Discover Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and convenience, through the eyes of a local.
Twenty years ago I came to write about the arts for the Philadelphia Inquirer. For a classical music critic reporting on the world-class Philadelphia Orchestra is a big deal. So was the city’s history and appearance: its plethora of colonial and 19th-century residences are built on a human scale.
After seven years in densely crowded, sky scraped New York City, my English husband I found this city refreshing. Some weekends we’d drive to Center City (our downtown) to go to the movies, right around the corner from Independence Hall, the First Bank; near the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
America’s so young: its history starts in Philadelphia. By population, it’s the sixth largest city in the U.S. Yet it feels like a small town. People are friendly, unpretentious. Neighborhoods are clustered most no more than 10- to- 15 minutes’ walk apart. You can walk from the great Schuylkill River on the west side of town to the Delaware River on the east in roughly an hour. One of the most walkable U.S. cities; Philly’s also bike friendly with rental stations are scattered in most neighborhoods.
So. I came for history and culture twenty years later marvel over its conveniences. Philadelphia’s not dynamic or fashionable like New York but there’s a great deal to be said for its slower pace, and clean, un-crowded subways. It’s not elegant like the nation’s capital with its spacious boulevards. But when a Philadelphian needs one or the other, they’re an hour-and-50 minutes away by Amtrak or MegaBus. Most locals, by the way, take the bus (book online) to Manhattan or D.C. Lower costs and fewer delays.
Another convenience is Septa public transit. Unlike other major cities, you don’t need a token or pass to ride. It’s okay to give exact change, which is $2.25 for a bus, subway or trolley. If you’re 65+ with identification, the ride is free.
A recent national survey ranked Philadelphia International Airport #1; the best for making connections. Its design is user-friendly for an international hub; there are 57 places to eat, interesting shops and—this is my favorite—a rotation of fascinating installations by some of our best young artists. Barely a 15-20 minute drive from Center City, 10 from South Philly, it’s hard to miss a flight.
If you’re visiting for the first time, here are some things not to miss:
Everyone comes here. The diversity of food is matched only the diversity of people. Eat in, take out, or buy fresh fish, produce, spices. Don’t miss Olde City Coffee, Metropolitan Bakery, and DiNic’s roast pork sandwiches. The cheesesteaks are better here than the much publicized Pat’s or Geno’s in the Italian Market. Chinatown’s only a couple of blocks away. Also the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, nation’s first art school in a beautiful Beaux Arts building with a beautiful new contemporary gallery.
BYOBs: One of the country’s best eating towns, it’s also one of the most affordable. One reason: a profusion of BYOBs. There’s no corking charge for bringing wine or beer. You’ll also discover many celebrity chefs started here before opening restaurants in New York or LA. Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia is known for some of the best eating and drinking; West Philadelphia, home of the green ivy league University of Pennsylvania, has some of best ethnic fare. Philly’s also very vegan-friendly.
Just opened this spring (April, 2017) it’s the place to take Selfies. Try out muskets, try on uniforms; take your picture alongside reproduction patriots and villains. Long-in-the planning, its audio-video, interactive exhibits make the hard road to independence real. America starts here.
Five times bigger than New York’s Central Park; Fairmount’s 4,100 acres make it one of the country’s largest urban parks. The zoo is here (nation’s first of course); the Mann Music Center; colonial houses like Lemon Hill; a Japanese house and garden; horse-riding, bicycle and running paths; picnic areas, baseball fields. Start with a stroll behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art past the rowing clubs of Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River. Philly has many running and biking paths: this is one of the most popular.
In Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, which was built for the first World’s Fair. Young children shouldn’t miss Please Touch. Continually changing immersive exhibits to play to learn. Staples like the Septa Bus they can climb on and drive; the restored 19th-century carousel, the giant keyboard from the Tom Hanks’ movie Big. Many discovery exhibits are drawn from the collection of 25,000 toys.
For 30 years, the Mural Arts program has been commissioning artists to paint the stories of prominent and unknown residents in their neighborhood:. Four thousand painted walls: a visual autobiography of a city and its neighborhoods. Bus, trolley and walking tours; even a Mobile Mural Finder app. Glittering mosaics by artist Isaah Zagar decorate many houses in Center City and South Philly. Zagar’s Magic Garden (across from Whole Foods Market) is a popular tourist site.
There are so many works by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse, it’s said the museum has more visitors from France than any country. And so much else: Modigliani, Demuth, Rousseau, early American furniture and ironwork idiosyncratically arranged according to Alfred Barnes’ theories of art education. The Barnes anchors Museum Row on flag- Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The city’s most elegant boulevard culminates at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.The Barnes’ original home in Merion, seven miles away, is also worth a visit for the horticultural gardens and house designed by Frenchman Paul Cret. He also designed elegant Rittenhouse Square.
Little Streets, pocket neighborhoods: some of the best moments come discovering homes on narrow cobbled streets that remind of the city’s English and European roots. Some of the prettiest surround Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square, which is part of National Independence National Park. From one green pocket park to the other’s a 10-minute walk across Walnut Street if you don’t browse all the main street’s shops.
Before you book a ticket or a tour: check the Philly Fun Guide for events and discount tickets.
And to get in the Philly mood: Some movies set in and around Philadelphia:
- Blow Out
- In Her Shoes
- National Treasure
- Rocky & sequels
- Silver Linings Playback
- Train Rider
- Twelve Monkeys
- The Sixth Sense; all the films by M. Night Shmaylan
- The Philadelphia Story
Now that you know what there is to do, see and eat in the city of brotherly love and convenience, go live the Philly experience. Travel by home exchange and use the money you save for the fun stuff.