A Weekend in Philadelphia: Exploring the City’s Hip and Historic Culture with Pack Up + Go!

Like nearly 100 million Americans, I planned a summer vacation. Well, technically I let someone else plan it. And while using a travel agency is nothing new, giving said agency carte blanche to choose the travel destination is a bit unorthodox. But before I get into that, let me give you some background about how my friends and I made the decision to go this route.

Four friends taking in the sights!
Photo credit: Cari C.

Fifteen years ago, Cari, Lynn, Viviane, and I started celebrating our collective birthdays by taking a trip. Some years we’ve opted to stick close to home, while other years have taken us out of the country. It’s not always easy to carve out time, but as we get a little wiser with age, we realize how vital it is to connect – even if it’s just for three days. Like most people, I am on social media daily and while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came upon a post talking about a surprise travel agency called Pack Up + Go. My interest was instantly piqued. Since we’d already begun talking about where we’d like to go on our trip to celebrate turning 45, I sent the info to the group to see if there was any interest and to my delight, they were totally game for giving it a whirl.

Right about now you’re probably asking, “A surprise… what?” Believe me when I say you are not alone. That was pretty much the response I received whenever I told anyone what we were doing.

Founded in 2016 and based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Pack Up + Go touts itself as a surprise travel agency. The premise is straightforward: travelers pick a budget, fill out a survey, and these travel gurus book the flights and accommodations to a location that’s not revealed until the day you leave. That’s right. You have no clue where you are going until you leave for the airport. So, if you are extremely Type-A, this kind of vacation may not be right for you, but if you can ease up a bit on the planning reins, then you’ll be in for a fun time.

How much you spend will depend on what type of trip you’re doing: solo, multi-traveler, plane, train or road trip, but it could be as little as $400 per person all the way up to $5,000 per person. The most stressful part of the trip for us was picking a weekend where we were all free. Once we settled on dates, we picked our budget ($750 per person) and I was tasked with filling out the survey. Keep in mind that the more detail you give Pack Up + Go, the more they will be able to tailor your experience. So we made sure they knew we were celebrating our birthdays and our friendiversary. We also told them the types of activities we enjoyed and that one person in our group has severe seafood allergies. The survey will also ask you to list places in the U.S. where you’ve recently traveled, cities where you will be traveling to in the near future, and cities you frequent for family or work and have lived. Our survey included 30 cities that we considered ‘no-go’ including one of the most popular Pack Up + Go cities Chicago since that’s where two in our group live. The four of us live in three different states, so having a third-party figure out the logistics was a dream. There were no lengthy back-and-forth group texts or hurt feelings when a suggestion was shot down. We simply sent the survey off and let Pack Up + Go do the heavy lifting. Even though our travel dates were for the end of July, we booked in February to give Pack Up + Go the best chances to plan our trip before the busy summer season was in full swing.

Counting down to taking off

Have I mentioned this was the most stress-free vacation I’ve ever taken? As I told pretty much everyone (friends and strangers) what I was doing for my summer vacation, the most common questions asked were, “But how will you know what to pack? And, “How do you know what the weather will be like?” Once again, Pack Up + Go had it all sorted.

One week prior to our trip we all received an email with a weather report from our surprise destination (we received an updated weather report the day before departing). There were also hints on what to pack, how to pack (carry-on only), and all of our flight information for departing and returning flights (they check you in the day you depart) for each person on the trip. The email also informed us that we would be receiving our packets via Priority Mail in the next few days. Inside would contain an envelope with our surprise destination to be opened on the day of departure, along with curated ideas of what to see and do while in our mystery city. We had a bit of a panic moment when we’d all received our packets except for Viviane. She sent an email to Onsaya the On-Call Travel Operations Manager for evenings and weekends who promptly replied. Turns out since Viviane and Cari were departing from the same city, they had sent everything to Cari. Once we figured this out, we were able to resume our excitement.

“I’m going on an adventure!”

There’s a scene in the movie The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins utters these words as he decides to take a risk over safety and comfort. And that’s exactly how I felt on the morning of my departure. Finally, it was time to open up my envelope and see that I was going to … Philadelphia, PA. While I’ve been to Pennsylvania many times, I’d never visited Philly. And to be honest, it wasn’t really a city that was on my radar. That’s the beauty of the Pack Up + Go concept. They send people to midsize cities with the goal of introducing you to a city you may never have thought to visit.

Another perk of using Pack Up + Go is if there is any money left over from your budget (after your flights and accommodations are squared away) they will put it towards your trip. So, in my trip packet, there was a $50 Uber credit that covered most of our rides while we were in town. Also in the packet was a plethora of information on the City of Brotherly Love. There was everything from fun facts to at least three pages of suggestion of sights to see and where to eat. Fair warning: you will not be able to hit all of the suggestions and that’s intentional. The goal is to give you plenty of options and then you can choose what best suits your weekend. What I really appreciated was the handpicked list from a Philadelphia local. It really was a nice touch and made the trip feel even more personalized.

Exploring Philly

Philadelphia is an art oasis in the middle of an urban jungle surrounded by rich reminders of our nation’s auspicious beginnings. Everywhere you look there are pockets of history interspersed with giant art murals and interactive open spaces designed to encourage play and general enjoyment of the city. Philly isn’t passive. It’s interactive and bustles with energy from daybreak and well into the night. Here are some of the highlights from our weekend getaway:

The Logan Philadelphia, Curio Collection by Hilton

Part of our room at The Logan.
Photo credit: Sarah Hovis

Walking into this hotel you are instantly met by cool art installations, which according to their website are locally curated. The overall contemporary design feels inviting instead of cold. Head around toward the back to find the restaurant Urban Farmer which serves up local-sourced dishes in a rustic-chic setting that would feel right at home on HGTV. At night we went up to the Assembly Rooftop. This hip outdoor lounge space was hopping, and we stayed long enough to take in the sweeping views of the city the space offers.

We received impeccable service while we stayed here, and they even had a small birthday cake waiting in our room when we arrived.

Talula’s Garden

Another surprise Pack Up + Go planned for us was reserving us a seating at this fabulous farm-to-table restaurant. It was so wonderful not to have to make this decision after a day of traveling and as a bonus, we had a $125 gift card to use towards our meal. Talula’s is truly a tucked-away treasure. After entering through the outdoor seating area, we were ushered into a cozy atmosphere that immediately made you feel at home. Our server was attentive and made us feel important. We never felt rushed and were encouraged to ask questions about the delectable offerings. For starters, we chose to sample the World Travel collection of cheeses — eight mouthwatering kinds of cheese that came from the U.S., Canada, and various European countries. From there I enjoyed the Petite Italian Meatballs – crusty roasted garlic-scented ricotta toast, covered in herbed tomato sauce with fresh chicory greens before tucking in to tackle the Spatchcock Chicken covered in a black pepper-mustard glaze and paired with crispy new potato, charred asparagus, salsa verde, and farm greens. We all definitely left full and satisfied.

Sabrina’s Café

Saturday morning found us at the Art Museum location of this cozy breakfast spot. If you go, come with a hearty appetite and get there early because it gets packed quickly. And it’s easy to see why. I had the Stuffed Challah French Toast: farmer’s cream cheese topped with bananas and vanilla bean syrup. Cari was giddy to find The Tots, which are fried panko-encrusted tater tots topped with grilled hot sausage hash, caramelized onions, bell peppers, and fennel seed. If that wasn’t enough it’s also topped with basil chimichurri, sour cream, and over-easy eggs. See what I mean about coming hungry?

Philadelphia Bus Tours

The famous bronze Rocky Balboa statue Sylvester Stallone commissioned A. Thomas Schomberg to create. After much debate, it currently resides outside near the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo credit: Sarah Hovis

Like most of the country, this summer Philly was HOT. It was easily in the 90s once humidity was factored in. Because of this, we chose to do a bus tour of the city. With over 25 stops (you can hop on and off), this is the perfect way to really see all the top city landmarks while learning some fascinating trivia along the way from your tour guide.

The Bourse

Now an artisanal food hall filled with shops, stalls, cafes, and restaurants, the building is over a century old and was originally used to house a stock exchange, maritime exchange, and grain-trading exchange simultaneously. It’s also home to the escape room experience – Escape the 1980s. Our group of four paired up with two other groups to dive back into the 80s and escape it in record time. Take that, Marty McFly.

Pat’s King of Steaks

A sign commemorating Pat’s and its important place in Philly’s history.
Photo credit: Sarah Hovis

You can’t visit Philly and not try an authentic cheesesteak sandwich. Out of all the options available, for most people, it seems to come down to either Geno’s or Pat’s. The funny part is they are located across the street from each other. Our Uber driver strongly suggested we go to Pat’s who has been serving up cheesesteak since 1930. Now there is a specific way you’re supposed to order a cheesesteak to help keep the line moving (it was out into the street when we arrived). First, you specify if you want your steak wit (with) or wit-out (without) onions. Next, choose your cheese: plain, cheese whiz, provolone, American, or pizza steak. We were told cheese whiz is the proper way. Finally, have your money ready and pay the man. Cash only, folks.

The line to order at Pat’s. Even though it was long, it moved quickly.
Photo credit: Sarah Hovis

Reading Terminal Market

This was perhaps the most suggested place we visit in Philly. If you are hungry and can’t find anything to eat, then you are probably the pickiest eater on the planet. As one of America’s largest and oldest public markets, it contains an incredible selection of locally sourced meats and produces. There are also shops where you can pick up fresh flowers or spices, table linens, and souvenirs. And let’s not forget all the dining options — nearly 30 restaurants offering everything from oysters, Mediterranean, soul food, Cajun, Caribbean, Italian, and more.

So whether you’re celebrating a birthday, anniversary, engagement, or just want an adventure, I highly recommend letting Pack Up + Go plan your next escape. And as for Philadelphia? I know I’ll definitely be going back in the future to explore more of this city’s rich offerings.

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

Comments

  1. Lynn Kalchik says:

    Well said. Perfectly sums up the most relaxing (quick) vacation we’ve spent together. I highly recommended Pack Up + Go! They did a great job for us & it was fun being surprised.

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