The City of Brotherly Love is home to a number of modern sports arenas "" Citizens Bank Park for baseball, the still relatively-new Wells Fargo Center for basketball and hockey and, Lincoln Financial Field for football. Yet, a few miles removed from the glitz and glamour of South Broad Street, the Palestra sits on the campus of the University of Penn's campus. While officially the home for the Penn Quakers, the Palestra also serves as home of the Big 5, Philadelphia's yearly round-robin tournament featuring five of the city's six Division I programs: La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph's, Temple, and Villanova.
Opened in 1927, the Palestra remains, in many ways, the same building that it was when it hosted the first Big 5 games back in 1955, and even in the years preceding. The seats are mostly bleachers, and the building can get uncomfortably hot "" even if the Philadelphia winters are dumping snow outside.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Concessions weren't quite the same in 1927 as they are in 2011, and the Palestra does suffer a little bit in the food department due to slightly cramped concourses that don't really allow for too many additional stalls. The prices are fairly reasonable for stadiums, with a cheeseburger ($5.50), pizza slice ($3.75), nachos ($4.50), and a hot dog ($3.75) all decently priced. Still, with all the restaurant options on Penn's campus, there really aren't too many reasons to get your meal at the Palestra.
If it's possible for any building to drip history, it's the Palestra. Everything about the building says "I've seen it all," from the decades' worth of banners hanging from the season to the bleacher-style seating that nearly everybody in the building (including press) has to suffer through. The only problem with the atmosphere is the new video board at one end of the stadium, which is a sad but probably necessary addition to the building. It's not a bad thing from an overall viewing and fan experience, but it does take away from some of the uniqueness that the Palestra had "" how many arenas still lack the giant jumbotron hanging from the ceiling?
If you didn't get the hint about eating on-campus before heading to the Palestra, this would be a good part to read. Penn's campus is home to a number of great restaurants, including Bobby's Burger Palace (by Food Network chef Bobby Flay), Pod, Hummus, Marathon"¦the list goes on and on. The Penn campus has some other interesting things of note, including the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, that make it worth it to spend an afternoon on campus before a game at night.
The best fan experience is to go for a Big 5 game, because there is no more electric building in the country than the Palestra when it's split evenly between two of the city's fanbases. Of note are the rollouts, which each student section will bring with them and unveil at points during the games to insult the other school's fans/players in a creative fashion. A particularly funny recent episode involved two Saint Joseph's girls who dressed up as Villanova fans and had the Nova student section roll out a "The Hawk Will Never Die" banner, referencing the SJU mascot's famous slogan.
Parking is available both on streets and in garages, though street parking availability can go quickly for big games. I parked on Walnut Street, between 32nd and 33rd streets, and paid just $4 at a meter kiosk for the evening, which is a very reasonable price. At other games, I've had to park in garages which can cost $15. With enough to see around Penn, I recommend finding a meter spot close to the arena and paying a few bucks to keep your car there for up to 12 hours. The arena is also fairly close to 30th Street Station, though taking a train (subway, regional rail or Amtrak) to the main Philadelphia stop will require a walk of 7-8 blocks to get to the Palestra. Bathrooms in the arena are small and old but in decent condition, though lines can build up at halftime.
For the true college basketball fan "" or any sports fan that appreciates more than shiny new ballparks "" there is just something special about watching a game at the Palestra. No matter if you sit next to the court ($20 for single-game) or a little further away ($14), there is no bad seat in the house.
Just the history alone of the building would be enough, with numerous displays lining the hallways that show the history and magnitude of the Palestra and Big 5 basketball in general. The new video board, while it does take away from the historical atmosphere of the building, is a nice addition and worth a few points for finally getting Penn fans the ability to see replays and some additional statistics. Other than that board, the building just feels like you're seeing basketball the way it was made to be seen "" and that's an experience worth paying for.
The Palestra. For die-hard college basketball fans, those two words mean a lot. Philadelphia's "Cathedral of College Basketball" is as pure as the sport gets and the inside of the arena looks nearly the same today as it did in 1927. Though it is home to the University of Pennsylvania basketball team, games of all varieties have been played here: NCAA and NIT tournaments, conference tournaments and of course, the intra-city Philadelphia Big 5. The arena's intimacy, acoustics and atmosphere are unmatched. When you are inside, it feels like you have taken a step back in time. The Palestra is college basketball at its finest and any fan should try to make a trip here.
I had heard and read that The Palestra was one of those college basketball places that you just must see. It did not disappoint. The atmosphere was unbelievable. The acoustics were absolutely perfect. Only 1/3 full, the place was rocking! I could only imagine what the place would feel and sound like were it full. The historic nature of the building is not lost, and the salute to the Big 5 was pretty cool as well. Definitely a place that should be on every bucket list!
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