For me, Philadelphia is a city of escape. It’s a place that treasures and preserves its relics, but in a way that seems much more aware of the passage of time than some others I’ve visited. One chilly December morning in 2015, at the will of my writing professor for my classmates and I to escape the creative clutches of New York, we boarded a bus near Penn Station. Two hours later, we arrived in the City of Brotherly Love itself. Our mission that day was to find inspiration for our next assignment; stories fueled by history and the nature of forgotten things. Let me tell you, in Philadelphia, it lingers everywhere. Like the city, I’ve decided to preserve that day. Maybe it will bring you some inspiration as well.
Explore Eastern State Penitentiary
The first stop of the day led several of my classmates and I to Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison located in the Fairmont section of Philadelphia. Prisoners were housed in the neo-gothic building between 1829 and 1971. Besides being the most expensive public structure built in U.S. history, the prison was home to several famous inmates, including gangster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. It became a model for prisons all over the country, and dominates the surrounding neighborhood like a military fortress. However, one of the most interesting aspects of Eastern State Penitentiary is its status as a “stabilized ruin.” During the 15-year interim between the prison’s closing in 1971 and the decision to preserve it, nature slowly took back the building. (In case you were wondering, this is where I took most of my inspiration for that class assignment.)
Instead of restoring the structure to its original glory, the city merely put a halt to the rate of decay. As a result, a tour of ESP truly feels like you’ve stumbled into a place that’s long been forgotten. The atmosphere is eerily beautiful, and something I’ve experienced in very few places. If you can withstand the cold, early winter mornings lack large crowds, and guarantee better photo-ops. If you’re a fan of urban photography, the nature of this site offers some really unique opportunities for shot composition. In addition, while a little research into the prison’s history beforehand is helpful, admission to the site comes with an informative audio guide that unravels ESP’s turbulent history.
Snap a Photo at Love Park
The next stop on our visit in Philadelphia was Love Park. Know officially as John F. Kennedy Plaza, this park in the city center got its nickname from the reproduction of Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture. An obvious reference to the city’s famous moniker, this corner of Philadelphia’s been an iconic photo-op for years. With the single spout fountain in the background, it’s an image practically synonymous with the city itself.
While my classmates and I were too pressed for time to pose for the photo ourselves, my best recommendation would be to arrive early, otherwise it’s likely you’ll have to wait for your chance to have the sculpture to yourself. In addition, traffic increases greatly after Thanksgiving when the Christmas Village, a holiday market, takes over the plaza. After a series of renovations, the market will move back to Love Park for Christmas 2019. Like the Chicago River during St. Patrick’s Day, the park’s fountain is also occasionally dyed for special events. For example, the waters flow pink every October for breast cancer awareness month.
Grab Lunch at Green Eggs Café
It’s hardly a sweeping generalization to say that New Yorkers love brunch. So, drop a group of NYU students in an unfamiliar city and it’s no surprise that they agree on an eco-friendly brunch restaurant for a midday meal. (That, and who can resist a good Dr. Seuss reference? Though Green Eggs Café admits on their website that no green eggs and ham are to be found on the menu.) This Philadelphia-based franchise is committed to supporting local vendors, as well as cutting down on waste. All locations (we visited the Midtown Village restaurant) have a comprehensive recycling program, compost organic leftovers, and prohibit the use of styrofoam and beverages in plastic bottles.
This mindfulness and commitment to detail more than extends to the food. While the menu is vegetarian and vegan-friendly, the dishes themselves are far from pretentious. I also cannot state this enough: It’s impossible to leave this restaurant hungry. I ordered “eggs your way” (poached) with vegan breakfast sausage. While I’m usually a carnivore, I was genuinely surprised how similar it tasted to the real thing. However, the crowning achievement of the menu, in my opinion, and what draws the attention of all diners as they’re brought from the kitchen, are the monolithic French toasts. When the creme brûlée version was set down in front of a classmate across from me, I didn’t know if she was supposed to eat it, or scale it. She was nice enough to let me have a taste, and it was, unsurprisingly, delicious. Is it dessert disguised as breakfast? Absolutely. Also, if you want to finish it all in one sitting, I suggest you bring a friend.
Soak Up History in Old City
Often called the “birthplace of American independence,” Philadelphia’s Old City initially reminded me a lot of New York City’s West Village. It’s a quaint neighborhood filled with boutiques, restaurants, and of course, loads of historic charm. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, it’s preserved in a way very unlike Eastern State Penitentiary, but is no less impressive to visit. Versatility is ultimately this district’s strong suit for any tourist. You can make an afternoon (or even a day) of the neighborhood, and visit the major landmarks: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Museum of the American Revolution, and the Betsy Ross House, among others.
Alternatively, as I’ve said before of historic city centers (and knowing myself, will likely say again), you can simply take an hour or two to wander around, get lost, and take tons of pictures. Since my classmates and I didn’t have the luxury of time, we chose the latter, specifically focusing on the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. As an American, it’s incredibly interesting to visit the place where the existence of your nation began. I also would be lying if I didn’t admit to fulfilling a childhood dream of visiting a National Treasure filming location. Nicolas Cage’s dash across the roof of Independence Hall is downright iconic. Let me live a little.
Tour the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site
Our last stop before catching a bus back to New York was the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site. For five years, the famous author lived around Philadelphia, and published some of his most well-known pieces during that time. The preserved home and museum, located in the Spring Garden neighborhood of the city, is the only surviving property of the several he lived in. He rented it around 1843.
Like Eastern State Penitentiary, the Edgar Allen Poe house is in a state of arrested decay. The rooms are bare, and no artifacts of the author remain in the home. As my classmates and I wandered through the building, I realized it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine it as one of the settings in his notoriously dark stories. Rumor has it that the house’s cellar inspired aspects of The Black Cat, which was published (and likely written) while Poe lived in the house. Taking a self-guided tour paints a picture of everyday life in the home, but perhaps as Poe would’ve enjoyed, the state of the building retains an atmosphere of uneasiness. In the adjacent homes built after Poe’s stay, visitors can find a gift shop, a film screening room, and other small exhibits. Finally, be sure not to miss the impressive raven sculpture, an ode to Poe’s famous poem of the same name, just outside.