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Finding Brotherly Love

A weekend in Philly that doesn’t break the budget


In the slide show above, Philadelphia is explored.

Growing up in southern California, I have always assumed that it takes at least four hours to get out of state, and that’s by car. Public transportation? Yeah, sure.

The Northeast is so different that at first I was overwhelmed and a little intimidated; it’s taken me two years to explore the region. Now, I’ve learned that while a tight budget can put a damper on plans to get out of town, there are countless dirt-cheap adventures, if you know how to go.

Case in point: my summer road trip to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

Scouring the Web and interrogating friends to find the cheapest transportation, my best friend, Dara, and I discovered BoltBus. For as little as $1 per seat (although that fare is almost impossible to come by, and I paid $40 round-trip), Bolt passengers ride to New York, Baltimore, Boston, D.C., or Philadelphia in comfortable leather seats, with electrical outlets on most buses and free WiFi. Leaving at the break of day (all right, 7:30 a.m.), with a pit stop at a Burger King in Connecticut and a transfer on busy 34th Street near Penn Station in Manhattan, it took roughly seven hours to get from Boston to Philadelphia. But it felt more like three.

As for lodging, we were lucky: Dara’s family lives in the city, so we had free beds for the weekend. That’s a benefit of going to BU — friends hail from all over the country, if not the world. But if couch-surfing options don’t pan out, cheap hostels in Philly are easy to find. According to the review site Yelp, Apple Hostels is one of the best, with rooms for about $30 a night.

As soon as we reached the city, we were ready to sightsee. I’m not a big fan of major historical tourist attractions; I love Boston’s North End for its subtlety, and that includes the way the Old North Church blends in. Philadelphia’s history, unlike Boston’s, is far from restrained. As the nation’s first capital, the city has posted walking tour maps at every street corner telling you exactly where to find every attraction, from the Liberty Bell to Betsy Ross’ house (where the $2 donation for a tour was the weekend’s worst investment). Soon we crafted an alternative itinerary, hoping to experience the “real” Philly and maybe even discover some of her secrets.

Although parts of Philadelphia are not exactly pristine, its major parks are beautiful. One of the best things about Central City is that everything is within walking distance, including irresistible oases like Rittenhouse Square and fountained Love Plaza. We returned to these picturesque (did I mention free?) sanctuaries several times over the next few days, soaking up sunshine and city vibes.

South Street is perhaps Philly’s most interesting corner. Locals and low-key tourists swarm the sidewalks of this unconventional haven, which in Boston terms is a mix of Harvard Avenue and Newbury Street — with head shops, frozen yogurt parlors, and art galleries. The highlight: a donation of $4 each got us into the Magic Gardens, an indoor/outdoor maze of breathtakingly intricate mosaics of glass, ceramics, and metals conceptualized by artist Isaiah Zagar.

The City of Brotherly Love also has some lovely (and weird) museums, most with admission prices under $15. The Mütter Museum, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, houses a morbid collection of human oddities. From skeletons to wax molds of rare skin diseases, the exhibits manage to be simultaneously revolting and enthralling. The sheer volume of visitors who come to gape at hideous pickled forms of human appendages and horrific 19th-century medical tools also is fodder for sociological musing.

On our last day, we sought out the most “touristy” attraction of all, the world-famous Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum is a huge attraction, but I was astonished to discover that most tourists go no farther than the top of the steps, the iconic location where Rocky Balboa, in the 1974 film Rocky, is silhouetted during an early morning training run, finally in shape. Entering the vast foyer reveals the real treasures. Extensive collections of European, Asian, and American paintings, photographs, and sculptures provide a veritable feast, but our favorites were in the contemporary wing — Warhol, van Gogh, and Picasso evoked every emotion, from puzzlement to awe, and it was nearly five hours before we walked down those steps.

This museum deserves a whole day, so plan accordingly. The first Sunday of every month is “pay what you wish”; otherwise, it costs $12 with student ID, still well worth it.

On the bus ride home, we passed the time evaluating the long weekend. In three days, we had managed to take in parks, monuments, a culture fair, a historic home, three museums, and two fountain plazas, all with time left to sit and take in the Philadelphia landscape. The proof of that? Hundreds of photos.

So for those wondering how much a “cheap” trip like this really costs, here’s the bottom line (remembering that we had a place to crash free): $110, including bus fare, food, entrance fees, and entertainment. That put a dent in my grocery fund, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Devon Maloney can be reached at devon.maloney@gmail.com.


6 Comments on Finding Brotherly Love

  • Anonymous on 08.06.2009 at 9:40 am

    This is GREAT

    I’ve been wanting to visit Philly for a while now, but I keep hearing both sides, that its great and that its a waste of time, but now that I’ve read this and it seems reasonable to take the trip down there and see enough to fill up a weekend..I’m SO doing it! and I love the links! i’m bookmarking them all for when I plan my trip!


  • Anonymous on 08.06.2009 at 9:59 am


    great article! I love that city!

  • Anonymous on 08.06.2009 at 3:08 pm

    I am from philadelphia and it is truly a beautiful place to live and definitely to visit. This article is much appreciated!

  • Anonymous on 08.06.2009 at 3:52 pm

    Mutter Museum = thumbs up

    Yeah! If you have the chance to go to the Mutter Museum, DO IT! It’s small but it’s by far the coolest museum I’ve ever been to!

  • Natasia on 08.08.2009 at 11:44 am

    The Franklin

    I was so excited to see this article! I’m from a suburb right outside of Philly and frequently visit center city. And I’m actually not surprised that most people simply stop at the steps of the art museum! Even I sometimes sit up there to admire the view of the Parkway and the skyline…it really is gorgeous, especially on a clear summer day. But the next time you happen to go to Philly, visit The Franklin Institute! It’s a huge science museum, and although it would seem like it’s for little kids, I personally think it’s a lot more fun if you’re older. The tickets are about 15 bucks and are well worth it. Oh also…I definitely recommend the Magic Gardens as well, and the artist is usually milling around when it’s open–a very cool guy if you get the chance to talk to him! Glad you had fun in the city! :)

  • Anonymous on 08.17.2009 at 1:19 pm

    Central City? I think you mean Center City.

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