navigating SEPTA
August 15, 2012 7:15 PM   Subscribe

Going to Philadelphia for the first time in a couple of weeks and need tips about making the best use of public transportation.

My boyfriend and I will be stopping in Philadelphia in the middle of a road trip at the end of the month. Even though we will have a vehicle I know driving in the city won't be practical. We both went to school in Chicago so we are both used to trains and buses and find them to be less stressful than navigating traffic and parking situations. However, neither of us have experience with other city's transit systems (save for a childhood trip to DC with my family about 8 years ago.) What tips could any locals or others who have traveled to the city give us to save time and headaches? Especially if you've also been to Chicago and have any comparisons.

We will be staying in University City and mostly doing tourist type stuff for the two days we will be in town. The most important places we have planned to go are the Liberty Bell, Mutter Museum, and Reading Terminal Market among other things. I've plotted everything on a map and I know it's doable but deciphering "foreign" bus & train routes has proved difficult. The SEPTA website has to much information!

The most confusing element seems to be how the fares are calculated differently than I'm used to with the different "zones." Will those matter going between these two areas? I see one day passes- where can they be purchased other than the website? Can they be used for everything? What lines are best to use? To avoid? What times are sketchy? Is there anything that would be worth taking a car to instead of riding the bus/ train?

The easiest way for me to learn these things is by doing (it took me my entire freshman year to learn how to use the CTA [granted I rarely used it that first year]) but two days isn't enough to figure it out. Help me learn from your mistakes!
posted by missriss89 to Travel & Transportation around Philadelphia, PA (36 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The zones are only relevant for the regional rail system, which won't be relevant for your trip. So no worries there! (There are a couple of other weird exceptions that, again, won't be relevant to you, since they in involve - for example - very long bus trips out to the suburbs.) The big huge main SEPTA map seems scary (well, it is), but a lot of that complexity comes from the regional rail network, pretty much all of which is well outside the areas of the city you care about.

The only lines that you may care about are the ones colored green (The "subway-surface" lines, which everyone just calls trolleys, and which are very convenient for moving between center city and U. City) and the blue (the Market-Frankford Line, called the El even though it's underground for the portion relevant to your trip, very useful for taking you from U. City to the Liberty Bell et al). The Orange line goes north-south and, if you're in standard tourist mode, it won't be relevant to your trip. All three are paid for by the fare system I'll mention in just a moment - regional rail has a whole 'nother system because it covers so much more ground, but you can safely ignore it in its entirety.

Each ride each way, whether on the blue or orange or green lines or a bus, costs $2 if you're paying cash, or you can buy tokens (yes, tokens! Old-school!) for $1.35 apiece. Tokens comes from machines in subway stations - if you want to catch a bus and you don't have tokens, you're paying cash. The daily passes might make sense if you're thinking of taking a lot of transit in those two days, but keep in mind that Center City and University City are extremely walkable, so I suspect it won't really be worthwhile. (Those of us who live here often have weekly/monthly passes, but again, not relevant to your trip.)
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:28 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

To be honest when I am in Philly (generally about one weekend a month) I walk everywhere. It's a very nice place to do that. There are several bridges over the Schuylkill that will get you from University City to downtown, and the whole downtown area is really scenic for wandering around--lots of tiny streets with old houses and cafes and the occasional park (Rittenhouse Square is one of the nicest).

If you are in University City, you will just want to take the trolley or the blue subway line into downtown, as Tomorrowful explains perfectly up above. You can also hop the regional rail from the University City stop right to Reading Terminal for eats and easy access to the Liberty Bell, etc., but there's really no need.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:36 PM on August 15, 2012

Not specific to Philadelphia, but any time I'm in a strange city dealing with public transit I just find someone who looks official in the station and ask them questions. It's a lot easier than trying to keep things straight before you get there or figure out what's going on by reading maps and charts on the wall.
posted by something something at 7:38 PM on August 15, 2012

And I don't think (though people who actually live in Philly/Chicago can correct me if I'm wrong) that there is as sharp of a division of good and sketchy train lines as there is in Chicago. Everything between U City and Center City should be fine, for sure. Just make sure that there are no service changes that will affect you--sometimes the trolleys run on a diversion track on the weekends, for instance--and you should be set.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:40 PM on August 15, 2012

Best answer: Oh, ha. Funny you should ask this today, because I just got back from a weekend relying on public transit in Philadelphia!

Philadelphia's subway system is fairly simple to navigate. I don't remember the Chicago system that well, but it's miles easier than New York and about on par with Boston.

The map, however, is sort of shittily designed and hard to read, it's true. It's puzzling, because the system itself is super easy, as long as you can translate their stupid map into something your brain can understand. The main thing that's hard to grok on the map is that the central city of Philadelphia is very small and dense. For some reason it isn't to scale, and so outlying towns that might not even be in the state of PA are shown a similar distance away as two stops that are only a couple of blocks from each other.

A lot of the sites you want to see are on the Market-Frankford line (this is the only thing that felt quirky to me about the SEPTA trains; they're not called by colors or letters or numbers, they have names that are meaningless to people who don't live there). I spent this past weekend in Philadelphia doing various touristy-ish things, and the Market-Frankford line was the only line I ever needed. This will definitely be true if you're staying near the 34th Street stop on the Market-Frankford line. If you're very far from that, you might end up taking a trolley and transferring (which I think is free, as the trolleys are part of the same system? Never needed a trolley so didn't have to figure that out.)

There is only one "zone" you need to know about for navigating Philadelphia proper. It's actually a very compact city, and your travels to places like the Liberty Bell and the Mutter Museum (highly recommended, by the way!) are going to be part of the same zone, for which you will pay one fare. It's $1.55 for a token, which you can buy in train stations and some other places, or $2 on board. Subway turnstiles and buses both have dollar bill inserts, so if you can't get tokens for some reason, you're good to go.

A lot of Philly is very walkable. The old part of the city is extremely compact. The "Old City" area, which is where the Liberty Bell, a lot of the colonial buildings, and Penn's Landing all are located, is extremely walkable even for suburban folks who never walk. The Mutter Museum is a bit of a haul from there, but is walkable to Reading Terminal Market, which is about equidistant between the two. If you guys are serious walkers, you could probably take SEPTA to Suburban Station (around 15th street) and just spend your whole day on foot.

I wish I'd known that the one-day passes existed before I found one littered on the ground. No idea how to purchase one. The attendant in the booth? They're not sold through the token vending machines, nor do they get their own dedicated machine a la New York's Metrocard system.

Various and sundry un-asked for Philly recommendations:

The Institute of Contemporary Art. The shows I saw this past weekend have already been taken down, and I don't know if they'll have new ones installed by the time you guys are there. But it's very close to where you guys are staying, and really delightful.

La Colombe Torrefaction. Amazing coffee around Rittenhouse Square. Close enough to the Mutter Museum that I didn't finish my coffee on the walk.
posted by Sara C. at 7:41 PM on August 15, 2012

For your purposes, zones can be ignored unless you’re traveling via Regional Rail and there’s zero reason for you to do that.

I would go with tokens over passes - regular fare is $2 per bus, subway or trolley trip and tokens offer a slight discount. They’re available in vending machines at pretty much any subway or trolley stop. Passes don’t make sense unless you’re going to be relying heavily on public transit and I bet you can get away with just a few tokens.

Philly has two subway lines - The Market Frankford Line (also called the El) runs West-East and will be the one you’ll probably use the most. We also have the Broad Street Line which runs North-South but you probably won’t use that at all.

University City is serviced by a number of trolleys as well but (depending on where you’re staying) you can probably just take the El into Center City and walk from there. Each place you mentioned is very close to a MFL subway stop.

The Google Maps app for Android (and maybe iOS as well) has public transit information built right into it and it is invaluable. If you have a smartphone, definitely use it!
posted by Diskeater at 7:43 PM on August 15, 2012

If you do want passes, they're sold at the Ticketing Offices of 30th Street Station and Suburban Station.
posted by Diskeater at 7:45 PM on August 15, 2012

Also (and then I'll stop hogging this thread) it is not true in my experience that you can buy tokens at just about any station. On the weekends, at least, it can be a hassle to find a machine, and sometimes there are people who man booths but won't sell you tokens. 30th Street Station does have them for sure though; you may want to stock up there.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:47 PM on August 15, 2012

per something something - I found people in Philly to be AMAZINGLY helpful about directions, advice, etc. Based on life in big scary New York where random bystanders may not speak English or be in any way helpful about this sort of thing, it was heaven. Like, people would see us looking at the SEPTA map, or craning our necks for signs, and ask us if we needed help. It was unreal. People are so friendly there.
posted by Sara C. at 7:48 PM on August 15, 2012

Not at all sure why no one has mentioned this, but Septa's schedules are integrated into Google maps, so if you have a smart phone or even better an iPhone with the maps app, you can just search directions for your location and choose transit (the middle button!) and it will tell you where to go and how much it will cost per person. It seriously couldn't be easier.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:50 PM on August 15, 2012

Oops, sorry Diskeater! Didn't see that there. But yeah, google maps FTW!
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:51 PM on August 15, 2012

I had only so-so luck with directions via my google maps app. My friend an I were staying at this rad hostel in Fairmount Park on the outskirts of town, so we needed a lot of buses.

Google was maybe 30% helpful with that. The rest of the time it would throw completely useless shit at us, like recommending that we take two buses and a trolley instead of just walking five blocks and getting one bus that would take us all the way to our destination.

For the basic tourist stuff, Market-Frankford is all you're going to need, so I'm not sure why you'd use a mapping app. But if in doubt, it could help.

I found a basic free tourist map was a million times more helpful than trying to tech my way through.
posted by Sara C. at 7:56 PM on August 15, 2012

Google isn't perfect - as Sara C. discovered, when asked for transit directions, it tends to assume you aren't willing to walk more than a block or two, which can be frustrating if you don't think of a few blocks' walk as particularly difficult. But it's definitely a useful tool in your kit, especially since University City and Center City are the densest, most transit-heavy parts of the city, linked by more trains and busses and subways than you can throw a soft pretzel at. Certainly I'll ask google for transit directions all the time - heck, I did it tonight - and I've lived here for years.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:00 PM on August 15, 2012

Response by poster: Wow! I wasn't expecting to get such speedy responses. I'm glad to know I'm not just map illiterate and other people have found the system map confusing. Now that everyone's pointed me in the right direction I feel more confidant about getting around. I'm actually excited about these tokens in a dorky sort of way. Thanks for the heads up, they sound most convenient.
I meant to ask if there was any sort of app related to the schedules but forgot so thanks for reading between the lines. I experienced the unreliableness of google maps on Chicago buses so I understand how frustrating it can be. But it's nice having something with more knowledge than me pointing me in the right direction on a map. I will definitly pick up a septa map when we get there, along with some tokens!
posted by missriss89 at 8:16 PM on August 15, 2012

I would suspect that tokens will be far more useful to you than a day pass; the Independence Pass is $11 and includes a lot of access you would never use. You can buy tokens individually or in sets of 2, 5, and 10 and it's 45 cents cheaper to buy them than to pay on board the trolley, bus, or high speed line. Depending on where you are in U-City, you will probably want to take either a trolley or the Market-Frankford line downtown. If you're close to 30th Street, you could probably just hop a regional rain train down to Suburban or Market East [I have never seen anyone need a ticket for this, though I don't know for sure!]. There are MANY bus routes, though. Are you staying with a friend or in a hotel? They will probably be the best word of advice on the most convenient bus times/routes for what you want. Market East is the closest big stop to the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall. It isn't more than three miles across the main part of town though in a straight line, so if the weather is nice, you might enjoy the walk more. There's also the PHLASH bus, in case you want to hit up the PMA from downtown. I recommend stopping by the Amtrak info booth at 30th-- even if you don't speak to their staff, they have some great mini maps of the city and of U-City in the racks. There is a separate hallway for SEPTA with lots of staff members to ask questions and to buy tickets and tokens from.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:18 PM on August 15, 2012

Oh, it's $11?

Even wasting tokens by taking the wrong bus, and paying with cash a few times, and having to do weird circuitous stuff due to random things that happened on the trip (yay lost cell phones and back-tracking all over town), we didn't spend $11 in two days, between two of us.

Let alone the $22 that two passes would cost.
posted by Sara C. at 8:23 PM on August 15, 2012

I had only so-so luck with directions via my google maps app. My friend an I were staying at this rad hostel in Fairmount Park on the outskirts of town, so we needed a lot of buses.

Right... That hotel is about 6 miles outside of the city center, and that will certainly make a big difference in how long it takes and which route it tells you to take. Also, there are very few buses, if any, that actually even go into fairmount park, so Sara C.'s experience would be altogether different than yours.

I use google maps basically every time I go anywhere without a car or a bike. It's one of the most valuable tools I have for navigating this city (other than the fact that it's a grid, but I'm used to that by now).

Another thing worth noting is that there are always several available route options, so if the first route seems crazy you just have to click on the clock button to see other route options. You can also change your departure and arrival time there. I use that feature often if I need to be somewhere at a specific time; just choose the arrival time and search for the best subway/trolly/bus time. I agree with everyone that you'll probably mostly take the subway where you are staying, but for going to places like the Mutter Museum where there is no close subway stop, you'll likely want to either walk, bus, or trolly it there. In the trolly/bus cases, transit directions will tell you the exact timing and cost of the fare. It takes a lot of the guess work out of it, and it's very reliable.

And yes, tokens are cheap and easy; you just drop it in the token slot and you're golden. If you are taking two buses/trollies, or switching from one subway line to the other, you can do a "transfer" which is just a dollar (in cash or in change) paid to the first driver who gives you get a paper slip that you give to the second driver in place of a token/money, which makes the overall trip a bit cheaper. Of course, you can always just use two tokens for the convenience. If you are staying anywhere near the CVS on 34th and Walnut, there is a token machine in the outer lobby.

Hope you enjoy Philly! Will you have time for a meetup?
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:30 PM on August 15, 2012

Re: passes-- sorry, I use Regional Rail so I get the Independence Pass more, but there is a one-day Convenience Pass that can be used on anything you'd need, for eight rides a day. It's 7 dollars a person. I still think that if you like walking that would probably be overkill.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:43 PM on August 15, 2012

Best answer: Two lights, my point was that the only time I even needed transit directions was to get 6 miles outside the city center. And then, they were generally useless.

For every other thing, the answer is "take Market-Frankford to X station". Most of which are consecutively numbered based on the nearest cross-street. Which means that if you know where your destination is, you already know how to get there via public transit.

There is no "other available route option" to get from Reading Terminal Market to the Mutter Museum. You just get back on that one train line that there is, and get of at the stop closest to the Mutter Museum.

Folks are making it insanely more complicated than it actually is.

There is one line.

It is called the Market-Frankford Line. It is the thick blue line on the map. It's oriented east-west, mostly along Market Street. It stops like every two blocks. Most stops are numbered with the nearest cross-street. That is literally all you need to know about using transit to get anywhere on the tourist landscape in Philadelphia.
posted by Sara C. at 8:45 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oops, my bad! You don't actually need transfers for switching subways and trolley! (I rarely xfer on the subway and never use trolleys. Sigh.)

Also, Sara C., we do use a color system for our subways! The Market-Frankford is the orange line, the Broad Street line is the blue line, and trolley lines are green. That system is used on all Septa maps and is what I would call the lines as a citizen of Phillt. Just an FYI.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:47 PM on August 15, 2012

The Market-Frankford is the orange line,

The line on the map was blue last weekend. Eep.

Nobody calls it "the blue line", though, which is what I meant when I said you guys don't use a color system. For example in Boston there are four lines, which are named by color. There's the blue line, the red line, the green line, and the orange line. That's all I meant.

All weekend I kept defaulting to calling it "the blue train" or "the blue line" and then kept getting "take Market-Frankford to X" back from locals.
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 PM on August 15, 2012

Hah, I transposed the colors of the two lines, sorry! The links pointing to the maps are correct, of course. MFL is blue, BSL is orange. I've been to about a million phillies games via the orange line; I must be tired! We do call them by those names, though. Promise. Lived here all my life. If you were asking about trains, it's no wonder people were correcting you because we also have trains and they would very likely not be what you'd want to take. They go to the burbs.

There is no "other available route option" to get from Reading Terminal Market to the Mutter Museum. You just get back on that one train line that there is, and get of at the stop closest to the Mutter Museum.

Folks are making it insanely more complicated than it actually is.

There is one line.

It is called the Market-Frankford Line. It is the thick blue line on the map. It's oriented east-west, mostly along Market Street. It stops like every two blocks. Most stops are numbered with the nearest cross-street. That is literally all you need to know about using transit to get anywhere on the tourist landscape in Philadelphia.

This is actually completely untrue... there are no blue line (Market-Frankford line, to be clear!) stops between 15th and 30th Street, so taking the the subway form Reading Terminal Market to the Mutter Museum literally makes no sense at all, because you'd be getting on the subway at 11th Street and taking it for four blocks to 15th Street and then walking the other 7 blocks, OR you'd take it to 30th street and then you'd also have to walk a while (not technically 8 blocks because there is a river there) to get back over the bridge to get to 22nd Street.

You would actually want to take a trolly there (or walk; it's a nice 11 blocks). If I use google maps and say I want to arrive at the Mutter Museum tomorrow by noon from the Reading Terminal Market, it tells me to walk 2 1/2 blocks to the 13th Street Trolly Station, pay $2, take the #13 trolley to the 22nd Street trolley station and then walk half a block south to the Mutter Museum. Total trip time is 3 minutes.

But yeah, you can also use walking directions literally at any moment during your visit here in Philly and just do that instead most of the time. It's a 21 minute walk from Reading Terminal Market to the Mutter Museum.
posted by two lights above the sea at 9:10 PM on August 15, 2012

> per something something - I found people in Philly to be AMAZINGLY helpful about directions, advice, etc. Based on life in big scary New York where random bystanders may not speak English or be in any way helpful about this sort of thing, it was heaven. Like, people would see us looking at the SEPTA map, or craning our necks for signs, and ask us if we needed help. It was unreal. People are so friendly there.

We have opinions. We cannot help ourselves. If you remember this, you will be charmed rather than feel attacked when, for instance, you are interrogated as to how exactly you intend to enjoy the fine foodstuff you just purchased or why exactly you want to go to this museum rather than that museum. I swear, we all just really, really care. To the point of oversharing. I am not kidding.

You can get all the various types of passes and such at 30th Street, Suburban Station (which is the train station attached to City Hall), at the SEPTA "store" at 13th and Market, or at the 8th Street station. You can buy tokens from the windows there in two packs or five packs. There are also token machines at most of the stations that you will be using, and some drugstores sell tokens. (I kind of love our tokens too. If you have extra when you're ready to leave, there's always someone panhandling in or near a station/stop who will be grateful for the donation.)

If it seems handy to hop on a bus, the good news is that most of the bus routes just go in a straight line within Center City. So, if you're at 3rd and Arch and you'd totally love a lift to 3rd and South, go ahead and hop on the bus that's coming down 3rd St. Just to be on the safe side, it's okay to say to the driver (before you spend your token) "hey you go all the way down to South?" and he/she will grunt "yeah" or "naw, turning at [whatever]."

The weirdest quirk of the transit system for tourists is what two lights above the sea mentioned, the El (Market St line/blue) doesn't stop between 15th and 30th. Other than that, it stops every few blocks, as does the Broad Street line (subway/orange).

> Not specific to Philadelphia, but any time I'm in a strange city dealing with public transit I just find someone who looks official in the station and ask them questions. It's a lot easier than trying to keep things straight before you get there or figure out what's going on by reading maps and charts on the wall.

Yeah, um, not so much in Philly. No offense to SEPTA employees. But no, ask any total stranger instead.
posted by desuetude at 9:47 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with two lights over the sea that trolleys are a more fine-grained, and therefore more useful, mode of transit between University City and the part of Center City that is west of City Hall. But, it looks like the trolleys are being diverted during weekday business hours through the end of the month, plus the 34 trolley is currently running as a shuttle bus west of 40th due to construction. All of which is to say: if you're here during a weekday, trolley service is likely to be more confusing than it's worth, because it won't match up with the maps and will require you to do weird things like get off the trolley on the street and wander unprompted through a suspiciously-open gate into the subway halfway through your trip. I'm a frequent trolley-taker but always feel anxious about it when they aren't running on their usual routes.

Also, seconding desuetude about not asking officials in the station. They will be neither friendly nor helpful.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:45 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where will you be in U City?

- The 42 bus line goes East along Spruce, through the hospital, then Chestnut to the Delaware River, and back west up Walnut.
- The 21 bus line goes east along Chestnut and back west along Walnut.

These can both be better than the trolleys, as the trolleys stop at about 13th.

- The 34 trolley is 'under construction' but the 13 trolley, which basically runs along Chester Ave just a bit south, is still running.
posted by carter at 12:23 AM on August 16, 2012

You don't mention this but have you considered just renting a couple of bikes for the weekend? You'll have tons more flexibility and downtown Philly is very bike friendly (flat, bike lanes on the arterials, etc). This opens you up to the Schuykill River Trail, the Art Museum neighborhood (Eastern State Penitentiary is a MUST) and lets you spend more time exploring (Northern Liberties, Italian Market, South Street) and less time worrying about transit options.

But if you do decide to rely on transit, pm me. I work on Market St and I've got 5-10 tokens I've had for years that I'll never use.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:10 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Septa also has its own app that gives you schedules for the regional rails, trains, and buses. It has a system map. It also apparently has a trip planner and can help you find the closest station. I've only ever used it for the regional rail because I live 45 minutes away. It has worked just fine for my purposes.
posted by Nolechick11 at 4:45 AM on August 16, 2012

You probably wouldn't need a schedule for U City > Center City. While the timings are often random, but you usually don't have to wait more than about 10-12 minutes for a trolley or a bus.
posted by carter at 4:53 AM on August 16, 2012

Response by poster: Ootandaboot- thanks for the heads up because we will be there in the middle of the week! Diversions are evil.
It sounds like we'll probably just do a lot of walking while in center city (does it rain a lot there in August?) My boyfriend is comfortable with bike riding however I haven't been on one in about ten years and getting back on one in the city doesn't sound like my kind of vacation..
We are staying in a room I found on airbnb so the hosts will definitly be good to ask I just like to be prepared in advanced.
So basically what I've learned here is: using tokens on the market- frankford line is our best bet. Except when the route is diverted, then we should walk or use google maps to help with buses. Also, strangers will probably be helpful, SEPTA workers not so much (I'm not surprised.)
posted by missriss89 at 5:09 AM on August 16, 2012

center city (does it rain a lot there in August?)

It's probably hot and humid with showers and t-storms, so just a collapsible brolly is useful.
posted by carter at 5:20 AM on August 16, 2012

missriss89, just wanted to clarify that you don't have to worry about the Market-Frankford El being diverted. Just the trolleys.
posted by desuetude at 7:52 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, to be honest, trolleys are always a weird hassle for me. Buses or walking is always preferred over them when subway isn't feasible.

I predict you'll mostly be taking the subway OUT of University City but you may find yourself taking buses back "home" depending on where you are coming from. If you're in Rittenhouse Square or near the shops on Walnut street, there are several buses (the 21is the best one) that run fairly regularly, about every 15 minutes, along Walnut to University City. In fact, most of the time you can just pop over to someone standing at the bus stop and ask them when the next bus is coming and they'll tell you. This is all assuming that you're staying somewhere that is central to Walnut Street in U City. If you are staying closer to Spruce you might find the 40 to be a useful bus.

And although I'm a die hard Philly cyclist, I wouldn't recommend renting if you'll be going back and forth from (northern, I'm assuming here) U City to the touristy locations in Center City. I think most folks these days will go across the South Street Bridge to cross the river, but that's a bit out of the way for pretty much everywhere you want to be (though it's a beautiful bridge if you were up for heading over that way, and Graduate Hospital, which is right over the bridge, is a great 'hood). The only other feasible route is Chestnut Street, and there is such an insane amount of construction, blocked bike lanes, and re-routing that only the most zen, experienced cyclists can really get through it without feeling vulnerable. And I would not bike over Market Street.

Also, we have insane taxi prices right now, thanks to a fuel surcharge, so I wouldn't even bother with that. We do have Uber service, if you're into that sort of thing, but it's about 50% more than a cab would be.
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:50 AM on August 16, 2012

Just wanted to mention the Philly Phlash, which will take you in a loop to many Philly sites and attractions.

We did this and it was okay. Some commentary would have been nice, but it gets you where you want to go, once you're in Center City.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:08 PM on August 16, 2012

Response by poster: Destitute- thanks for the clarification. I'm still a little fuzzy on the different modes or transportation I guess. There are busses. And the trains and trolleys are different things. I should go look at some maps again!
posted by missriss89 at 3:50 PM on August 16, 2012

Best answer: We have a strangely large assortment of things that run on rails. Everyone is right that you will mostly want to Market-Frankford line, aka "the El" and blue on the maps. Market Street runs east-west the entire width of the city, and the el runs under it.

The subway-surface trolleys run underground and parallel to the el from 13th St to 30th, and are the only way to get to the stops at 19th and 22nd. You can freely transfer between them and the el at 13th, 15th, and 30th (don't pass through a turnstile and you don't have to pay to switch). After 30th the trolleys fan out and come up to run on the streets.

The septa token machines will give you as many tokens as the amount of money you inserted will buy, and all of your change in coins. At the booths, you need to give exact change. Finding places that sell tokens can be mysterious, I would ask your host for the best place.

I would try to generally familiarize yourself with the grid, it will help a lot. Numbered streets run from the Delaware River west, and as a sense of distance 10 blocks is a mile. One thing I've come to realize about how we give directions is that a "block" is from one major "through street" to the next, and ignores small streets. Numbered streets are through streets, and below (south of) Market the tree streets (Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine) are too. The little streets in between are not blocks, which can be important when someone gives you directions. On the plus side, street signs generally indicate cardinal directions and address number ranges, which helps a lot. Addresses count west from Front St (the equivalent of 1st St) and match the street numbers - 1250 will be between 12th and 13th. They also count up going north or south from Market and the 100s will be at each through street. So 600 S 5th would be six blocks south of Market St.

Lots of little places sell La Columbe coffee, and it is delicious.
posted by sepviva at 5:14 PM on August 16, 2012

Oh, a thing that no-one tells you that can be confusing about the numbered streets -- Broad Street, the main north-south artery of the city, is what would be 14th Street in the numbering. So if you're looking for something that's on the 1400 block, it'll be between Broad and 15th Street.

Also, if you need to get your bearings, look for City Hall. It's, uh, kinda gigantically impossible to miss. And as it sits right in the crossroads of Broad Street and Market Street, you'll always know how to find your public transportation.

Oh, and did anyone mention that the subways and El don't run all night? The stations shut down around 12:30 am. If you're going to be out late, make sure you know how you're getting to your hotel. Some of the buses run all night, and if all else fails, grab a cab. They're certainly more expensive than public transport, but they all take credit cards, and they're a hell of a lot cheaper than in NYC.
posted by desuetude at 11:58 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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