No one seemed excited when we told them we were going to Philly for the weekend, in fact, we got a few whys, and a sarcastic have fun. But all those naysayers are missing out on the reemergence of America's birthplace as an exciting destination with world-class art, a red hot food scene, and historical sights that remind us, in these stressful political times the essence of who we are as Americans and the lofty aspirations of our founding fathers. Three days was hardly enough time to see and do everything, and we can’t wait to return, this time in warmer weather!
Sleep: Our first choice the recently renovated Rittenhouse Hotel was sold out, so we divided our stay between the city’s two Kimpton properties, first checking into downtowns Hotel Palomar, housed in a former 1920s Art Deco building just a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. The location was very convenient, but a tad busy, especially on the weekend though we did enjoy having Dizengoff and a branch of Federal Donuts right around the corner. Our group much preferred the vibe, design and the location of its quieter sister spot, the Hotel Monaco, with an excellent position in the old city directly across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We loved the colorful interiors, quirky décor, and the spacious rooms. (Much larger than at the Palomar) The Monaco might be a little further from the center of downtown, but everything is only a quick cab ride away, including close by Fishtown.)
Art Meca: Rocky made the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steps famous, but this is one of the most visited museums in the world thanks to an impressive collection of European, American and Asian art. And things are going to get even better by 2020 with the help of world-renowned architect Frank Gehry who is redesigning the interior, expect more public spaces and more room for the art itself. And yes, be sure to go outside and take in Rocky’s Steps for awesome views of the city of Philadelphia from the east entrance of the building.
Hip Neighborhood: Locals told us that years ago no one ventured into Fishtown, but that has certainly changed. Frankford Ave is now a trendy street with boutiques, restaurants, and cafes. We had lunch at Cheu Fishtown where you must order the brisket ramen with matzoth ball and kimchi in a red chili broth. Whoever thought of this combination-- we thank you. One brunch we had a fantastic array of Lebanese mezes and flatbreads in the beautiful sprawling space of Suraya. With a large back garden and a front of house all-day market and café, if we lived here, we’d be regulars. (The dinner menu looked equally appealing and is a difficult reservation to secure) Allow time for a coffee after at La Colombe’s flagship, a vast industrial space of high design with not just coffee but also a food menu, it’s a must see! Other Fishtown restaurants that have the town buzzing include Frankford Hall, Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, Kensington Quarters and Stock.
More Eats: Good luck getting a reservation at Zahav, Philly's acclaimed Israeli restaurant from Chef Michael Solomonov, we have never had any success, even trying weeks in advance. We did pat ourselves on the back for securing at a table at Vernick Food and Drink and our meal was a home run –start with one of the toasts and go crazy from there. We dined another night very happily at Friday, Saturday, Sunday—a small intimate restaurant near Rittenhouse Square serving inventive new American cuisine washed down with excellent craft cocktails. Other top tables on our to go list include Abe Fisher, Vetri Cucina, Vedge, High Street on Market, Sampan, and Palizzi Social Club.
Old City: If you haven't visited the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall since your kids' school trip to Philly, it may be time for a repeat visit, but if you’re short on time we’d suggest the nearby National Constitution Center. It’s an engaging, informative and surprisingly stirring museum devoted to the U.S. Constitution. Kids will love it as there are tons of interactive exhibits, but we admit we teared up at the 20-minute show called Freedom Rising. A perfect one-two punch, you can walk over after to the year-old Museum of the American Revolution for a full history immersion. Other landmarks in the old city include Elfreth’s Alley one of America’s prettiest streets with homes built in the 18th century and The Betsy Ross House.
Quirky Attraction: The Mutter Museum whose tagline is “disturbingly informative” is not your ordinary museum, located inside the headquarters of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It’s not for the faint of heart showcasing medical oddities, and after looking at all the diseased lungs and kidneys, you might want to embark on a juice fast after your visit. With everything from the remains of Einstein’s brain, conjoined twin skeletons, shocking wax models showing the effects of syphilis and preserved human fetuses it’s no surprise children are discouraged from visiting. Fascinating!
See This: Another unique attraction, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a walk on the wild side, an indoor and outdoor space from local mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. It’s a surreal, dreamlike experience that’s spread across three city lots-- a mash-up of colorful tiles, glass bottles, and objects reminiscent of Gaudi’s works and Fusterlandia in Havana. You don’t need much time; I'd set aside an hour and a bit especially if you want to watch the interesting short film that interviews Zagar playing on a loop.
Mangia: Don’t miss wandering around South Philadelphia’s Italian Market where vegetable vendors, butcher shops, fresh seafood and Italian goodies of all kinds can be found in this legendary district, a cross between the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue and NYC’s Little Italy. The neighborhood market stretches down some ten city blocks on Ninth Street. Don’t miss Philly’s beloved Di Bruno Bros. where locals come to stock up on meat and cheeses. In the last few years the area has seen an influx of Mexican and Vietnamese run businesses and none more famous than South Philly Barboca, considered to have some of the best slow cooked lamb tacos in the country. There's bound to be a line, but it moves fast, and yes we waited, and yes it was well worth the wait. Note: it’s only open on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays so plan accordingly.
Public Art: Philadelphia has been called the city of murals thanks to the city’s Mural Arts Program, one of the US’s largest urban arts programs. Be on the lookout, and you’ll see many murals in your travels throughout the city, but if you want to delve further there are walking, trolley and train tours plus maps for self-guided experiences. High on our list is the Love Letters Train tour, read all about it here.
Foodie Nirvana: The Reading Terminal Market is a city landmark and a must-see, even if you don’t go for a meal, go for a morning stroll and a cup of Old City Coffee or an afternoon snack. A large, bustling old school food hall that dates back to 1893 it’s filled with neon lights and a maze of some 70+ food vendors, plus flower stalls, kitchenware, cookbooks, even jewelry and craft merchants—a visual feast! Try some apple dumplings at Dutch Eating Place, roast pork sandwiches at DiNic's, fried oysters at Pearl’s, pretzels at Miller’s Twist, salmon curry at Little Thai Market or ice cream at legendary Bassett's Ice Cream just to name a few local favorites, but expect crowds--the market attracts more than 6 million visitors a year—only the Liberty Bell has more tourists!
Until Next Time: We ran out of time and were bummed to miss the Barnes Foundation to see Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s once private collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings. We had also hoped to squeeze in a visit to the Rodin Museum and the American Museum of American Jewish History.