A number of people, transit enthusiasts, friends, and coworkers alike, ask me what my weekend plans are and how I get so much done all while still enjoying myself. Meticulous planning and research, I usually tell them. I have always been somewhat of a transit geek, a road geek, and a sucker for doing travel research, all while actually applying what I have learned. I often tell people that going from New York to certain cities is a day trip or a weekend getaway trip, depending on the days of the week and their travel budget. Mainly depending on those two factors, a great trip revolves around a plan, whether specific or generalized.
Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. A great deal to do, from cheesesteaks to museums to bar-hopping, and all within a weekend away from New York. Theoretically, you can do a day trip to Philly, if you start early enough, but for those who want to take in more of Philly than a day can afford, then by all means spend a night somewhere and wake up just miles from history.
If you are planning for a traditional weekend getaway, i.e. Saturday-Sunday, I would recommend a drive since bus and rail schedules are not as frequent to and from Philly as well as transit options when you are down there. I will say, though, that there are several ways to get to Philly (as with Boston and DC), but unless you know your road network, I would advise either using a GPS or just simply taking the bus or train. Taking I-95 down to Philly is a great route idea,…that is, if you understand the road network. Unless you have ridden Greyhound/Peter Pan or with Boltbus/Megabus, trying to drive down to Philly is like negotiating a British roundabout, can be confusing until you understand how to get out of it. All jokes aside, just taking I-95 doesn’t really get you to Philly from New York, but it does get you from Wilmington to Philly.
If you are taking I-95 from New York, you will cross into New Jersey and follow the New Jersey Turnpike. The Turnpike and I-95 are concurrent…up until you get to roughly exit 7, the interchange with I-195, will take you to Trenton. At Trenton, you have I-195 (the main Turnpike-Trenton link), I-295 (a Philly bypass for those in South Jersey), and US-1, which runs from New Jersey concurrent with US-9 to northeast Philly as Roosevelt Boulevard. For some great views of Center City Philadelphia (Philly’s fancy term for Downtown), take Roosevelt straight across until you get to I-76, which runs along the Schuylkill River. Alternately, one more exit down the Turnpike will take you to I-276, the eastern end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which will take you north of Philly to several southeastern Pennsylvania towns. If you want Center City directly, the best route is via the Ben Franklin Bridge, which is I-676 and US-30. To reach the bridge, take the Turnpike to Exit 4, then Route 73 west a few miles to route 38, and you will then run into the “Camden interchange network” as I call it, where I-676, US-30, Route 70, US-130 converge. Otherwise, Route 73 can take you across the Tacony-Palmyra bridge into Northeast Philly, or I-295 can connect you to I-76 via the Betsy Ross Bridge, which will take you to the Sports Complex at Broad and Pattison. Either way, unless you have a grasp of the Philly area road network and you know your options, reading maps and directions thoroughly is the only way to get around Philly.
For those who don’t want to go through that headache, depending on your budget, there’s other options. Amtrak is a great way to get to Philly, with many daily trains between Philly and the major cities along the Keystone Corridor (New York to Harrisburg) and Northeast Corridor (DC-Boston) starting at roughly $40. A cheaper alternative would be Greyhound and Peter Pan Lines from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which can run around $15-25 depending on the time of travel and when you book your tickets. All Amtrak trains depart from 30th Street Station, a former Pennsylvania Railroad terminal, and all Greyhound and Peter Pan buses use the intercity bus terminal at 10th and Filbert, just a short walk from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Center City Galleria, the Reading Terminal Market, and Market East SEPTA Station for the Regional Rail network. (SEPTA Regional Rail is a commuter rail network with service on former Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad commuter lines throughout the southeastern Pennsylvania region) Other options include many curbside bus companies such as the Greyhound-operated Bolt Bus and the Stagecoach/Coach USA-operated Megabus, which offer express bus service from curbside locations in Midtown Manhattan. Prices start at $1 and go up once demand goes up. Booking at least a month to two months in advance can net you $1 tickets, but once you approach your departure and arrival dates, tickets can go up to $5, $10, $15, even upwards of $25-35 as demand rises for tickets. Megabus has the luxury of modern double-decker buses and service from Philadelphia to cities other than New York like Boston, DC, and Toronto. You also have other curbside alternatives such as the chinatown buses from various curbside bus stops in New York and both cities’ chinatown districts. All bus and rail options are accessible via SEPTA and are all easily accessible to Center City.
Once you get down to Philly, depending on where you want to go and what you want to do, most of Center City and many parts of the region are easilly accessible via SEPTA transit and by walking. Taxicabs are optional for places too far to walk or undesirable to travel via SEPTA. There are two rapid transit lines in Philly, the Market-Frankford El and the Broad Street Subway. There are also streetcar and light rail lines and a few high-speed rail lines that take you to the suburbs. The Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell are at 5th and Market, with the Old City a few blocks away. City Hall takes up the landscape looking west on Market Street, basically owning Market Street between 13th and 15th Streets. It actually sits at the intersection of Broad Street and Market Street. If you travel west on Market from Broad or south on Broad from Market, you can find many shops, bars, clubs, and major office buildings in the city. Cross the Schuylkill and you will pass 30th Street Station and Drexel University. Ride the Regional Rail and you will eventually hit Temple University, although Regional Rail serves many places including Norristown, Chestnut Hill, Thorndale, and Philadelphia International Airport, as well as out-of-state connections to Wilmington, DE, and Trenton, NJ. NJ Transit at 30th Street provides service to Atlantic City.
Philly is full of culture and museums, city life and night life,…and cheesesteaks. You cannot possibly visit Philly and not eat a good cheesesteak. No, not Pat’s or Geno’s either. The best way to find a good hoagie (hero or sub for anyone who’s not from Philly) is to, yep, ask the locals. They know that people are always directed to Pat’s or Geno’s, and some will tell you to go to those places. Be brazen, ask a local and get the REAL deal. Also, make sure you ask how to get to the Outlets,…Philadelphia Premium Outlets, Tanger Outlets, Rockvale, etc. Or, if you don’t want to do that, a simple ride on Route 124 or 125 from 13th and Market (or a ride on Regional Rail to Norristown followed by SEPTA Route 99) will take you to one of the largest malls in the country, King of Prussia Mall. Who doesn’t like trying to find great buys at over 400 stores, including Macy’s, Sears, JC Penney, and Nordstrom? There’s also Philadelphia Park Racetrack and Casino and the Sugar House Casino, all within a short driving distance from Center City and also accessible by SEPTA. Otherwise, you have Columbus Commons and shops at or near Penns Landing. The possibilities are endless.
For transit enthusiasts, SEPTA has many modes of transportation operating at high speeds to allow residents to travel from one part of the region to another as well as within city limits. There are the Market-Frankford Subway El and the Broad Street subway, which form a cross or axis with the two most important streets in the city. There is also the subway-surface lines, streetcar lines that reach Center City via the underground but are essentially streetcars once they leave the core of the city. SEPTA has light rail service from Darby to Springfield via Route 101 and 102 and high-speed rail service from Darby to Norristown via Route 100. A streetcar along Girard Avenue, Route 15, takes you across the northern part of inner Philly and runs past many recently redeveloped areas of the city as well as colleges, churches, and adages of old Philly. The bus system, which serves 5 counties in the region, cover the rest.
Most of SEPTA’s buses are clean diesel and diesel-electric hybrids, built between 2001 and 2013 by New Flyer Industries. There are also articulated buses from Neoplan USA that are used on heavier bus lines such as the 14, 22, 33, and 55, and electric trolleybuses used in Northeast Philly on the 59, 66, and 75 lines. Service on most lines is rather frequent (every 5 minutes on Route 52 and every 10 minutes on Routes 4, 14, 16, 17, 27, and 33), and some lines run fairly long distances (such as Route 124 and 125 to King of Prussia Mall, Route 150 from Plymouth Meeting to Philadelphia Park, and Route 37 from South Philly to Chester). Though service is available everywhere in the city, some areas are not very tourist-friendly, therefore extra caution and planning would be required to do any sightseeing via SEPTA. Some of the tour bus companies would be a better idea, though for a handful of neighborhoods, SEPTA is a safe bargain. For museums, Route 38 from Center City to Wissahickon hits the major museums and terminates at Independence Mall. Route 12 travels through the Old City, nearby Penns Landing, and Rittenhouse Square. And Route 4 is great for exploring what South Philly has to offer on the surface as an alternative to the Broad Street Subway.
If transit is not your thing, not to worry. You can drive to many of the venues that Philly has to offer. Provided that, however, you don’t plan to drive during rush hours. Parking is a nightmare, especially in Center City and South Philly, and I-76 can be a nightmare if you are travelling anywhere between I-95 and I-476, which is perched on the side of a mountainous hill and is quite narrow for the traffic it serves. Nevertheless, some of the best views of Philly can be afforded by traveling on I-76, the Schuylkill Expressway. I-95 is a great road to drive as it allows you great views of the Pattison Sports Complex, Center City, and the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden. If your preference is local streets, then Broad Street would be a leisurely drive, especially since there is a great deal of activity on the country’s longest continuous city arterial street, nearly 13 miles. Worthy of a mention in the National Register of Historic Places.
As far as hotels and hospitality goes, you can find great deals at practically any hotel whether in Center City, by the Airport, along the roadways, or even in South Jersey if driving. One of the best areas to stay a night is Center City, but for the budget-conscious, consider South Jersey along Route 38, US-30, or Route 73, or even along Airport Highway between the Airport and Chester. If you plan on taking SEPTA, Center City is a better option as you have many more bus routes and a higher frequency of service, with taxicabs as a backup. SEPTA Route 37 runs nearby many hotels near the airport, but more 37 buses operate only from the Airport and points north to South Philly than from Chester to South Philly. For those living close by in New Jersey or even New York, Philly can always be a day trip, since there are many ways to reach Philly, including taking NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor line to Trenton with a transfer to SEPTA’s Trenton Line, Amtrak directly from New York to Philly, and of course the many bus companies from Manhattan.
All of these things can be accomplished in a two-day span, especially since Philadelphia is less than 100 miles from New York City. Cities in the 200-mile-and-under range from New York have a lot to do for New Yorkers looking to get away for a while but not break the budget. What helps a great deal is the high frequency of intercity bus and rail service for different budgets and different tastes so that a “far” getaway is still cheap. And you can still get home in time to get some sleep before you have to go to work the “Monday” after.