An hour and a half.
This is all it took to get the train from Penn Station to Philadelphia. A relatively comfy seat, towns and countryside whizzing past at high speed, and free wifi for those amongst us that can’t live without it.
Philadelphia wasn’t really on the agenda while staying in the Big Apple but with so much within arms-reach of the city, why not? It’s a whole new place to explore. It’s the home of Rocky and cheesesteaks. The first American flag was made here, the Declaration of Independence was signed here and four of its signees are buried here, including Benjamin Franklin. It goes on.
I’m no American history buff but I must say, it’s easy enough to get caught up in the fascinating historic stories and sights that Philly has on offer. Of course there’s the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, but merely walking around the historic district exposes an area that’s dripping with old buildings, museums, churches and gorgeous parkland.
Not all that far from where the Benjamin Franklin Bridge suspends across the Delaware River is Elfreth’s Alley (above pic), one of the last intact early American streetscapes in the country. The 18th Century Philadelphians built the alley the only way they knew how; the way they remembered it back in their English homeland. Once it was home to trades-people and artisans, but today the old dwellings are hot property. Two of which are museums that are open to the public.
Coffee was the first thing our bodies required, and searching out GreenStreet Coffee Co on the corner of Spruce and south 11th Street required little effort. The petite cafe is located in a quiet neighbourhood with a smattering of outdoor tables. They even roast their own beans and having a coffee menu with flavour profiles is a nice touch. There’s cold brew and pour-over for those that prefer it, but it’s espresso for this pair from Sydney. The milk on the macchiato was a tad overworked, if I can split hairs, but the result was still very drinkable. Nice bean.
An area that deserves a visit is a small pocket of very narrow cobbled streets around Irving Street in Washington Square West, between 11th and 12th Streets. It’s very much residential and feels like you’re walking through a small English village, except that the stars and stripes flap from a few of the brick houses.
Aside from the history, one thing that’s unmissable in Philly is the abundance of murals. It’s no wonder that the city has been nicknamed “City of Murals”, thanks to a program that started in the early 80’s. They’re absolutely everywhere and colour-up the sides of many buildings all over town.
When the stomach gets the rumbles, there’s a fairly decent selection of restaurants that can be found along Walnut Street in Centre City. Indian, Japanese, fast food, you name it. A sandwich board displaying the daily lunch special of braised chicken leg with white beans, roasted tomato & spinach caught our eyes, so a spontaneous drop-in at Caribou Cafe is was.
The flavour is decidedly French and the décor is all about leather banquettes, antique mirrors and a long bar adorned with Art Deco lamps. The lunch menu covers just about all of the French classics, plus a burger, for those that like to pretend.
I went for a rather light choice. The moules frites (17). A pretty tasty steam-up of mussels, wine, white beans, spinach and tomato. French fries don’t tend to get me excited, but the ones that came with my mussels were excellent. Impossibly crunchy exteriors with the lightest fluffy insides. Who would have thought that the fries would have been the hero of the dish?
The braised chicken leg was ok. Large portion, tender meat, but we found the beans could have done with more flavour. A bit sans saveur, if you will.
Bella Vista is a district very close to the centre of town; a mish-mash of residential, commerce and places to eat. Taking a corner location is Shot Tower Coffee, an airy and very friendly neighbourhood cafe. You can have any type of coffee you desire, spread out and hog a table with your laptop, bring in your pooch and kick back with a really good coffee. The macchiato packs a punch.
Virtually across the road from Shot is John’s Water Ice. This institution first kicked off in 1945 by serving up only four flavours – lemon, cherry, pineapple and chocolate, hand churned in wooden barrels. Those four flavours still remain and modern machinery has replaced the barrels, but the tradition is broken occasionally by adding a “pop-up” flavour.
Many people think that Philly cheesesteak has stiff competition, but water ice is almost as prevalent. One thing that sets these guys apart from a few of its competitors is that they use real fruit, rather than syrups. What you have is basically a smooth granita.
Alternatively they serve up a gelati; a three-layer cup of water ice, gelato then more water ice. I only went as far as trying the lemon ice; a brain freeze-inducing cup of ice, lemon and a little sugar. Personally I found the lemon juice content could have been higher, as it was more like a weak frozen lemonade. Should have tried the cherry!
A walk down to the Delaware River is a nice way to check out the city’s waterfront, the impressive Benjamin Franklin Bridge and any riverside event that may be taking place. It’s good to see the city has embraced its riverfront by utilising its natural asset by revitalising old wharves and creating more open space.
The Society Hill and Old City neighbourhoods are well worth some thorough exploration. Brownstones, galleries, a multitude of restaurants, fashion and design boutiques … it’s one vibrant neighbourhood. Headhouse Square is a cobbled street with a long market building that runs from Pine Street to Lombard Street. Come the weekend, the building is home to one of the country’s oldest continually run farmers’ markets.
I couldn’t help but feel like we were somewhere in the UK when I spotted The Twisted Tail, a pub-style bistro that serves up Southern-inspired food, live blues and a pretty decent selection of bourbon. If we had the time we would have tried the food but thanks to having a reservation at a restaurant up on South Street, a quick beer had to do.
Smith Street is a strip of the city that reminds me of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and Sydney’s Newtown rolled into one. Colourful building façades, street performers, quirky shops and a vibrant dining scene. An area that continues to buzz right into the night.
Tapping back into the coffee scene, Elixr in the downtown district is said to have some of the best coffee in town. Industrial fit-out, lots of wood, spacious, wifi, any coffee you want and a bit of a challenge when trying to nab a table. The macchiato is done noisette-style, meaning it’s filled with steamed milk. A rich, dark roast that had us returning for more.
One place that many people think needs to be on any Philly agenda is Federal Donuts. What takes it to another level is the donuts are teamed with fried chicken. Korean-style fried chicken. We almost left town without venturing to the Pennsport outlet, but when an Instagram follower insisted I try it, I made an effort to give it a burl.
Thanks to next to no standing or sitting room, this place is all about buying what you want and taking it elsewhere. Ok, perhaps 10 adults could stand comfortably and a handful of very lucky people can sit at the counter. The donuts sit in colourful layers on a rack behind the counter, as does the chicken. Take too long in deciding what you want and your chosen donut is sold out. I think we arrived half an hour after opening time and one of the flavours was already gone.
What did we try? Cookies & cream (2) and a watermelon, cucumber/lime (2). Fairly interesting flavours, a rather “cakey” donut consistency and, to offend any die-hard fans, rather unremarkable.
We couldn’t leave without trying the chicken, so a half chicken with garlic & chilli glaze (9) was ordered. The chicken is fried twice, rendering a nice crust. It’s juicy and can be ordered naked, dry seasoned or glazed with chilli garlic or honey ginger. A few Japanese cucumber pickles join the basket party, as does a honey donut.
KFC (Korean fried chicken) connoisseurs may keel over from the inauthenticity, but for American Korean-style fried chicken, it’s actually pretty decent. Not enough to make me rush back if I was in Philly again, however.