There’s More to Philly Than Cheesesteaks…

Before I travelled to the United States, a family friend told me that I must go to Philadelphia and try a Philly cheesesteak, as it was the best food he had had whilst there. I promised I would as I wanted to go to Philadelphia anyway, given its historical importance in the American Revolution, where the elite white revolutionaries (Founding Fathers) created the liberal political ideals of the newly-created nation of the United States. Yet I wondered how good the Philly cheesesteak would be and whether Philadelphia would be a good tourist destination.

I arrived in Philadelphia on a sunny afternoon, and headed for the tourist district, where I quickly found Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Museum. Tours of Independence Hall set off every 15 minutes and are free, which is a bonus. The tour itself was fairly swift, and I especially enjoyed learning that the upstairs rooms in Independence Hall were where the British imprisoned American revolutionaries up to 1778, and that when the British left Philadelphia it became revolutionary artillery storage. I was also intrigued to learn about the underground slave railroad in the Independence Visitor Centre: prior to the Civil War, slaves covertly escaped from southern plantations to freedom in Mexico and Canada, using safe houses and trails organised by the abolitionists (a political movement that aimed to end slavery prior to the Civil War). As for the Liberty Museum, there was a massive queue but it was free and I would recommend it. Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘I have a Dream’ speech was on a constant loop at the far end of the museum, which seems especially pertinent to the United States in 2017, given the repressive and retrogressive executive orders signed by President Trump.

The next day, it was windy and pouring with rain so I headed for East State Penitentiary, where I was glad to get inside. Tickets were $14 for adult admission and $10 for students. I was very impressed with the displays inside this former prison, and the size – it looked more like a castle. East State Penitentiary shut in the early 1970s and has since been a tourist attraction. I was struck with the lavish nature of the cell of Al Capone, the notorious mobster who was in East State Penitentiary in 1929 – it was more like an expensive hotel room than a prison cell. The 1945 prison escape from East State Penitentiary also fascinated me. Organised by escape artist Willie Sutton, the 1945 prison escape was similar to The Great Escape (1963) in the construction of the tunnel and scattering of dirt in the yard, though all the escapees were captured or killed.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and extensive tour of East State Penitentiary, I had a Philly cheesesteak with chips, mayo and ketchup at Spring Garden Deli, near the prison – and it surpassed my lofty expectations. I never thought that a sandwich could be so succulent and flavoursome. It was not overpriced either: $7.99 for a fairly substantial portion, and the service was incredibly quick. Despite the numerous replica Philly cheesesteaks across the United States, it is definitely worth seeking out the real thing if you get the chance.

I was incredibly impressed by Philadelphia. It seems a somewhat understated city, whose skyscrapers do not dominate the skyline as they do in New York City. Yet as a tourist destination, its historical and cultural exhibits both preserved and challenged the limited extension of the United States’ founding political ideals. My personal highlight was definitely the extraordinarily tasty Philly cheesesteak which, much like the city itself, greatly exceeded my initial expectations.