Philadelphia is a city bursting at the seams — Philly, having embraced all its grit and funk, has proved to be a powerhouse of art museums, history, culinary triumphs, microbreweries and trendy boutiques.
The City Center straddles between being Philadelphia’s business district as well as being full of artsy installations, foodie markets and the Museum district. The ever-evolving Fishtown is a quirky mix of long-time Philly residents and newly-arrived artists and entrepreneurs and is punctuated with dive bars, block parties and hip restaurants. Old City and Society Hill feature some of the most desirable historic Philly addresses as well as the faint footsteps of the men who created the Constitution and pins from where Betsy Ross sewed our flag.
Philadelphia gives visitors a chance to enjoy both its modern and historic flavors alongside those who call the city of brotherly love “Home”. With our essential guide to Philadelphia, you won’t miss out on any of the action.
What to See
MUSEUMS IN PHILADELPHIA
PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
Immortalize yourself in full American glory with a run up the “Rocky Steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While the main draw for many visitors is that iconic stair running opportunity, this museum speaks volumes about the artistic heritage of Philly. The stellar permanent collections span from famous faves like Van Gogh and Rodin to surrealist artists beloved by young and old like Magritte and Salvador Dali. Visit on Sunday or Wednesday evening after 5 p.m. and pay what you wish instead of full price admission.
The Barnes Foundation is heralded as one of the greatest private art collections in the world. Browse through the spectacular hoard of post-impressionist and early modern paintings including Picassos, Matisses and Cézannes in a space described as a “gallery in a garden, a garden in a gallery.” The foundation which is more of an educational institution than a museum or gallery and is free the first Sunday of every month from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. with educational programming from 1 p.m.–4 p.m.
AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM IN PHILADELPHIA
The African American Museum was the first institution of its kind built by a municipality in 1976. The vibrancy of African American heritage comes alive for visitors within these walls. Explore the life and work of notable African Americans through exhibits touching on family life, art, politics and sports. Understand their struggles and successes through interactive displays, historical documents and art.
Photos courtesy of lactulli and the Eastern State Penitentiary CC BY
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
If you’re searching for shivers down the spine, the Eastern State Penitentiary is a portrait titled Creepy. As a designated US National Landmark, it once housed notorious criminals like Al Capone and Willie Sutton and was, perhaps surprisingly when you find yourself in the eerie milieu, the first jail to pioneer a system of reform rather than punishment. Treat yourself to a self-guided tour with headphones since they are narrated by the one and only, Steve Buscemi, and feature interviews with former guards, wardens and prisoners. Bring your camera and beware of ghosts.
In a historic city like Philadelphia, it should be no surprise that there are plenty more haunting horrors. For another foray into the macabre, you must visit the Mutter Museum where you’ll find a treasure chest of medical oddities. If you’re a fan of American Horror Story: Freakshow, this is the museum which inspired the series. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from their extraordinary collection of skeletons, wax models and sealed formaldehyde jars, but feel free to stare all you want.
Photo by He Shoots He Scores CC BY
OUR HOTEL PICK: Le Méridien Philadelphia
From the exclusive Le Méridien Philadelphia hotel, you’re within a 20 minute walk radius of all the Philadelphia museums listed above as well as being able to spot the Robert Indiana’s iconic Philly Love sculpture from the windows of the hotel. The hotel interior perhaps takes a nod of inspiration from that very sculpture with striking red accents dropped against contemporary black and white decor. A luxurious bed welcomes visitors exhausted after a long-day of sightseeing. Plus the hotel’s ward-winning Les Clefs d’Or Concierges can help with any Philly related questions we haven’t answered, organize restaurant and tour bookings or really cater to any of your personal whims.
What to Do
PHILADELPHIA FESTIVAL AND EVENTS
PHILADELPHIA BEER WEEK
Consider yourself a beer connoisseur? Or perhaps just a in a relationship with your favorite bottle of craft? Considering Philadelphia has been brewing beer for over 300 years, Philly Beer Week welcomes visitors to America’s best beer-drinking city every year in early June. Over 600 events spanning across 10 days give you the opportunity to sample your way through hundreds of beers. Plus there are special dinners, tours of Philadelphia’s best breweries and the opportunity to gab enthusiastically with beer lovers.
THE GORE-TEX® PHILADELPHIA MARATHON
Come November, join 30,000 other runners in their quest for marathon history at the GORE-TEX® Philadelphia Marathon. If your hamstrings are already aching at the thought of running, participate as a volunteer from November 16th-20th, 2016 and enjoy your front row seat to one of the biggest races in the nation.
STREET ITALIAN MARKET FESTIVAL
Join Philly’s Italian population for this delicious and delightful street food festival held in the nation’s oldest outdoor market and its surrounding blocks. Held on the third weekend of May (May 21st & 22nd in 2016) you’ll get to eat your way through all the staples like pasta, cannoli, risotto to ravioli. When you’re stuffed full, there is live entertainment and games — play name the wine and name the gelato and definitely wear elastic waist pants to this festival.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE KIDS IN PHILADELPHIA
We’ve all been in a museum just overwhelmed by the desire to touch a priceless marble statue. Leave your fear of security guards aside at the Please Touch Museum. Two full floors of interactive exhibit zones and a fully restored 100-year-old carousel. Kids of all ages, even 30+, can enjoy the themed nooks and crannies like Alice’s Wonderland, sail a boat down the mini Delaware river and just enjoy some hands-on fun.
The Philadelphia Zoo’s 42-acre Victorian gardens are home to more than 1,300 animals, many of them rare and endangered. Visit with the giant Rodrigues fruit bats, the little red pandas, and the pretty blue-eyed black lemurs while learning about the importance of conservation and the zoo’s breeding programs. The Philadelphia Zoo was the first in the US and is known for its historic architecture with many of the gates and gatehouses remaining unchanged since opening day in 1874. During the special presentations (schedule here) you’ll be able to chat with your favorite animal’s keeper and see how they are trained and fed.
SMITH MEMORIAL PLAYGROUND AND PLAYHOUSE IN FAIRMONT PARK
It may not always be sunny in Philadelphia, but when it is head to the Smith Memorial playground and playhouse in Fairmont Park. Opened in 1899, it remains the place to play in Philadelphia.
“The 100-year old Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide is a highlight for parents and kids in the park. Grab a potato sack at the bottom of the slide and run up to take your place at the top before whizzing back down at maximum speed.” Susan L. Schwartz in Best Parks For Kids in Philadelphia
See here for more places to let loose and wild as a child in Philadelphia.
KID-FRIENDLY HOTEL PICK: Kimpton Hotel Monaco Philadelphia
It’s rare to find a hotel with such humane characteristics but the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Philadelphia is both witty and charming. Located among the most storied of Philly’s streets in the central Old City neighborhood, you’re steps away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The building was an adaptive reuse of a historic building but the decor inside brings both glamour and a global influence to the forefront — a veritable melting pot, much like the city. Kids will love the inspiring space, full of tchotchkes from all corners of the planet, antique furniture, beds dressed in soft Frette linens and some rooms even with vintage soaker tubs. Guests are invited to use the hotel’s complimentary bikes and yoga mats in all the rooms, making this hotel another superb family-friendly pick. Pets are also welcome with open arms!
Where to eat
“For about the past ten years, Philadelphia has steadily knocked the chip off its shoulder and has become a culinary triumph… A few chefs, such as Marc Vetri (Vetri) and Jose Garces (Tinto, Village Whisky) as well as Stephan Starr (Parc Bistro, Buddekan), restaurant impresario, have taken back the streets and made Philadelphia into one of the cities on the Foodies Grand tour.” Susan L. Schwartz from Philadelphia, The (Newest) Trendy City You Didn’t See Coming
Located in the trendy Fishtown neighborhood, Kraftwork brunch is rumored to have the best Bloody Mary’s in town; coming in spicy and thick with a bunch of pickled garnishes to snack on while you wait for food to arrive. Food-wise they’ve got all the brunch staples: Eggs Benedict comes with perfectly poached eggs and a smooth Hollandaise sauce and their shrimp & grits are beloved by locals. Our recommendation is the massive fluffy scrambled egg breakfast sandwich with a house made sausage patty, homemade biscuit and a side of home fries– basically everything you could want for a strong start to your weekend.
We shall only begin by saying that the inevitable wait is worth it: all four locations of Sabrina’s Cafe (University City, Italian Market, Art Museum and Main Line) have line ups every weekend but luckily if you come during the week, you still get to enjoy their incredible brunch menu. Locals dream of their stuffed french toast: sweetened cream, marshmallows, cinnamon dough and fruit make up this foray into breakfast heaven. Other brunch menu faves include huevos rancheros, the mexi scrambles and steak and eggs.
SANDWICHES AND LUNCH
Philadelphia has a certain fascination with sandwiches and the care and craft they have inserted into their culinary tradition has some seriously delicious results.
If you’re questing for a Philadelphia cheesesteak, everyone has different opinions on where in Philly to get the best cheesesteak. The sandwich is a long, crusty roll stuffed with thinly sliced sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese — easy to understand why it has so many fans.
Dalessandro’s has long been hailed as one of the best cheesesteaks in Philly. Try George’s Sandwich Shop‘s tiny storefront for another classic take on the city’s sandwich. Keep track of your cheesesteak tasting findings and get back to us with your top 3 list.
“Head over to the Reading Terminal Market – the enclosed market has over 100 merchants offering all kinds of delicious food housed within its walls, but make a beeline directly to DiNiC’s… Their homemade hot roast pork sandwich is world renowned… It is a mix of pork, sharp provolone, broccoli rabe, and hot and sweet peppers… Sit at the counter and sip your accompanying Dr. Pepper to have a truly modern Philadelphia experience.” Susan L. Schwartz on The (Newest) Trendy City You Didn’t See Coming
If you’re a vegetarian, you still shouldn’t leave Philly without eating a cheesesteak. Head to the Soy Café for a Vegetarian cheesesteak wrap. You’ll be questioning whether or not there might be some actual meat in the wrap but we promise it’s all meat-free. And just like the real thing, it will be dripping with grease and taste like a heart attack.
Another classic we can’t leave out from a guide to Philadelphia is the Philadelphia soft pretzel. Combine two of Philly’s greatest offerings at the Philly Pretzel Factory where you can get a Cheesesteak Pretzel. It’s a sublime experience: hot melted cheesesteak right inside of a soft pretzel. Or stick with a classic butter and salt variety and you won’t be disappointed either.
When you’re craving something sweet following that generous dose of salt from the pretzel, slide over to Federal Donuts. Not only do they have flavors like Cherry Pie and Pumpkin Spice Latte but also some of the best fried chicken north of the bible belt (second lunch anyone?). Every order of chicken includes Japanese cucumber pickles and a honey donut, and is served with your choice of dry seasoning, wet glaze or naked. It’s the perfect place to get a little afternoon pick-me-up post museum hopping.
Sweet tooth still not appeased? Just for you, the old-school Philadelphia bakers Frangelli’s Bakery have created the donnoli, the glorious donut-cannoli hybrid where you get to slam cheese, chocolate chips, powdered sugar, buttercream all mashed into a delicious donut. They also have a ice cream filled donut that will fly you to seventh heaven.
There is no shortage of incredible Italian offerings in the home of the 2nd largest Italian American population in the U.S. Indulge in some classic cannoli at the Termini Brothers‘ bakery, said to rival even the best cannolo in Italy.
Sbraga is the namesake restaurant of Chef Kevin Sbraga and figures on almost every list of places you must eat in Philadelphia. The tasting menu here is very reasonably priced and remains inventive and interesting, combining elegance with rustic appeal. You’ll find an ever-changing menu bringing local and international delicacies, such as escargot, Bavarian desserts and gnocchi to the table. Their generously portioned prix fixe menu is four courses for $55 and can also come with vegetarian options. You’ll leave Sbraga feeling both elevated and satiated.
Photos courtesy of the Cheu Noodle Bar Instagram
CHEU NOODLE BAR
If the cold of Philly’s wintry nights is getting the best of you, head to Cheu Noodle Bar for a stewing bowl of funky ramen. Fusing together traditional Japanese soup with all corners of the planet, the decor here lets graffiti mingle alongside a dive bar atmosphere. The black garlic wings are to-die-for and the brisket ramen marries Japanese to Jewish with a sesame chili broth engulfing kimchi, matzo and tender brisket.
Lovers of pizza big and small are strongly advised to head to Pizzeria Vetria. Both Philadelphia locations specialize in delivering thin but sturdy authentic Italian pizza where everything is made in-house from scratch — including the salumi, sauces and dough, and then topped with incredibly fresh and delectable ingredients. Alongside the incredible pizzas (the classic Margherita is always a crowd-pleaser) one absolutely must order the rotolo- a bit like a savory cinnamon bun, this crispy pinwheel of pizza dough is stuffed with ricotta, mortadella and pistachio pesto.
FOODIE HOTEL PICK: Loews Philadelphia Hotel
Sitting high above the city skyline in the nation’s first skyscraper, the Loews Philadelphia hotel has spacious modern rooms with fantastic views of the surrounding locale. In the bathroom you’ll find covetable plush bathrobes and Davines hair products. You’re just steps away from the Reading Terminal Market and its delicious sandwiches and foodie offerings. The Loews onsite restaurant, the Bank & Bourbon gastropub, re-imagines classic American food in unexpected ways, using mostly local and seasonal artisan ingredients. Try a bourbon tasting in their private room following dinner to help you digest the likes of crispy pork belly with fennel, winter citrus fruits and pickled serrano chili or one of the perfectly cooked steaks. With offerings for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, a foodie never need go hungry at the Loews hotel.
Where To Stay
In a city like Philadelphia, there is a whole slew of hotels to fit every budget, taste or sought-after location. Here are some additional picks for our favorite hotels in the city.
Photos courtesy of Morris House
If you’ve been brought to Philadelphia to explore its rich history, the Morris House is your ideal place to stay. This National Historic Landmark dates back to 1787 and houses one of Philly’s finest boutique hotels. Everything is in the details here: a Colonial neighborhood unfolds around a cozy and lush formal garden where you can sit and have a glass of fine wine. Rooms are decorated in period antiques with all the modern must-haves including free WiFi and breakfast is served, compliments of the house every morning. Plus, onsite M Restaurant takes a nod from the cuisine of Southern France while inserting a touch of New American into their seasonal and locavore-friendly dishes.
Hotel Palomar Philadelphia
Kids are welcomed with arms wide open at the Palomar Philadelphia, including your fuzzy ones (pets welcome!). This chic boutique hotel has all the reliable staples of Kimpton properties, including an eco-friendly with LEED Gold certification and with free bikes to get you around town. They’ve also got children’s programs, cribs available and are located near all major Philadelphia attractions, meaning you can return quickly back to the hotel in case someone needs a nap.
*Cover image by Justin Wolfe CC BY
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