WHAT TO DO
Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States and has a vibrant personality which makes it a must visit on every travel itinerary. It offers something for everyone, mixing history and culture with hip new specialty shops. Philly is home to world class art museums, beautiful parks and a bustling food scene that embraces everything from Israeli to the local must have cheesesteak.
Philadelphia is certainly a walkable town (with an occasional uber ride) and in my opinion the best place to begin your journey is Independence National Historical Park. This is the city's (and perhaps the country's) most historic district. It is extremely special to walk along the same cobblestone streets as the Founding Fathers once did during those miraculous early days. Start where America was born, Independence Hall. The redbrick structure with its clock tower and steeple is America's most historic building. Construction began in 1732 of the then named Pennsylvania State House, but what happened here from 1775-1787 changed the course of American history and the name of the building to Independence Hall. The hall's Assembly Room is where George Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army, Thomas Jefferson's magnificent Declaration of Independence was signed and where the Constitution of the United States was adopted. This is also where Abraham Lincoln lay in state after his assassination in 1865. Be sure to notice the "Rising Sun" chair in which George Washington sat. Attached to Independence Hall is the East Wing where you can begin a free guided tour that lasts about forty minutes. Admission is first come, first served and be sure to collect a timed entry ticket from the nearby visitor center to avoid waiting in line. The West Wing of Independence Hall contains a collection of the nation's founding documents: the final draft of the Constitution, a working copy of the Articles of Confederation and the first printing of the Declaration of Independence. After you leave the building, walk around to the front of Independence Hall and stand next to the statue of George Washington. Note the plaques marking the spots where Abraham Lincoln stood on February 22, 1861 and where John F Kennedy delivered an address on July 4, 1962.
Next, cross Chestnut Street and head to the Liberty Bell Center, home of the iconic Liberty Bell. This symbol of freedom was first heard in 1753 atop the adjacent Pennsylvania State House to call all to hear the first reading of the Declaration of Independence. The bell fulfilled the words of its inscription when it rang to "proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." It is the subject of legend as to how it received its famous crack. Thinking back to all those history lectures I sat through in school, the Liberty Bell cracked slowly over a period of years. It was repaired but cracked again in 1846 and was then forever silenced. It was originally called the State House Bell until the 1830s, when a group of abolitionists adopted it as a symbol of freedom and renamed it the Liberty Bell.
Staying in the Old City, make your way over to the Museum of the American Revolution. Located on South 3rd Street, this impressive museum will have you virtually participating in the American Revolution - with interactive dioramas and 3D experiences that take you all the way from contentment with British rule to the eventual rejection of it. You'll learn about the events, people, cultures and religions that participated in one of the world's most important revolutions. No visit is complete without seeing Washington's War Tent in the museum theater. In this moving short film, you will follow General George Washington's remarkable journey and sit in the presence of his original Revolutionary War headquarters tent. After the revolution, visit Elfreth's Alley and the Betsy Ross House. Elfreth's Alley is the oldest continuously occupied residential street in America, dating back to 1702. Much of colonial Philadelphia resembled this area, with its cobblestone streets and narrow brick houses. These modest homes were lived in by craftsmen, such as cabinetmakers and silversmiths. In early June residents celebrate Fete Day, when some of the homes are open to the public for tours hosted by guides in Colonial dress. Nearby on Arch Street is the Betsy Ross House, built around 1740. The little brick house with its gabled roof and thirteen star flag hanging from its second floor window is a fine example of a Colonial Philadelphia home. It is debatable if the hardworking Quaker actually made the first Stars and Stripes, nonetheless it is worth a visit.
From there, head down to one of Philly's most famous streets, South Street. This bohemian neighborhood emits a creative vibe with unique shops, mosaic lined alleyways and a great music venue - The Theatre of Living Arts (TLA). Now part of pop culture, South Street is seen in the opening credits of the tv show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and called "the hippest street in town" as the Orlons called it in their 1963 song. Make sure to visit Philadelphia's Magic Gardens at 1020 South Street. Created by artist Isaiah Zagar and spanning half a block on South Street, the museum includes an immersive outdoor art instillation and indoor galleries. Zagar created the space in 1994 using nontraditional materials such as found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand made tiles and thousands of glittering mirrors. It truly is a spectacle and a must see on South Street. Continue south to the quintessential Philly neighborhood, South Philly. This is the home of two long time rival cheesesteak joints, but I will mention them later.
After touring South Philly hail a cab or book an uber ride up to Rittenhouse Square. It is Philadelphia's most elegant square and a great place to take a break from touring. One of William Penn's (founder of Pennsylvania) original five city squares, the park was named in 1825 to honor David Rittenhouse, an eighteenth century astronomer. Stop in to nearby Metropolitan Bakery for a sweet treat then take a short walk over to see one of Philly's most photographed sculptures in Dilworth Park at City Hall (temporary home due to renovations). The Love Statue (usually located in JFK Plaza / Love Park) is a reproduction of Robert Indiana's Love sculpture and a fitting piece for the City of Brotherly Love. Feel free to take a peek inside the grand City Hall building or just look up and admire the bronze statue of William Penn that crowns the tower.
Philadelphia has some great art museums and the city's premier cultural attraction without a doubt is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In my opinion it is one of the country's top museums. The building itself is a treasure. Completed in 1928, it is modeled after an ancient Greek temple, but on a grander scale. The museum was designed by Julian Francis Abele, the first African American to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture. The museum has two entrances, but you should take the front so you can run (or walk) up the steps made famous in the 1976 movie Rocky (yo Adrian I did it). Do not miss the Rocky Balboa Statue near the bottom of the steps. Once inside, you'll see the grand staircase and Saint Gauden's statue Diana. Allow yourself plenty of time to wander the impressive rooms that house the works of several of the masters including: Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh. Admission is $30, good for two consecutive days and includes the nearby Rodin Museum on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This jewel of a museum holds the biggest collection outside Paris of the work of sculptor Auguste Rodin. The courtyard entrance displays his best known work, The Thinker and inside the museum is The Kiss. Just down the road from Rodin is the magnificent Barnes Foundation. This soaring marble and glass museum has a modernist setting, providing a different appreciation for the works. Highlights include Cezanne's The Card Players, Monet's Studio Boat and Renoir's The Artist's Family.
After art appreciation, spin by Logan Circle (another of Penn's five original squares) on your way up to Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue. Built in 1829, Eastern State was the world's first true penitentiary, a building designed to inspire penitence - or true regret in the hearts of prisoners. The original seven cellblocks spread like the spokes of a wheel and its vaulted sky lit cells allowed inmates to look up to the heavens. Today the prison stands in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and a surprising, eerie beauty (the 1995 movie 12 Monkeys filmed here). Tours include the cellblocks, solitary, death row and its most famous inmates' lavishly decorated cell - Al Capone. I recommend the audio tour narrated by the great actor Steve Buscemi. After Eastern State, head up to Fairmount Park for a stroll. It is one of the largest inner city park systems in the country and Belmont Plateau provides a commanding view of the Philadelphia skyline. Finally, conclude your tour with a visit to the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site on N 7th Street. One of America's most original writers, Poe lived here from 1843 to 1844 - it is the only one of his Philadelphia residences still standing. While living in Philadelphia, Poe published some of his most well known works, including The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat. You can tour the three story brick house and some of the rooms that display first edition manuscripts. Be sure to note the raven statue (nevermore).
WHERE TO EAT
Philadelphia has no shortage of fantastic places to eat and drink. In recent years, talented local chefs have definitely put this town on every food lovers map. If you are a coffee drinker, start your day by heading up to the Fishtown neighborhood for a cup at Reanimator Coffee Roasters.
A must see for anyone visiting Philly (especially food lovers like yours truly) is Reading Terminal Market, located at 12th and Arch Street. Allow yourself at least one hour to wander through the rows and rows of delight at one of America's oldest and largest public markets. Opened in 1892 by the Reading Railroad, this massive food market is not only a Philadelphia landmark, but also a tradition. It is home to nearly eighty independently owned small businesses representing a great diversity of nationalities, including the Pennsylvania Dutch from Lancaster County. While there are so many things to choose from, I would recommend the following: pancakes at the Dutch Eating Place, hot pretzel at Miller's Twist, pastrami on rye at Hershel's East Side Deli and a dynamite chocolate chip cookie at Famous 4th St Cookie Co. Take note that the Amish shops, which sell pastries, fresh cheeses, honey and jams - are only open Wednesday through Saturday.
It is now time to talk about a very sensitive subject to all those that call Philadelphia home, the Philly Cheesesteak. Debates have raged for decades and families have been divided over who has the best in town. You can pretty much find one on any block in the city so I will share the three that I believe are a must have. Start on South Street at Jim's Steaks. This no thrills joint on the "hippest street in town" is a favorite among the locals I chatted with. When you walk through the door you notice the celebrity photos on the walls and that scent of frying onions on the grill. Choose from Provolone, American or the famous Cheese Whiz to top that pile of shaved beef on a long crusty roll. The other two places are down in South Philly at the intersection of Passyunk Avenue and 9th Street. These long time rivals that battle it out for best cheesesteak in Philly are Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks. I will not endorse one over the other so try both (they are next door to each other). Pat's was founded in 1930 and claims to have invented the masterpiece sandwich. They chop the meat and their exterior is a bit more understated. Geno's opened in 1966 and they can probably be seen from space due to their bright neon exterior. Geno's meat is sliced (not chopped) for that freshly baked Italian roll. Both joints serve equally generous portions of steak, grilled onions and melted cheese - you might want to do as the locals do and say "wit wiz" (with Cheese Whiz).
When in Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of speaking with chef Michael Solomonov of the CookNSolo group. He runs several excellent restaurants in town and I made it a priority to visit them all. His flagship is the modern Israeli sensation Zahav (gold in Hebrew) on St James Place. On a small hill above one of the city's oldest streets, the stripped down Zahav has an open kitchen, large picture windows and a soaring ceiling. The staff is very efficient and the Tayim tasting menu is the way to go. Start with the house made hummus served with laffa bread baked in the wood burning oven. It comes with several small dishes of cucumbers, beets, carrots and eggplant. Next, try the fried cauliflower or the haloumi with date paste, sumac onions, walnuts and apples. For the main (al ha'esh) I enjoyed the chicken shishlik, grilled over coals served with rice pilaf. Zahav has a great drink menu as well - the house version z&t was tasty. Also outstanding is Laser Wolf on Howard Street. This Israeli grill, known in Hebrew as a "shipudiya" or "skewer house" does charcoal grilled meats to perfection. Another Solomonov restaurant is the superb Abe Fisher on Sansom Street. This cozy space has a retro vibe (great music) and serves small plates of Jewish comfort food (Jewish Diaspora or Exile). Be sure to try the spicy green beans or the potato latke with beef tartare, horseradish and apples. The foie gras torchon comes with peanut butter and jelly, along with a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel (it ruled). Main course highlights include the veal schnitzel tacos and the Hungarian duck "chinatown style" with pretzel steamed buns and lekvar hoisin sauce. Chef Yehuda Sichel does a killer take on the house signature Montreal smoked short ribs, its massive (for two or more people). The post meal pecan raisin babka went well with my wham bam thank you cocktail. UPDATE: sadly - Abe Fisher closed down in July 2023. Next door is the hot spot Dizengoff. This Israeli hummusiya exclusively serves hummus plates with fresh baked pita, chopped salad and Israeli pickles. Definitely try to hit this place for lunch or Federal Donuts across the street. They do totally awesome cake donuts (I destroyed a chocolate old fashioned) and quality coffee. After 11a, the super crispy Korean style fried chicken is added to the menu.
For a modern spin on tapas, try the contemporary Spanish spot Amada on Chestnut Street. Chef Jose Garces presents an authentic taste of Andalucia in Philly. The chefs tasting menu is a solid way to go or simply sample several of the small bites at your leisure. Some of my favorites were the ham and fig jam, roasted cauliflower with pickled mustard seeds, white bean stew with chorizo and the roasted suckling pig. If it's Italian you crave, try Wm Mulherin's Sons in Fishtown. Housed in an old whiskey distillery, this eatery has a bar with wood fired grub. For New American, stop by Vernick Food & Drink on Walnut Street. Located in a Rittenhouse brownstone, they serve upscale large and small plates, along with some darn good cocktails. For tasty oysters, head to its sister restaurant Vernick Fish on 19th Street. Two additional spots near Rittenhouse Square are The Love and The Dandelion, both found on 18th Street.
For some after dinner haunts, there are a few I thoroughly enjoyed. The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company on Rittenhouse Square is a dimly lit, subterranean speakeasy that is quaint and cozy. Another nice place is Southwark on 4th Street. Grab a seat at the bar and sip on a classic martini (or two). If the night is still young and you fancy live music as I do, check out Union Transfer on Spring Garden Street, Electric Factory (Franklin Music Hall) on 7th Street or Johnny Brenda's in Fishtown.
WHERE TO STAY
Philadelphia has many different places to stay in several neighborhoods and I always prefer to be centrally located and close to the sights on my to do list. The two properties that I would suggest are The Rittenhouse Hotel and Hotel Monaco Philadelphia.
The Rittenhouse Hotel is located on Rittenhouse Square. The plush rooms include free WiFi, flat screen televisions and iPod docks, plus marble bathrooms with tubs. There is an upscale restaurant and a cocktail bar, along with a spa that has a steam room and a sauna.
Hotel Monaco is located in a historic building on Chestnut Street, adjacent to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There is a hip rooftop bar that overlooks Independence National Historical Park. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with a cool nod to history decor.
Philadelphia is full of history, art, culture and cuisine. I look forward to my next visit to the City of Brotherly Love.