It’s always sunny in Philadelphia
The declaration that it’s always sunny in Philadelphia was spot on as I arrived in the US city on an unseasonably mild December day.
Just two hours by bus from New York the city of Philadelphia would prove a welcome distraction from the mayhem of the Big Apple. And with its fascinating history, abundance of museums and relaxed vibe I found myself liking America’s fifth largest city every bit as much as NYC.
Making the most of the unseasonably warm weather we began our mini-break in the Old City District meandering around the quaint cobblestone streets past the classically colonial Pennsylvania State House.
We’d checked into the opulent six-week-old Hotel Monaco located in the historic 1907 Lafayette Building, where no nook or cranny had been neglected when it came to stunning design.
The regal reception area has a backdrop of calligraphy brushes to honour the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the city and the lobby was filled with brightly coloured furniture with imagery of suns and peacocks.
Our spacious Corner suite felt homely with bright blue and white patterned wallpaper, a writing desk, art deco touches and even a quirky homage to Alice In Wonderland.
An interesting history
A stone’s throw from our swanky surroundings we were excited to view the Liberty Bell. The 1751 British crafted bronze bell once hung in the Philadelphia State House but is now a national treasure after becoming symbolic of the abolitionist movement to end slavery in 1839.
As time was precious we opted for CityPasses that included Philadelphia Trolley tickets - ideal for journeying speedily around the city learning gems of history along the way. We hopped off easily to check out attractions such as the ‘Rocky Steps’ and Sylvester Stallone statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art made famous by the 1976 Oscar-winning film.
A fascinating day was rounded off with a visit to the National Constitution Center, the first-ever national museum honouring the US Constitution with an easily digestible history of the nation’s forefathers.
We sought out the Benjamin Franklin statue among 42 bronze delegates in the centre’s famed Signers’ Hall and peered at the first public printing of the constitution in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper from September 1787.
Entry to the museum came with free entry to Freedom Rising, a brilliant 360 degree theatrical production that takes visitors on a journey from the Constitution’s inception to the present day. Of course the English were very much the villians (complete with sinister music) but I got goosebumps all the same.
That evening we celebrated my boyfriend’s birthday at Pan Asian restaurant Buddakan where swanky minimalistic décor surrounds a towering gilded Buddha centrepiece and we tucked into pan-seared sea bass with wasabi mashed potatoes.
An eerie past
The next day, back on the tour bus, we made our way to the Eastern State Penitentiary, arguably Philadelphia’s most eerie and fascinating tourist attraction.
As our knowledgeable guide took us on a walking tour down crumbling dilapidated corridors I was shocked by the prison’s haunting and chilling history.
When it opened in 1829 there were high hopes for the institution which as the world’s first true penitentiary, had been designed as a prison to inspire penitence – or true regret – in the hearts of criminals.
The original seven cell blocks spread like the spokes of a wheel and controversially had running water and central heating even before the White House. But while there was attention to detail it was no life of luxury for the criminals incarcerated there.
Blindfolded and escorted silently into the prison, inmates, some as young as 12, were left in solitary confinement with nothing but a bible and a skylight in their cells.It was believed that this chance to reflect would help them to repent and find God but in fact many were driven mad by loneliness and isolation.
As Charles Dickens, who visited in 1842, concluded, ‘I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.’
By 1913 isolation and penitence was fazed out at Eastern State and a number of building extensions allowed for more and more prisoners to share cells.
Whereas once the prison was viewed ominously in the distance, constructed castle-like to strike fear into would-be criminals, the swelling city inevitably began to creep nearer.
Over time Eastern State not only lost its remoteness but also its notoriety. People attempted to throw messages over the walls and escape attempts became more prevalent.
Having been originally built to house 300 prisoners a huge influx of inmates (as many as 2,000) also caused the building to disintegrate. It officially closed in 1971 but remains an intriguing tourist attraction.
For our final night in Philly we moved to another Kimpton’s jewel - the Hotel Palomar, a plush historic art deco building just around the corner from Philadelphia’s buzzing bar and restaurant mecca Rittenhouse Square.
Our Spa King Room was lovely with comfy furnishings and a large spa bath that proved wonderful to relax in after taking advantage of the hotel’s 5pm ‘Wine hour’ - where hotel guests are treated to complimentary plonk.
With the night still young we headed out to meet friends for a final fun night filled with tacos and margaritas at Mexican eaterie El Vez.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Philadelphia I was certain it wouldn’t be my last...
Need to know
Prices at Hotel Monaco Philadelphia – A Kimpton Hotel begin at $209 (USD). For more information or reservations visit www.monaco-philadelphia.com
Prices at the Hotel Palomar begin at $189. For more information or reservations visit www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com
Philadelphia’s CityPASS booklets includes admission tickets to Philadelphia’s must-see attractions at 44% off the combined admission price. They cost $59 for adults and $39 for children and are valid for nine consecutive days beginning with the first day of use. For more information, visit www.CityPASS.com