves. While not for the squeamish, this museum certainly offers an eye-opening history of diagnosis and how far the medical field has come in treating diseases and ailments.
A stroll through the museum garden showed us the many different plants that have medicinal properties. As relaxing as it was informative (Did you know catnip can help with sleeplessness in children?), the garden was a beautiful end to our visit to this museum of medical oddities. The day proved to us that Philly offers top-notch cultural enlightenment.
On the way back to our room, we explored the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. Center City is broken into quadrants, and each quadrant is centered on a plaza. These breaks from the tall buildings provide a sense of scale and serve as hubs of activity. Restaurants across the street have al fresco dining facing the plaza, people taking a quick break from the office mingle among the paths, and creative types strum a guitar or paint a scene of the cherry trees. Escaping our Arizona summer where it’s too warm to relax outside like this, it was a pleasant surprise that I didn’t know I wanted until I experienced it.
That night, we ventured over to the Gayborhood to get a taste of the LGBT scene in the City of Brotherly Love. Rainbow motifs on the street signs made it clear where we were, as did all the gay pride flags hanging from the businesses lining the streets.
Being a mid-week night, the classic gay bar Woody’s wasn’t too crowded, but there were definitely more people than we’d find at a gay bar even on a Friday night back home. My husband, acting as my charisma, began a conversation with the couple next to us at the bar. They were friendly and gave some insight on the local gay scene.
Coming from a place where there isn’t a designated safe place, so to speak, for the LGBT community, I never really understood the usefulness of having an official gay area within my city. Our new friends explained that it isn’t like an area where all LGBT people are sequestered away from the rest of the population, but more an area where I could feel safe holding my husband’s hand as I walked down the street. They described the Gayborhood as a close-knit, understanding, and supportive community. I could enjoy being part of something like that. Another plus for Philly.
After a couple of drinks, it was time to head back to our hotel. Before we left, we got our new friends’ numbers, and they promised to give us some suggestions for the rest of our trip. The next day, they came through with the suggestion of visiting Old City.
“I know you’re trying to avoid the touristy areas, but check it out,” our friends suggested through text. “Skip the lines at the Liberty Bell if that isn’t for you and just admire the beauty of the area.” So we hopped on a trolley and went to Old City.
Located on the other end of Center City, this is the area people think of when they think Philadelphia. Independence Hall, Penn’s Landing, and the Betsy Ross House—all those Colonial pieces of history happened here. What I didn’t realize, though, was how beautifully maintained it would all be.
Rows upon rows of perfectly symmetrical Georgian-style buildings lined the streets. Narrow cobblestone alleys were framed with trees reaching for the sky. The red brick of this neighborhood contrasted stunningly against the dark glass of the modern skyscrapers just outside the boundaries. Everything here was historic, and that was special.
Our trip to Philadelphia was definitely not what we expected, but I mean that in the best of terms. We didn’t know anything about Philadelphia when we got on the train, but the city impressed us beyond words. Though we aren’t ready to move quite yet, I’d be lying if I said I don’t keep checking Zillow on my phone for a walkup in Center City—you know, just in case.