Philly weekend: Aging rockers & founding fathers

Have you ever traveled to a nearby city for a quick getaway, without really putting much thought or planning into it? With a little cursory knowledge of a city, I tend to treat these types of escapes more like “stay-cations”, sometimes overlooking key sites or activities that deserve consideration. Spontaneity is important to me, but having an overall “plan” of attack can result in a perfectly “improvised” escape.

That’s how I would summarize our recent Philly weekend getaway.

Always on alert for a quick getaway, I bought tickets to see the Dave Matthews Band in Camden, New Jersey back in February. We’d missed seeing the popular jam band in West Palm Beach in 2004, when torrential rainstorms usurped our plans to attend the outdoor concert. We had wanted to see them ever since, but living overseas with infrequent US visits, there’d been few opportunities to do so.

Fourteen years later and living in Greater New York City, there is no shortage of things to do (or bands to see). It’s the getting there that is sometimes challenging. Navigating to some venues requires exhaustive trips on public transportation when you don’t have a car. Alternatives, like Uber, Lyft or renting a car, hike up the cost of attendance dramatically. So before committing to an event, I analyze the logistics and weigh the cost and effort of getting there.

Getting there

At first, I thought we’d be heading to the Jersey Shore for a welcome beach retreat, but soon realized that Camden is really across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. It’d been years since I’d visited Philly, this weekend I was excited to see it again.

Getting there, it turns out, was much easier than anticipated, with Amtrak service from Newark Penn Station to Philadelphia taking just over an hour, saving us the hassle and expense of renting a car, parking, gas and tolls. We took the Path ($4.20 round trip each with our pre-paid SmartLink cards) from Newport to Newark, and then rode in comfortable “Pennsylvanian” service for a total of $156 round-trip for two. The reclining leather seats were wide, offered plenty of legroom and a retractable tray table for drinks, snacks or laptop use. The return, however, was a bit more cramped on “Keystone” service, which is really a Philly-NYC commuter run, but still it was more than tolerable. A Lyft to/from Philly’s 30th Street station to/from our hotel was only $15 each way.

Where we stayed

Proximity to the BBT Pavilion was a key factor when choosing accommodations for our Philly weekend. I wanted to stay close to the venue so we could take advantage of public transportation or even a quick cab ride. Penn’s View Hotel fit the bill perfectly, sitting on the edge of the city at the crossroads of Penn’s Landing and the historic district. It was modestly priced ($161 per night excluding taxes), offered a complimentary breakfast and many unexpected “extras”.

Despite being a historic inn, the hotel has obviously undergone many carefully planned renovations. Our Queen room on the fifth floor featured a Juliette balcony perched above the causeway entrance, with views of the water and quaint restaurants just across the way. Happily, proper insulation and soundproofing kept the noise from the adjoining highway from reaching us. We slept comfortably on the “heavenly” bed that was swathed in high-quality Egyptian cotton sheets and coverlet. The antique furnishings, traditional chair rail and Oriental carpets perfectly complimented the modern fittings in the bathroom, including marble countertops, frameless glass walk-in shower, and luxurious bath towels. In addition, everything was impeccably clean.

We enjoyed a generous “continental” breakfast, which offered even more than expected and exactly what we wanted: raw eggs that could be hard- or soft-boiled, Icelandic yogurt, fresh melon and fruit, cereal, waffles, rolls, bread and bagels, plus choice of spreads, coffee, tea, juice and lemon-infused water (also available in the lobby). The icing on the cake: real newspapers and Frank Sinatra tunes to eat by! The breakfast area abuts a cozy bar and restaurant, but both were closed during our stay.

Best of all, we were able to store our luggage pre and post check-in, which gave us the freedom to explore the city untethered. We’ll stay here again when we return for another Philly weekend.

Where we ate

Philly’s 30th Street Amtrak station is a throwback to the glamorous days of train travel, with neoclassical columns on the exterior, and gorgeous deco trimmings and an impressive frieze (The Spirit of Transportation by Karl Bitter, 1895) inside. We were hungry when we arrived and there were several options to choose from, but we decided to wait until we got into town rather than eat in one of the station’s grab-and-go restaurants.

After checking into our hotel, we walked across the street and chose Revolution House upon eying a pizza a waiter was carrying. Per its namesake, the restaurant is decorated in American heritage-style paraphernalia, and had two nicely covered outdoor patios, one at street level, one upstairs where we were seated. The fare was inspired by all-American classics, but was a bit more inventive and quite good. Modestly priced entrees and alcoholic beverages made this a good choice for our first meal.

Philly is known for its cheesesteaks, but not all sandwiches are alike, we were told. My friend Pam immediately called me when she learned I was in Philly to instigate our visit to Jim’s Steaks on South Street on Day 2. The line snaked around the corner when we arrived at 12:30 p.m., and we noticed there was no line at the restaurant just caddy corner to Jim’s, also offering authentic Philly cheesesteaks. On the line we met Daryl, a repeat visitor to Jim’s and also from New Jersey, who assured us the sandwiches were worth the wait, and even offered his recommendation for toppings: mushrooms and provolone cheese. “Forget the ‘whiz’, that’s not real cheese”, he said. And so we did.

We both gulped down our beefy sandwiches, as prescribed by Daryl, mine chased with a Stella Artois. I found the cheesesteak a bit bland, frankly, and wished I had ordered it with roasted peppers. Instead, I added salt, disappointed that I had not been blissfully delighted by this highly-caloric gorge.

If you go to Jim’s be sure to bring cash, or you’ll be paying high fees at their on-site ATM to tender your meal. Also, drink in the 50s-style luncheonette décor, and the countless photos of celebrities singing praises for the authentic Philly fare.

We walked off our sandwiches, first making a stop at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a hodge-podge of Isaiah Zagar’s unique mosaic art and murals. I recommend purchasing tickets online ($10 for adults, $8 seniors and students, $5 for kids) if you know what time (more or less) you’ll arrive, to avoid a line. We hadn’t anticipated the longer wait at Jim’s, but we had no problem arriving 10 minutes past our entry time. Walking through the mosaic mounds and displays comprised of everyday household objects and pop-culture artifacts was fun and a definite respite from the traditional galleries along the city’s “museum row”.

Although still full, we made it back across town to Reading Terminal Market by 3 p.m., where we found Marshall’s beloved Bassetts Ice Cream. He’d discovered Bassetts, described as “America’s oldest ice cream company”, back in Miami’s Coconut Grove. Bassetts was from Philly, and was the first ice cream brand to mix toppings on a slab. We moved away from Miami, and apparently so did Bassetts. Happily we rediscovered it in Philly, and learned that Bassetts, the first merchant to sign a lease at the Reading Terminal Market in 1892, is still owned and operated by the same family today. We were also happy to find that the ice cream held up to even the trendiest “artisanal” ice cream brands, in fact, it is still better than most.

As our food coma set in, we dreaded our 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation, and wished we hadn’t yet checked out of our hotel. We longed for a nap, but instead took in some sights. We marveled at the market’s main “headhouse”, now home to Hard Rock Café and the Philadelphia Convention Center fronting Market Street. Designed by Francis Hatch Kimball, who also built the Victorian Gothic Catholic Apostolic Church in New York City, the building is intricately embellished with Italian Renaissance details that must be appreciated from on all sides and on every level of the 9-story building.

We walked through City Hall, constructed from 1871-1901, where we were treated to the haunting sounds of a street musician echoing beautifully throughout Penn Square, the public courtyard that was once the center of the city. The iconic clock tower, topped by city founder William Penn’s statue, was draped in a giant rainbow flag, commemorating Pride month, and paying homage to the term “city of brotherly love”. This, we learned, was the tallest building in the city until 1986, when Philly’s “gentleman’s agreement” disallowing taller structures be built, was broken. This purportedly set off a local curse on the city’s major league sports teams, until the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, followed by the Eagles’ Super Bowl win in 2017.

Finally making our way to Rittenhouse Square, we relaxed for 30 minutes before making our way to V-Street just around the corner. Luckily our hunger was restored by the time we were seated, 15 minutes early. This was our first “vegan” dinner, and we were not expecting to enjoy it nearly as much as we did. The restaurant offers small plates designed to be shared, with 4 to 5 selections recommended per couple. We ordered the Kung Pao Cucumbers, Trumpet Mushroom Shawarma, Cauliflower 65, Grilled Broccoli and KFT Tacos. Everything was distinctly flavorful (and somewhat spicy) and this was easily one of the best meals we’ve had in a long while. We also enjoyed the vibe, casually vibrant, yet elegantly chic. Happily, the guilt from our earlier indulgences dissipated with this healthy and innovative cuisine.

The main event

Just a few blocks south of the hotel on the Delaware River Waterfront, we caught the Riverlink Ferry to Camden. The ferry takes up to 520 passengers across the river to within easy walking distance of the BBT Pavilion. For featured concerts and events, tickets cost only $11 per person round-trip.

While there were long lines (especially on the return to Philly), the boarding process was simplified with online reservations redeemed for wristbands, and the crowd was orderly, even amusing. We waited only 20 minutes to board the eastbound ferry, giving us a preview of the eclectic audience we were soon to be a part of. There were all ages, ethnic groups and gender represented, most wearing DMB garb. Everyone was jovial, probably because we were heading to one of the biggest party events of the summer season.

Like most people, we had general admission lawn seat tickets. I had done my homework and knew lawn chairs could be rented, so that was our first priority upon arrival at BBT. (You can also bring low-backed beach chairs, but why schlep when you can rent for $10/seat?) I squatted over our chosen ground, center stage (albeit quite far back), while Marshall got the chairs. Before long, a sea of 30,000 bodies surrounded us, all swaying with alcohol-induced pleasure, and sending out wafts of marijuana-laced smoke signals to one another. It didn’t take long to feel the high, even if it was only brought on by second-hand smoke.

I didn’t realize Dave Matthews is 51, and that the aging rocker had not put out an album since 2012. Yet the faithful follow his tightly knit band for its diverse rifts that range from folk-pop, funk, metal, jazz, math-rock and pop from South Africa. Mixing fan favorites with songs from the new album “Come Tomorrow”, DMB filled the arena with beautifully orchestrated jams that have happily been untouched by computerized programs or “updates”, all flawlessly performed to a psychedelic backdrop of animated imagery and lighting that harmonized perfectly with the music. While I am not a die-hard fan, I was completely satisfied with the diverse set list and the three-song encore.

We waited almost a full hour to board the ferry back to Philly with hundreds of brooding, mostly intoxicated, DMB fans. Finally onboard, the mood improved immediately, as passengers began to parrot John Denver’s “Country Road”, blasting from the ship’s speakers. A string of 70’s classic hits kept everyone singing and dancing across the Delaware, making the wait seem completely worthwhile, capping an evening of entertainment and people watching.

Where NOT to eat

BBT Pavilion concessions have few good options save cold brews, pizza and crab fries. We were pressed for time and couldn’t pack a picnic (no outside food or drink allowed in the venue), and were famished by the time we arrived. The burgers were institutional at best, served with stale fries for a whopping $13 each. A can of Corona set me back $13, while and a bottle of water was $5. My advice: eat before you go, expect to pay premium prices on drinks, alcoholic beverages and any snacks.

More to do & see

We had a very “loose” plan of attack, but knew there is an abundance of history in Philadelphia, most in close proximity to our hotel. We began our walking tour of the historic district by visiting the Carpenter’s Hall, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s mansion, which now comprises a tenant house, post office and printing press. We elected to go back to the hotel to take a nap on day 1 rather than seeing the Liberty Bell, which is now housed in a glass structure and museum, due to long lines and rising temperatures. We needed our rest before the concert, after all.

On day 2, we strolled along the riverfront, spying both the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, still wreathed in floral tributes from the recent Memorial Day holiday. We made our way across town via South Street, one of Philly’s best-known boulevards for its trendy shops and restaurants, through the city’s gay district, and back towards busy Market Street, past historic landmarks and tourist attractions, before reaching Rittenhouse Square.

Philly’s tree-lined streets are clean, the architecture is extraordinary and overall our quick Philly weekend was a resounding success. We were able to weave our concert plans into a sight seeing expedition without feeling the pressure to see all the sights, improvising our way to new eateries and experiences that were fun and inventive, surrounded by friendly locals and tourists. We’ll be back!