Philadelphia Travel Guide

Philadelphia Travel Guide

Curation by Jamie McGhee, words by Ian Packham

One of the oldest cities in the United States – founded in 1682 by William Penn – Philadelphia marries a rich history with a charm usually reserved for small towns. Its attractive streets of red brick townhouses bore witness to the Declaration of Independence and First Continental Congress, and are now enveloped in more than 2,000 spectacular murals that bring art from the museums to the streets. The ‘City of Brotherly Love’ also has equality embedded into its very DNA. As one of the birthplaces of the gay rights movement, Philly was among the first US cities to actively promote pink tourism, making the Pennsylvania city a relaxed and open destination for gay visitors seeking to experience Philadelphia points to interest for themselves.

The Best Hotels in Philadelphia

Centrally located in the Rittenhouse Square area of the city, the five-star Dwight D Boutique Hotel is situated in a brownstone building that lends a historic ambience to each of its eight spacious rooms. Elegantly decorated with period furniture, it offers a tranquil base from which to explore all the things to do in Philadelphia. The nearby Rittenhouse Hotel is a slightly grander affair with interior décor which firmly places it within the jazz age. Art deco masterpieces abound in both the guest rooms and public spaces, which include a large indoor swimming pool, fitness centre, and outdoor terrace. Also close by is The Deacon, a holiday stay with a difference. Its minimalist design highlights the arched windows and vaulted ceilings of this converted church, which features eight rooms in addition to a large shared lounge and kitchen area perfect for making new friends.

On the western side of the city, close to Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Study Hotel at University City sports a clear contemporary edge in its design, taking advantage of clean Scandinavian lines and lightly-hued woods to create an airy and welcoming space. By contrast, the three-star Cornerstone Bed and Breakfast is a family-owned option with the unique kerbside appeal of a fully-restored mid-Victorian edifice. The interior is thorough of the period, without lacking modern creature comforts. Just a few hundred metres from Philadelphia City Hall and the popular Reading Terminal Market, Aloft Philadelphia Downtown is ideally situated for many of the most acclaimed Philadelphia things to do. Boasting an incredibly artful interior, Aloft is one of Philly’s quirkier stays, combining a great look and fantastic guest amenities that include a fitness centre and terrace.

The Deacon

The Deacon

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Recommended hotels in Philadelphia
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The Deacon

The Deacon

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Good Good Comedy Theatre hosts up to four live shows per night, incorporating acts ranging from traditional variety performances to off-beat storytelling extravaganzas

Things to do in Philadelphia

Treat yourself to a tour of the Manatawny Still Works distillery in the Pottstown area. Situated on Manatawny Creek, which fittingly translates from the indigenous language Lenape as ‘the place we meet to drink’, tours begin with a signature cocktail and end in the bar area, where you can sample the handcrafted rums, whiskies, and gins you’ve seen being distilled and aged. Cocktails also play a part in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Friday Art After 5 event. As well as after-hours museum access, there’s live music, canapes, and the added bonus of free museum entry the next day. However, if it’s stand-up comedy you’re after, head straight for the Good Good Comedy Theatre, the result of a 2016 crowdfunding campaign that reached its target in less than 48 hours. The intimate space hosts up to four live shows per night, incorporating acts ranging from traditional variety performances to off-beat storytelling extravaganzas. Do like the locals and bring a bottle to fully enjoy the experience.

A thought-provoking museum that spans almost four centuries of Jewish culture in North America, the National Museum of American Jewish History is a wonderfully modern space tracing the immigration stories of America’s Jewish populations. Don’t miss the Only in America Gallery and Hall of Fame on the first floor, which highlights the experiences of Irving Berlin, Albert Einstein, and Steven Spielberg among others. You might also encounter Spielberg at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park, an open-air concert venue with a summer series of movie screenings; the screenings are accompanied by the symphonic sounds of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of America’s ‘big five’ orchestras. While there are plenty of food trucks at the Mann Center, the 125-year-old Reading Terminal Market is the traditional Philadelphia sightseeing destination for foodies in the city. As well as being a great source of fresh produce, the market also houses a huge number of eateries serving dishes as varied as the Philly Cheesesteak and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine.

Philadelphia CIty Hall | Photo: Leo Serrat

Philadelphia CIty Hall | Photo: Leo Serrat

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Recommended experiences in Philadelphia
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What to see in Philadelphia

When it comes to what to see in Philadelphia, be sure to explore the wide, tree-lined expanse of Benjamin Franklin Parkway. More than just a means of getting from Logan Circle to Fairmount Park, it’s the cultural epicentre of the city. Museums, including the Rodin Museum and Franklin Institute, are partnered with Sister Cities Park, a well-loved family-friendly green space. Likewise, the once-dilapidated Delaware River Waterfront is now a thriving city destination whether you have a penchant for gambling, roller-skating, frequenting concerts, or enjoying a pleasant drink in a beer garden. Philadelphia’s other waterway, the Schuylkill River, is home to Boathouse Row. Situated just north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the area of boat clubs maps its origins back to the 1850s and is a National Historic Landmark perhaps best experienced at night, when each of the Victorian boathouses is lit up.

The Institute of Contemporary Art is one of America’s leading modern art museums. Founded in 1963, it owns no permanent collection, giving it the freedom to host three temporary exhibitions a year. It garnered an incredible reputation by hosting the first museum shows of Agnes Martin and Andy Warhol and has only gained in strength since moving to its new gallery space in 1990. Back out on the streets, more than 70 works of public art have been brought together in the Museum without Walls smartphone app, which gives art lovers and passers-by short snippets of information about the street art you will come across while checking out what to do in Philadelphia.

Institute of Contemporary Art

Institute of Contemporary Art

Benjamin Franklin Bridge | Photo: Devon Wellesley

Benjamin Franklin Bridge | Photo: Devon Wellesley

Zahav | Photo: Alexandra Hawkins

Zahav | Photo: Alexandra Hawkins

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Top-end Zahav has been creating Israeli soul food in Philadelphia for more than a decade

Where to eat in Philadelphia

Top-end Zahav has been creating Israeli soul food in Philadelphia for more than a decade. Evoking Jerusalem’s hidden courtyards with its interior with cool limestone walls and hand-carved table-tops, here you’ll find the authentic flavours of the Middle East, from the wood-baked laffa flatbread to olive oil cake with passionfruit curd and whipped labneh cream cheese. With multiple-course tasting menus inspired by seasonal, local produce, Laurel is one of Philly’s most exclusive dining options. Just 22 diners can enjoy the French-influenced dishes each night, which combine seemingly simple ingredients – such as cod, white asparagus, and black trumpet mushrooms – to create spectacular results. Knock, in the city’s gaybourhood, also vaunts an impressive reputation, delivering plates with a lightness of touch that raises them far beyond their status as classics. [Its accompanying cocktail bar buzzes long…] But in addition to the likes of the lobster flatbread with asparagus and brie, there’s a cocktail bar with a buzz that lingers long into the night (and early the next morning too).

The bring-your-own-bottle styling of Noord perfectly matches the home-cooked feel of this formal East Passyunk Avenue venue. The Dutch influence extends far beyond its name (‘North’) to the entire menu, which includes broodjes haring mini herring sandwiches as an appetizer, and Amish chicken thighs with barley risotto and Champagne french dressing as a main. For more casual dining, there’s always V Street just off central Rittenhouse Square. Here the ‘V’ stands for vegan, and its international smorgasbord of a menu has plucked the very best street food from around the world. Just a few blocks away, Double Knot has something of a split personality. An upper floor provides a laidback breakout space for a cup of local coffee roaster Elixr’s finest, while the basement offers a full restaurant service with a menu that focusses on pan-Asian flavours and barbequed Japanese-style robatayaki dishes.

For an authentic French culinary experience, consider Bistrot la Minette. With a menu that’s produced from scratch and based around seasonality, there’s nowhere better for tasty, modern French cuisine – except Paris perhaps. Meanwhile, Bistro Romano transports its diners to the Italian peninsula. With tables lit by candlelight inside an eighteenth-century granary, its charm is unassailable. When it comes to the food, all the pasta is made in-house (as are the desserts), whether you opt for the signature lobster ravioli or the squid ink linguine.

Photo: Edan Cohen

Photo: Edan Cohen

Zahav

Zahav

Shopping in Philadelphia

Boyds has been the place to head for ready to wear and made to measure menswear for three-quarters of a century. From classy suits to stylish casual wear, the knowledgeable team are known to go above and beyond to create the exact designer look you’re going for. However, Commonwealth Proper takes the crown, fitting out Philly’s notoriously quirky young professionals with bespoke formal shirts, suits, and overcoats. Each is created with the finest of fabrics, be that a traditional Harris tweed or the latest Swiss-made techy blend.

Philadelphia to its core, the concept store Rikumo introduces the city to  Japanese master craftsmanship. Its founders, Kaz and Yuka Morihata, continue to head east each year in search of the latest crop of talented artisans, bringing the pared-back aesthetic of contemporary Japan back to Philly. An outdoor brand that’s for more than just ‘outdoor’ people, United by Blue not only stocks a wealth of fashion-forward clothing and accessories but also removes half a kilo of waste from waterways for every item bought. This makes purchasing that funky pair of souvenir socks all the more worthwhile.

America’s oldest candy store, having set up shop in 1863, a trip to Shane Confectionery on Market Street is like stepping into a nineteenth-century Willy Wonka’s. This beautifully-finished emporium (no other word comes close) is bedecked with candies and chocolates made to authentic period recipes while offering a café space in which to linger amid the chocolatey aromas. Yowie, meanwhile, is where homeware meets art. Here you’ll find beautifully crafted items of interior design from artists, designers, and friends of owner Shannon Maldonado that are useful, individual, and irresistible in equal measure.

Shane

Shane

Shane

Shane

Photo: Valentin Lafourcade

Photo: Valentin Lafourcade

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Hop Sing Laundromat is a speakeasy-style cocktail bar with expert mixologists on hand and a fantastic atmosphere

Philadelphia nightlife

As a drinking spot with few pretensions, U Bar is a large but friendly neighbourhood bar with a good selection of draft beers from both the US and Europe on tap. Happy hour extends from 4 ‘til 6 pm Monday to Friday, while a menu of bar classics is served from its opening at 11 am. Competing with U Bar for the affections of this gay Philadelphia guide is Tavern on Camac, a piano bar which hides a magical interior behind its rather ordinary street face. Upstairs from the piano bar, you’ll find Ascend nightclub and a nightly series of events from karaoke to line dancing. Maybe taking its uber cool credentials a little too seriously, Hop Sing Laundromat is a speakeasy-style cocktail bar with expert mixologists on hand and a fantastic atmosphere – just don’t think you’re going to sweet talk security if you’re wearing shorts or trainers.

So underground it’s literally subterranean, the Franklin Bar never feels overcrowded thanks to its one-in-one-out policy, and is another night spot well known for its cocktail list. Divided into sections labelled Stiff, Chill, Funky, and Fireside, it gives you some idea of what’s on offer at the backlit, marble-topped bar. When Franklin Bar is winding down, turn towards Voyeur. This nightclub’s mixed clientele spreads out over three storeys, pounding the dance floors to everything from dance anthems to cheesy pop. Boasting four floors itself, The Bike Stop has been Philadelphia’s de facto leather bar since the early ‘80s. The sports bar on the second storey is perhaps the most welcoming to first-timers. Warm and welcoming whatever your style, Stir sits a few blocks away from the traditional gaybourhood. However, its bare brick and exposed piping remain a comfortable place for a pick-me-up, even if its drinks list isn’t the most impressive we’ve seen.

Photo: Jason Leung

Photo: Jason Leung

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