From the top of the new One Liberty Observation deck in downtown Philadelphia, you can see for miles. Children and adults alike are delighted with the mesmerizing city view from this scenic perch. But it is what’s hidden away below, tucked in between those city blocks, that’s the true magic of the nation’s fifth largest city waiting to be discovered.
Philadelphia is a walkable metropolis, thanks in part to having the largest navigable pedestrian sign system in North America according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. In addition it’s also ringed with 205 miles of bike lanes. The city is comprised of numerous neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and energy, weaving a cultural patchwork that gives the city true international flair.
From the colorful street signs and exotic aromas of Chinatown to the bars and cafes of Washington Square West, the transitions between neighborhoods are noticeable.
Popular with tourists, this is the 13th most-visited US city by international travelers based upon the latest CVB data. Sandwiched between New York and Washington, Philly can sometimes get a “bum rap” with foreign visitors who are just passing through as they split their time between the Big Apple and DC.
Domestic visitors, while strong in number, often have eyes aglaze for New York’s bright city lights. But once people discover Philadelphia’s burgeoning dining scene and historic landmarks intertwined with modern shopping, they are hooked.
With more than a hundred Fortune 500 companies within a 200-mile radius, the City of Brotherly Love welcomes its fair share of business travelers too. The mix of visitors creates a buzz in all corners of this historic metropolis.
Getting Your Bearings
It all begins in the heart of town, known as Center City, where City Hall rises majestically from its own square. It is the one of the largest municipal buildings in the world, an ornate confection wrapped in marble and sculptures designed by Alexander Milne Calder.
Visitors can pass through its noble arches to discover a bright courtyard, which is the ideal spot to use as a focal point from which to set out to discover the town. It comes as no surprise, after gazing up at City Hall, that Philadelphia has been named one of America’s most European cities time and again.
What draws so many meeting groups to town, besides the exceptional convention center boasting more than a million square feet, is the wide range of dining, shopping, and sightseeing venues within close proximity to major hotels and gathering spaces. Even guests with significant time constraints can find something enjoyable to see and do during their visit.
That might even include gazing up at the extensive public art that lines the city’s streets. Don’t be surprised if a line forms for selfies by the famous LOVE statue by Robert Indiana. The city’s neighborhoods are further graced by more than 3,600 murals adorning the sides of buildings.
The Rittenhouse district is Philadelphia’s equivalent of Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side. This quadrant of town, between Broad Street to the east and the Schuykill River on the west and bounded by Market and Pine Streets, is where you’ll find some of the city’s most expensive and glamorous homes. Its name comes from the one-block city park that was part of William Penn’s original layout of the city. Today it draws everything from a farmer’s market to skimpily-clad students sunbathing on its precious grass.
But it’s not only for locals, as this part of town has its own subset of restaurants and shopping that provide an elegant backdrop for a whole cultural scene. Art galleries ooze with sophistication as would-be buyers of pricey paintings sip lattes at streetfront cafes, shopping bags in tow. Wandering Rittenhouse Square is a prize for architecture buffs that might find Renaissance styles intermingling with Brownstone Gothic on each corner.
Founding Fathers’ Neighborhood
The cobblestone streets of Old City, between Walnut and Race Streets in the section from the Delaware River to 6th Street, draw visitors for their charm and photo-worthy architecture. This is also where shoppers find a plentiful array of locally owned shops and cafes sporting both clever art and the kind of entrepreneurial spirit on which this nation was first built. Art lovers have plenty to see and explore on First Fridays when galleries fling their doors open to the public.
This is also a popular spot for nightlife with hopping bars and theaters pulsing with energy late into the evening. The independent streak of Old City is apparent in many of the businesses there. Take 2nd Story Brewing, which was begun by a local farmer who joined forces with her son-in-law, to start their own brewery and restaurant. There’s also Ariana, a family-owned establishment which serves up traditional Afghani food amid an edgy atmosphere of hookahs.
Peg and Awl, a shop known for repurposing old things into creative items for home and wear, was started by a young couple who lives and works in town. Franklin Fountain, an ice cream parlor and soda fountain shop, was born from a dream of two brothers to recreate an old-fashioned classic. Try exquisite handcrafted vanilla buttercreams or dark chocolate-covered bacon from the once family-owned Shane Candies, which is now operated by the same two brothers of Franklin Fountain fame.
In other cities, startup businesses and independent retailers are often forced to the sidelines where cheaper real estate is available; Philadelphia welcomes them with open arms.
Neighborhoods like Callowhill and Fishtown are especially popular with emerging artists and entrepreneurs looking for affordable real estate. Budding restaurateurs find their place in East Passyunk, which means curious diners can discover a host of new flavors.
Come Hungry, Leave on a Diet
Philadelphia was one of Zagat’s top foodie cities in 2015, and it’s easy to see why. Visitors will find a smorgasbord of food and drink options at every turn including a variety of chef-driven restaurants like Jose Garces, winner of Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef,” who now has seven Philadelphia restaurants like Amada with its creative tapas menu.
If it’s Italian you’re after, head to Bella Vista/Italian Market area neighborhood. Closer to City Hall, discover the colorful Art bar in the recently revamped Sonesta while Alma de Cuba and Mediterranean-themed Estia are attracting the crowds to Rittenhouse Square.
Dandelion Pub, another of famed restaurateur Stephen Starr’s numerous downtown eateries, offers a gastropub menu featuring everything from Welsh rarebit to afternoon tea in a casual, cozy and contemporary space. DanDan draws lines for its spicy Taiwanese and Sichuan noodle dishes served in a bistro setting.
French fare at Sofitel’s popular Liberte is best enjoyed with a reservation, but impromptu hunger pangs can easily be placated with what is indubitably the city’s most famous namesake snack: the Philly Cheesesteak. Chopped or sliced beef is sizzled to perfection and served between a hoagie roll with cheese (traditionalists spray it on from a Cheez Whiz can) and piles of onions.
It is wise to respect individual opinions, as it seems everyone has a favorite cheesesteak spot. But, meat-loving sandwich veterans will send visitors to the corner of South 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue to choose from either Geno’s Steaks or Pat’s King of Steaks, two local, 24-hour gems.
In true Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” fashion, have your order ready to go so as not to be passed up for the next person in line. If you prefer onions, the correct order protocol is to say “wit;” if no onions, say “widout.” And don’t forget to let them know if you want cheese, and remember be as concise and efficient in ordering as possible. For example, “one whiz wit” means one cheesesteak with Cheeze Whiz and onions whereas “two Cheddar widout” means two cheesesteaks with Cheddar cheese and no onions. Yes, this is serious business.
For a less regimented experience, Reading Terminal Market is a feast for the senses. Fresh food is prepared and served from lively stalls scattered throughout the bustling indoor space. Most beloved are the Amish vendors who sell their home-grown products Tuesday through Saturday. Expect everything from fresh cheese and meats to Indian food, and yes, several cheesesteak vendors.
A City of Art & History
The good news is, not all creative types flock to New York, so the arts community in Philadelphia is thriving. From live performances at the iconic Academy of Music and Kimmel Center to the Helium Comedy Club, there is no shortage of creative entertainment.
Rittenhouse Square is liberally sprinkled with numerous art galleries and theaters making it the de facto center of attention for those looking for cultural excitement. Many hotels, like the Ritz-Carlton, offer packages that pair room nights with gallery functions or museum tickets.
In the arts-heavy Logan Square neighborhood, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is forever stamped in the minds of movie fans following the famous scene in Rocky when Sly Stallone conducted his training regimen on the site. But do take a look inside, too, to see famous works from El Greco, Rubens, Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh among others. The new Barnes Foundation is one of the latest additions to the city’s rich art museum scene. The institution owns over 2,500 items, including an impressive private collection of post-Impressionist paintings.
Running through this neighborhood is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, commonly referred to as the city’s Champs-Elysees. Lined with museums and trees, it is usually the main thoroughfare for parades and special events.
Continuing the French theme is the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of Paris in the city’s popular Rodin Museum. If architecture is of interest, be sure to explore the Masonic Temple, a National Historic Landmark, in Center City near City Hall and home to the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania.
A 12-ton Egyptian sphinx is on display at the Penn Museum, and the vintage Wanamaker Building (now home to Macy’s) was one of the country’s first department stores. It, too, is a National Historic Landmark and houses the world’s largest pipe organ.
Sure, there are plenty more historic sites to take in. The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall (among the most visited historic attractions in the US) are must-sees for any visitor to town. But it only takes a stroll in practically any direction from here to discover plenty to do in the iconic neighborhoods and cultural enclaves of America’s first capital city.
Philly’s global appeal is not to be underestimated; you’re just as likely to meet happy tourists here as you would in London or Paris. The big question still looms though – do you want your cheesesteak “wit” or “widout”?
By Ramsey Qubein