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Mini trip report – Philadelphia

June 1, 2011

I had a conference in Philadelphia, and we decided to tack on a few days beforehand to sight see. We’ve driven past Philadelphia all our lives, but haven’t even been to the city.

Since we were staying in the center city area and didn’t want to pay for parking, we opted for Amtrak. The train ride up was uneventful, though much of the sights in the various cities we traveled through were of a definitely unsavory variety. Why can’t some of the huge, boarded-up industrial buildings in cities be rehabbed to provide housing for the homeless? It would solve three problems at once: rescuing buildings that at one time had been grand; beautifying cities; and helping the homeless. But solving the world’s problems hasn’t fallen in my purview yet.

We arrived around noon, taxied to the Loew’s Philadelphia to drop our luggage off, and went across the street to Reading Terminal Market for lunch. Poor Charlie, there weren’t enough days for him to try all the meals he wanted! I made him try a pork sandwich at DiNic’s, which he proclaimed good, but not the best he’s every had.

We wandered around the market for a couple of hours, and then headed to Macy’s, in the old Wannamaker department store building. What a beautiful, beautiful store! I was entranced with the architectural details, and we went up to inspect the pipe organ more closely. While we were there, a wedding party was being photographed on the mezzanine. Charlie got some gym shorts, since he had forgotten to pack any (though, as it turned out, we were so tired from sightseeing that he never actually got to the gym!).

Back to Loew’s, hoping the room would be ready since it was now 3 p.m. It wasn’t. They took my cell number and gave me two vouchers for free cocktails in the lounge. We waited there, but decided to not use the vouchers until later. An hour and a half later, with still no call about the room, I went back to the front desk, to discover that the room had been ready for 20 minutes. Grrr.

The Loew’s is in an older building, and I’d seen comments about things being run-down. I didn’t notice this. Our room was a luxury class room, in a corner with views from two walls, one toward the historic area and the other toward Chinatown. It was quite large, with a spacious bathroom. The worst thing about it was a periodic noise that I suspected was from a HVAC chute somewhere close by – it sounded like an airplane landing.

Overall, the experience at the Loew’s was very good. The doormen and concierge were very pleasant, as was the server in the lounge. The conference facility and conference food were also good, particularly breakfast. The only dark spot, other than the noise, was the housekeeping. It came very late every day, and was spotty. Several days the used towels were left on the hooks and new ones added, resulting in quite a surplus of towels. Some bathroom amenities weren’t replenished. Most egregious was the day when the decorative pillows from the chair and the bed were left on the floor.

One other point for short people like me: with the windows covering the whole wall the bed was against, it was difficult to pull the curtains closed at night. It was either stand on the bed to completely close them, or deal with a few inches of open curtain on an east-facing window. Luckily for me, I was up early most days, so the sunrise didn’t bother me.

Anyway, enough about the hotel.

Since this was Easter Saturday, I had previously scoped out information on the closest Catholic church, and we got ready for their Easter vigil service, deciding to skip dinner before mass, since we were still full from the market. The church was just around the corner, and the Vigil was nice and only about two hours.

We got back to the hotel around 10:30 p.m., and we headed for the lounge to use our vouchers. Since we were now hungry, we split a flatbread pizza from the bar menu (it was good),  then up  to the room.

The next day was Easter Sunday, and thankfully the historic sites were open.We had considered trying to find an Easter brunch somewhere, but decided it would take too much time. Besides, we weren’t in the mood for frou-frou food.

We headed down Market Street, stopping in Subway for a quick breakfast sandwich. Then we did the typical tourist things: the Independence Visitor Center, the tour of Independence Hall, Congress Hall, and the Liberty Bell. It was in the 80s that weekend, so we built in frequent relaxation breaks.

The Visitor’s Center was nice, thought it seems to have been designed to move you in and out fairly quickly, since noise just reverberated from one end to the other! The din when there were groups of kids in there was fairly obnoxious. We watched one of the movies, and it was sort of lame.

The tower on Independence Hall was under scaffolding, but with a printed screening of the tower. It was interesting to visit places that we’d heard about since elementary school. The Liberty Bell was smaller than I had imagined. Personally, I thought the exhibits in the Liberty Bell center were a bit too PC and went distinctly overboard with the slavery/civil rights issue, but it was still an enjoyable stop.

Outside the Liberty Bell center is a partial excavation of George Washington’s house, and his slave quarters. There’s a sparse framework of walls in this area, with several TVs showing . . . something. We couldn’t see any of them, since bright sunlight and flat screen TVs don’t mix. I hope those were privately donated, since it seems a rather stupid use of taxpayer  funds!

We continued down Market Street for lunch. We actually ran into a bit of a dilemma regarding food while we were there. Many of the places we wanted to go to were closed for Easter Sunday, and others are always closed on Mondays (many of the places in the Italian Market area, for instance).  Since  a South Philly cheese steak wasn’t in the cards for Charlie, I had googled to find the best cheese steak in center city, and that’s where we headed for lunch. It was Campo’s and it was, thankfully, open. Charlie gave his cheese steak a very enthusiastic thumb-up.

After lunch we wandered around Christ Church and the cemetery, and made our way back to the hotel. Dinner that evening wound up being at Cosi’s, since we couldn’t find any other place that was open and that we agreed on. This was definitely a time when it would have been far better to have a plan, since we walked and walked and walked looking for a suitable restaurant.

The following morning, we discovered another holiday weekend dilemma: the Museum of Art was closed, many of the Italian Market shops were closed, quite a few vendors in Reading Market were closed – you get the picture.

Instead, we went to the U.S. Mint and took the self-guided tour. It was interesting, probably mainly because we’re tourist geeks. However, it was hotter than hades in there! Seriously, about half-way through I stopped caring and just wanted to get somewhere cooler. I joked to another tour-goer that you’d think they could afford air-conditioning with all that money hanging around. She was a local, and said that it’s always hot whenever she takes visitors there. It actually felt cooler outside in the shade than inside, and it was in the mid- to high-80s that day.

But first, in a genius marketing move, the tour exit is directly into the gift shop. Alas, I wasn’t to be parted with any of my money there, since I parked myself in front of an industrial fan they had running, and left once my core temp had lowered a bit.

We also went to Elfreth’s Alley, which was interesting to see, but I couldn’t understand why on earth anyone would pay for a tour of it.

We walked by the Constitution Center, and decided against visiting, since my conference later in the week included an evening reception there. This was the one regret of the trip, since Charlie would have really liked it, and also since I didn’t get a chance to see everything during the reception.

During our travels, we stopped at Capogiro for some gelato, and it was almost as good as the gel

We walked down to Rittenhouse Square, which was a bit of a disappointment. I had been expecting something much quainter and atmospheric, with the older row homes, but the Fan in Richmond has way more ambience.

One good thing in the Rittenhouse area, however, was a stand-alone Kiehl’s store (insert squeal of joy here). I can only get my Kiehl’s products at home in Nordstroms, so it was fun to wander in the store. I contributed a bit to the Philadelphia economy here, and Charlie very, very patiently waited outside for me.

Dinner was at Moriarty’s, an Irish restaurant on Walnut Street. Decent food: Charlie hadn’t filled his cheese steak need yet, so that’s what he had, and he declared it better than you’d expect, whatever that means. We stopped at Naked Chocolate on the way back to the hotel, and picked up a couple of treats for later in the evening.

The next morning was the start of my conference, so Charlie caught an early train back to Richmond while I buckled down to work.

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