A Philadelphia Day Trip is good; a Weekend is better. Overnight works.
Lower Merrion, PA always seemed elusive for this reluctant driver, and I was thrilled when I found out the Barnes Foundation was opening a Philadelphia location. The day tickets went on sale to the public in mid May, I booked. My nearby cousin Mark and his wife Cindy were interested in joining me.
There’s a lot to see and do in Philadelphia, so I planned on making a night of it. With an overnight trip, you can see at least 2 museums, or a museum and another attraction. Maybe crucial historical sights like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall? The city is also a mecca for those interested in antiques. Plus, Philadelphia has so many restaurants worth visiting, it will be difficult to limit yourself to one dinner.
A great hotel in Philadelphia costs about the same as the cheaper ones in NYC. For visitors to New York who want to combine a different city or just have a change of scenery, a night or two in Philadelphia is an attractive option. You can usually get into the high quality, centrally located Loews for about $159. The new Sonesta is about the same. Kimpton Hotels often has specials; look for deals on the Palomar and inaugural rates on their soon to open Monaco. In order to economize, I took advantage of my college’s discount rate at the Club Quarters. More on that later.
Since I was allowed to check in immediately, I dropped my bag in my room and returned to the front desk for advice about taking the mass transit system towards the University of Pennsylvania. As an enthusiast of all things Maya since my first trip to Chichen Itza in 1991, I was excited to discover that the Penn Museum’s current exhibit was Maya 2012.
Luckily, I had checked out the Philadelphia Tourism Board’s very user friendly art site, Withart, or I would never have known about this exhibit.
First, I made a quick stop at nearby Reading Terminal Market for lunch. This food hall showcases a multitude of stands, stores and restaurants – and has everything from Chinese dumplings to tacos. I visit it on every trip to stock up on products from Kauffman’s Lancaster County Produce, a Pennsylvania Dutch stand that makes products worth hauling long distances. Laden with heavy jars of raspberry spread, apricot and peach butter, I make a stop at the hotel to unload.
Confirmed what I’ve long believed based on what little I’ve grasped touring 20+ Maya ruins and meeting many Maya. The Maya calendar was cyclical. The world is not going to end in December, but I’m glad people in the Yucatan are seeing an increase in tourism dollars.
What was most impressive about this exhibit is the collection. The Penn Museum has major artifacts. Some of those exhibited are reproductions but many are not. The exhibit also explains, clearly, how this end of the world theory evolved. There is in-depth information about the calendar and the ways the Maya calculated and counted time periods.
Interesting educational tools are provided for children to explore various aspects of the exhibit. From the discussions I could overhear as I walked through the gallery, it was a thought provoking exhibit for children and adults alike. I also overheard a lot of “we should go to Copan” comments. I agree.
Any Maya or Mexico enthusiast will want to check out the Penn Museum’s substantial Mexican collection. Only 1/2 hour remained before the museum closed, but I noticed stelae from Palenque and other ruins; pottery from all over the country. There is a vast collection of regional Guatemalan and Mexican textiles, including embroidered and woven huipils (the handmade blouses or dresses worn by Maya women). Each town has a different weaving or embroidery pattern and many are represented here.
By the time I walk back to the trolley stop and return to the hotel, I have about a 1/2 hour to cool down before dinner.
Garces Trading Company
It was difficult making a choice for my 1 dinner slot. I have just one word – Garces. I’ve wanted to visit a Jose Garces restaurant before he ever became Iron Chef and that feeling intensified as I watched him cook on the series. In the end, I picked Garces Trading Company, which was a good intro.
It was a nice walk along Walnut Street to Locust Street from my hotel, despite the heat. All over Philadelphia, there are spectacular murals and I am glad I glimpsed this one on the way to dinner, considering my meandering path.
I was greeted warmly and shown to a table near the in-house wine shop. Although this isn’t one of Garces’ tapas specific restaurants it was easy to assemble a tapas-like selection. First was beautifully fatty jamon Iberico served interestingly on a dark grey slate with a dish of honey. The honey was OK, but I preferred the ham alone on bread with a few drops of the Garces Trading Company olive oil from the bottle on the table.
Next, 2 small, rectangular Staub cocottes arrived. One with roasted brussels sprouts with pancetta or something similar. The other – roasted wild mushrooms with brandy cream and hazelnuts. Both were so good I would literally get back on the bus to Philadelphia for more. Especially the mushrooms.
Since the restaurant is also a store, you can buy reasonably priced wines from the shop and have them served at your table for a $10 corkage fee. Considering some of the bottles listed on the blackboard were $9.99, this can be quite a bargain compared with paying the typical restaurant wine markup. Not sure if this is common throughout Philadelphia, but it is a very civilized system.
Since the restaurant is also a store, of course I had to buy a bottle of the olive oil to join the 3 jars of fruit spreads and butters being carried back to NYC.
The Barnes Foundation
All in all, it is well worth the pain of admission, but it is so painful. It took 45 minutes to get from the entry into the gallery, and I was the 2nd person on line with 3 staff members behind the desk. My cousins arrived separately and had a similar experience. Hopefully, by the time you go, the mess at the front desk will have been resolved.
Some Tips: reserve in advance. You cannot currently arrive and walk into this museum without a reservation. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, download the audio guide to the museum in advance for free. If not, make sure to offer to pay for it when you check in at the front desk, or you will have to return to the end of the slow moving entry line. No one asks if you want a guide when you check in at the desk and there is no sign. Maybe by the time you read this, they will have resolved this situation – enough people were loudly complaining when I was there on 7/8.
If you don’t plan to join a docent lead tour, time your arrival so that you’re not commencing your visit with a tour. The group is large and the docent has to be loud to be heard – we had to move fast to get in front of the group to be able to hear our audio guides.
Bring only a tiny handbag or be prepared to check it in the downstairs check room. You can carry your wallet and phone. Photos of the building are allowed, but photography in the galleries is forbidden.
Once you finally get in, it is completely worth the aggravation and frustration of the entry process. Hundreds of Renoirs; if I recall correctly the audio guide said over 200. The best of 19th and 20th century European and American art, with some African, Asian and Middle Eastern works represented.
The ensembles of art, sculpture, metal work, pottery and furniture are as Albert Barnes arranged and displayed them in the original Lower Merrion location. According to the audio guide, Barnes spent extensive time working with the placement of these objects, by color, theme or feel, instead of any chronological order or grouping by artist. As new works were acquired, the ensembles were rearranged.
American crafts are well represented here. Metal and ironwork features in many of the ensembles. Pennsylvania German furniture and metalwork. Native American ceramics. In the upstairs galleries, glass showcases display gorgeous Navajo jewelry.
The Barnes Foundation was founded in 1922 by Albert Barnes to promote “the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts.” For an in-depth look at how the collection was moved to this location against the terms of Albert Barnes’ will, check out the fascinating documentary “The Art of the Steal.”
I wish I could remember the name of the place where we had lunch afterwards. It was around the corner from the museum and had a great chicken cutlet sandwich.
Club Quarters is also very well located on Chestnut Street, near several trolley stops and bus lines. Despite the heatwave, I walked from 30th Street Station, the main train station and depot for discount bus lines like Bolt and Mega. It was only about 10 blocks.
I had read that the Clubsize rooms were small on Tripadvisor, but for a person traveling alone for a few nights they’re fine. There was a queen sized bed near the window, a simple alarm clock, a desk and a tiny bathroom. The sheets were a little scratchy. Several useful books for longer term business guests were provided, plus a notebook of local restaurants that deliver to the hotel.
The TV was weirdly positioned over the desk with an adjustable arm. It was better for watching TV as I got ready in the morning than from the bed. Despite some Tripadvisor complaints, I didn’t hear any street noise on the 8th floor, but it could depend which way your room is facing. The air conditioner was not quiet. In order to sleep, I had to position a pillow over my ears.
However, this hotel has a lot of benefits in addition to the great location and low price. Friendly, helpful, attentive front desk staff. Amenities like free wifi, free purified water refilling stations on each floor. Coffee makers in the rooms and morning coffee in the lobby. PCs for guest use, including one dedicated to printing airline boarding passes. Storing my bag securely after check out was not a problem.
WithArt offers hotel and museum entry packages – check the site above for more information.
Getting Around Philadelphia
For some reason, I had never attempted the Philadelphia trolley system before. It was quick and easy. Even on the weekends the trains seem frequent. If I just missed one it was about 5 minutes until the next. There is no need to have a ticket; you pay $2 in a machine as you board. The machine takes coins or bills.
Philadelphia also has a good bus system. A route from Market Street goes to Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the Barnes, Rodin, Franklin Institute and Philadelphia Museum of Art are located.
Because this was supposed to be an economical trip, I opted for Bolt Bus instead of Amtrak. Bolt Bus, a division of Greyhound, offers $10 fares and usually provides quick, safe service to Philadelphia, DC and Boston. If Amtrak was more reliable, it might have been a quicker option for traveling back to NYC on the Sunday of 4th of July weekend, but it is gamble.
Unfortunately, I chose the front seat diagonally behind the driver for the trip to Philadelphia and could see her texting the entire way. I nicely asked her to stop, but she ignored me – or possibly couldn’t hear me with her headphones in her ears. I’ve since emailed Bolt Bus about the incident, with no response. Although our driver for the return trip, Donna, was wonderful – I will not be taking Bolt Bus again.
If you do opt for Bolt, or their competitor Mega Bus, they leave from a spot very close to 30th Street Station. You can take the trolley, bus or Septa to get there.
Even on the Sunday of July 4th weekend, the ride back was only 2 hours, making Philadelphia an easy day trip from New York. Considering it’s a major city in close proximity to New York, it has a completely different feel and is well worth a visit.
In closing, I admit I’ve been a very inactive blogger and am not doing much to engage you, my loyal readers. I promise to provide you with more informational yet entertaining posts in the coming weeks – on a weekly basis. Thank you for sticking with me!
DK Eyewitness Guide to Philadelphia
Frommer’s Guide to Philadelphia and the Amish Country (2011)
This article was originally posted July 22, 2012.