Hey fam, this is Zac Arestad with a blog about a recent Saturday I spent on the town in the low-key great city of Philadelphia – Check it out! Also – the soundtrack to this blog post is below!
One of things that I was really excited about when I was first looking at Swarthmore was its close proximity to the great city of Philadelphia! With a South-East Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) Regional Rail station at the foot of campus, Swarthmore students are just a short walk a nd a reasonably priced ticket away from a day of fun in Philly! While Philadelphia might not be at the top of anybody’s list of favorite cities (it surely wasn’t on mine before I got to Swat), I’ve really come to appreciate the city and I love spending time there with friends!
If you’re planning on spending the whole day in the city, nothing beats the value of an Independence Pass, which gives you unlimited access to all SEPTA transit (including regional rail, trolleys, buses, & subways) for one day. You can buy an Independence Pass for $12 on the train (cash only, FYI), which is a great deal – especially if you’re moving between neighborhoods. On Saturday, the first stop was Jefferson Station (formerly Market East). This is the station for the Philly’s famous Reading Terminal Market & Philadelphia Chinatown!
After climbing the stairs out of the train station, I head across the block to Reading Terminal Market. Outside the building, a bunch of musicians were playing blues-rock together, but you could still hear the hum of activity coming from inside the market itself. Once I got inside, the place was packed and super lively. The spaces between the market stalls and restaurants are pretty narrow (and people in groups aren’t super good at that), so it takes a while to get from stall to stall. There’s something for everyone – from Pennsylvania Dutch Markets to a Middle Eastern food counter. I ended up sampling some fancy cheeses as well as thimbles of top-shelf balsamic vinegar before settling on a Philadelphia favorite, a cheesesteak (with Cheez Whiz, for authenticity) from Spataro’s.
The next step was Philadelphia Chinatown – which is actually one of my absolute favorite areas in the city. Every street is packed with great restaurants, cool bakeries, and awesome groceries — and all at very low prices. I wandered around for a while, checking out the fruits and vegetables for sale on the corner before ducking into a sweet underground grocery store. I picked up some tea, a box of instant noodles (Hot & Spicy Nongshim), and a bottle of Aloe drink (try it! It looks like it would be mucousy & gross, but it’s actually super sweet & refreshing!). Chinatown is rapidly gentrifying, but as it stands the neighborhood is rather affordable and packed with interesting things to do and places to shop. Keep an eye out for Min’s next blog post for a more detailed look at this awesome Philly district.
After that jaunt through Chinatown, the next order of business was a snack at the historic Franklin Fountain ice cream shop. Located in Old City Philadelphia (only a couple blocks away from Chinatown), the Franklin Fountain is a historical recreation of a 1911 “ice cream saloon” & soda fountain. Featuring original ice cream flavors (such as my personal favorite the “Whirly Berley,” chocolate ice cream with pretzels & cocoa nibs) alongside old favorites, as well as specialty drinks like ice cream sodas and craft ginger ale.
At this point I was absolutely LOADED with food and could barely walk after eating my way through several blocks of a city known for its foodie history. I decided to take it easy on the way to my next stop, South Street! There are lots of odd vintages/retro stores, smoke shops, and curio vendors that make window shopping a real blast. I stopped at a little cafe to grab some fresh-squeezed lemonade to quench my thirst as I made my way around.
My favorite find in the area this time around was a little bookstore called Brickbat Books, I was able to knock out at least half an hour in the shop and could easily have spent the rest of the day there. Brickbat seems focused on rare and unusual books, such as collections of German photographers, offbeat children’s books and contemporary philosophy. I spent most of my time there with my nose in a transcription of a round-table discussion with Jacques Derrida that took place at Villanova University. The shop also had a really interesting soundtrack – some Googling after my visit showed that they have occasional live music as well! Check them out at Brickbat Books!
After pulling myself from the inticing smells of old paper, incense and glue, I took stock of my surroundings and realized that I had basically no idea where I was. I figured that this would be a good time to move into “lets get back to Swat” mode. After walking a couple blocks in an arbitrary direction, I found myself in a neighborhood called Society Hill – famous for its colonial architecture and for being home to the Ben Franklin Museum! While I didn’t go into the museum proper, I took some time to check out the windows into the foundations of Franklin’s house (pictured above) – which were subject to archaeological excavations and preservation. After a little more wandering around Society Hill – and a short detour through a very odd vintage street sale which had some of the weirdest old stuff for sale that I’ve ever seen – I found my way to the Philadelphia Bourse and an adjacent subway station and began my journey back to Swarthmore!
Unfortunately, due to my absentmindedness, I hopped pleasantly off the train one stop away from where I was supposed to hop off. I ended up in Morton, Pennsylvania – where I had incidentally been once in the past for a dentist appointment. I had a couple options: I could get an Uber or taxi ride from there to Swarthmore, I could wait an hour for the next train, or walk the 45 minutes or so between Morton & Swarthmore. None of these options seemed particularly enticing – but it was then when I had (arguably) the best idea of my undergraduate career.
I walked into student favorite – Little Basil “Asian Kitchen,” which happens to be located in Morton. I told the woman taking orders that I’d stranded myself in Morton and if I could please get a ride to Swarthmore if I ordered some food to be delivered there? To my surprise and delight, she said yes! I ordered sweet and sour chicken plus a happy family special and within 20 minutes I was en route to Swarthmore College, dinner in hand (and WAY ahead of the next train through Morton)!
None of my day was really planned, I had decided when I woke up that I wanted to go into the city so I just hopped on a train. Swarthmore’s location on the Media/Elwyn regional rail line makes this kinds of impromptu adventures much easier than they might be at more secluded colleges. Buying some Chinese food with a side order of me wasn’t how I planned on getting home – but it was the perfect way to wrap up a long day of improvisations in Philadelphia!