Spring Break! Which is just what I’m doing. So I asked my good friend, storyteller, and ambassador of awesomeness, Alisha Miranda, to come to you with the 4-1-1 on Philadelphia. Alisha is a working digital content strategist who is constantly thinking of her next vacation. When not working on media campaigns, she writes food and travel stories that inspire young people to travel the world. You can read her stories at alishainthebiz.tumblr.com or follow her travels on Instagram @makeshiftalisha.
Philadelphia is seriously having a moment right now. In 2015 it was named America’s first UNESCO World Heritage City, thanks to the historical significance of Independence Hall, and in the same year, named the num. 1 city in North America for live music. To top it off, The Washington Post recognized Philly as the 6th best food city in America. Oh, and Lonely Planet recently named Philadelphia the num. one best city in the U.S. But while you might not need anymore convincing on why to visit, you probably do need some recommendations on what to do. So that’s why I’m here, to show you the best things to do in Philadelphia.
I have frequented, eaten, drank, and loved my way around Philly for nearly a decade before permanently moving to Philadelphia last year. In convincing others to fall in love with it, I’ve compiled this top-30 Philadelphia guide to experiencing the best of this glorious city, whether you’re here just for a day, weekend, or long-term. So without further ado, here are 30 of the best things to do in Philadelphia.
1. Order the “whiz wit” at Jim’s Steaks. Fun fact: Philadelphians rarely eat cheese steaks. Rather, it’s what tourists do. Having said that, I firmly believe you should try it once (if not many more), and do it right at Jim’s on South Street. Piled on a long Italian roll is thinly sliced, juicy beef, a generous helping of cheese whiz, and diced caramelized onions. But just be prepared with your order; say “whiz wit” at the counter and move along.
2. Share a Mt. Vesuvius sundae at Franklin Fountain. For ice cream lovers, there is no better spot to treat yo’ self than at old school parlor shop, Franklin Fountain, in Old City. The Mt. Vesuvius is a chocolate lover’s dream featuring chunks of chocolate brownie under a lava of hot fudge that is topped with malt powder and whipped cream, all served under a mountain of your choice of chocolate or vanilla ice cream.
3. Sample all the cheese at Di Bruno Bros. Since I moved to Philadelphia, I have lost count of how many dollars I have spent (but totally worth it) at the legendary Di Bruno Bros specialty foods shops. If cured meats and cheese are your thing, drop everything you’re doing and go to one of their six locations now. They do not skimp on free samples!
4. Go BYOB at La Viola. Despite Pennsylvania’s strict liquor laws, you can take advantage of bring your own bottle restaurants that keep Philadelphia’s dining scene thriving. My favorite perk of dining out BYOB-style in Philadelphia is the lower cost of food and drinks matched with the abundance of Italian family-run bistros like La Viola in Washington Square West. This tiny cash-only restaurant has been my go-to date spot since I first started visiting Philly, and has never failed to amaze me with its old-world charm and incredibly simple yet delicious dishes. Don’t forget to bring a bottle of Italian red!
5. Grab donuts hot off the fryer at Federal Donuts. Chef Michael Solomonov has blessed Philadelphia with several top restaurants, and luckily for us, his fried chicken and donut chain is available throughout the city. For less than $1.50 you can have your pickings from Vanilla Lavender, Appolonia, or Indian Cinnamon-dusted hot and fresh donuts, or, for a buck more, upgrade to a “fancy” donut like Blueberry Mascarpone. Is anyone else drooling?
6. Eat Nashville-style hot chicken at The Fat Ham. Among the reigning chefs of Philadelphia is Chef Kevin Sbraga, who owns The Fat Ham, home to my favorite southern-fried chicken in the city. The Top Chef winner takes the best of Nashville-style hot chicken (60% cayenne pepper is the trick) and serves it up piping hot and crispy over a bed of sliced white bread and silky ranch dressing. Try it as a slider for happy hour next time you’re near 30th Street Station.
7. Indulge in the truffled egg toast at Tria. It’s the little things, right? I’ve discovered the little thing that keeps me coming back to Tria (a stellar wine and cheese bar) time after time: the Truffled Egg Toast with Fontina Fontal. For egg sluts like myself, there is nothing better than this dish, which features a delectable egg yolk atop a cheese-melted slice of densely toasted brioche. Yes, you’re welcome.
8. Visit the shops up and down Passyunk Avenue. South Philly is a cultural hub in and of itself, and I find weekend afternoons are most enjoyable when I take a leisurely walk along Passyunk Avenue. The Ave,as the cool kids call it, is lined with boutique and antique shops, award-winning bars and restaurants, and fascinating stores. On most weekends you can find me at a corner dive bar or inside shops like Occasionette or Jinxed, stocking up on goods for my row house.
9. Take a tour of the City Hall Tower. I am constantly amazed at the architecture in Philadelphia, and no building do I favor more than City Hall at Broad and Market. For only $6 you can go to the top of the tower and say hi to Billy Penn himself, or take in 360-degree views of Philly from the top of the newly-opened Observation Deck.
10. See the skyline from Le Bok Fin. Philadelphia continues to stretch its borders, and one of the most surprising views comes from an old technical high school turned into a pop-up space in deep South Philly, called Le Bok Fin. Le Bok Fin opened the school’s terrace to the public last summer with a makeshift beer garden and rooftop restaurant, with more upgrades still to come.
11. Walk the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk. Philadelphia is stepping up its public green space game, and Schuylkill is a great example of this. An excellent way to take in the sights is to walk, run, skate, or bike the riverfront along the Schuylkill River. In the summer, I enjoy admiring families and couples who picnic on the lawn before taking a roundabout walk home in the evening when the lights sparkle along the river.
12. Bike up to Kelly Drive. For a bonus warm-weather outdoor adventure, I highly recommend taking the 1.2-mile bike ride from the Schuylkill River Trail up north to Kelly Drive. Enjoy the scenery, lined with beautiful boat houses, gardens, fountains, and historical mansions.
13. Escape for a day trip to Manayunk. Serious bikers and joggers travel the breadth of Kelly Drive all the way northwest to the neighborhood of Manayunk. Here, small-town charm comes in the way of local beer and grub at Manayunk Brewing Company, Victorian storefronts, and even better riverfront views.
Arts and Culture
14. See Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Philadelphia is filled with elaborate public displays of arts, and few are on display like they are at the Magic Gardens. Isaiah Zagar’s iconic mosaics have invited South Street visitors for more than 40 years. Though you can see remnants of Zagar’s work all over the city, for $10 you can experience his unique craftsmanship up close inside the Magic Gardens, which are comprised of folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors.
15. See a live show at the Kimmel Center. Though I lived in New York for over five years, I never saw a live Broadway show (I know!). Leave it to me to wait until I move to Philadelphia to gain a soft spot for the ballet, opera, and jazz. On the docket for this year is seeing the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, singers from the MET Opera, and even comedian Brian Regan do stand-up!
16. Tour open art galleries during First Fridays. Continue to soak in the Philadelphia arts scene with more than 40 open house art gallery shows around Philadelphia’s coolest creative ‘hoods like Old City, Callowhill, Fishtown, and Kensington. Every first Friday of the month, starting at 5 p.m., art galleries open their doors free to the public with crowds flowing and local artists showing off their latest pieces, such as interactive digital and visual arts, drawings, sketches, and performance art.
17. Sing karaoke at Skeletor Gung Show. Hands down my favorite discovery in Philly is the bizarre late-night series at the Trocadero Theatre in Chinatown called Skeletor Gung Show. You essentially drink cheap beer and sing your favorite nostalgic songs on stage with a guy with a funny accent dressed in a Skeletor costume. Best night ever? But be aware, depending on his mood, he could “gong” you off stage before you know it, or better yet, make you his backup dancer. It is amazing.
18. Pay what you wish during First Sundays at Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia is a big arts town, so if you want to catch the latest exhibit, plan to visit during the first Sunday of the month, when visitors pay as they wish. Must-see galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art include the devotional and religious paintings of the European Art section, which feels like having entered an ancient monastery. Now that’s a religious experience!
19. Challenge your friends to ’80s arcade games at Barcade. If ’80s vintage arcade games and craft beer are your jam, head to Northern Liberties for an afternoon at Barcade. You will probably spend an embarrassing amount of quarters challenging your friends to games like X-Men, Rampage, Donkey Kong, and Contra.
20. Hang out after hours at the Barnes Foundation. Art has never been so fun. Think about a classy, dressed up version of a night on the town from inside one of the country’s finest private art collections, and that’s what you get at this frequent event at the Barnes Foundation. Sip on your favorite adult beverage and admire Picasso and Matisse sketches lining the mansion walls while a live cover band plays on stage. Grab tickets!
21. Sit and people watch at Rittenhouse Square. Rittenhouse Square is to Philadelphia what Washington Square is to New York City. Grab a coffee from Philadelphia’s own La Colombe cafe nearby, park yourself on a fountain bench, and admire the people who surround you. Keep your ears peeled for music as the park tends to fill with street performers.
22. Have a beer at Morgan’s Pier. Though Philadelphia is relatively landlocked, there have been major efforts to entertain along the Delaware River waterfront. Never fear, however, because the backyard beer garden at Morgan’s Pier has you covered with cheap snacks and drinks with friends on a hot summer day.
23. Catch the Phillies at Citizen’s Bank Park. Philadelphia is a big sports city, where fans are intense to say the least. However, I like to play it cool eating ice cream in a mini plastic baseball cap on a Sunday afternoon while watching the Philadelphia Phillies play in South Philly. You can score mid-level seats for less than $40 and see my favorite mascot, the Philly Phanatic in action.
24. Ride the trolleys in Northern Liberties. Go old school and experience a trolley ride before they disappear from this city. Though there are underground trolleys that commuters rely on to get to and fro, you can ride above-ground trolleys for less than $3 along Girard Avenue in Northern Liberties. This is nostalgic Philadelphia at its best.
25. Party with South Philadelphians at the Mummers Parade. New Year’s Day Mummers Parade in South Philly is a sight to behold, even if just once (Controversy aside). It’s Philly’s version of Mardi Gras, which since 1900, has brought together entire families and groups of friends dressed up in brightly-colored costumes, while string bands and deejays trail behind from City Hall to 2 Street in Pennsport. BYOB and dancing shoes, and prepare to dance in the streets.
26. Sip speakeasy cocktails at he Franklin Bar. If Prohibition-style cocktail bars are more your style, find your way to the award-winning Franklin Bar, located down unassuming steps on Chestnut Street. Expect a dark, cozy speakeasy lounge underneath what was once the the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company. This is an ideal nightcap spot, especially for lovebirds.
27. Take a free brewery tour of Yards Brewing Company. Philadelphians love to drink, and it’s easy to do so when there are eight breweries and counting within city limits. If you find yourself in Philadelphia on a Saturday, score a free brewery tour from 12 – 4 p.m. at Yards, where they ensure limitless samples and entertaining history lessons in hometown brewing. Afterwards, head to their tasting room to enjoy samples from their six collections, including Ales of the Revolution (British-style beers named after our Founding Fathers).
28. Drink German-style beers at Frankford Hall. On weekends, the place to be is outside, pounding steins with friends in Fishtown’s German beer garden, Frankford Hall. Surprisingly, it’s also family-friendly with board games and ping pong tables inside, while adults enjoy firepits and snacks outside.
29. Sneak into the Pen & Pencil Club. Only two kinds of people can enter the members-only, after-hours Center City bar: journalists and restaurant industry workers. How do you sneak into a secret bar where they serve such delicious drinks and tasty boiled hot dogs in the back? Make a friend with someone in the industry or a journalist (like me!).
30. Take your first Citywide Special at Bob and Barbara’s. No visit to Philly is complete — whether you’re a tourist or a local — without a Citywide Special. The quintessential Philly experience is inside a South Street favorite, the PBR-themed dive called Bob & Barbara’s, serving the shot and beer combo for $3. That’s of course a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jim Beam. To Philly!
All photos c/o Kae Lani Kennedy @kaelanisays unless otherwise noted.