The mention of Philly conjures different associations for different people. Some instantly envision mounds of steaming cheesesteak (“Get the whiz or they’ll mock you!” Philadelphians warn). Others think of the Founding Fathers, the Eagles and their die-hard fans, that famously cracked bell, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or of a fist-pumping Rocky racing up the art museum steps. (Some others I know love to bring up this ridiculous survey. I’m reluctant to make any cracks here when DC doesn’t always fare so well itself…)
For me Philly now means frequent visits with a dear friend whom I met in Scotland (go figure) and hours of aimless wandering around this fascinating city. Each time I marvel at how a place so physically close can sometimes feel so very far away. As a child I traveled once or twice to this historically-rich town (the nation’s temporary capital from 1790 to 1800) to stand on the very spots where the country’s Founding Fathers drafted the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. As school kids here we learned about Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin, famed not only for his revolutionary electricity experiment, but also for creating the country’s first insurance company and the city’s first public library and fire department. We ogled at the Liberty Bell, rung to announce the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828 in Great Britain, hopped back on our bus, and trekked home to the nation’s newer capital.
These days I make the two-and-a-half to four-hour “dragon bus” journey (I’d recommend the speedier/pricier Amtrak option if unpredictable budget shuttles aren’t your thing) when craving an urban change of scene. When DC is feeling just a little too rigid or pristine or orderly, and New York feels too far away, I head north to the “City of Brotherly Love.” Franklin deemed Philadelphia the “new Athens,” but to me, it feels suspiciously reminiscent of Glasgow, Scotland, perhaps for its mix of historic charm—cobblestone streets and narrow row houses in European-esque Old City—splashed with modern blocks of gray concrete and urban grit. In any case, the place is full of character and refreshingly down to earth.