We’re excited to kick off our “Discover” series! We’ll be offering quick travel tips on things to do, what to eat and where to stay in cities (and the occassional country) around the world! If you’re interested in contributing to the series, send us an email at email@example.com. Today, my friend Lindsay will be sharing her favorites from her time in Philadelphia. Enjoy!
Hello World! My name is Lindsay and I know Bethany (and by extension Ben) because Bethany and I used to work together and are still on a non-profit board (for an organization called Girls on the Run – check it out!) together here in Chicago. I’m so excited to be sharing some travel tips for visiting Philadelphia – a city I came to know and love during the two years I lived there for business school.
Philadelphia is – and I hope it doesn’t mind my saying this – an underrated city. Sandwiched on the east coast in between New York and Washington D.C., sometimes folks forget all the amazing history, the art and culture, and the fantastic (!) food that Philly has to offer. It’s an urban place but isn’t far from amazing parks and welcomes visitors year-round, though I’m a little biased towards Philly in the fall. Crisp air, fall color, great beer, and totally walkable. What’s not to love?
Do & Explore
Get out and wander in the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia isn’t a terribly big city – which actually makes it a perfect place for a weekend visit. You can cover American history, famous art, hipster beer halls, and amazing food all in a couple of well-planned days.
For some true Americana definitely check out the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, located in ‘Old Town.’ You can take a guided tour or go self-guided depending on your timing. I’d recommend checking the hours and trying to get over to see the bell early in your day. The lines can get long – especially on weekends – so it’s worth it to try to beat the crowds.
While you’re over in Old Town, a quick walk up to Elfreth’s Alley is worth a visit. Hailed as America’s oldest residential street and designated as a national historic landmark, walking into the alley is like stepping back in time. A block away is also Betsy Ross’ House (of American flag fame) and is worth a quick stop as well to round out the history lesson for the day.
In addition to being the cradle city of most of the important moments in America’s early history (sorry Boston!), Philadelphia also has an outrageously good collection of art – primarily housed in The Barnes (you need to buy tickets online in advance) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (you only need tickets in advance for the special exhibits). These two museums rival anything you’d see in New York or Chicago and are both in a slightly quieter part of town that makes for a great walk. Just head up Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the northwest of downtown and you’ll encounter them both.
As an added bonus, the steps leading up to the front door of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are the famous steps from the movie Rocky. Be sure to run up and grab a photo at the top. Bonus points if you throw your hands in the air for a victory pose!
In addition to history and art, Philadelphia also offers some amazing outdoor spaces. West of downtown, separating the University of Pennsylvania from Center City is the Schuylkill River (pronounced Skoo-kull), there is an amazing bike and pedestrian path running the entire length of the river on the East bank. It has been expanded even further to the South since I left the city in 2012. You can walk, jog or bike all the way from South St. up past the Art Museum and Boat House Row (very picturesque!) and on up for several miles to Manayunk (a cute town with a great beer scene) or Wissahickon Valley Park – a beautiful wooded (occasionally muddy) place for a hike.
Even if you only hop on the path at Walnut or Chestnut street and take it up to the museum, it’s still a great place for a walk with a cup of coffee and a snack in hand. Pure Foods on 21st and Walnut St. offers amazing coffee brought in directly from San Francisco and awesome – healthy! – grab-and-go breakfast/lunch options perfect for a walk on the river.
Last but not least, channel your inner hipster and head up to Northern Liberties (No Libs) – a neighborhood that was up and coming when I lived in Philly, but from what I hear today has fully ‘arrived.’ My favorite spot to hang out is an amazing German-style beer garden called Frankford Hall. You can have a pint and a pretzel, play jenga, and rest your feet (from all the walking you’ve done) in an inside/outside setting, while you take in the scene (they have fire pits set up at night!).
While you’re up in Northern Liberties you can also visit The Schmidt’s Commons, a big open space with boutique shopping and a giant outdoor TV screen. It’s a great place to grab a bite and pick up a souvenir (or two or three!).
Eat & Drink
Go hungry! (And take advantage of a BYOB scene unlike any you’ve ever experienced!)
First, an important thing to know and love about Philly – it has an epic BYOB scene. Some of the best restaurants in the city are BYO – as in bring your own wine or beer or even liquor depending on the place. Get ready to enjoy amazing food paired with your own booze and to finish the meal with a bill that will shock you with its reasonable-ness. BYO dining-culture is one of the things about Philly I truly miss the most.
When planning your meals check ahead to see if the place you’re planning to go is BYOB (I’ve tried to note in my recommendations below, but sometimes these things change). Pick up some wine etc. at any of the state liquor stores in town (there’s a nice big one on Market St. & 19th or 20th).
Now, when it comes to food options, there are so many great places to eat in Philly. It’s hard to only recommend a few… so I will try (!) to narrow it down, but just know – it’s really really hard to go wrong.
- My absolute favorite restaurant is called Audrey Claire (Twentieth & Spruce) – it’s sort of Mediterranean and BYOB! I think they take a limited number of reservations but also if you were okay with eating on the early end, it’s not hard to get a table. Try the halloumi & fig dish or the octopus salad. So good.
- Garces Trading Company (1111 Locust St.) – sort of Spanish/gastro pub (also BYOB but they have a little wine shop there that you can pick from in case you didn’t plan ahead).
- Dmitri’s (two locations) or Kanella (757 South Front St. – closer to Rittenhouse Square) – both Greek and both BYOB. Kanela’s also has a great brunch.
- Pumpkin (1713 South St.) – locavore cuisine, small intimate setting, BYOB – very tasty!
- Zahav (237 St. James Place) – Israeli
- Amada (217-219 Chestnut St.) – Spanish Tapas
- Barbuzzo (110 S. 13th St.) – Mediterranean
- Parc (227 S. 18th St. – on Rittenhouse square) – French – a little stuffy, but a fun scene on the park. Great for brunch.
- Honey’s Sit ‘N Eat – (2 locations) Southern inspired food – great for brunch
- Sabrina’s Café (5 locations, 2 in Philadelphia are BYOB) – brunch
- Talula’s Garden (210 W. Washington Square) – organic/locavore but most awesome to eat at if the weather is nice because they have a garden space.
- The Franklin Fountain (116 Market St.) – old-timey ice cream/soda fountain
- Pat’s or Gino’s – two dueling traditional Philly Cheesesteak joints across the corner from each other in South Philly. Figure out what you’re gonna order (wit or witout wiz?) ahead of time as the cashiers are traditionally brusque.
- Reading Terminal Market (12th & Arch Streets)– a big food hall full of vendors (both modern and old-school – check out some of the Pennsylvania Dutch vendors who come in from Western PA to sell their wares) with options for a quick bite or ingredients for a picnic to go.
Relax & Sleep
Staying in a central location is your best bet. Nothing is that far apart!
Staying in ‘Center City’ is probably easiest, as it makes for a convenient home-base for everything you’d want to do while in town. There are a ton of hotels (since Philadelphia has a major conference center) clustered around Market St. & 12th/13th St. I’ve always liked staying at the Westin (17th & Chestnut) for convenience, but really any place south of Arch St. and bordered between 19th and 9th Street will be a great home base.
One Thing Not To Do
Don’t forget to keep your wits about you. This is a city, after all.
Like any major city, Philadelphia does have some areas that are best left unexplored after dark. Staying East of 38th St. and North of South St., South of Spring Garden St. and West of Broad St. (with the exception of the Northern Liberties neighborhood – which is always hopping at night) will in most cases ensure that you’ll be somewhere lively with people out until the wee-hours of the morning. Just like visiting any new environment, keep your eyes open and avoid talking on a cell phone/leaving ear-buds in while navigating the city at night. I never felt unsafe while living there – but it’s always a good idea to be vigilant.
Hopefully all these tips help you plan a fantastic visit to one of my all-time favorite cities! In case you didn’t gather from the lengthy section on places to eat, go hungry! There is so much to see, do, imbibe, and enjoy. You’re really in for a treat if you decide to make the trip.
Cover Photo by C. Smyth for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®