When we departed Philadelphia in 2011 we thought we’d explore the world for a year and then figure out what we wanted to do when we grew up. We started writing stories about our journey on this blog and for a new series called “A Year in the World” for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Somehow we branched out to other media outlets and became bona fide travel writers.

But for all the destinations we explored and wrote about on six continents, we didn’t cover the city we knew best, Philadelphia. After seeing so many exotic places when we returned to Philly we approached it with fresh eyes, as if we were discovering it as first time visitors.

Then a funny thing happened. In late January, 2014 Globe Pequot Press, a major regional travel guide publisher in Connecticut, contacted us. They asked us if we’d be interested in writing a book about Philadelphia. They had enjoyed our stories about other places and figured we’d do a good  job writing about our hometown.

You see Boston, which has more sports championships than Philly but in our humble opinion has way less historic sites, has had something called a Freedom Trail for over 50 years. It’s a well-marked guide to Boston’s revolutionary sites. But Philadelphia has nothing similar that connects the sites where America was founded, so we had to create one. Oh, and our deadline was four months. Piece of cake, right?

Philadelphia Liberty Trail-an informative and quirky travel guide to the city's historic districtI turns out a deadline is a good thing for us! Last month Globe Pequot published the result of our efforts: Philadelphia Liberty Trail: Trace the Path of America’s Heritage. This 224-page book takes a fresh approach to the founding of America. It’s part historical narrative and part travel guide that goes beyond Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell to immerse visitors in history right where it happened.

During our research we unearthed little known historical tidbits such as: Benjamin Franklin’s Electric Turkey Experiment; Lydia Darragh, the Quaker woman who saved the American army from destruction; the church that in the 1790s was the precursor to the modern Civil Rights movement; and the home where soda was first introduced to America in 1807, by a doctor no less!

We also talk about unusual events like America’s first dumbest criminal. In 1798 the first bank robbery in America took place at Carpenters’ Hall in Philly. The man behind it, Isaac Davis, was arrested when he started depositing large sums of money in the very same bank he had just robbed. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Philadelphia Liberty Trail-Ben Franklin "Key" statue, funded by school children

The trail we created is about four miles long but we’ve broken it into several segments. Easy-to-follow maps guide the visitor and since this is a book we wrote, there are also Pit Stops to rest weary legs and get a cookie (always important for Michael) or other treat. Complete with lodging, dining, family-friendly options and practical travel information, Philadelphia Liberty Trail is the indispensable guide to exploring America’s most historic square mile.

Here’s how you can buy Philadelphia Liberty Trail on Amazon.

If you get a chance to read the book we really hope you enjoy it. It was a lot of fun to write and discover our hometown once again.

Oh, that guy at the top of the page? He’s Matt O’Connor, the CFO (“chief flag officer”) at Humphry’s Flag Company, right across from–you guessed it–the Betsy Ross House.

Note to Philadelphia area readers: We are speaking at Penn State’s Great Valley campus in Malvern, PA on April 8th. Topics will include the Philadelphia Liberty Trail and travel tips from our 3+ years on the road. Here is the information for this free event: Penn State lecture. We’ll also be signing books at the Visitor Center at Independence National Park on Flag Day, June 14th, 2015 from noon to 4 p.m. Hope to see you there.

We’ve been traveling around the world for almost three years with our trip mascot Little Rocky but had yet to meet sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg, the man who made the Rocky statue. Originally the statue was a prop for the movie Rocky III but its popularity Read more

Much to Larissa’s chagrin it is hard for me to pass up a prison tour. I’ve dragged her along to some of the classics from Alcatraz to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and even to the interrogation center used by the East German secret police in Berlin.

But somehow it took me until this year to visit one of the most historic jails in the world, Eastern State Penitentiary, located in our hometown of Philadelphia. In prison terms Eastern State is the mother of them all, the one that put the “penitent” in penitentiary.

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Philadelphia was founded by pacifist Quakers. They believed that criminals would be better human beings if they were given the opportunity to live in solitary confinement 24 hours a day; then they could find God and reflect upon what got them there in the first place. Such solitary soul-searching would lead the wrongdoers to become penitent about their actions and eventually lead a better life. Among the more famous prisoners at Eastern State for whom this philosophy turned out to be wrong were gangster Al Capone and notorious bank robber Willie Sutton.

Completed in 1836 the massive structure, with its crenelated towers and 14-foot thick stone walls, resembles a medieval European castle more than a New World institution. British-born architect John Haviland designed it to intimidate. It certainly did then and still does now. It was the first of America’s mega-prisons, a step up from the town or county jail.

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For all the Gothic charm on the exterior, on the inside its architecture was revolutionary and quite modern. The design consisted of a radical new idea; it featured a central guard tower with long corridors radiating from it like spokes on a wheel, so the guards could monitor all the cells from one location. It became the model for over 300 prisons worldwide.

Despite its foreboding image, not all inside the walls was gloom and doom. Each prisoner had their own private cell which was centrally heated and they even had running water and a flush toilet. That was pretty radical at the time when you consider that President Andrew Jackson was still peeing into a chamber pot at the White House.

Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens were among the luminaries to visit Eastern State. When Dickens visited America he had two sites on his must-see agenda: Niagara Falls and the prison. De Tocqueville was so impressed that a few years later one could buy a complete dinner service from a French porcelain factory that featured plates depicting various views of the prison. How’s that for a festive supper?

The prison today provides a fascinating 45-minute self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. The site appeals to travelers on many different levels. There are the prison people who just like seeing old jails (sorry Larissa); historic preservationists who recoil at the fact that at one time the prison was going to be torn down for a strip center; ghost hunters (the prison hosts the top rated Halloween haunted house in America each year); and film buffs who want to roam the corridors that portrayed the psyche ward in the movie 12 Monkeys (starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt).

And to those who think crime does not pay I leave you with two photos. The first shows a typical cell, albeit in somewhat dilapidated condition, but you can tell it wasn’t like staying at The Ritz. The second photo is a recreation of Al Capone’s cell, decorated as it was when he was a prisoner with cushy furniture and an Oriental rug.

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Typical cell above.

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Al Capone’s cell as he had it furnished.

For the latest visitor information go to their official web site: Eastern State Penitentiary. And if you’re in the area, remember that the world famous Rocky Steps are only a few blocks away.

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It’s been over a year since we left Philadelphia to travel around the world with a Rocky statue. As our journey is coming to an end, we wrote a story for National Geographic Traveler’s “I Heart My City” series about what we look forward to seeing in Philadelphia when we return.

In the article we explore our fair city; from the hidden gem of Fort Mifflin, to the world-renowned Barnes Foundation and a stroll through the historic neighborhood of Society Hill. We even explain the many uses for the phrase “Yo!”

Philadelphia Society Hill neighborhood

 Society Hill provides a tranquil setting in Philadelphia.

All this exploring built up an appetite which we satisfied by scarfing down a Frangellis filled-to-order donut, topped off with a Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet milk shake. With a stop along the way to sample a $100 cheesesteak, we savor everything that Philadelphia has to offer. And of course, we revisit the Rocky Steps.

Frangellis donuts Philadelphia

 Perhaps the best donuts in the world at Frangelli’s in South Philly.

Click the link to read the full story at National Geographic Traveler: I Heart My City: Larissa and Michael’s Philadelphia.

It’ll be Opening Day soon for two of our favorite Philadelphia institutions: the Phillies and the Headhouse Farmers Market. While we don’t know if the Phillies will make or break our hearts this year, we do know that the market will offer the best assortment of locally grown produce, handcrafted artisan cheeses and chocolates (who said everything has to be healthy?) and fresh-baked goods.

Headhouse Farmers market food trust interior

Run by The Food Trust, there are strict requirements that all the vendors produce what they sell, so there’s no one selling chachkas or bringing in bulk products from far away. The ambience of the market matches the historic character of the neighborhood. It sits astride cobblestoned streets and is held in the circa-1804 brick headhouse in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. A market was on this site when the neighborhood was first established in the 1740s so it has to be one of the oldest markets in America.

The Headhouse Farmers’ Market is our favorite place to shop for food. It opens at 10 on Sunday mornings, enticing us to roll out of bed at a reasonable time. The fact that it was only a few blocks walk for us when we lived in Philadelphia certainly helped. We’d start out with the best intentions to stock up on vegetables and fruit but always seem to come home with more croissants than carrots.

Headhouse Farmers market food trust peaches

Since we’re away this year we’ll probably miss most of the growing season. Hopefully we’ll return in time for the autumn squashes and pumpkins and, just maybe, a parade for the Phillies. One can always dream.

For more information:

The Food Trust in Philadelphia.

Headhouse Market Food Trust

Okay, I couldn’t resist this photo of someone walking by the Headhouse who apparently has no head.


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