I devour history. It’s not a rare trait among us who love to travel and it’s one of the many things that drew me to Prague. This fact makes it all the more surprising that I had never really explored Philadelphia, the city that glowed faintly in the distance of my bedroom window growing up.
As an expat, Philly holds a special place in my heart; it’s the city closest to the small, South Jersey town where I grew up and is often the easiest place to tell people when they ask where I’m from. The city of brotherly love is a special place where, despite the East Coast stereotype, people are kind and Rocky Balboa reigns king… or at least over the steps of the Art Museum. Philadelphia is amazing, but I had never really had the chance to see it through the eyes of a traveller — which is why, when I got the chance to join a Philadelphia Urban Adventures tour, I jumped at the opportunity.
Of course, I had been to Philly before. I grew up taking day trips into the city, delighting in the joys of science at the Franklin Institute (it’s not just for kids — they have some awesome stuff!), exploring South Street (one of Philly’s more eccentric — dare I say, hipster — neighbourhoods), and attending the seemingly annual school trips to Philadelphia’s first-class historical sights in the Old City. Washington D.C may be the U.S. capital, but Philadelphia is where most of the early history of the nation actually happened. The city was the birthplace of the American constitution, as well as one of America’s first capitals during the Revolutionary War — and much, much more.
If there’s one thing that Philadelphians love as much as history, though, it’s food and beer. So, of course, like any self-respecting Czech-American, I chose to join the Philly on Tap tour, bringing with me a ragtag group of beer enthusiasts also known as my family. The tour started off at 5pm on a cold, clear evening in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall. The building itself is gorgeous and could hold its own with any of the architecture in Europe, although our guide, Kenny (another Jersey native), explained that at the time it was built (and it took forever), the kind people of Philadelphia hated it and wasted no time in letting the architect know. Philadelphians, while nice, are also an honest lot (as any of the city’s sports fan can tell you) and don’t hold back with sharing their opinions.
From there, we embarked on the tour, heading straight for a spot my family and I know very well: the shoe department of Macy’s department store. While my mother, sister, and I got excited with the idea that just maybe this tour was going to involve shoe shopping as well as beer tasting, Kenny shot down our hopes by explaining that this is actually a historic spot. Philadelphia’s flagship Macy’s resides in Philly’s Wannamaker building, named for the department store of old for which the location was built.
Kenny explained that the large, bronze eagle in the middle of the shoe department isn’t a strange security system, as I had always assumed, but actually a piece of art built in Frankfurt during the glamorous age of department stores, designed to be a meeting point and cultural landmark for the upper classes that used to be the only people who could afford to shop there.
The space also houses a holiday light show, which is purely seasonal but a Philadelphia favourite, as well as what Kenny informed us is the largest functioning pipe organ in the world.
The Wannamaker building was fascinating, but we soon left on our adventure for ale. There’s only so long you can make a person wait for beer, and, as Kenny promised, the walk to our first beer stop wasn’t long. First up on our list was McGillin’s Olde Ale House, Philly’s most famous Irish pub. Like many cities on the East Coast, Philly bears all the signs of the various ethnic groups that immigrated there, and the Irish are one of the most visible. McGillin’s is one of those famous pubs that are well-loved by locals and travellers alike, a status that’s only helped by the fact that McGillin’s has been brewing its own beer for ages — the most famous of which is its 1860 IPA. My panel of impartial judges agreed it was crisp, refreshing, and delicious.
The next stop for our group of beer-loving travellers was a place called The Foodery, which, while it may not sound like it, is a beer aficionado’s paradise. The Foodery is one of Philadelphia’s premier bottle shops and has hundreds of craft beers from around the world lining an entire wall of the establishment, creating an image that is stunningly similar to what I imagine heaven is like.
Kenny gave each of us his personal beer recommendations based on what sorts of beer we said we enjoyed. He was spot on in the case of my family, and I’ve decided Kenny doesn’t just know beer — he’s a beer psychic.
Our tour culminated in another favourite Philadelphia stop in the Rittenhouse Square neighbourhood: Cavanaugh’s. It’s the type of unassuming, low-key place that locals pour into after a hard day’s work to have a beer, see their friends, and watch some sports. They have a number of local beers on tap, including Yuengling, which holds the prestigious title of being America’s oldest brewery. Our group took up one of the larger tables in the back of the bar, where Kenny ordered us a Philly specialty: giant soft pretzels (a mark of the city’s large ethnic German population). The friendly local bartender took the time to explain the various and unique accents of Philadelphia to our group’s Australian contingent (no, we don’t all sound like Rocky, although 8 out of 10 Philadelphians will tell you that he played a big roll in ending the Cold War).*
It was there that our tour ended, although one of the best parts would continue, as we stayed at the bar nursing the last of our delicious beers and chatting with our new friends. As J.K. Rowling says in Harry Potter, “There are some things you can’t share without liking each other…” and a trip through Philadelphia’s most beloved bars is one of them. My set of judges were very pleased and had taken on the role of recommending restaurants to the rest of our group, as well as engaging Kenny in the age-old (and occasionally violent) argument about which of the city’s cheesesteaks is the best. While he approved of our family’s choices, he showed his mastery of all things Philly and was able to recommend to us a place that even we had never been to before, a gem called Carmen’s in the famously delicious Reading Terminal Market. It was at that point that Kenny passed the test in the eyes of my family, who now talk of our tour, and of Kenny as a revered hero.
Our time with the Philly Urban Adventures family was great and we made fast friends with the lovely people in our group, which just goes to prove that there are some great people out there in the travel community. As a guide, Kenny was A+ material… although, as a Czech-American, I can’t endorse his opinion that American Budweiser is superior — it’s Czech Budweiser or nothing, my friend!
*this is not an actual, scientific figure based on any actual research
Want to travel in Brianna’s footsteps? Check out our locally led tours in Philly!