There I was, on the seat of a comfy two-wheeler, pedaling along a path by the banks of the Schuylkill River, taking in the crisp, clear Philadelphia air and marveling not only at the picturesque sight of Boathouse Row as I glided past but also at the impressive fact that I had not yet hurt myself or anyone else.
I hadn't piloted anything that was self-propelled in more than 15 years, but it's true what they say: Riding a bike is like, well, riding a bike. You never forget how.
But there was something more than just the satisfaction at having learned I could still turn the pedals. I was enjoying being a bicycle tourist -- taking in the views and sights at my own pace and under my own power. And here in the City of Brotherly Love, it's easy to do. In the last few years, Philadelphia has become bike-friendly, having created 120 miles of bicycle paths throughout the city.
City officials have also set aside a portion of 80 miles of streets for bicycles to share with internal-combustion traffic. In 1999, Bicycling magazine ranked Philadelphia among the top 10 cities in the United States and Canada for cycling. So even a rusty rider like myself can feel at home.
Another reason I'd come to Philadelphia was to spend time in the Old City section. Once a commercial waterfront district that died and was reborn as a haven for artists, Old City is loaded with charm and plenty of cool shops.
Thus, my somewhat athletic plan: a weekend getaway to a city I was not going to see framed through a bus or car window. As it happened, my trip coincided with a municipal effort promoting exercise. Having been fingered two years ago by Men's Fitness magazine as "the fattest city in America," Philadelphia was eager not only to lose that dubious title but also to be removed entirely from that top 10 list.
With the city urging its residents to exercise and lose weight, I would be a model tourist. My only worry was that all that cycling and walking might involve more exercise than I wanted. So I resolved to ride and walk, but not do anything foolish, like try to get in shape.
Philadelphia is home to several large, gorgeous parks. According to the Friends of Philadelphia Parks' Web site, "No Philadelphian is more than one mile away from a public park." My favorite is Fairmount Park. I like it because the Schuylkill River runs through it, and it's an end point for a portion of the 100-plus-mile Schuylkill River Trail system. This section of the trail stretches 22 miles along the river from Philadelphia to Valley Forge, Pa.
I followed only a small part of the trail, a little loop that begins near the southeastern entrance of the park, where the venerable Philadelphia Museum of Art stands. It then runs upriver to Sedgley Drive, which you can cross and continue on to Valley Forge, or hang a left onto a bridge, cross the river, then hang another left to come back to the museum via West River Road -- a few miles at most.
I rented my bike ($8 an hour) from a shop near Boathouse Row (a row of buildings comprising 10 amateur rowing clubs, collectively known as the Schuylkill Navy), which is situated almost directly behind the museum. It was late morning on a spectacularly beautiful Saturday -- sunny, cloudless skies and about 65 degrees.
The river looked like a pane of blue glass. People were out and about, either walking, running, riding or inline skating. The last time I had ridden a bicycle, the more sophisticated ones had 10 speeds; now even low-end models seem to have a couple of hundred. I settled in with a nice, easy gear. So what if elderly people pushing baby carriages were passing me?
Almost anywhere you looked in the park you could see trees and grass, and along the banks of the river on a day like this they seemed to be part of a Norman Rockwell painting. Trees lined the banks, and families were spread out among them on blankets on the grass. Some folks were in the sun, others in the shade, and most were having picnics and watching the crew teams practice.
Sculls were everywhere, but one in particular caught my attention -- a solo rower in deep concentration, his coach in a motorboat nearby, calling out solemnly, "That's right, keep moving, it's you against you, you against your mind."
Farther on were ducks, which caught the eyes of numerous dogs being walked by their owners. (The river trail is pet-friendly: At several points there were water sta- tions for thirsty pooches.) Fishermen were scattered along the riverside, their licenses pinned to either their shirts or their hats. Except for the fact that heavily traveled Kelly Drive also runs parallel to the river, there were moments when I almost thought I'd left the city completely.
Then I turned left onto a bridge on Sedgley Drive and looked downriver. The city skyline rose high above the treetops. It was far enough away not to encroach on the scene, but close enough to offer a lovely backdrop.
On weekends, West River Drive, on the other side of the river, is partially closed, so you can walk, board or skate in the middle of the wide street, or keep to the bike path alongside it. I made one mistake. A right turn off West River Drive rose steeply and then disappeared intriguingly around some trees. What, I wondered, was up there? I looked at the incline and suddenly heard those words in my head -- "That's right, keep moving, it's you against you, you against your mind."
I turned and put my head down. I stood on the pedals to get power. I rode two feet. Three. Four. I felt my quads burn. Keep moving, it's you against you, it's -- yeah, right. I turned around, toddled on back to the museum, then headed for the city.
Philadelphia's student section -- on the west side of the river, home of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania -- has the feel of a real neighborhood, with lots of old brick homes and porches. A couple of the main drags, like Spruce Street, have bike lanes painted on them, and cars respect them (at least they did when I was riding). Of course, given the vehicle traffic, riding the streets is more a heads-up affair than a spin on the river trail, but the pleasures are worth it. More than once people on their porches waved as I went by.
The most dramatic view I had all day presented itself when, after riding up 34th Street, I turned onto Chestnut Street and looked eastward, toward the city center -- and its unobstructed skyline. It was beautiful, and because it was all on level ground, I easily cruised into it.
Old City lies east of Fairmount Park, fronting the Delaware River. Just a few square miles in area, it's one of the three oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. (Independence Park and Society Hill are the other two.) With its short, old buildings -- lots of turn-of-the-last-century brickwork -- and the occasional tree-lined, cobblestone side street, it could be cousin to New York's Greenwich Village.
Old City was long an industrial / warehouse center until the 1970s, when, according to a brochure about the neighborhood, artists moved into abandoned spaces and used them for lofts. By the next decade, developers saw the potential profits and began rehabilitating and restoring buildings and then converting them into apartments.
Since then, all manner of art galleries, furniture shops, restaurants, performance groups and hotels have taken up residence in the area. For my money, though, the real charm comes from the holdouts of those industrial days -- like wholesale suppliers of restaurant equipment or bar stools, whose shops are still open amid the trendier boutiques.
Most shops and businesses are concentrated within the area defined by Second and Fourth streets to the east and west, respectively, and Vine and Walnut streets north and south. After grabbing a shower and some lunch at my hotel, I walked down Market Street -- the horizontal dividing line of Old City -- and turned north on Third Street. I passed everything from old junk shops, where you could find things for a quarter, to chic home furnishing boutiques, in which it wouldn't take long to run up a tab of a quarter-million.
In Biello and Muller Studio, for example, an avant-garde lighting shop, for a mere $3,600 you could have taken home a ceiling fixture made of milk crates strung with electrical wire. Moderne Gallery is full of vintage art deco furniture. And all up and down Third Street, there are art galleries offering everything from classical work to the unclassifiable.
I walked up to Vine Street and passed one of my favorite places -- the Painted Bride Art Center, a gorgeous mess of a building made from what looks like bits of smashed tile and glass glued onto white stucco walls. Exhibitions and performances of all kinds happen inside the cozy Painted Bride. My wife and I have fond memories of seeing the British comedian Eddie Izzard try out his new show there last year.
I cut back south on Second Street, strolling until the sight of Keystone Food Equipment Co. stopped me. This was, as the sign said, home of "The Frymaster," and Keystone is "the world's leading fryer manufacturer." A little further on, I passed Mr. Bar Stool chair factory, advertising "Thousands of Stools in Stock." This, on the same street as ultra-hip Dizyners Gallery and Artjaz Gallery. You don't get much more contrast than that.
One of the many nice things about Old City is the relatively little vehicle traffic. At times the streets almost seemed like large sidewalks, and the more I walked -- and the more tired I began to feel -- I all but stopped looking before crossing over. Not smart. But it wasn't the cars to watch out for. Some streets through the neighborhood have bike lanes, and there were more bikers out that day than drivers.
I saw some cyclists stop and lock up their bikes next to a bar, then go inside. After a moment's thought, I decided to join them for a beverage. Maybe while I was at it, I'd have a Philly cheese steak -- those deliciously high-fat specialties of the city.
So much for being the model athletic tourist.
AN IDEAL DAY
9:30 a.m.: Hit the bike trail in Fairmount Park and spend the morning riding up and down the Schuylkill River.
Noon: Not saddle sore yet? Then hit the streets and check out the bike lanes across the city. Get the Philadelphia Bicycle Map (available at most hotels), which shows all the routes.
2 p.m.: Get cleaned up at your hotel and have a late lunch. Because you have been getting so much exercise, don't feel guilty about eating a cheese steak.
3 p.m.: Explore Old City. In addition to all the shops and galleries, there are plenty of restaurants and bars for something to slake that touristy thirst.
6 p.m.: Take a break before heading out for the evening. Kick back in the hotel room and relax. You earned it.
7:30 p.m.: Dinner. Lots to choose from here. There's the noted White Dog Cafe in West Philly (www.whitedog.com) for some down-home cooking. On Rittenhouse Square there are several chic and trendy Euro-style eateries, many offering outdoor tables. Seafood abounds. Your hotel concierge can make recommendations to suit your taste.
10 p.m.: Nightlife also abounds in Philadelphia. I happened to be in town for a blues festival, but there's live entertainment of all sorts here. Visit www. gophila.com and click on "Nightlife."
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: It's an easy drive, under two hours, on Interstate 95. Or take Amtrak (you can take your own bike, although they are loaded into the cargo car).
Lodging: Like any big city, Phila-delphia has a variety of accommodations to fit a range of budgets. If you've got the urge to splurge, consider the following:
Four Seasons Hotel, One Logan Square, Philadelphia, PA 19103
* Phone: 215-963-1500
* Online: www.fourseasons.com / philadelphia / index.html
* Rates: Weekend packages start at $225 per night
* Near Fairmount Park. The luxurious Swann Lounge, which serves lunch, tea and drinks, offers a wonderful view of Swann memorial fountain outside.
Ritz-Carlton, 10 Avenue of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA 19102
* Phone: 800-241-3333
* Online: www.ritzcarlton.com
* Rates: Weekend packages begin at $245 per night
* In the center of town, next to City Hall. The renovation of this former old bank building preserved much of the breathtaking original interior architecture.
Penn's View, Front and Market Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19106
* Phone: 215-922-7600
* Online: www.pennsview hotel.com
* Rates: Begin at $165
* Handsome boutique hotel overlooking the Delaware River in Old City.
For more about lodging options in Philadelphia, visit www.phila.org, the city's Web site. Old City has its own site at www.oldcity.org.
For more about attractions and dining, call the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau at 215-636-1666, or visit them at www.pcvb.org. For information about bicycling in the city, contact the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia at 215-242-9253 or go online to www.bcdv.org.