Philadelphia, through new eyes
This is by no means an untold story. It is but a few grains of sand in the ocean of first impressions that newcomers experience each year in the city. There is this idea that each person creates their own personal space here through their experiences. All in all, my story is a response the central question posed – whether out of courtesy or out of true interest— to every newcomer: What do you think of Philadelphia?
If I had to condense my idea of Philadelphia in a few words, they would be “a city of contrasts." A feeling that I began to sense during my first minutes in this city: the short, though contemptible, trip from the airport into the city, illustrated in the shape of a skyline in which industrial areas merge with the skyscrapers above the Schuylkill River, announcing my arrival to Center City. It's a setting that represents the modern and the historical that I would come to breathe all throughout Philly.
Later on, however, I discovered that my first impression contrasted with the preconceived idea that a city — more frequently than its residents would like — can be reduced to three of its great symbols. If one paid heed to this stereotyped description, one would think that the residents of Philadelphia ‘only’ eat cheesesteaks, that their favorite entertainment center is the steps on which Sylvester Stallone filmed the most popular scene of his career, and that its only tourist attraction consists in the world renowned Liberty Bell.
A quite exaggerated summary, I know, but one that – with a bit of sarcasm — I hope condenses the superficial perception held at times about Philadelphia. There are some who consider it unfair (especially, and logically, those born and raised in Philly). Perhaps because of this I have decided to take advantage of my subjectivity as a newcomer — before I start to either love or hate the city — and reformulate the question I have heard so many times since my arrival. All this is with the purpose of verifying if Philly is more than the Liberty Bell, the cheesesteak and “Rocky’s stairs”. The result of my non-scientific study? A summary of Philadelphia through some of its classical stereotypes, but seen through new eyes.
The Liberty Bell, its greatest symbol
It would be ridiculous to deny that the Liberty Bell is one of the city’s most iconic symbols, though it is likewise ridiculous to think that it is in only point of interest linked to the city's history. From the National Constitution Center to the House of Betsy Ross (responsible for making the first U.S. flag), there is no doubt that Philly is the perfect destination for history lovers. We mustn’t forget, however, that part of the charm of this city is its capacity to provide a much more diverse offer, and one that adapts to a wide range of tastes.
Again, the contrasting idea comes to mind. Two of the most significant examples? On the one hand, that existing between a stroll through Fairmount Park – locals, however, also recommend the lesser-visited Pennypack Park (Northeast Philadelphia)— and a visit to the Magic Gardens. The streets of Old City and the improvised museum of art at Graffiti Pier, an oasis of color where one can also enjoy and take pictures of the skyline from a different angle.
Though you can’t sense that you know Philly if you haven’t visited its barrios, areas often forgotten by tourists and where its true essence resides. Among the most emblematic, at least in my opinion, the area of North Philadelphia baptized as ‘El Bloque de Oro’ (The Golden Block), a small piece of Puerto Rico in the city, represented by palm trees and Boricua music from its ‘Centro Musical’.
A must-stop: Retracing Rocky Balboa's famous steps
I admit that I am still surprised that, at least on an international level, Philadelphia continues to be known as the setting of the “Rocky” films. What many are unaware of is that at the end of the 72 steps — a symbol of victory staged by Stallone’s most famous character — is one of the main artistic centers of the city, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On Wednesdays you can pay what you wish thanks to its “Wednesday Nights’” initiative. It is unfortunate that the famous boxer was not an art fan, one of the strongest points of the city. I don’t blame him though since this quality of Philly was also unknown to me. Though, as odd as it may seem, I didn't pay much attention to the and the Rocky statue. However, the opposite occurred with regard to the tens of murals decorating the buildings of Philly, turning it into a type of improvised urban art gallery. A feature that may go unnoticed to locals, but not to newcomers.
Eating on a cheesesteak diet
The word cheesesteak is able to automatically appear in any conversation when you mention the name Philly. However, if someone thinks that it is all you can take in, then they still don’t know that they are in one of the “foodie” paradises of the East Coast. Prepare your stomach!
Though it is true that leaving Philly without tasting its cheesesteak would be like doing so without standing before its famous bell, the truth is that, if there is something that Philly should be known for it is its broad culinary line-up. However, and assuming that the cheesesteak is something that every visitor must definitely try, here is a compilation of two of the first pieces of advice I received from a true “Philadelphian” when I arrived in the city: “avoid those with ‘cheeze whiz’, the real one is prepared with American Cheese” and “never go to Geno’s”. Why? Its famous sign: “This is America, when ordering please speak English’”… there is little more to say.
After the traditional dish, a list of almost endless places unfolds. The demonstration of the richness and mixture of cultures that floods the city also tastes of Pho soups that can be enjoyed on Washington Ave., General Tso’s Chicken in Chinatown, Beiler’s doughnuts, made in Mexico tacos –the first food I had in the city were the tacos from El Rey –or one of the best pizzas I have ever tasted, from Rosa’s Fresh Pizza—the flavor and the price (only one dollar) is not its only claim, there is also the possibility of buying another portion for $1.00 that will be enjoyed by a homeless person--. And without forgetting two of the places that most surprised me: the $1.00 oysters at the Oyster House’s happy hour and being able to enjoy a free appetizer of Spanish paella at The Foodery.
But the multicultural aspect is not only reflected in the food, it also extends to the beverages. Bars in Philly not only live on Yuengling or the Citywide Special, they also have Margaritas, Mojitos or Piña colada; with a must-stop at dive bars such as Bob & Barbara’s or Oscar’s Tavern.
Two of the Philly markets, in my opinion, deserve a special mention: the Reading Terminal and the Italian Market, one of my must-stops every weekend to buy from fruits and vegetables to organic yogurt or tea.
Nothing important goes on in Philadelphia
Many might see Philly as “second ranking”, when compared with internationally known cities such as New York or Washington D.C. However, and in case you still haven’t heard, 2015 and 2016 seem to be destined to putting the name of Philadelphia on the map, both at national and international level. In a one-year period, it will become the venue of three great events: the “Gold Cup” finals, the World Meeting of Families (undoubtedly the great event of 2015) and the National Democratic convention. Yeah, I also didn’t think that Philadelphia was going to be so on demand.
The truth is that if there is one thing that from the strongest fans and advocates of Philly to the most disillusioned agree on it is the rebirth the city has been undergoing for many years; a yearning for change and improvement that does not go unnoticed, even in the eyes of a newcomer. I admit, even at the risk of sounding complacent, that for the time being Philadelphia continues to win me over, though not totally (few relationships reach such a high level of perfection in life). Perhaps in my case, this charm resides precisely in that which differentiates Philly from its great “competitors”, turning it into a city that does sleep (once you get used to the relentless sound of the sirens) but in which there is (almost) always something to do, if its greatest enemy, the weather, of course, allows it.