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Trip Report Trip Report - Philadelphia, DC, Skyline Drive, New York and Chicago

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The trip was based on one of my best friends wanting to celebrate his 40th birthday in New York. He and other friends of his were going to do NY and Chicago and so partner and I added Philadelphia and DC on to the trip. I'd been to Philadelphia before and wanted to show how great it was.

Some basics - we flew out from home in Manchester with US Airways who do direct flights, this was cheapest method after having done lots of searches for cheapest flights. It turned out to be a great choice, Philadelphia airport must be 2nd best I've ever been to after Singapore - new, quiet, lots of places to eat and shop, no queues/lines, art, history. It made entering and leaving the US a much better experience.

Our big trips are always a mix of doing things as cheap as possible and then spending lots on a few things and it was our first since driving to Athens for the Olympics in 2004. So with this in mind we booked the Alexander Inn in Philadelphia - it's a perfect combination of cheap and good and it's #1 on Tripadvisor - and it thoroughly deserves its top spot. A great little hotel in a good location within easy walk of almost everything we wanted to see in the heart of Philadelphia. Rooms weren't luxurious but were perfectly big and comfortable enough. They had a gym and 2 computers in the basement and a perfectly good buffet breakfast. Two of the outstanding things about the hotel are the original decor and the friendliness of the staff. On our very first afternoon the owner came out of the hotel when he saw us struggling with a map and gave us excellent info and help.

Philadelphia is a great walking city - so much to see. We made sure that our first night we headed down to South Street to Jim's Steaks for a cheesesteak - we couldn't have wanted anything better. It was just great to sit downstairs on a stool and just watch the lines forming and the guys working - a scene that I guess that has altered little for decades - a great way to start our 3 week holiday.

Day 2 we started bright n early and headed straight for Independence National Historic Park to be in line to get tickets. Its a fitting beginning to a US holiday I think to start at one of the important origins in US history. While it's a bit controlling we loved the way that groups are escorted from room to room and given talks in each room and encouraged to ask questions - we don't get that so much in Britain and we found it throughout our trip to be an excellent way to inform and guide people.

Next we headed off to the old town and to Elfreth's Alley, the oldest residential street in the US, Franklin Court and some of the old churches. Fork was a great place for lunch. So after so much walking we were ready for our first of 5 expensive meals - Fountains at the Four Seasons Hotel. As it looked like rain we got a taxi and got him to take us out by Boathouse Row to look at the boat houses on the river all lit up - well worth doing. We had the tasting menu at Fountains and it couldnt have been better - faultless and excellent food and well worth the money.

On our last full day in Philadelphia we'd booked the Barnes Foundation - an amazing collection of mainly French art. As gallery's go its small and compact but each room is packed with masterpieces. It's definately worth seeing and its is easily accessible via train and a lovely walk past some of Philadelphia's biggest homes. Then we headed in to Reading Market for lunch. Every city should be lucky enough to have somewhere like Reading Market but very few do. A marvellous mix of foodstalls and everyone sits togther - unique and a must for anyone visting. After that some shopping and walking off our lunch on the way to the Museum of Art. I had worried that this would be too much after the Barnes in the morning but it was fine. What was so good about this place was the number of rooms they had from different countries and different periods - things that we've never seen before like Indian and Japanese temples as well as medieval cloisters. All in all it is an amazing place with a wonderful world class collection but then to end it with jazz and wine, sitting on the grand staircase was magical. In the evening we walked round Society Hill, wishing we lived in Philadelphia. Dinner was at Vetri which is just a three minute walk from the hotel. Lovely but maybe not living up to the hype. I had 2 of their signature dishes - gnocchi and the goat. I've easily had better gnocchi and I realise now why goat doesn't feature on more menus.

Next installment coming soon.

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    For others reading this, I assume you mean you started in Manchester, England. Fyi, BMI also fly this route non stop. I'm fascinated to hear how you DROVE to Athens from the UK.

    Look forward to next installment of this trip.

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    Part 2 of out trip.

    We had a train booked to Washington at lunchtime on Saturday so went to the Italian Market in Philadelphia which was fascinating - we do markets really well in Britain and this was just as good - stalls along the street and throngs of people and just so authentic - not a tourist place at all. Along the way there were so many of the murals that are such a feature of Philadelphia buildings - a real improvement to the local environment and the whole feel of the city and something that other cities should copy.

    The first hitch in my meticulously planned trip occurred at Washington train station - I'd forgot the address of the place we were staying! To all you seasoned Fodorites this will appear an amateur mistake but I do have some excuses to offer - as Washington hotels are very expensive I thought I'd done really well to find the Willian Lewis House B&B - very reasonable rates and a fairly high ranking on Tripadvisor (tho possibly lower when I've put my report on). The owner was very particular about telling me to bring my the email copy of the reservation with us and it gave a code number and had 'IMPORTANT!' in capitals and with an exclamation mark on the email and was very insistent on giving our estimated time of arrival, indeed said that if we didnt let them know then we may be charged more money. So I brought the said email thinking that as they were so careful about procedures they might also have their telephone number and address on the same email, sadly and very frustratingly, I was mistaken. Also very frustratingly the help desk at the train station had never heard of them and when they looked in their helpful book of accommodations in DC found nothing listed under W (for William) or under L (for Lewis) or indeed under H (your getting it I'm sure). So after calls home (out, asleep and in the pub, for the 3 sets of friends we tried) the guy at the help desk finally found it listed under B (for Bed and Breakfast). Understandably I was not best pleased, my credibility as #1 holiday planner completely blown. So we get there and no one is home, so we resort to the code on the lockbox that contains the keys to get in, and of course it doesn't work. Now in hindsight, almost 3 weeks after the incident, its easy to say we were foolish not to try the 3rd possible combination that might have worked, but when we've never encountered lockboxes before and the instructions lead to the first two combinations being the ones that should open the magic box I'm still really annoyed about it (can you tell I'm hitting the keys extra hard?). The multiple mosquito bites while grappling with the lockbox didn't help.

    Eventually we get in and the room is ok - Victoriana is something best left in the 19th century as far as I'm concerned and the decor that so enchanted at the Alexander Inn in Philadelphia just turned into an overblown riot of sepia photos and potted palms at the William Lewis House (but it was quite cheap).

    In 3 nights and days we saw our hosts not once! A nice guy did come in and cook breakfast and made a valiant attempt as being the gracious host but after the emails we'd got it wasn't good. Especially when the whole tone of the place is 'don't do this', 'don't do that' - rules everywhere. I guess the ultimate test is would I go back and would I recommend it and unfortunately the answer is no, although I can see that if you have a better experience then the location is fine and it may be perfectly lovely.

    After all the hassle of getting in we missed our Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet that was on at the Sidney Harmon Hall but we didnt mind too much as we've been to Stratford and can go again easily enough. Dinner that night was at Creme on U Street which didn't look that promising (they had football on tv) but turned out to be excellent - the shrimp and grits was wonderful and I'd definitely recommend the place.

    One of the good and suprising things about DC was how good the bars were. We went to a couple and to a club on the Saturday night and all were so very good - packed with good looking people and the whole environment of the highest quality. Another good thing was the subway which had carpet in the trains. We read an article comparing it with the London underground which, of course, was very funny. A recurring theme on our whole trip was how clean almost everything is in the US.

    As for our tourist time in Washington, we loved it. We took the bus tour that gives you 48 hours and hop offs all over the place. Arlington Cemetery and the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier was very special. Seeing all the embassies was something unique. The cathedral was impressive (although we have lots in Europe so we didn't go in), but best of all, on the Monday, was visiting Congress the day Senate rejected the first bailout package. We got in with no lines at all and heard the last two speaches - from important people I guess and then the voting started and we were told we had to leave as people were waiting. This was no understatement - the line stretched down corridor after corridor and we felt very privileged to have witnessed something so uniquely American and newsworthy.

    Our special meal in DC was at Citronelle on the Sunday night and it didnt disappoint even though I chose badly. Partner is still raving about the duck with apple risotto and figs that was out of this world. Sure, it was expensive but well worth it.

    For the rest of Monday we continued with the bus tour, shopped in Georgetown and just generally took in the sights. That night we ate locally and cheaply and ended up in a fabulous bar that played showtunes all night with everyone joining in - you just don't get that in Britain.

    We didn't get time to do any museums sadly but felt we had a great time in DC and wouldn't have done anything differently and that we'd definately be back but that we'd stay somewhere else next time.

    Next part where we get a car coming soon.

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    'a fabulous bar that played showtunes all night with everyone joining in'

    I want to go there,tjhome. Do you remember the name or location?

    You are a very enthusiastic traveler, and I am enjoying your report. As a Philadelphian, I'm so glad that you like our city.

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    So, almost a week into the trip we pick up a car early on Tuesday morning from Union Station. We used Holiday Autos - they seem to be the cheapest by far if you're hiring from UK. The only setback came when the guy in the line in front got the last gps system when we'd specifically ordered one and we then had to wait 40 minutes while they got another one to us. After a bit of a struggle knowing how to use it we set off for Mount Vernon. This must be a great trip if done by boat from DC too but travelling by car didn't diminish our enjoyment. It was a fascinating place in a beautiful setting and the way the guides showed you round in small groups was very good - they were all so informative and interested. Also there was a most excellent new information centre and museum that added hugely to the experience. Mount Vernon was definitely worth at least half a day.

    By now though it was so late that plans to go to Monticello had to be set aside and we drove straight to Little Washington to the famous Inn. This was our one night of luxury accommodation in the whole 3 weeks and it was AWESOME. You drive into this little village in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and there are several staff waiting to greet you. The car is parked and all luggage taken care of, you're escorted in and given a champagne cocktail and then a small tour of the Inn and then taken up to your room by which time all the luggage is there in a huge room with 3 balconies and a bed as wide as it is long and a bathroom as big as our living room here at home. After a walk in the village, which is also the admin centre for the County we chilled and got ready for dinner. It will come as no surprise that the meal was outstanding. Breakfast in the morning was lovely and we found the car with engine running, bottles of water and a bag with 2 apples for our onward journey. The whole experience was completely perfect and the staff couldn't have been nicer or more friendly and welcoming with so many lovely little touches that you just dont get in other top end hotels. And the cost - $1600 - would I go back? ABSOLUTELY.

    As we had a much earlier start to the day we drove south to Monticello which was very interesting as a contrast to Mount Vernon. Again definitely worth the trip.

    Then it was on to Skyline Drive. Given that we were visiting 4 big cities this was an essential part of the holiday and it was disappointing that the weather was bad and that it rained for most of the Drive. Nevertheless one of the highlights of the whole 3 weeks was seeing a black bear on the road here. We were just about getting some Fall colours and there were very few cars on the road which made the driving better. Despite the weather we were very glad we did it.

    That night we stayed at the Country Inn Hotel at York, which with the aid of our gps was easy to get to. We ate at a place right next to the hotel and had a great burgers with salad and beer all for £20 - amazingly cheap when compared to home. The hotel itself was perfectly fine and the staff very friendly and for just $112 plus tax it was very reasonable.

    The next day we drove to Lititz and bought chocolate at Wilburs - so much tastier than Hersheys, and then on to Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Lancaster, Bird-In-Hand and Intercourse. While it was a wonderful drive across beautiful country it was quite hard to reconcile the commercialisation on the one hand and the great privacy on the other - I wish we'd had more time though to explore the area.

    We ended the driving part of the holiday with Longwood Gardens. Again gardens are something that Britain and Europe do quite well and we were interested to see if it lived up to its reputation as a world class garden. Needless to say it certainly did, with the massive glasshouse being the star attraction. The fountains were fine but I can imagine they're more impressive at night and with music. And yet again everyone so very friendly and welcoming - I have a work colleague who comes back year after year to the US and while I wouldn't do it myself as there are so many other places I want to see I can now see why he does it.

    Luckily we were in plenty of time for our train from Philadelphia to New York as the only time the gps failed was getting back to the car rental drop off at 30th St station in Philadelphia.

    Next installment where we stay in the 2nd worst hotel I've ever stayed in coming soon.

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    Before I get on the 2nd worst hotel I've ever stayed in I wanted to say how easy Amtrak is, both in terms of actually using it and getting from place to place but also in booking on the web site.

    We got to NY just in time to watch the vice presidential debate!! Wonderful tv. Momentarily it distracted us from our surroundings. I've stayed in hotels in NY before and am used to having a brick wall 2 feet from the bedroom window and I've stayed in really awful hotel rooms (the one in my home town of Bath where I could touch both walls with my outstretched arms being the very worst) but the combination of no view, terrible cramped shower and awful bed at the Larchmont on 11th St in NY was hard to beat. That said, the location was excellent, there were homes on 11th St in the same and adjacent blocks that must have cost in excess of $1m and it was handy for the subway but the room itself...well...in hindsight we should have asked to change. Friends on the 4th floor had a toilet that they couldn't sit on with performing gymnastics but at least they had a decent shower. Yet again though it was very, very cheap and everyone said they would stay there again and, on the condition that we could choose a better room, I guess, so would we.

    We've been to NY a few times now and the highlight of this trip was the helicopter ride we took. There are a few different operators just south of South Street Seaport and it was very easy to haggle over a better price. We got $120pp for a 15 minute flight. While we were waiting we witnessed a German couple arguing that they had been ripped off by one of the other helicopter firms but all 5 of us were thoroughly delighted with our trip. If you've not done it or have doubts whether it is worth it my advice is definitely go for it.

    While in NY we had other friends there celebrating a special birthday also, as well as a colleague from work, so we met up with our other birthday friends at Gramercy Tavern. The venue and the food were great and it is no surprise that it is rated Zagats most popular restaurant in NY. We also went to see South Pacific, having got $125 tickets for $302 via an agent. The thought of spending time in line at TKTS without any guarantee of seeing what you wanted to see didn't appeal and the seats were great, as was the show, despite both leading lady and leading guy being stand ins.

    We went to AOC in the Village for best buddy's special birthday which was great - nice food and great atmosphere but most of the time we just chilled and drank and shopped.

    We took in the 9/11 exhibit which was incredibly moving (impossible not to cry)and well worth seeing and did walks in Central Park which is always a complete pleasure.

    Our one great meal in NY was lunch on the Friday at Per Se. After the meal we both agreed what a good idea it was to do a really long meal on a Friday lunchtime. It lasted well over 3.5 hours and was completely wonderful, we had the tasting menu; oysters, caviar, foie gras, monkfish, lobster, pork belly, lamb, sorbet, blackcurrent cobbler and the best donuts ever (apart from the ones at Victoria Market in Melbourne). The meal was superlative and made up for the pennies we were spending on accommodation.

    Yet again NY lived up to expectations, there is just so much to do and see that it is always a city I'll look forward to coming back to.

    It's appropriate here to mention taxis and how good and cheap they are in the US. We never get them here in Manchester as its well known that trying to get a taxi late at night is fraught with risks of fights in taxi lines etc. The ease with which we got taxis in every city was such a pleasant surprise. Our taxi home from the train station here in Manchester was as much in £ as the same journey in the US in $.

    Final part in Chicago coming soon.

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    tjhome1 -

    Sorry - your housing estimates are a little off. The average 2 bedroom apartment in NYC costs over a $ million. If by homes - you mean the small townhouses on the sidestreets in the Village - they typically go for $6 million and up.

    Sometimes way up if they're a little larger, have been upgraded and have special amenities.

    I think that in the Larchmont you got what you paid for. At that price range clean and safe is really all you can expect.

    And agree that Per Se is worth it if you want a splurge meal.

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    VERY interesting report.

    It is quite clear where your priorities are:

    Citronelle, Inn at Little Washington, Per Se ..... combined with tatty B&B, Larchmont, etc. ... yhe combinations of veruy cheap hotels and very grand dining is one you rarely if ever see in a trip report...

    Keep it coming...

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    I'm a town planner here in UK and (when the economy isnt in ruins deal with big new buildings) and work with architects lots so one of the attractions of Chicago was Frank Lloyd Wright and the Chicago School of architecture. From reading the boards here I knew that the Chicago Architecture Foundation gave the best tours and so early on in my trip planning schedules were being adjusted round their tours and so while everyone else got a train from NY overnight to Chicago (but without booking a berth - dont do it folks, cheap but very uncomfortable) we got a train out to Long Island Airport and flew with SouthWest to Midway airport so that we would be in Chicago for the weekly bus tour of FLW homes in Oak Park which was 9.30am Tuesday morning. Although it took 1 hour 30 minutes to get to the airport at Islip it was all very easy and the airport was very quiet and I'd definately recommend it as a cheap way to travel between NY and Chicago, although I'm sure there may be other better ways too.

    After much debate about where to stay that first night in Chicago we chose the Sofitel Water Tower - I'm dealing with a new Sofitel hotel here in Manchester so wanted to see what they were like (my bosses haven't let me claim it on expenses though). I must admit that after all the cheap hotel rooms, the Victoriana in DC and the opulence of the Inn at Little Washington it was really nice to be in a thoroughly modern stylish hotel room. We thoroughly loved it and considering we were all in an apartment for the rest of the week and it had already been decided we were on a sofa bed, it was well worth the money. We ate in the hotel restaurant Cafe des Architectes and had a perfectly fine meal - they did an excellent breakfast too.

    It's worth pointing out that in the whole 3 weeks we didn't have a single meal that we didn't enjoy or where service wasn't anything less than excellent - dread to think what Americans must think when they come to Britain.

    The FLW tour lasted 4 hours and was excellent, the guides are so well informed, interested and interesting.

    We then met up with our friends at our apartment for the rest of the week - the China Doll Guesthouse www.chinadollchicago.com

    There were six of us (2 couples, 2 singles) sharing a big two bed apartment that had two living areas so everyone got privacy. The decor takes some getting used to and the apartments are furnished to the owners very individual taste. One of the excellent things though was that just about everything had been thought of and there was probably nothing that you wouldn't find in your own home and we had access to everything. Also in stead or rules and regulations there were helpful suggestions. In addition the fridge and freezer were stocked with lots of provisions. Yet again it worked out very cheap between the 6 of us and I'd definately recommend it. The apartment is located just off Halsted a short walk from Diversey station so getting around was very easy and we bought the excellent 7 day visitor passes as soon as we got to Midway.

    As for Chicago itself we completely loved it - none of us had been there before and at the end of our stay we all wanted to come back. As it was the end of the holiday and we were with friends we were more relaxed about just enjoying ourselves and not feeling we had to see stuff all the time and so most of the time we just walked. It was amazing that there were real beaches with waves crashing on sand - we hadn't expected anything like that. And Millenium Park was wonderful - a brilliant example of inner city green space and regeneration. We loved the buildings both old and new - do take both the historic and modern skyscraper tours that the Architecture Foundation run - they gave such an interesting insight into the history of Chicago and the way it has developed, they only took 2 hours each and are so worth doing. We both decided that our favorite was the Aon Tower but I also loved the Mies Van Der Rohe Civic Plaza and the simplicity of it and the attention to detail.

    While I was doing one of the tours everyone else went on a bike ride along the lake shore which they loved and thoroughly recommended.

    We did the Hancock Tower bar for drinks while the sun set which was jaw droppingly beautiful.

    We had dinner at Marche one night for a non-special birthday and had an excellent time and we also went to Gino's East and had deep dish pizza which I understood to be something you really must do when you're in Chicago. It was great fun and the graffiti everywhere was pretty unique. Ann Sather's in Lincoln Park was perfect for brunch and had gorgeous warm cinnamon rolls. Also I have to mention Dunkin Donuts and thank them for the mini 5" diameter pizzas that were perfect for munchies on the way back from the bars. The best bar being Sidetrack which we'd heard was especially good on a Sunday night and which we'd extended our holiday for to take in. Luckily the Monday was a holiday so I think it was specially busy but again the videos of old musicals with regulars belting out not just the words but sometimes their own better, funnier words was so much fun and uniquely Chicago - we all loved it.

    The absolute highlight though and the one thing I had been looking forward to all trip was dinner Saturday night at Alinea. We'd even taken son out from school for a day so he could join us for the weekend - he's 17 and has been fortunate enough to eat in some good places in his time and is into cooking (not for his parents though so much) and he had alerted me that Alinea was THE place to eat - not just in Chicago but probably in the US and Europe. He had already decided that it was his favorite restaurant and was so very envious when we told him we had managed to book a table (at this point he didn't know he was joining us). He's 18 soon and so for his birthday present, a week before we left, I told him he was coming to Chicago for the weekend to eat with us.

    It's darn near impossible to convey how wonderful the meal was and it's important to say that the place isn't pretentious or the epitome of fine dining. Everything is quite relaxed and geared towards giving the customer the most unique eating experience and providing food that is packed so full of flavour and so inventive. In terms of cost Per Se for 2 of us was the same as Alinea for 3. In terms of how wonderful it was I'm already thinking of when I can get to go again.

    And so to general impressions - we always have the most excellent holidays in US. A few years back a friends wedding in San Diego prompted a west coast trip taking in San Diego, Los Angeles (staying on the Queen Mary), Las Vegas, Zion National Park, 17 mile drive, San Francisco and Seattle; an awesome trip that we loved so much. When son was smaller we did Disney, Miami and Key West. We've done New York a few weekends now. Each time has been wonderful and the things that have struck each time are the pride in giving good service, the friendliness, the cleanliness of just about everything, the politeness of younger people, the general optimism and can do attitude and the ease with which a great holiday can be enjoyed.

    Its South America next year - hopefully, with whole family, 6 of us but already I'm thinking of maybe 2011/2012 and what big trip we can do in the US (that takes in Chicago). Any suggestions?

    Finally thanks to all on this site who have guided and inspired, answered questions and pointed the way to go - this is a wonderful resource.

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    Thanks for your trip report. Although I haven't been to Chicago (except for a 12-hr Amtrak layover), I enjoyed reading your view on it. I'll keep in mind with your tips on the architecture tours (including the FLW one) as I think I'll enjoy those a lot.

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    You make Chicago so inviting! Can't wait to see it now.

    Friend of mine went to Peru and said it was one of the most interesting places he's ever visited. Machu Pinchu (spelling?) amazing and the seafood of coast was excellent.

    Again, thanks for your kind words about the good old USA! I'm so glad you were made to feel welcome.

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    Yep, Machu Picchu is #1 on our list.

    Hope you love Chicago...am thinking now about all the things we didnt do like the Art Institute, Second City comedy night, Charlie Trotters...

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    I'm glad you liked what you experienced in Chicago. There is the best and the worst of the world here, IMHO. And even after half a century of roaming (I was on the buses by myself when I was 6 years old going from end to end on Western Avenue- something that is probably against the law for a common practice now) I still discover new aspects. Interesting- yes always for tourists, and with its birth exactly when it occurred-Chicago has old and enchantingly modern combinations that you just will not find anywhere else. It truly is the city of the century.

    If Chicagoland weather was better, I think it would be the prime modern city- and the mix of its people is IMHO, no less stunning either. I hope they can get some control back, so that it doesn't implode within the economics it has been experiencing for the last 15 or so years.

    Come on back in Spring or Fall for the best experience.

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