After visiting the city four times now, Philadelphia is becoming one of my favorite places to travel. It’s a fabulous walking city. It’s filled with history and art and incredible architecture. And the food is pretty great, too.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Philadelphia earlier this month to interview five Iowa State alumnae and attend a Cyclone football gamewatch party. Photographer Jim Heemstra traveled with me to shoot photos for VISIONS magazine.

So, yeah, mostly we worked. But it didn’t feel like work. We spent a full day with an alumna I met nearly 20 years ago when we traveled together on a tour of Alaska. We geeked out over the Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the coolest examples of “preserved ruin” you’ll ever see – and it’s headed by an Iowa Stater. We shared coffee and laughs and heard great stories from three other Cyclones. And we enjoyed ONE day of sunshine and walked more than 40 miles in the 3.5 days we were there.


We stayed in a residential area of Philadelphia (above), and this was such a great decision. Hotels are super expensive in the city center, and our roomy Airbnb was in a terrific location. We drank our morning coffee on the front stoop overlooking a garden area, just like the locals. We also decided at the last minute to cancel our rental car reservation, and that was another very smart decision. We used Uber to get around when we had heavy photo equipment, and we walked the rest of the time. We saved a ton of money and never had to hassle with driving or finding a parking place.


We decided to explore the neighborhood the night we got there, just to get our bearings, but we ended up walking several miles, to Rittenhouse Square (above) and Market Street. We stopped at a good, local Italian restaurant called D’Angelo’s for dinner. It was delightful.


We spent much of the next (rainy, gloomy) day inside, doing a long-form interview, but eventually we ventured outside for photos. We ate lunch together at the wonderful Gran Caffé L’Aquila and ended up, once again, walking all over the city. Here are some of the highlights of our day, including the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue:







The next morning, we met an alumna at Rival Brothers Coffee at 24th and Lombard. It was warm and dry enough to sit outside, sipping our coffee while we talked, before taking her into charming, tree-lined neighborhoods for the photo shoot.



Afterwards, we had some time to kill before our next appointment, so we walked around again, this time trying to find some of the murals Philadelphia is famous for (above), and ducking into the new Comcast Center to be entertained by the artwork and ongoing video show there. Take a look:



We ate lunch at Honey’s Sit n Eat homestyle restaurant on South Street, where they serve a delicious breakfast (and other good stuff) all day long.


Our afternoon appointment was with the president and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Ave), above and below. I’d been thinking about doing this story for years, ever since I’d visited the prison in 2013 when we were traveling for our VISIONS Across America project. I didn’t know at the time that an Iowa State alum was at the helm of this massive museum.



It’s just as cool and creepy and wonderful as I remembered. I took way too many pictures.










I also learned a lot, in talking with her, about the challenges of preserving the ruined state of the facility without it declining further, and also about the current social issues surrounding incarceration. It was a very insightful visit.

So, that was a long day. We shared some nachos at a bar/grill in our neighborhood before calling it a night.

The weather finally cooperated on our last full day in Philadelphia. We started the day at Fitzwater Street Philly Bagels, boasting five generations of bagel-making. (The bagels were great, but the service was iffy at best.)


We had a morning appointment with an alumna in the Rittenhouse Square area, which was hopping. Diners were lined up for brunch on the sidewalk in front of Parc, an adorable French bistro on the square, and the historic park itself was filled with shoppers there for the art festival and weekly farmers’ market.


We talked, we walked, she told us some Philadelphia stories and showed us some behind-the scenes gems like this grand organ, inside Macy’s:


Afterward, we went together to watch the Iowa State football game with some fellow Cyclones at The Field House, right across from the phenomenal Reading Terminal Market.


And then, we met up with our last alumna of the trip and walked with her to the city’s Historic District, where visitors line up to view the Liberty Bell and tour Independence Hall. I bought an overpriced souvenir keychain to take back to the office, Jim almost got run over by a tour bus, and we avoided the temptation of this old-timey ice cream shop.


It was another long day, and our flight was scheduled for early the next morning. So we walked the miles and miles back to our neighborhood, stopping for Thai food along the way.


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