20 Incredible Things You Have to Do in Philadelphia
This history-centric city is also remarkably hip, with great restaurants, bars and museums for every taste.
Photo By: C. Smyth
Photo By: Harrison Brink
Photo By: Elwood
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Photo By: J. Varney /Di Bruno Bros.
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Photo By: Four Seasons Hotel
Photo By: C. Smyth
Photo By: C. Smyth
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Photo By: Artin the Age
Photo By: J. Fusco
Photo By: J. Fusco
Photo By: J. Fusco
Photo By: Jason Smith
Photo By: J. Fusco
Photo By: J. Fusco
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Photo By: Lokal Fishtown
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Photo By: Visit Philadelphia
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Philadelphia Offers History With an Urban Edge
Though it is often thought of as a history lover's destination, featuring some of the touchstones of American history, from the Liberty Bell to the World Heritage Site Independence Hall, Philadelphia is also home to a vibrant food scene including the 2019 James Beard best restaurant in the country, modern Israeli hot spot Zahav, diverse theatrical venues and eclectic neighborhoods like the gritty, industrial, hipster burg Fishtown filled with community gardens, indie shops, galleries and bars. Part of the city's charm is how small-town and manageable it can feel, more accessible—maybe a little more earnest—than its big city neighbor New York City but with enough grit to satisfy urbanites. More like living history than the history-under-glass of Colonial Williamsburg, Philadelphia feels like a microcosm of America's faith in freedom and innate pride in diversity. An indie scene of restaurants and cocktail culture have embraced history in novel new ways, exploring Pennsylvania Dutch foodways at Elwood or resurrecting classic spirits infused with cherry or dandelion root at the cocktail tasting room and shop Art in the Age. Dubbed the "City of Brotherly Love," there's no denying the city's rampant friendliness from the well-dressed apartment building doorman who chirped "nice dress," as I gamboled on a pretty summer day to the man waiting to cross a busy intersection who turned back to ask a homeless man sprawled on the pavement if he was O.K. During Pride Month, the city was festooned with even more demonstrations of love and acceptance. Uber drivers were chatty and shared details of their favorite cheesesteak source (everyone had a must-visit stop—all different—from Pat's to Geno's to Jim's) to their (related) struggle to cut calories. Residents, many of them first or second generation immigrants, are proud of their city's essential role in America's founding and of the vibrant melting pot they call home.
A new restaurant from local chef Adam Diltz in the hip Fishtown neighborhood, Elwood is a tribute to the Pennsylvania Dutch foodways of Diltz's childhood (in turn influenced by Native American, Dutch, French and Irish traditions) but served in an utterly inventive, charming white tablecloth setting. The narrow railroad flat design at Elwood comes courtesy of Diltz's architect wife Jenny Ko. Your first view upon entering is the open kitchen where Diltz cooks, which immediately establishes the intimate vibe that continues throughout, like having dinner in a good friend's home. The cozy, narrow dining room seats just 26 and looks out onto a garden and is decorated with the kind of small framed prints you might see in your favorite aunt or grandmother's living room. Vintage, flowered plates and saucers lend an evocatively old-fashioned tone that plays out in Diltz's clever interpretations of food history in dishes like his grandmother's recipe for ham potpie with noodles that suggest a hybrid of dumpling and egg noodle, catfish and waffles (celebrating Philadelphia's history of German waffle restaurants) and family-style rabbit and pork to share. Like many Philly spots, Elwood is BYOB. Dinner service begins with a witty amuse-bouche presentation of a neat homemade scrapple square served skewered on a deer antler from Diltz's collection. Savory and sweet and the perfect unconventional end to Diltz's original dinner are spelt dumplings whose tangy sour cream ice cream perfectly balances the rich jolt of plum preserves and honey. Potato rolls come with both butter and lard and like so much of what makes Elwood memorable, blend nostalgia and wit into a more perfect union.
Chef Diltz's homage to the Victorian vogue for celery, his braised celery with Hootenany and Royer cheese in Madeira sauce is served on Elwood's collection of vintage china.
Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
Docents like Mike Lewis at Shofuso—the country's first Japanese garden—are on their game. Explore the grounds on your own, but definitely spend some time chatting with the enthusiastic and exceptionally well-informed guides. Sinophile and college student Lewis walked me through the significance of each room in this recreation of a 17th-century-style Japanese home (built in Japan in 1953 and then shipped to America), regaling me with details of Japanese life and lore and the deep connections the garden and home demonstrate, between nature and humankind in Japanese culture. The small but absolutely stunning 1.2 acre garden features the kind of perpetually ravenous koi that will delight small children and landscape design by Tansai Sano in this stunning garden created for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
Di Bruno Bros.
A fancy foodie paradise and Philadelphia institution, Di Bruno Bros. in the 9th Street Italian market is a family business (charismatic Emilio Mignucci is the third-generation owner) filled with delicious surprises. An array of almost 400 delectable international cheese varieties are just some of the options in this 80-year-old gourmet nexus with worn wooden floors and the intoxicating perfume of aged cheese and charcuterie. There are cured meats, bread, pasta from Italy, olives, antipasti, Di Bruno homemade cheese dips for cocktail hour, Benton's bacon from Tennessee and Black Lava cashews made in-house. The staff has the kind of institutional knowledge and expertise you won't find anywhere else. "What we do is we add emotional value to the product: family, a place, tradition" says Mignucci. Resident cheesemonger and English major Tommy Amorim champions the lack of anything factory-made or mass-produced at Di Bruno Bros. and loves cheese so much he sports a Parmigiano Reggiano tattoo. Spend some time chatting with the incredibly passionate, knowledgable staff to up your food knowledge ("we consider ourselves educators more than sellers" says Amorim) and don't be surprised if you bump into an Italian prosciutto maker in the narrow 400 square foot shop, checking in on his wares.
Eastern State Penitentiary
A tour of this eerie 1829 prison is like stepping back into another age and world. At the time of its construction, Eastern State Penitentiary set international standards for its radical approach to treatment of criminals and its distinctive architectural design. Visitors can tour the 11-acre, Gothic-style historic prison with a captivating audio tour courtesy of Steve Buscemi, learn about life inside the cell blocks, see Al Capone's restored 19th-century cell, hear stories of inmate escapes and view contemporary art installations that meditate on the human toll of incarceration. Bringing the subject of criminal justice into the modern age, an equally moving contemporary exhibition reveals the dramatic injustices that define the current prison industrial complex.
Comcast Technology Center
The ground floor of the tallest skyscraper in Pennsylvania, the Comcast Technology Center, offers publicly accessible art including a stunning Jenny Holzer digital video work above the escalators and the Universal Sphere (complimentary tickets can be reserved online), a theater-within-an-orb from filmmaker and executive producer Steven Spielberg featuring incredible immersive film technology. Elevators lead and descend from the mezzanine, home to Vernick Coffee Bar, a daytime cafe and dining room. The new Four Seasons Philadelphia, which opens August 12, 2019 occupies Comcast's top floors.
The Four Seasons Philadelphia
Opening August 12, the Four Seasons Philadelphia is a luxury hotel in a skyscraper surrounded—as seen in this lobby rendering—by jaw-dropping views. Guest rooms are at floors 48-56 in the 60-story skyscraper and the 59th floor features a new Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant from that Michelen-starred chef and spectacular 56th floor spa-in-the-sky. Luxe, iconoclastic details like astounding glass wall views, a sound and video installation by avant garde legend Brian Eno comes with each room and in-house floral designer Jeff Leatham's epic floral works will grace the hotel's public areas.If sleek design and understated luxury are your jam, this jewel-box hotel delivers.
Lokal Hotel Old City
Philadelphia’s first "invisible service" hotel, Lokal Hotel Old City sits in a vibrant parcel of Old City, nestled between galleries, hair salons and shops so you immediately feel like a resident rather than just a temporary hotel guest. The six-unit Lokal Hotel feels like decamping at your hip best friend's well-designed apartment. Instead of a front desk, Lokal instead provides guests with a code to type into a keypad at the hotel entrance and at your apartment door. Rooms are furnished with hip offerings from local merchants and come with a well-curated selection of local teas, coffees and toiletries to get you into the mood of the city. The apartment-style suites feature separate bedrooms, full kitchens, washer/dryers and living rooms. Be forewarned that the top floor rooms at Lokal Old City require ascending several very narrow staircases, and there is no elevator.
Old City Appeal
Dripping with charm, Lokal Hotel Old City is furnished with items from local craftspeople, a literal "boutique" hotel where you can sample from the city's creativity and even sample some products to bring home with you from tea purveyor Steap and Grind, coffee suppliers Rival Bros. and deliciously fragrant toiletries with scents like beer and black pepper from Duross + Langel. Across the street from the hotel is the craft cocktail shop Art in the Age, which supplies the bar supplies for the in-room cocktail cart.
Loews Philadelphia Hotel
A 583-room property located in the nation's first skyscraper— the landmark Art Deco Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (the bank's original vault doors are on display in the lobby) building—Loews Philadelphia is a pet-friendly property that features a convivial open lobby with bar, coffee shop and market, contemporary design rooms and easy walking access to Central City attractions.
Art in the Age
Craft cocktail heaven, Old City's Art in the Age is a one-stop shop for a library of bitters, swizzle sticks, bar supplies, a selection of cocktail books and owner Steven Grasse's forays into historic spirits. A tasting bar offers the chance to sample a custom cocktail or one of Grasse's unique spirits like Cherry Bounce (you can also pick up a bottle for a delightful drinkable souvenir of your visit), inspired by Martha Washington's favorite booze; the dandelion root-based Dande Jack and other Colonialist and Federalist-era liquor history. The author of the cocktail history book, Colonial Spirits: A Toast to Our Drunken History featuring historic recipes and lore, definitely engage Grasse in conversation if he's in the shop. His encyclopedic knowledge of cocktail history and iconoclastic approach have made him something of the bad boy Keith Richards of the spirits world.
Voted the best restaurant in the country at the Oscars of the food world, the 2019 James Beard Awards, Zahav is chef Michael Solomonov's remarkable Philadelphia spot (make your reservation now even if a trip to Philadelphia is just a glimmer in your eye) featuring inventive, modern cuisine from his native Israel. The setting is memorable, cozy; a funky, organic space with limestone floors and moody lighting tucked like a secret garden, into the Society Hill neighborhood. I lucked into a dinner at the hottest dining ticket in town courtesy of some very foodie-savvy PR insiders in town for a travel convention who made ideal companions for this adventurous, deeply satisfying culinary journey. The small-plates, vegetable-forward menu features hummus selections that turn this ubiquitous grocery store item into a revelatory new discovery. Also on offer: a selection of small, delectable rotating daily "salads" or salatim; wood-fired laffa bread and other mezze that may be best experienced through the relatively affordable $48 "Tayim" tasting menu. That Taste of Zahav offers the opportunity to play the field and sample a selection of salatim, hummus and laffa; mezze; a grilled meat with rice pilaf and dessert and gives you the fullest sense of Solomonov's talent without breaking the bank.
One of Philly's foodie forces to be reckoned with, Michael Solomonov, is the chef and co-owner of Philadelphia’s Zahav, The Rooster, Abe Fisher, Federal Donuts, Dizengoff and Goldie. He is also the author of an essential cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.
A convivial, comfortable space offering all-day food experiences, the colorful, inviting Suraya is consistently ranked among the city's best restaurants—for good reason. At this indoor-outdoor Lebanese market and restaurant cool moms drop in with their children for a casual breakfast (don't miss the Lebanese chai, latte sprinkled with dried rose petals—just about the most romantic experience you could have at breakfast—and a green cardamon dusted Kougin Amann pastry or the luscious rose and pistachio cruller) and the staff sets a friendly, welcoming vibe just right first thing in the morning. Savory breakfast options abound, like the Lebanese flatbreads (man'oushe) stuffed with labne, olives, za'atar or numerous other options. A market offers Middle Eastern-sourced olive oils and spices and sells the festive handmade Turkish mugs the restaurant uses. Lunch and dinner in the gorgeous back courtyard offer more options and a chance to linger over the classic Middle Eastern flavors of mezze, labneh, cashew dukkah, grilled meats and more in a tranquil, otherworldly setting that makes you forget for a time that you are in the heart of a busy American city.
A classic see-and-be-seen stop, Rouge is an upscale European-style sidewalk cafe facing Philadelphia's pretty Rittenhouse Square. The burgers are legendary but lighter fare is notable too, including a summer gazpacho laced with avocado and shrimp. Grab a perch on the sidewalk or by an open window inside the restaurant where you will want to while away spring, summer and fall days watching the world go by at this lovely, romantic spot.
With its tagline "disturbingly informed," the Mutter Museum is a strange, insightful, not-to-be-missed tour of American medical history. Housing some 20,000 medical curiosities, the Mutter Museum takes a deep dive into the city's love of history by focusing on the ailments, beliefs, wars and hope that defined medical progress in a beautiful 19th century-style gallery space with wooden cabinets and brass railings. On display are a piece of Albert Einstein's brain, vintage tattoos and the death cast of "Siamese twins" Chang and Eng. A well-curated gift shop features books on an array of medical history topics and fun, quirky items with a macabre or medical theme. A medicinal garden is also on the premises. In addition to its permanent collection, the Mutter features temporary exhibitions including a show on the Philadelphia influenza pandemic opening October 17, 2019. Be advised, though, that the Mutter is probably not suitable for children or the faint of heart. The museum will soon be undergoing a $25 million dollar expansion that will allow it to display even more of its vast collection.
Museum of the American Revolution
American history fans will revel in the deep dive into the foundations our country at this relatively new museum in the city's historic district that opened in 2017. The Museum of the American Revolution is packed with historic context and artifacts, but the showstopper that visitors should make sure they catch is a video presentation in the museum's auditorium devoted to George Washington's field tent, one of the space's rare holdings. The museum is a family favorite and can get crowded so call ahead for a staff recommendation of the best time to visit when you can experience history with fewer distractions.
Don't let the dark, cozy bar ambiance of the Olde Bar fool you. Chef Jose Garces has turned this historic building, home to the Old Original Bookbinder's building where seafood was first served up in 1898 and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin stopped by, into a surprising foodie destination with fresh, solid spins on historic dishes. Garces reimagines snapper soup with the traditional sherry cream offered as an accompanying foam, the lobster roll is a flavorful mix of crusty bread and chunks of seafood and the buffalo cauliflower appetizer proves the best seafood chefs are often also whizzes when it comes to new takes on veggies. You have to try the Philadelphia cocktail classic Fish House Punch, a festive blend of rums, peach cordial and brandy but a New Orleans Milk Punch and a bevy of old school sips are worth sampling as well. Desserts are just as novel, including the deconstructed strawberry shortcake, a literal work of art.
Located in the heart of the industrial cool kid enclave of Philly's Fishtown, the invisible service Lokal Fishtown, opened in early 2019. The minimalist-chic boutique hotel offers guests modern kitchens and other essential amenities in this six-unit hotel that features a charming secret garden and spacious rooms set up for any possible need, whether you are staying in or hosting a cocktail hour for guests (a cute cocktail cart setup from local booze purveyor Art in the Age is a definite enticement). Local tea and coffee are supplied, along with an inspiring mix of locally-made goods.
Vibrant Street Art
A leader in the mural movement, Mural Arts Philadelphia began as a program to eradicate graffiti in the city and direct creative energy into more constructive form. Since its founding in 1984 it has morphed into a treasure trove of memorable public art. Just one example of the city's stunning public art, the pictured 65-foot-tall mural by British artist Richard Wilson memorializes Philadelphia-born artist and actor Will Smith on the side of the Global Leadership Academy Charter School (4601 W. Girard Avenue) in West Philadelphia. Wilson took his inspiration from renowned artist Kehinde Wiley’s famous portrait of Barack Obama.
A Philadelphia icon known for luxurious accommodations and exceptional service, the Rittenhouse Hotel also houses Lacroix restaurant overlooking Rittenhouse Square. Focused on French cuisine, Lacroix features a tasting menu and a local-favorite brunch set up in the restaurant's kitchen and staff who know the menu backwards and forwards and do their best to help diners have the best experience possible.
It is almost impossible to visit Philadelphia without a local inquiring about your cheesesteak experience. Every Uber driver I used shared their favorite cheesesteak (all different) and implored me to experience their preferred restaurant along with preferred preparation. If you have managed to depart without experiencing this delicious blend of beefsteak layered with melted cheese (and peppers and onions, if that is your wont) on a crusty outside-soft inside hoagie roll you have missed an essential foodie experience. South Philadelphia's Geno’s Steaks has been serving up its famous Philly cheesesteaks to residents and visitors since 1966 and even has an airport concession if you manage to end your visit without yet experiencing the famous cheesesteak. Do your own taste test: Geno’s is across-the-street from Pat’s King of Steaks, and both are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Arden Theatre Company
Definitely seek out the award-winning Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. With its intimate scale and innovative productions, the Arden features five main stage productions and two children’s works each season. The spacious lounge is a great place to relax before or after a performance where you'll be surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic theater fans.