Big Question Marks

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Weekend in Philly! (Part 1)

We weren't sure what to expect when we booked a weekend in Philadelphia. But the lure of free bus tickets proved to be too much and so, off we were to a new city! Back to our old ways of 'book first, plan later' (remember Hong Kong?).

It all began back in June, shortly after we'd returned from visiting New York City, and the travel bug had returned in full force. I was casually surfing travel sites when I learned Megabus — a budget bus company with routes around North America — was launching a Toronto-Philly route this summer, and was giving away 10,000 free rides between the cities. Amazing! Without a clue about what we might possibly do with a weekend in Philadelphia, I booked us a couple of tickets.

So armed with our backpacks and my brand-new Canon DSLR camera (my new amazing birthday present!), we made our way down to the bus terminal on Friday morning for our 10am departure. Unlike the bus to NYC, we were surprised to find barely anyone waiting to board — for the NYC routes, it's necessary to line up with elbows out to fight for a seat. We scored the the very front seats on the upper level of the double-decker Megabus, and off we went. The ride was long — it was supposed to be 10 hours, but a back-up at the border meant we didn't get into Philadelphia until almost 11pm. Were we ever ready to stretch our legs after that!

At first glance, downtown Philly was a combination of grand old buildings, glassy new skyscrapers, and sadly, a lot of homeless people. We found our hotel, the Embassy Suites, located along a grand Parisian-style boulevard lined with neoclassical buildings and a majestic fountain. Amazing! The hotel was a killer deal found online on Hotwire, where we booked a "mystery" 3-star hotel for $59 a night (the catch is, you find out where you're staying after paying for it). We are happy to say for that price, we got a room larger than our apartment, with two TVs, the biggest bed we've ever slept in, and free buffet breakfast at TGIFriday's as well! Not too shabby for a couple of budget travellers who aren't at all strangers to shared bathrooms with cold showers.

The next day we kicked off the day by gorging ourselves on the free buffet breakfast and set off to see Philly's many historical sights. Borrowing a walking tour from a Lonely Planet borrowed from the library, we set off toward the Old City. Turned out nothing in Philly's core was very far, and ambled along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (aka. grand old Parisian-style boulevard) to Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculpture (we'd seen a replica in NYC just two months earlier), majestic City Hall (apparently the largest municipal building in the US), and then to the area around Independence Hall to get our fill of early American history. And while we can really only take so much flag-waving patriotism, it was pretty fun to meet the many enthusiastic historians decked out in costumes, just dying for the chance to explain the musket or the fife to the web generation. Interesting, and GREAT photo ops for sure!

I gather since September 11, the admission process for some of the historical sights have changed. While most sights remain free (which is rad), they now limit the number of people [potential terrorists] in the building where the Constitution was signed, and at the Liberty Bell, by giving out timed tickets. We had a couple of hours to wander before our turn, and wandered the historical area, finding Ben Franklin (or at least some trace of him) at every corner: we checked out Ben's post office, his printing house, found his likeness painted on signs everywhere and his name on a bridge and a major road. If we were really gung-ho about Ben Franklin, we could have even had breakfast with him! But the free buffet won this time. (Plus, all this Ben fandom made us giggle, as our most recent encounter with Ben prior to Philly was on "Drunk History" — Google it if you must. :) But despite all the Ben-loving, Philly's Old City was beautiful, well-preserved, and extremely friendly to the camera — and we totally fell in love with Elfreth's Alley, a quaint little cobblestoned street that's been inhabited since the 1700's. By the time it was our turn to head back to Independence Hall, we were exhausted from the heat and kind of whizzed through the Liberty Bell building too. :S

Feeling full of history, it felt well-deserved to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. My friend Angie lived in Philly for a few years and recommended a few places — we decided to hunt down La Viola, an Italian restaurant where she said everything on the menu was great. Angie warned us ahead of time of one common Philly restaurant quirk — it was BYOB. Strange, especially for an Italian place. But apparently Philadelphia's liquor laws are still totally archaic and many excellent (and higher-end) restaurants don't have liquor licenses. It's a great way to save some cash from our end, and we had a delicious white-tablecloth, al fresco, fresh-pasta/seafood multi-course meal for under $50! Definitely a good spot to hit if you're heading to Philly. However, we were so full after that it took hours of walking to even entertain the thought of going out for a drink, so we kinda failed at finding Philadelphia's nightlife. We did, on the other hand, check out the scenery on nearly every street in the west part of the downtown...


Pops said...

Great trip! You two really do find the bargains.

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