A city on the East Coast of the USA
which calls itself the "city of brotherly love" (after the literal translation of the Greek roots in its name) and was the cradle of US independence. For the dark tourist, however, it is rather two more unusual sites that warrant a trip to this pleasant old city, one a world-renowned medical exhibition, the other a grim former prison.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see: Philadelphia boasts two very special sites that are of particular significance to the dark tourist – and both are accordingly given their own separate entries:
Apart from these two extraordinary highlights, there are a couple of memorials and historic ship that may be less significant but are perhaps worth a quick look when in good old Philly.
Like so many places across the USA
, Philadelphia also has its Holocaust monument
, in fact this one is said to be the very first to have been erected in the USA, in 1964 to be precise. Astonishingly, some of names of places of the Holocaust
engraved on one side of the memorial contain rather embarrassing spelling errors. The fact that Flossenbürg
is misspelled "Flossenberg" is perhaps halfway understandable (though still not really forgivable) given that in an English pronunciation both spellings would sound the same. But the fact that the name Dachau
is misspelled as "Dauchau" is really a hair-raising, whopping blunder, all the more so given that Dachau is – especially from an American perspective! – the best-known and most visited of the former Nazi concentration camps
. Still they got the spelling wrong – quite how this could have happened is a mystery to me. In recent years, after my visit in 2010, the area around the old Holocaust monument has been landscaped into a ‘memorial plaza
’ that also includes a series of text plaques that provide some basic context, aspects of Nazism, totalitarianism in general, and human rights. This makes the place something like an open-air mini-museum about the Holocaust. And it even has artefacts, namely some pieces of iron railways tracks that were allegedly pulled out of the ground near Treblinka
. That would be remarkable, given that at the site of that death camp
itself, no such rails can be seen and have been replaced by purely symbolic representations made of concrete. Philadelphia’s Holocaust memorial plaza is not just a static site, it also comes with a custom-designed app for free download (you get the QR code right at the site), which includes more info and, most importantly, video testimonies by survivors. As fewer and fewer survivors remain, these archived testimonies are becoming ever more important in educating younger generations about this topic.
Philadelphia also has its own Vietnam veterans memorial
. Compared to the much more famous counterpart
in Washington D.C.
, the Philly one is decidedly more kitschy in its execution, more "graphic" (stone slabs with photo-like images, maps etc.) and obviously tries to convey a palpably more "patriotic" message. Nearby is now also a Korean War Memorial Park
Near the Vietnam vets monument is Philly's pleasant waterfront, especially "Penn's Landing
", with a maritime museum (called "Independence Seaport Museum") which includes two museum vessels. One is a large WWII
submarine, the USS Becuna, the other the 19th century cruiser USS Olympia, which was the US flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay, in the Philippines
, at the onset of the so-called Spanish-American War in 1898 and is apparently the world's oldest steel ship still afloat. As I’ve meanwhile learned from James W. Loewen’s illuminating book “Lies Across America” (20th anniversary edition, 2019), the USS Olympia’s history wasn’t, however, quite so glorious overall, as it was also crucial in the deception of the Filipinos and the USA
’s dubious takeover of the archipelago in the Philippine-American War which followed the Spanish-American one and dragged on much longer. Apparently there’s nothing about that aboard the museum ship (nor anything about its involvement in the US and British meddling in the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution). And the narrative aboard the USS Becuna fails to cover the significance dissonance between it hailing its successes in unrestricted submarine warfare in WWII against Japanese merchant ships and the fact that this is against international law and was actually used as an argument for the USA joining WW1
pursued the exact same strategy of (illegal) unrestricted submarine warfare against civilian ships then. But come 1941, the US stance on this issue was completely reversed (and, it should be pointed out that Japan
did not partake in the strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare).
A rather peculiar, and in its own way dark sight to behold can be found at the Rodin Museum just north of the Ben Franklin Parkway – and you can see it without actually going into the museum. It's on the south portal and looks like a huge door, but is a richly sculpted bronze relief affair, i.e. a piece of art in itself, and a significant one at that. But I can't go into all the relevant art history here. What's important here is that it's dark insofar as it is called the "Gates of Hell" and that's what it depicts. It's basically a intricately crafted scene of writhing bodies of the damned being thrown into hell. That's certainly dark.
Not strictly speaking in Philadelphia, but only just across the Delaware River on the New Jersey side is moored the USS New Jersey
, one of the last (and biggest) battle ships the US Navy ever had. It had been in service on and off for ca. 50 years since 1943, taking part in various conflicts, not just in WWII
(when it played an important role in the invasion of Okinawa
), but also both the Korean War
and the Vietnam War
. During the Cold War
in the 1980s she was even upgraded as a missile launch ship. It is now a museum ship (open daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., last admission at 4 p.m.) and is possibly of interest to the more war-tourism-inclined visitor or to those with special maritime interests (in summer, there's even a boat shuttle taking visitors across the river) – other dark tourists can probably make do with just a view of the massive grey vessel from Philly's waterfront and save the hefty nearly 25 USD admission fee (plus boat fare).
on the Delaware River, near its estuary, in eastern Pennsylvania, USA
, about halfway between New York City
to the north and Washington D.C.
to the south.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to and not as expensive as some other East Coast cities.
Philadelphia is conveniently located between the two major cities on America's East Coast, namely New York
and the capital, Washington D.C.
. It thus benefits from the transportation links between those two places and can easily be reached by all means of transport including fast trains (rare these days in the US), though buses and even planes are cheaper. Booked early, the bus fares can in fact be ridiculously dirt cheap (my wife and I paid a mere 5 USD from Washington by Greyhound bus).
Getting around within Philly is also easy – and as most of what will be relevant to the visitor is central enough to be walkable it can even be absolutely free. Otherwise there are buses and an efficient metro system.
Accommodation doesn't have to be as expensive as it tends to be in esp. New York. We paid a little over 100 USD for a standard major chain hotel room. Try that in NYC!
Living costs for the visitor can be tailored – I ended up paying a lot overall – but that's mainly because I wanted to sample the delights of some irresistible high-class ethnic restaurants (see below
). You can make it much cheaper if you want.
Time required: for the dark elements you wouldn't necessarily need more than a (full) day – but the city is worth taking in for a couple days more … really!
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Given the location between New York
and Washington D.C.
either or both of these cities make for a perfect combination with a stopover in Philadelphia – by any means of transportation as well. And if you're driving, places in the rest of Pennsylvania (see Centralia
) are in relatively easy reach too.
Further afield see under USA
Combinations with non-dark destinations: For some reason, Philadelphia seems to have a somewhat unfavourable reputation, but I really cannot see why that should be so (maybe it was more boring in the past?). I found it a fabulous place, with a superb mix of big-city-ness and relaxed neighbourhoods, a lovely maritime whiff of the sea by the river, plenty of history (by American standards) and not least an interesting gastronomic scene of the very highest order. Honestly. I loved Philly!
Most visitors come to Philadelphia for its historic sights, especially those connected with US independence. Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities and for a long time the largest in America (now the fifth largest city in the US). Moreover, it was here that the declaration of independence was proclaimed, and the city was even the national capital for a brief period (after New York and before Washington). The famous Liberty Bell can be seen here and is indeed one the prime tourist draws, together with Independence Hall and other historic buildings (which, by American standards, actually are fairly old) and the Constitution Center.
Other mainstream tourist attractions include the massive Museum of Art as well as various smaller art centres. Philadelphia is also home to the USA
's oldest zoo. And Fairmount Park is considered the biggest park in the US … although strictly speaking it isn't a single park, since it is dissected by the Schuylkill River, the smaller of the two Philly rivers – the other one is of course the Delaware River. This provides for a pleasant waterfront from where you can gaze across to New Jersey.
The view is best from Penn's Landing south of the Ben Franklin Bridge stretching down past the Seaport Museum and the four-masted tall ship "Moshulu" (now a pricey and classy floating restaurant), which originally came from – I just have to stress this bit – Hamburg
(my original home town). It makes for an almost maritime atmosphere – which is something I personally like (having been brought up by, and partly on, the sea). I even spotted the shape of the classic ocean liner SS United States in a dock in the distance – it's still the record holder for transatlantic crossings (of "Blue Ribbon" fame) … but unfortunately it’s in a bad state (though there is a campaign fighting for the historic vessel’s preservation and restoration).
Back inland, there are many pleasant rows of pretty townhouses and smaller squares with greenery ringing the higher-built centre, where a few older as well as modern skyscrapers complement the low-rise architecture. It's not New York
, of course, but a couple of the gleaming tall towers are fairly appealing to the eye.
Downtown Philly is small enough to be walkable for anyone who is reasonably mobile, so just strolling about between the waterfront to the east and University City across the Schuylkill to the west can be rewarding.
The centre-point (other than historic Independence Park) is formed by Philadelphia's City Hall, a massive masonry pile with a famously tall statue of the city's founder William Penn on top of its central clock tower.
Philadelphia has also long been known as a centre of culinary delights (allegedly the well-known cream cheese of the same name was indeed named after the city because of its reputation for good food – though it wasn't invented or made there). And indeed, you can have some outstanding food & drink
experiences in the city. I had several memorable meals in Philly – with the one at Alma de Cuba standing out most. The restaurant scene in Philly offers much, much more, well worth exploring for several days at least. And of course, the craft beer revolution has made its inroads in Philadelphia too since my visit back in 2010.
Reading Terminal Market, finally, is not just a splendid outlet for all manner of food stuffs (including some Amish vendors) but also a superb place for a quick lunch at one of the high-quality snack bars (I had a yummy Cajun lunch there).
- Philadelphia 1 - Independence Hall
- Philadelphia 2 - Liberty Bell
- Philadelphia 3 - Holocaust memorial
- Philadelphia 4 - some rather embarrassing misspellings
- Philadelphia 4b - now a landscaped Holocaust memorial plaza - photo courtesy and copyright of Nick Cvetkovic
- Philadelphia 4c - railway tracks from Treblinka - photo courtesy and copyright of Nick Cvetkovic
- Philadelphia 5 - Vietnam vets memorial
- Philadelphia 6 - Vietnam vets memorial detail
- Philadelphia 7 - museum vessels at the waterfront
- Philadelphia 8 - the New Jersey opposite
- Philadelphia 9 - Gates of Hell at the Rodin Museum