The mention of Philly conjures different associations for different people. Some instantly envision mounds of steaming cheesesteak (“Get the whiz or they’ll mock you!” Philadelphians warn). Others think of the Founding Fathers, the Eagles and their die-hard fans, that famously cracked bell, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or of a fist-pumping Rocky racing up the art museum steps. (Some others I know love to bring up this ridiculous survey. I’m reluctant to make any cracks here when DC doesn’t always fare so well itself…)
For me Philly now means frequent visits with a dear friend whom I met in Scotland (go figure) and hours of aimless wandering around this fascinating city. Each time I marvel at how a place so physically close can sometimes feel so very far away. As a child I traveled once or twice to this historically-rich town (the nation’s temporary capital from 1790 to 1800) to stand on the very spots where the country’s Founding Fathers drafted the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. As school kids here we learned about Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin, famed not only for his revolutionary electricity experiment, but also for creating the country’s first insurance company and the city’s first public library and fire department. We ogled at the Liberty Bell, rung to announce the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828 in Great Britain, hopped back on our bus, and trekked home to the nation’s newer capital.
These days I make the two-and-a-half to four-hour “dragon bus” journey (I’d recommend the speedier/pricier Amtrak option if unpredictable budget shuttles aren’t your thing) when craving an urban change of scene. When DC is feeling just a little too rigid or pristine or orderly, and New York feels too far away, I head north to the “City of Brotherly Love.” Franklin deemed Philadelphia the “new Athens,” but to me, it feels suspiciously reminiscent of Glasgow, Scotland, perhaps for its mix of historic charm—cobblestone streets and narrow row houses in European-esque Old City—splashed with modern blocks of gray concrete and urban grit. In any case, the place is full of character and refreshingly down to earth.
I’ve been to Philly quite a few times over the past few years, each time learning more about our neighbor to the north. This past trip was a bit different since my friend’s just moved from West Philly (of Fresh Prince fame) to the ritzier Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. So while our strolls to and from her apartment used to take us by farmers’ markets, bongo drums, college students and Green Line cafes (I highly recommend the French toast bagel there), we now spied downtown shoppers, tango twirlers in the park and posh tourists people-watching from the wicker chairs of a Parisian-style cafe. As my friend explains, Philly is very much a “neighborhood city,” each zone carrying a distinctive vibe.
I also mentioned to people that I hung out with this time that I’d be writing up their city in a future blog entry, and much to my delight, I was inundated with fun facts, quirky trivia like the William Penn “sports curse,” personal opinions (Pat’s versus Geno’s for the obligatory cheesesteak) and wacky Philly slang (“jawn”…who knew?).
As is often the case, the best way to experience the city’s diversity is by heading to its ethnic enclaves at mealtime. Conveniently enough, the Chinatown buses unload passengers in a bustling neighborhood where food options range from dive spots for dumplings to cozy cafes for pho. (For the ultimate splurge on posh modern Asian fare, foodies head downtown to Buddakan.) No trip of mine is ever complete without a pass through Reading Terminal Market, an enormous venue where daily vendors include Amish farmers who’ve brought in fresh goods from the countryside, bakers who sell doughy M&M cookies alongside cups of piping hot tea and Greek émigrés who slice gyro meat to fill warm pita pockets. Some find the crowded hall to be sensory overload, but if you can score a seat, it’s a great spot to absorb the Philly scene. The Italian Market is another fun neighborhood to explore. Though in recent years the area has also become home to many Latin American immigrants, the Italian influence is still evident in the lively cafes, bakeries, butcher stores and cheese shops (like Di Bruno Bros., pictured above).
Nightlife in Philly is highly enjoyable thanks to the city’s prevalence of BYO restaurants (DC, can we hop on this trend please?). At hip spots like Lolita, a BYOTequila downtown, patrons decide just how strong they’ll take their margaritas. Great live music spots I’ve visited so far include the three-tiered, riverside venue World Cafe Live and, for intimate acoustic shows, Tin Angel. Watering holes range from TV-filled bars for all those sports fanatics and clubs for the dancing crowd to low-key breweries like Dock Street and dimly-lit, authentic pubs like Monk’s. And to soak up that hangover the next day? Try charming and friendly Sabrina’s Cafe, where they serve up some mean French toast, Mediterranean wraps, breakfast burritos and sweet potato fries.
If craving some culture, check out the Rodin Museum, boasting the biggest collection of the artist’s works outside of France. Philly museums host an impressive line-up of shows; I’ve been lucky enough to see the King Tut exhibit at The Franklin Institute and a Frida Kahlo show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (And even if an art museum isn’t your idea of an ideal afternoon, I’d highly recommend plopping yourself on the museum’s famous staircase for a good while—the hoards of Rocky-wannabes racing up the steps, hamming it up for cameras and phones, promise to entertain.) For a look at more modern, urban art, tours now take visitors around the city to check out the city’s amazing, ubiquitous murals.
So now what’s left to do? Why eat a cheesesteak, of course. Philadelphians seem a fiercely loyal bunch, be it for allegiances to neighborhoods, sports teams or sandwiches. Mention to a native that you’re on the hunt for the perfect steak (as did our friend, on a mission to hand-deliver a cheesesteak to his dad in Brooklyn), and the recommendations start rolling in. “Go to Pat’s! Geno’s is racist!” “Jim’s on 4th is definitely the best.” “How about trying a vegan version?” Wherever you end up, though, the experience is half the fun. Maybe just read a quick how-to guide before you order. DC and Philly may be nearby, remember, but even when it comes to ordering food, they can feel worlds apart.
(For a slice of Philly in DC, read Cathy’s recent post.)