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Philadelphia, PA City Guide

by Sabrina Smelko

philly-city-guide

Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, may be known for its bustling economic activity and world-class schools, but it’s also rich in arts and culture, and has one of the largest collections of murals and outdoor sculptures in America. Philadelphia — or Philly, as many lovingly call it — is full of surprises.

When Caroline Lees, todays’ city guide writer, first moved to Philadelphia, she wasn’t sure how long she’d call the city home. But in the years since, she has been pleasantly surprised to find herself unable to picture living anywhere else. Caroline (a copywriter for terrain by day) spends her evenings catching concerts or searching for the best bites in the city, but her favorite way to find new and noteworthy spots? Taking a run through one of Philly’s many distinctive neighborhoods.

Although she’s only lived here for a relatively short time, she considers herself a “lifer” and spokesperson for the city’s many tasty restaurants, beautiful parks, vibrant culture, and historic sights to glimpse at every turn. Today, Caroline is taking us along with her to run through a list of her favorite spots to see, enjoy and dine at — a diverse list of restaurants and bars which include BYO options (and arguably some of the coolest names).  –Sabrina

PLACES TO EAT

This was the hardest part of the guide to write, because Philly is such a great restaurant city! There’s something for every palate, whether you’re in the mood for authentic Cypriot cuisine or the ever-popular cheesesteak (I’ll leave the title of best cheesesteak for another guide). Friends from out of town are always surprised by the number of BYO’s, but Philly residents really embrace the BYO culture — how nice to bring your favorite wine to dinner! I’m constantly on the hunt for new places to try, but here are a few staples in my rotation:

Eats
Arguably Philly’s best place for dinner, the tasting menu at East Passyunk’s Laurel showcases Chef Nicholas Elmi’s refined, French-influenced cuisine. With just 26 seats, it can be tough to snag a table, but this meal is well-worth planning ahead!

A tiny, BYO gem in Fishtown, stock serves up delicious pho, salads and banh mi against a minimalist backdrop. Sit at the counter for a firsthand view of the chefs at work.

Pumpkin is my go-to for date night with my boyfriend. This long-running BYO in Graduate Hospital offers a small, super-seasonal menu to enjoy in a cozy space. Their staff is consistently great, too!

A longtime Philly favorite, Kanella recently moved to new digs in Queen Village. Stop in for delicious and authentic Greek Cypriot dishes, grilled fresh on their wood-fired hearth.

Heritage set up shop last year in Northern Liberties with an ever-changing menu of locally sourced dishes, plus live jazz and a pretty patio for the warmer months. Try the vegetable board to enjoy the chef’s choice of seasonal picks, from hen of the woods mushrooms to fiddlehead ferns.

Honey’s is the best casual breakfast/brunch in the city, and great for fueling up before a busy day of sightseeing. Stop in on a weekday to avoid the line, and try Sabrina’s or Morning Glory for other unpretentious, early morning bites.

Abe Fisher in Rittenhouse is one of the latest openings from Mike Solomonov, the chef behind perennial favorite Zahav. Check it out for a modern, playful take on traditional Jewish dishes, from chopped liver to blintzes. Neighboring hummusiya Dizengoff —another Solomonov spot — makes the perfect casual lunch.

Kensington Quarters is a Fishtown restaurant/butcher shop hybrid with a devotion to delicious, humanely-raised meats. Their upstairs space also serves as a teaching kitchen for those interested in butchery and cooking.

Philadelphia Intro

Sips
Start your day with a signature Draft Latte from the La Colombe flagship in Fishtown. They’ve created a gorgeous space with light bites where you can also take a peek at their roasting operation. I also love Reanimator for a morning caffeine boost.

Monk’s Cafe is a don’t-miss for beer aficionados, with an insanely extensive bottle list that focuses on Belgian brews. Order the mussels if you’re in the mood for a snack to go with your beer.

If you’re feeling adventurous, head to University City for Fiume, a bonafide, no-website-no-phone-number speakeasy tucked above Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia. A great selection of beer and whiskey pairs with live music on many nights.

Perhaps the most unexpected bar in Philly, The Yachtsman brings tiki kitsch to Fishtown. The perfect late-winter oasis when it’s snowing outside and you’re yearning for a tropical vacation.

For craft cocktails, excellent bars are scattered all across the city. Try out Ranstead Room or The Franklin Bar in Rittenhouse, head to Midtown for Charlie Was a Sinner (which also offers vegan bites), or visit Chinatown for Hop Sing Laundromat.

Inspired Brews recently opened in Old City, fermenting small-batch kombucha in seasonal flavors. Delicious, beautiful, and good for you, too.

Sweets
Gran Cafee L’Aquila is a little slice of Italy just off Rittenhouse Square. The café was originally located in Abruzzo — after an earthquake struck the city, the owners designed and built a new café, then shipped the whole thing (!) to Philly. Take a seat at the marble counter for an affogato featuring their ever-changing gelato flavors.

Franklin Fountain and neighboring Shane Confectionery are the creations of brothers Ryan and Eric Berley. Grab an old-fashioned sundae or soda, then enjoy some prime people-watching in the heart of Old City at the outdoor tables.

Franklin Fountain

Stop by Marcie Blaine to watch chocolatiers at work on exquisitely delicious and equally beautiful sweets inspired by seasonal flavors from Mexico, Spain, and the Mediterranean.

 

PLACES TO SHOP

For offbeat yet understated pieces, you can’t beat Old City’s Vagabond. A curated collection of women’s clothes, classic shoes from Rachel Comey, and a selection of home goods and vintage items await.

United By Blue is my men’s gifting go-to, with well-made and stylish outdoor apparel that’s environmentally conscious — for every item sold, they remove a pound of trash from global waterways. The flagship location in Old City is a hybrid clothing store/coffee shop featuring local artisans. Head a few blocks away for more rugged menswear, home goods, and gifts at Art in the Age.

Jinxed is a mini-chain of vintage home and furniture shops dotted across Philadelphia. Their quirky finds are snapped up quickly via Instagram posts, and there’s new inventory to explore all the time.

Knit Wit and Joan Shepp are the queens of the Philadelphia boutique scene, both located in Rittenhouse. Expect sleek, blogger-approved pieces from designers like 3.1 Phillip Lim, Alexander Wang, Ann Demeulemeester, and Rick Owens.

Third Street Habit is a staple among Old City boutiques, with an extensive denim selection, refined leather goods, and casual finds from Mara Hoffman, Cynthia Vincent, Maison Scotch and more.

The Geisha House is a must-visit for lovers of Free People and similar boho fashion. Stop in for playful collections from For Love & Lemons, One Teaspoon and Stone Cold Fox, plus on-trend and affordable jewelry.

A mixture of jewelry and objects, Egan Day is an oasis of beautifully-curated, semi-precious gemstone adornments. The elegant merchandising changes frequently, drawing inspiration from the seasons.

Omoi Zakka is a gift-giver’s dream shop, filled with thoughtful and useful items anyone would be glad to have at home. An apothecary of luxurious bath items, beautiful Japanese linens, sweetly simple toys, and many more surprises await.

 

PLACES TO STAY

The centrally-located Sofitel provides upscale accommodations and contemporary rooms with a French twist.

If you’re in the mood to splurge, consider a stay at The Rittenhouse, home to a gorgeous spa, well-regarded restaurant and bar, and perfect views of the park that shares its name.

Hotel Palomar is housed in an Art Deco building in Center City. It underwent extensive renovations to become a stylish space with LEED Certification.

 

PLACES TO VISIT/SEE

Mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar’s visionary creations can be spotted all over Philadelphia, but his masterwork is the Magic Gardens on South Street. Created over the course of 14 years, every surface of the indoor-outdoor installation is covered in glittering mosaics of tile, mirror, and found objects.

Magic Garden

Morris Arboretum is an educational garden owned by the University of Pennsylvania. Take in the view from the treetops at the elevated Tree Adventure — complete with a human-size bird’s nest! — explore the historic buildings that dot the property, or visit the Victorian fernery for a truly magical getaway from the world.

Morris Arboretum Fernery

Philadelphia is bursting with pop-up gardens in almost every season — one of my favorite parts of the warmer months is seeing everyone out and enjoying the city! In the summer, head to the waterfront for Spruce Street Harbor Park, or visit the River Rink in winter for ice skating, a cozy lodge, and fire pits. The PHS Beer Garden and Independence Beer Garden also come to life in the city each summer.

Located in the heart of Philly, you (quite literally) can’t miss City Hall. Take a tour and climb its iconic tower for unbeatable skyline views. While you’re there, check out Dilworth Park, which becomes a skating rink in winter and an urban hangout during the warmer months.

City Hall

Housed in a historic building that was once a farmers’ market and railway baggage hub, Union Transfer is one of Philly’s best places to catch a concert. A reliably strong lineup of indie artists, plus a great view from upstairs if you like a more laid-back musical experience.

Union Transfer

For those willing to venture a bit outside the city, Chanticleer is a gorgeous garden in Wayne, PA. Once a private estate, it’s sure to wow with bright blooms across the seasons. Check the schedule — they close up shop for the winter months.

Chanticleer

If you’ve got time for a class, consider a session at the aptly-named Cook, which offers in-depth demonstrations from a constantly changing roster of the city’s best chefs. If you’re more of an artistic type, check out the extensive offerings of Fleisher Art Memorial, from art history to sculpture and printmaking.

From spring through fall, take in a concert at The Mann Center in Fairmount Park. A diverse lineup each year includes popular artists along with orchestra performances and special events. In good weather, bring a blanket and grab a spot on the Mann’s expansive lawn.

If you’re a runner, schedule time for a jog across the Ben Franklin Bridge and enjoy great views of the city on your return trip.

Ben Franklin Bridge

Franklin Square makes the perfect afternoon for kiddos or kids at heart, complete with a carousel, Philly-themed mini golf course, and Tastykake-inspired shakes at SquareBurger.

Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously-inhabited residential street in America. It’s a short stroll in Old City, and showcases the best of Philadelphia’s quaint, colonial architecture.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and nearby Barnes Foundation are two very different but equally excellent stops for art lovers. Visit the PMA for a bountiful collection of art and historical objects — plus yoga on select evenings — then take a stroll behind the museum for a waterfront sculpture garden and great views of Boathouse Row. (Don’t forget to climb the famous “Rocky Steps” out front!) Once the private collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the beautifully modern Barnes Foundation is one of the country’s premier collections of Impressionist art, all idiosyncratically arranged as it once was in Dr. Barnes’ home.

Barnes Foundation

The Navy Yard is one of the most rapidly developing sites in the city. Still home to a number of retired Naval vessels, it’s now the headquarters for major Philly companies including Urban Outfitters, Tastykake, GSK, and the 76ers.

Navy Yard

Visit new restaurant Lo Spiedo, take a yoga class at Nava, or stroll along the waterfront and through the newly-opened Central Green.

For fans of classical compositions, the Curtis Institute of Music is a must-visit. The gifted students “learn by doing” with 200 performances a year, many free.

On Sunday mornings from spring through fall, take a stroll through the Headhouse Farmers’ Market. Food trucks and farmers alike gather in the historic Shambles, a colonial-era marketplace that also served as a fire station.

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Comments

    • I live in Philly and sometimes I wonder why the heck am I not out there experiencing all of the good that my city has to offer. Thank you for sharing. If you ever have a chance check out the whispering wall it in West Philly near the Mann music center. I took my niece there once and we sat at opposite ends of the wall and I just started talking to her and she freaked. She could not believe that I was so far away from her but still she could hear me as if to say I was sitting right next to her. Check it out…

  • I have yet to visit Philly! But definitely putting some of these on my list. I think I’d be most excited for all the food, haha. I’ve only heard great things!

  • This may seem an odd question, but when did “BYOB” change to “BYO”? To me, “BYO” just means “Bring your own ___”, where the ____ needs to be specified…

    Or did I misinterpret the article, and BYO means something else?

    (I should probably finish my coffee before posting online, sorry if this question is silly).

    • Kimithy

      I’m not sure when it changed, but it’s definitely used in this shorten form a lot on food blogs and websites now. It still means pretty much the same thing though ;)

      Grace

  • Why no love for Eastern State Penitentiary?!? Paradigm-shifting architecture (both structural and social), truly innovative curation and restoration featuring some seriously gorgeous, haunting decay, I clicked on this guide solely to see a picture of it! Hands down, ESP is one of the coolest historic sites I’ve been to in the US. Or you could go to a farmer’s market.

  • Kimithy – I think most of the time when people say BYO in regard to a restaurant they’re more likely talking about wine, but you could also bring beer. BYO sounds better than BYOBoW (Bring Your Own Beer or Wine)!

    (Also, having a bit of trouble replying directly to Kimithy’s comment, FYI.)

  • Make a point of visiting the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). It’s right on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and it’s free!

    • You don’t need to be a science geek to love the Franklin Institute, one of the greatest hands-on science museums in the world! Not to be missed, with or without kids.

  • In scrolling through this I see many of my fave spots on your list. I’ve lived in Philly for a few years now and have enjoyed getting to know the arts and culture scene especially. But I have to tell you that your very first sentence was hard for me to get past. I’m not sure what research is telling you that Philly is known for it’s “world-class schools” and “bustling economic activity” but at least in the first case, nothing could be further from the truth. There are plenty of good universities in the area, sure, but the Philly public school system is in dire straights and has been for quite some time. As for the economic activity, it’s certainly improving, and tourism is a big economic boon for the city, but Philly still has high levels of people living in poverty, relatively low median income, and one of the largest homeless populations in the country. I realize this may seem like a minor point in a post that is not even about education and economics, but since you open your piece with a statement about those issues, in a post about a city struggling very much with those two very issues, I’d suggest making an effort to get your facts right. Boutiques and eateries are great for the city – but so is an informed population that understands its real struggles as much as its tourist attractions.

    • @Nicole: Well said. While I saw a few places on here that I love, I couldn’t help but think of the very issues you brought up, however these issues aren’t pretty or cool and it felt like a visitor or perhaps someone not really in touch with whats happening in the city as a whole did this piece. I often wonder, as I am a Philly transplant who has lived here 18 years, does anyone know or care about the actually pulse and heart of the city or are we to gloss over somethings and highlight others as to not offend or turn folks off…loved your comment.

      • I agree with both Nicole and Keia. It’s an issue I have with city guides. I am also new to Philly and I already know about these entries from the standard guide books. I’d love to see a city guide that directs visitors to local, diverse grassroots businesses that focus on design and boosting community, just like Grace is doing with Design Sponge. I’d write one if I could.

  • As a 20-year resident, I’ll say La Columbe is dramatically overrated…yes, the flagship store is gorgeous, but their coffee is underwhelming (and their attitude is annoying). Ultimo is way better, as are a number of the smaller mom+pop cafes, like Rocket Cat (who serve local organic Green Street coffee) or One Shot (who serve Stumptown).

    Nice write-up overall, though! Philly is awesome.

    • I thought I was the only one who thought this! My favorite Philly coffee has to be Reanimator, though, so I was glad to see it got a mention too.

  • I’m originally from Philly but have lived in NYC for many years–love seeing my hometown get some love and these are great picks! Makes me want to go back this spring and get caught up on all things Philly! Thanks.

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