Free to Be in Philadelphia, One of the Oldest Cities in the USA
By Christopher Ludgate
In today’s political landscape of muddled messages and media spectacles, it’s feeling increasingly important to get some perspective and reconnect beyond all the noise.
Historic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution – all endorsing a civil free society – amongst emblematic sites like the Liberty Bell and Congress Hall where our famed forefathers walked to work in this the first capital of the U.S.; the epitome of historic places all things U.S. politics.
As the Democratic National Convention descended poignantly on the country’s only World Heritage City in late July 2016, history beckoned us all the more to revisit that foundation and walk in the footsteps of those who made it happen and to celebrate what matters.
In planning an itinerary during the Fourth of July in the City of Brotherly Love, there were a lot of options besides the weeklong Independence Day events for fun exploring just as there are throughout the year.
Sticking to the inspiration of my visit in the vein of celebrating the role this city played in our history, my friend and I opted first for all things free in Philly. And there are lots of choices.
Many unique ways to see the sites include an amphibious bus tour that ends up driving into the Delaware River, many free walking tours and attraction that can be found at visitphilly.org, and the city’s new Indego public bike system.
Out and About
In a small city like Philly, a hop atop the Big Bus for a view through the old tiny streets is a useful way to first acclimate yourself to the street grid before wandering freely without a guide.
As the bus made its 27 pit-stops through a loop of hot spots I found it a great opportunity to be spontaneous with the worthwhile Philadelphia Pass and the City Pass which give the freedom to visit things that caught my eye at will, like the multitude of murals and beautiful fountains along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or lounging in the breezes on the hammocks by the bustling Delaware River Waterfront at Penn’s Landing where there are festivals galore, outdoor movie screenings, and other spots free or close to it along the way.
With that said, Philadelphia is a great walking city, too. Anywhere in the radius of City Center or Rittenhouse Square, one of the many popular beautiful parks in the city, there is an accessible attraction. A free app-guided walking tour is a useful tool at pointing out the sites, especially down by the Historic District.
The Historic District
Set back in Independence National Historic Park on Chestnut Street, is the landmark where the First Congressional Congress met in 1774 in Carpenter’s Hall where the first sparks began in debate and contemplation toward declaring Independence from England.
The delegate’s chairs are still in place here, and the site sparked in my mind a genuine admiration for these great political figures in a highly fateful time.
Carpenter’s Hall is also home to the American Philosophical Society, a company Benjamin Franklin instituted in 1731 as the first book lending system we know simply today as a library.
One of those famous delegates lived around the corner from the now historic park by what we know today as Market and 7th Street. It was in his rented rooms – just steps from the would-be Democratic National Convention of 2016 – that Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.
240 years later as the Fourth of July party and the heat raged outside Independence Hall where in 1776 the unifying threads of our country’s foundation began to take shape, we meandered through history by the Betsy Ross House and Washington Square, encountering the gravesite of one of our foremost founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.
Imbibe and Refresh
While the consensus as to whether Franklin actually said the popular quote, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” rebukes the quote, my friend and I still opted for a cold brew.
Nearby is City Tavern, which reopened in 1976 and is where the founding fathers went to unwind, but we were drawn to Paddy’s Old City Pub on 3rd and Race Streets around the corner.
Incidentally, what Franklin is more accurately attributed to penning is, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” So potato, potahto.
We could have just as easily opted for a Franklin Mint Sundae made with turn of the century Philadelphia-style ice cream at Franklin Fountain, which offers a discount with the Philly Pass and stroll around the other side of Independence Visitor Center for some personal and free theatrical story-telling sitting on one of the Once Upon a Nation benches located in the area.
The ice-cream and beer are not free, but all of these sites are free and open to the public, as is the Liberty Bell.
After cooling off and making our way back through the festive party ensuing in the park during the Fourth celebrations, we headed up Market Street to browse Reading Market.
It’s an old-school market reminiscent of Barcelona’s Mercado de La Boqueria where we found a healthy selection of culturally diverse food counters to sidle up to for lunch before heading across the street to the Loews Hotel for a quick swim and nap and happy hour.
Having stayed in the Loews Philadelphia before, I knew to expect wonderful service and modern comfort. Housed in what was once Philadelphia’s first skyscraper, it is noticeable in the skyline near the Philadelphia Observatory with the PFSF signage that remains at Loews’ peak. It does boast some of the city’s best views, quality, and locales.
I was also lucky enough to receive an upgrade, so the stars (and stripes) aligned for that view next to the William Penn statue atop City Hall.
My feeling paid off that with the spectacular views I remembered, the Fourth of July fireworks above the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be in all their glory from the hotel.
Just as many political campaigns have the occasional dark intrigue, there are some bizarre things for the offering in Philly, too.
For hands-on interactive history at a moderate charge, Eastern State Penitentiary welcomes the public to tour what was once the most expensive and famous prisons in the world.
Built and expanded upon since 1776 with the guidance of Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons and member Benjamin Franklin, to bring penitence to inmates via solitary confinement, it is a haunting examination into criminal justice and reform with new and permanent exhibits.
After this fascinating visit, it might ease the intensity to wander up to Crime & Punishment Brewery for a relaxing brew.
It’s good to stay in the know, so if science and medicine is your intrigue, The Franklin Institute has some fun stuff for kids, but the famous Mütter Museum displays beautifully preserved medical history collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments. I’d say hold off on lunch til after. And maybe even a while after that.
Another mystifying interest awaits at the National Parks Service Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site on N. 7th Street. This is where Poe wrote some of his most acclaimed work, like The Raven. Free of charge, the site invites the public to immerse themselves in Poe’s mind with audio and visual installations.
Pursuit of Happiness
The National Parks Service, which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year, remembers Independence National Park in Philly as being the “focus of individuals and groups exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and speak freely.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at this spot, as did Susan B. Anthony, who interrupted the Fourth of July centennial celebration to deliver the Women’s Declaration of Rights.
In 1965, the first organized gay rights demonstration took place in front of Independence Hall,” they reminded us. And apropos it highlighted again the continued relevance of Philadelphia as an important symbol of the democracy and righteousness that were established here among civil thinkers who still remind us of a valuable and mighty legacy in our hands.