One thing you will never hear about Philadelphia is that it lacks character. Philadelphia is chock full of character: you’ll find it while you’re walking the cobblestone and brick streets of Old City; you’ll find it in the thousands of murals that decorate Philadelphia’s public walls; you’ll find it in the classic Philly cheesesteak you eat for lunch and the adorable BYOB restaurant you patronize for dinner. Whether you run the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose for a Rocky-style photo, watch the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park and partake in the rowdy behavior that makes Philadelphia sports fans notorious, or visit historic homes in Germantown, you’ll leave with a sense that Philadelphia and its inhabitants really are unique.
Philadelphia’s uniqueness was partially planned: William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, established the colony as a haven for religious minorities who were being persecuted in England. He designed Philadelphia as a simple grid with four central squares or circles (parks, really). The numbered streets run north to south; east-west streets are named after trees. That means getting around downtown is a cinch once you figure out the system. And what makes it even better is that “Center City” is completely walkable and almost unbearably charming, with its brick rowhouses (Philadelphians’ name for what other cities usually call townhouses), tiny restaurants and boutiques, and, in Society Hill, cobblestone streets. Photographers and laymen alike will agree that the sight of dappled sunlight falling on a three-hundred-year old brick home, complete with shuttered windows and a hitching post in front, is awe inspiring. Add some snow and a horse-drawn carriage, which you can hire through 76 Carriage Company, and you’ll feel like you might just stumble upon Benjamin Franklin.
One of the best ways to understand what makes Philadelphia tick is to visit the many distinct neighborhoods that comprise the city. Center City offers classic culture, innovative dining, and the beauty and functionality of Rittenhouse Square (described in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities as the prime example of successful urban planning). South Philadelphia, made famous by the Rocky movies, serves as an example of how different immigrant groups throughout U.S. history shaped their new communities. Germantown, once a rural getaway for colonial Philadelphia’s leading families, is the home of now-historic mansions and thousands of murals. Destinations in Old City and Society Hill, including Independence National Historical Park, the Constitution Center, and Elfreth’s Alley, one of the only intact colonial streets in the country, will satisfy any history buff’s curiosity about colonial life. If you want to picnic amongst scenic hills, Valley Forge National Historic Park and other beautiful suburbs are an easy ride away.
Another way in which Philadelphia sets itself apart from other cities is its cuisine – and by cuisine, we’re not just talking about cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. In the 1970s Philadelphians witnessed a “Restaurant Renaissance,” with such highly acclaimed restaurants as Le Bec-Fin and Friday Saturday Sunday first opening their doors. In the decades since then, Philadelphia bolstered its reputation as a restaurant city. Hosts of new restaurants open every year, each offering more daring and refined cuisine than the last – and, particularly in Stephen Starr’s restaurants, some awe-inspiring décor as well. BYOBs, where patrons can bring their own liquor and save on the bill, are especially popular (and especially diminutive, often occupying just the first floor of a rowhouse), since getting a liquor license in Pennsylvania is notoriously difficult. On a weekend night in the spring or summer, crowds of people will wait hours for a coveted table at the newest BYOB.
As a visitor to Philadelphia, getting around the downtown area is quite easy, since Center City only stretches about a mile from east to west, between the Schuylkill (pronounced “Skoo-kill” by locals) and Delaware Rivers. Most of the main historic and cultural destinations are within walking distance of any downtown hotel. For those who would rather ride between destinations, the Phlash bus (a bus that travels between popular tourist destinations), Septa (the local bus and subway system) and cabs are all available. Septa’s regional rail lines travel to neighborhoods further away from downtown, such as Germantown and any suburbs you might want to visit. For tips on navigating Septa, ask at your hotel or at the Visitors’ Bureau.
Finally, if you want to feel like a true Philadelphian, try some of the local brews that you can find at most bars in the area. Victory, Flying Fish, Stoudt’s, Yards, Philadelphia Brewing Company, and Yuengling (pronounced “Yingling”) are all popular local breweries. Yuengling Lager is the standard beer that nearly all bars have on tap; if you’re going to order a pint, just ask for a “Lager,” and nobody will ever know you’re not from Philadelphia.
117 S 17th St
Visitor Center, 1700 Market Street