As a Philadelphia native, the lack of attention paid to Philly as a city worth seeing can be frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York City and Washington D.C., but Philly has a charm of its own that in my opinion makes it much more than a mere “stopover” city. Growing up nearby and having lived downtown for the last 2 years, I find myself constantly discovering new places, stores, restaurants, and neighborhoods. So for those who want to give Philadelphia a try, even if only for a day or two, here are some suggestions for a memorable experience.
Old City/Society Hill
Old City, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and former home of the Continental Congress, is super touristy, but for good reason. Walking around the cobblestone streets, surrounded by charming historic buildings and alleys that are among the oldest in America, it is hard not to feel a sense of awe and inspiration. If on a limited schedule, I would recommend skipping the guided tours and instead exploring the area at your own pace. You may even stumble upon some of the area's beautiful hidden gardens. Just south of Independence Hall, Old City becomes Society Hill, which is in my opinion even more charming. Colonial flags flying over narrow tree-lined streets makes this area one of Philly’s most picturesque. I love getting lost around here- especially in the fall or in the rain- and I always discover something new.
Italian Market/South Philadelphia
For an authentic Philadelphia experience, head to the open-air Italian Market, located across a four-block stretch of 9th street in South Philadelphia. Here, you can get your fix of fresh cheeses, pasta, fruits, vegetables, and of course some top-notch sandwiches. Di Bruno Brothers original Italian Market location is a Philly classic, and a perfect place to learn about (and of course sample) every cheese imaginable. For a great selection of unique sandwiches, try Paesanos. And once you’re done eating, the Italian Market is a perfect base from which to explore South Philadelphia.
Reading Terminal Market
Another Philadelphia favorite worth trying (once you’ve walked off the cheese and sandwiches!) is Reading Terminal Market, where you can create just about any meal imaginable, all under one gigantic roof. For an excellent breakfast, try Dutch Eating Place, and for simple yet delicious smoothies and juice, head to Four Seasons Juice Bar. The Original Turkey serves up fresh and delicious Thanksgiving platters year-round. And f you’re in the mood for a classic Philly sandwich that will put even the best cheesesteak to shame, try a roast pork with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe at Tommy Dinic’s! You won’t be disappointed- it was named America’s best sandwich for good reason. In addition to a great lunch or dinner, Reading Terminal Market is also home to a number of specialty shops. One of my favorites is The Tubby Olive, which offers a unique variety of artisanal oils and vinegars, all of which can be sampled in-store!
There is an abundance of bars and pubs in Philadelphia. Depending on your mood for the night, there is something for everyone. For something trendy, try one of the many choices near 12th and Sansom, such as Grafitti Bar or Time. For something more eccentric and truly Philadelphian, try a dive bar on South Street, such as Tattooed Mom or Bob and Barbara’s (home of the Citywide Special- a shot of Jim Beam and a PBR for just $3). Or, for a uniquely memorable night, try Vesper, a great spot that I only recently discovered. Vesper, formerly a former private supper club, was recently renovated and now features an upstairs bar and dining room, downstairs speakeasy, and live music 7 nights a week. Although I won’t completely ruin the speakeasy surprise, I will say that it involves a password and a bookshelf. While you’re at Vesper, be sure to have some oyster’s at the upstairs bar. Although I’ve never been the biggest fan, Corey prepared a perfect blend of oysters and sauces that had me hooked! I’ll definitely be coming back for more.
People may only know of Philadelphia’s art museum (and maybe just because of Rocky), but in reality, Philadelphia is home to some several other world class museums and exhibitions. Stroll down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia’s long, adorned thoroughfare that leads directly to the Museum of Art, and you will find yourself in the heart of the action. For science lovers, the Franklin Institute offers fun exhibits that explore world’s phenomena- where else can you walk through a Giant Heart! For those interested in Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum and Barnes Foundation each provide a unique experience. In addition, the Academy of Natural Sciences always has fascinating exhibits (and also hosted my senior prom). Although fully experiencing all of these museums would take several days, a quick glimpse at a few is definitely worthwhile.
Schuylkill River Trail
Adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art lies the Schuylkill River Trail, which was recently named the best urban trail in America. The trail provides great views of the skyline, Art Museum, and the boathouses of Kelly Drive (known as boathouse row), and is a perfect place for walking, running, or biking. I like going on the trail early in the morning, when the crowds are thin and the city is just coming to life, but it provides a relaxing break from the crowded streets at anytime. In addition to providing a scenic connection between the Art Museum District and Center City, the trail provides easy access 30th Street Station and University City via several bridges.
University City, home to the campuses of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, is located a short walk (20-30 minutes) from Center City. Although just across the Schuylkill river, the area has a unique feel that makes it well worth taking the time to explore. Typical of any good college spot, the area is full of delicious food trucks and coffee shops (Lovers and Madmen is my favorite). Be sure to also hit up the row of restaurants located on Sansom Street between 34th and 35th streets- White Dog Café and Baby Blue BBQ are both great.
The University of Pennsylvania campus is my favorite part of the area. Unlike some urban campuses, there are many places that are so grassy, tree-lined, and tucked away that it can be easy to forget you are in a city. My favorite of these spots is Kaskey Park, a beautiful oasis with a pond that is a perfect spot for a mid-day break.
Bonus: Northern Liberties
If you have time, head to this unique neighborhood that, while out of the way from Center City, is definitely worth the trip. While there, be sure to eat at Cafe La Maude, which serves by far the best brunch in Philly, without the hour-plus wait.
For me, Philadelphia is the perfect blend of old and new, a big city with visible roots that can be discovered entirely on foot. The city is small enough to become familiar yet big enough to constantly discover new places, streets, or neighborhoods. Between its amazing food scene, sights, historical significance, and overall charm, Philly is well worth a trip of its own.