Home » Winter Urban Tourism: Exhausting, Worth It

Winter Urban Tourism: Exhausting, Worth It

I was in Philly on assignment for a magazine story. This is not that story. Most, but not all, of my travel expenses were covered by Visit Philly.

On the last day of my trip to Philadelphia, the sky was gray, there was a mix of snow and rain falling, and it was windy. When I looked out my hotel window, I could see umbrellas being turned inside out, people hunched into their jackets. Higher up wet flags flapped in the wind. I was losing my room at noon, the hotel was sold out, they would not give me a late checkout. My flight was scheduled to depart at six. I did not want to go outside — I was tired and the weather was awful, but it was go out or lurk in the hotel lobby for half a day.

This was not an attractive option, not because the lobby wasn’t nice, but because it seems that every time I went downstairs, there was an enormous wedding party there, the girls in ridiculous shoes for this weather, their faces made generic by makeup, the boys too young to take seriously, the mothers and aunts tense and annoyed, and the bride, always glorious, radiant, but fragile, like she might crack at any moment. I wanted to take them all shopping for wellies. “Everyone! Your shoes are stupid for this weather, plus, you’d be 97 times cuter in wellies anyway! To the hardware store!” A-hem. No.

I waited until the very last minute to leave my hotel room, and when I did so, I was wearing long underwear, heavy waterproof pants, a sweater, a scarf, a hat, a parka with a down liner, and my gloves. I checked my luggage at the hotel desk, pulled up my hood, and headed out into another bad day’s weather.

Dutch Eating Place

Dutch Eating Place by eekim via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I walked about a mile to the Reading Terminal Market where I stood in line for maybe ten minutes to get a seat the the Dutch Eating Place. I had coffee and juice and french toast and probably the best bacon I’ve ever eaten. I watched varied family configurations, most of them black, all of them smiling. A ten year old boy and his dad and his uncle. A gay couple, one of them drop dead handsome and wearing a very nice shirt. Two older couples, one woman wearing a big fluffy fake fur coat. From where I sat, I could see into the kitchen where pale Amish girls made enormous piles of french fries, scrambled eggs, pancakes that hung over the edge of the plate.

“Oh my god,” said the 20 something kid next to me. “These are enormous. Look at all that butter. What have I done?”

“Need anything else?” asked the waitress, as she set down the maple syrup.

“A defibrillator?”

I was so glad I’d left the hotel.

Full of French toast, I walked to the National Constitution Center. Even though part of my brain was critical of the hokey theater-in-the-round presentation that starts each visit, I was swept up in the whole thing, washed in patriotic emotion for the grand vision of America’s Founding Fathers, bereft by the compromises we’ve made on our civil rights over the last two decades. I found the exhibits alternately amusing and overwhelming — there is a lot of voice over, so the entire time you’re in the museum, it feels like someone is talking at you. But there is a lot to enjoy, too, and a crash refresher course in American history is a good way to spent a wet afternoon.

(Left) A rare copy of the Constitution and (right) and a less rare copy of Benjamin Franklin

I would be lying if I said walking around in the bad weather was pleasant, but I was dressed for it, so it was fine. The bonus, however, for sucking it up and getting out on all those bad days — days when nearly everything was shut, or it was hard to get around because of the snow, or just crossing the street was a hazardous course of ice and puddle and mountains of plowed snow — was that once I got to my destination, there were no crowds. None. And even at the breakfast counter in the packed market the wait — it was Saturday morning. Of course there was a wait, but it was short.

“You won’t see the Liberty Bell,” friends told me. When I got there, it was just me and the park ranger. Later, a group of Chinese students came by with their guide, but for ten minutes, I had the famous bell and the ranger to myself.

It was the same everywhere. There might be a group of students, a few other hard core tourists. I never stood in line at a tourist attraction. I never had to jockey for position to see an exhibit, a piece of art. The only time I had to wait — and even then, it was surprisingly short — was at the breakfast counter on Saturday morning. I didn’t even have to sit in traffic on the way from the airport, though I’d arrived during rush hour.

It was absolutely more work to travel during the lowest of the low season. I got tired of dealing with my big coat, of all those layers, of my glasses fogging up and having to take a few minutes every time I entered a room to manage my scarf, my hat, my gloves. It was slow going, and honestly, it was exhausting — I won’t lie, I’m beat. But I loved the quiet of the museums, the empty streets, the lazy vibe in the places that were open. Everything felt laid back, unhurried, I could take as long as I wanted with everything, anything. Even my breakfast at a crowded restaurant.

Yes, the weather was crappy, and that last day with the mix of snow and rain and wind, that was the worst. I may have to reluctantly admit that I have a bit of a cold now that it’s over.

But I did not let the weather stop me. I am not sorry.


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One Response to “Winter Urban Tourism: Exhausting, Worth It”

  1. Chloe says:

    I loved reading this piece! I’ve never been so tired — so tired so deep in my bones — as when I’ve attempted to adjust from backpacking along trails to backpacking through urban settings. Battling with the backpack and also with the other tourists…so tiring, but so fun.

    I’d love to visit Philly! I’ll definitely have to put the museum you visited on my list.


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