1. The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell holds a special place in my heart because I spent some of my adolescence near Philadelphia, and it seems almost everyone who does so acquires some vague affection for the city. For outsiders, Philadelphia is well worth a visit, with several renowned museums (the Barnes Collection!), an architecturally remarkable town hall, the Schuylkill River with its rowing houses, and America’s oldest zoo (frankly, seeing elephants has never gotten old for me and probably never will).
For some reason, however, every class trip to historic Philadelphia in middle school involved the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell is a cracked bell with a storied history, and throughout Pennsylvania it’s become a powerful symbol. Its story is fascinating, especially if you’re interested in colonial America, but the act of seeing the bell itself is incredibly underwhelming. It’s shown under glass at Independence Mall; on seeing it, even knowing its history, the bell manages — for me at least — to convey little beyond, “Oh, that’s a bell.” Unlike, say, Rodin’s Thinker, which you can also see in Philadelphia, it’s not classically beautiful or imposing.
Perhaps it’s somewhat revelatory of my nature that in eighth grade the soft pretzel (another thing Philadelphia is famous for) we ate soon after visiting had a stronger overall impression on me. For a good day in Philly, skip the bell, go to the art museum, eat pretzels.
2. Empire State Building
With 102 floors, the Empire State Building is a very tall skyscraper. It used to be the tallest in the world, and because of this it was and is a symbol of all that is America. Also, since it’s tall, you can see almost all of Manhattan from the top. Meaning droves of tourists converge on the building to take the elevator up to its higher floors.
Full disclosure: I have never done this, so my view on whether or not it’s ‘worth it’ lacks a certain credibility. I have, however, seen the Empire State Building from the outside, and it inspires in me about as much emotion as any other skyscraper — which is to say, not much. I’ve been in some other tall buildings, most recently Montréal’s Tour de La Bourse (with a paltry 47 floors), and the view from the top was nice. However, it costs $25 to ride the elevator to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, and $42 to continue to the 102nd floor.
I’m skeptical as to whether the view from 102 is $42’s worth of nice, especially when weighed against other things I could buy with $42 — say, a relatively nice dinner for two. Or 42 hotdogs. A more original way to visit would be to somehow manage to get into the Run-Up, a race up the Empire State Building stairs. The current record is 9 minutes and 33 seconds.
3. White House
You’ve heard about it. You’ve seen it on television. You know the man who’s called by many ‘the most powerful man in the world’ lives there. You know it has a bowling alley (for some reason, everyone seems familiar with this factoid).
However, the White House is not particularly architecturally remarkable, and actually seeing it does little except confirm the fact of its existence, which was presumably for most people beyond reasonable doubt. You can take a tour, which I’ve never done, and which is probably more exciting.
Every tourist to Washington seems to think a day in DC is incomplete without taking a photo in front of the White House. But I’d propose it may be more fun to go to the National Air and Space Museum and see its really cool planes, or to the National Gallery of Art, where they have the mobile made by Alexander Calder that was my favorite thing in the world when I was a small child.
4. The Tea Party Ship
From kindergarten to high school, we covered the Boston Tea Party approximately 13 times and from every conceivable angle, depending on the maturity level of the class and the teacher’s own politico-historical inclinations. I’m pretty sure I once made a paper hat and threw boxes that said “Lipton” in Magic Marker off a cardboard ship in third grade.
In other words, the Boston Tea Party was without a doubt a seminal moment in US history. However, for me, the Tea Party Ship was disappointing. Firstly, it’s a replica. True, there’s a museum where you can learn all about tea, tea parties, the (historical) tea party, and colonial America in general, but you can also do that in the comfort of your own home by reading Thomas A. Bailey’s pun-filled high school textbook The American Pageant, or at many other Boston landmarks (which have the added bonus of not being replicas).
At the TPS, you take photos with cheery guides in suspiciously clean period costumes, and, to round out your day, join a crowd of people dumping fake tea into Boston Harbor. I feel this misses the point.
5. The Jersey Shore
Perhaps the Jersey Shore isn’t actually a tourist attraction — I don’t think it’s a place that people outside the Mid-Atlantic visit, although that may have changed thanks to the popularity of the MTV show. I’ve never seen Jersey Shore, but I’m fairly confident it’s not much like the actual Jersey Shore…although I’m not really an expert on either.
Despite living in Philly for some time, I’ve only been to the Jersey Shore twice. My dad hated going, largely because he resented the authority of the lifeguards, on the logic that no 16-year-old with gelled hair and flipflops should be able to tell him where to swim. However, even without the 16-year-olds, in terms of Things People Do For Fun, it fell flat.
On summer weekends, it seems everyone who lives within four hours of the Jersey Shore drives there, jockeys for position on the sand in a barely polite skirmish of beach umbrellas, and then sits there and does nothing, occasionally taking a break from doing nothing by going to the boardwalk and buying a funnel cake.
This is not to say you can’t have fun; for my family, the highlight was definitely the time we bought a $10 boogie board and spent the day enthusiastically (and painfully) crashing into the beach. Still, I feel there are many other places in the US, and the world, where one can do that.