Length of stay: 3 days
Visited: November 2017
- Independence Hall
- Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Eastern State Penitentiary
Philadelphia served as the capital of the United States for nearly a decade towards the end of the 18th century. It was here in the Philadelphia State House (more commonly known today as Independence Hall) where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were vigorously debated and ultimately drafted and signed by the founding forefathers of the United States. It was also here in that same State House where the Declaration of Independence was read out loud to the public for the first time on July 8th 1776. But that wasn’t the only “first” for the city of Philadelphia. It is home to the first university, the first zoo, the first art institution, the first hospital, and the first public library in the United States.
Day 1: The Drive
We left Boston shortly before 9 a.m on the American Thanksgiving Thursday to drive down to Philadelphia. Turns out everyone else left their house at the same time too. For what would normally take about 5 hours to drive, we were nearly in the car for about double that time. To be fair, we did take a number of detours though to breakup the drive. But traffic was pretty painful.
About 370km (or 230 miles) into our drive we made our first pit stop at the Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park. The main parking lot was closed for construction so we parked at some random adjacent parking lot that was “for employees only” at a nearby building. But given that it was a holiday and completely deserted we decided to just take our chances and park here. We walked a short distance along some path that provided close-up views of this prominent waterfall.
We hopped back in the car for a short while before pulling off at a Wal-Mart to pick up some treats for our road trip. But dozens of other shoppers were ready to pick up some goodies of their own for Black Friday. The sale had yet to start (all of the toys and trinkets for Black Friday were wrapped up in cellophane with signs indicating the sale started in two hours) but the store was already buzzing with excitement as shoppers were busy strategizing their game plan. So we were eager to just buy our snacks and get the hell out of Dodge.
We drove for about another hour or so before making another detour at Princeton University. This Ivy League university is one of the richest universities in the world and boasts of having one of the nicest campuses across the United States. Some notable alumni of Princeton include former first lady Michelle Obama, Alan Turing, John Nash, John F. Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and K (although this was for a three-week summer workshop. Still counts.). We walked around the campus for about 30 minutes or so before hitting the road for the final leg of our road trip.
We made one final detour at some roadside diner for the most pathetic “Thanksgiving” dinner before rolling up to Wharton State Forest. Based on an awesome fall camping season this year (Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the White Mountains up in New Hampshire) we opted to pull out the old camping gear one last time before the end of the year. Temperatures were forecasted to be a bit chills overnight (hovering around 0°C), but we’ve survived worse conditions (including a snow storm in the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago). And it wasn’t supposed to rain.
We pulled up to the Godfrey Bridge Campgrounds shortly after 9p.m. This campground offers 34 campsites and is open all-year round. It is deep in the woods (in New Jersey) and was a little challenging to find in the dark. Without cell phone service to aid with navigation. But after making several wrong turns we finally made it there. And it was completely deserted. Or so we thought.
We found a decent campsite and quickly set up our tent. It was pretty chilly outside. But our tent is built for the winter. So once we snuggled deep inside our sleeping bags it was pretty comfortable – or as comfortable as you can be while camping. I remember hearing the sound of another vehicle at some point soon after dozing off, but didn’t think much of it. But then maybe about an hour after that I heard another sound (or rather sounds) that shook me to core and forever changed my perceptions and attitudes towards the backcountry. Forever.
I bolted awake to the sound of what I can only describe as these blood curdling howls. And they were coming from all around the tent. Maybe wolves? Probably coyotes. I shook K awake and whimpered something about wild animals. But I didn’t need to do much explaining as the howls kept coming. Probably drawing closer. And definitely calling out to their buddies. I was totally prepared to just make a mad dash for the car and leave the tent and everything in it behind. We could always come back for it in the morning. Thankfully K was the logical one and talked some sense into me. We basically tossed everything in the trunk as fast as we could. And while we were trying to make as much noise as possible to scare the wild pack off, the coyotes were still a-howling. It was honestly one of the most terrifying camping experiences ever – and we’ve camped in prime grizzly territory before (Yellowstone, Glacier National Park in Montana, Banff and Jasper), so that’s telling you something.
We drove to the closest motel and slept there for the night. Oddly enough my sleeping pad and sleeping bag were more comfortable than the bed we slept in. But at least we were in safety with four solid walls around us. Never again are we going camping in November. Alone.
Day 2: Independence Day
We woke up happy to be alive. And happy to start the day exploring around Philadelphia. We headed out early and arrived at the Independence Visitor Center shortly after 8:30a.m and picked up tickets for a tour of Independence Hall. Tickets are free – although you can reserve in advance online for a fee of $1.50 per ticket. But we figured things would be a little slow today with Thanksgiving and all that we took our chances and just showed up soon after opening. We snagged two tickets for the first tour of the day at 9a.m. The tour is about 30 minutes in duration and normally covers just the first floor of Independence Hall. But our guide led us to the second floor as well.
Formally known as the Philadelphia State House, it was here in this building where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. Our guide walked us through the history leading up to and following these major events that helped unite the States.
Afterwards we headed over across the street to see the Liberty Bell. Formally hung in the Pennsylvania State House in 1753, this bell was used to summon the Pennsylvania Assembly to legislative sessions. Now it is probably one of the most famous symbols of American Independence today. It is currently housed in the Liberty Bell Center where it is no longer functional on account of a large mysterious crack in it.
We definitely should have looked at a map beforehand. Because it turns out that Congress Hall is located pretty much right beside Independence Hall. So this meant we had to go through security for a second time to enter the grounds. But timing worked out well because in the end we didn’t have long to wait for the start of the next tour.
A number of historic events occurred in Congress Hall during the decade in which Philadelphia served as the temporary capital of the United States. Some examples include the admittance of three new states, the second presidential inauguration of George Washington, the inauguration of John Adams, and the establishment of the Federal Mint and a central bank.
We did a loop around the rest of the grounds as a number of other historic buildings are open to look through before stopping for a quick bite to eat. Given that parking is rather limited and often expensive downtown, we figured it was much cheaper to pay for a daily parking pass at Independence Hall National Park and then Uber to our next location: the Mütter Museum.
This medical museum contains an extensive collection of abnormal specimens and wax models of medical oddities. Some examples include a collection of human skulls (including Albert Einstein’s), a collection of conjoined twin specimens and artifacts (including those of Chang and Eng Bunker), and a skeleton of the tallest human in North America. Many of the items on display, especially the “wet” specimens, definitely gave us the heebie jeebies.
To lighten the mood (and erase many of grotesque and creepy images from the museum from our mind) we spent the remainder of the afternoon over at the Franklin Institute. Named after Benjamin Franklin, this museum is one of the oldest centres of science education in the United States. And we’re not going to lie, this museum was pretty underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely educational. For children. As it should be. But, we’ve been to our fair share of science centres and museums across North American, and while yes, they are normally geared towards youths, many of the exhibits are set up in such a way for people of all ages to get something out of it. But this was definitely not the case for the Franklin Institute.
From the Franklin Institute we walked back the Independence Visitor Centre to pick up our car. We stopped for some dinner and then headed to our motel that we booked earlier that morning. We weren’t exactly jumping to try to make another go of camping in the wild with the wild.
Day 3: Art & Prison
We started our morning off at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As with yesterday we planned on parking our car for the entire day at one central location and then either walk or use Uber from there. We arrived maybe about 30 minutes prior to the museum’s opening hours as we first wanted to check out the Rocky Statue and Rocky Steps. And we figured why not go first thing in the morning as there will definitely be fewer people around.
The iconic steps leading up to the main entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are more commonly referred to as the “Rocky Steps”. The character Rocky Balboa (as played by Sylvester Stallone) ran up and down these steps as a training regime in this classic tale about an underdog boxer in the Rocky films.
We made the same journey up the famous stairs just like Rocky (except we were incredibly lazy and didn’t run them) and then headed into the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This museum has an extensive collection of European art and features numerous works from the medieval era to the present – including several pieces from the Impressionism movement. But many of the art pieces were not strictly paintings or prints. The museum also features a large collection of sculptures, textiles, armor, and decorative art.
After finishing up at the museum (we skipped the Contemporary Art section as that whole concept is entirely lost on us) we ate a quick bite to eat and walked down the street to the Rodin Museum. Our tickets into the Philadelphia Museum of Art also granted free admission into the Rodin Museum, which features the largest collection of sculptures by Auguste Rodin (some famous works include The Thinker and The Kiss) outside Paris. The museum was super small. But free. So we’re not complaining.
From there we walked a couple more blocks towards the Eastern State Penitentiary. It was built in 1829 and was designed to invoke feelings of regret and reform in its prisoners through solitary confinement. In practice, this idea didn’t work so well. And the prison itself was insanely expensive to manage and maintain over the years and eventually closed in 1971. It eventually fell into a state of disrepair. It is now a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public for self-guided tours accompanied with an audio guide (that is narrated by the actor Steven Buscemi).
While the Eastern State Penitentiary was operational it housed a number of high-profile inmates including Al Capone who served here for eight months. His cell, complete with his furnishings is viewable from the self-guided tour.
After finishing up the main audio-guided tour we wandered around the grounds listening to some of the supplemental stories and fun facts. We departed shortly before closing.
We initially planned to spend another day in Philadelphia. Or at least the morning and then drive back to Boston in the early afternoon. But based on the heavy flow of traffic we encountered on the drive up we decided to just motor on back to Boston. From the penitentiary we walked back to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, hopped into the car, and drove back to Boston. It took us just over 5 hours.
L & K