PHILADELPHIA— Philly is a city often overshadowed by its nearby Northeastern neighbor metropolises – cities such as New York, Boston, and Washington that often get more of the shine. But Philadelphia is a wonder in its own right and a city worth visiting. More than just Rocky references and cheesesteaks, Philly has an underrated culinary, cultural and artistic side and its history can rival any city in the world (in fact, it has recently been named the first World Heritage City located in the United States). And its status as a travel center is sure to keep growing.
♠ We recently spent 36 quick hours in Philadelphia (on a whirlwind 2-city long weekend shared with Montreal, only a 90 minute flight away) and made the most of it.
What to Do
Hop on the Big Bus, a hop-on hop-off double-decker bus tour. This one is great as it takes you around Philly’s highlights in about 90 minutes (if you don’t get off – plus additional time if you take the “Zoo Loop” to the Philly Zoo and Fairmount Park) and lets you go on and off at your leisure. You can make a day or two of visiting the sites. To save a few bucks, take the Philly Phlash which goes on a similar route minus the tour guide with running commentary or good views. Eastern State Penitentiary is a must-do, sort of a non-island-bound Alcatraz of the East. It’s got a great audio self-tour thats really informative (narrated by Steve Buscemi!) and we especially loved the last exhibit with really topical information on current issues in criminal justice. Highly recommended!
The Franklin Institute is a science museum that’s really interactive and although this really appeals to kids, it shouldn’t dissuade adults (even couples like us) from visiting. We found it a really fun, fascinating experience and wish we didn’t have to rush out of there so fast to get somewhere else! Truly made me feel a bit like a wide-eyed kid again. The Mutter Museum is a medical museum of “medical oddities” located at the Pennsylvania College of Physicians and although pretty hyped up and worth it for people interested in medical oddities, we found it a bit overpriced and crowded, but definitely worth seeing for those with interest in what sick things lay inside (a bit of Einstein’s brain is in here). And of course there’s the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the largest in the US, and the home of the Rocky Steps (and the Rocky Statue), infamous for its role in the Rocky movies. The lineups can be long for the museum, but at least visit the outside! There are tons of other museums, putting Philly on par with any city in North America.
And of course, Philly is historic. That’s what this city’s tourist industry centers on – the Independence Hall and Liberty Bell and all that jazz. It’s a must-do. Check out the area and breathe in the history. Highly recommend the Independence Hall tour (free) which might even leave you inspired.
More: City Hall is a standout sight with a beautiful building and an observation deck. (Views. Views are good. See the best views of Philly here.) Rittenhouse Square is a great park with lots of local life and tons of bars and restaurants nearby. Penn’s Landing has tons of stuff to do near the waterfront. And don’t forget the breweries: Yards Brewing is great, as is Philadelphia Brewing Company. See more about Philly’s craft beer trail (or here), or see them ranked.
What to Eat
Philly has become a culinary paradise. In center city, we couldn’t help but notice the abundance of incredible food choices, putting the city in the upper echelons (i.e. almost rivaling New York status). There’s tons of creativity and interest in the food scene here. It’s not just cheesesteaks.
Happy hour are the best hours in Philly, with tons of restaurants and bars partaking. We loved Sampan, a popular spot downtown with happy hour from 4-7 everyday, including cheaper drinks but more importantly great Asian eats all at only $4. Some of the ones we sampled over two days were just delicious.
Chinatown is the country’s 3rd-largest. Try the new Chinatown Square, a collection of restaurants, some open 24-7, including an outpost of New York’s famous The Halal Guys. for desert we liked the (albeit novelty) NY Rolled Ice Cream (try the Thai tea flavor). When the young go to Chinatown Square, noodle-veterans go to places like Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House for some amazing heart-warming soup. They’ve been in business for 40+ years. (Apparently there is Philly culinary conflict between Nan Zhou and Lan Zhou – try not to get confused! – similar to the cheesesteak wars between Geno’s and Pat’s.)
So let’s talk cheesesteak, that glorious hunk of sandwich that Philly is eponymous with. I’d say skip the over-hyped tourist traps like the well-known Geno’s and Pat’s. There are a lot of contenders with more serious meals. We’re no experts but I’d recommend Cleavers, a new upstart with great Philly design inside, an incredible bottled beer selection (with good prices!), shakes, sides, and of course, massively delicious cheesesteaks. Go to Cleavers. Trust us.
Where to Stay
There are tons of options in Philly. I’ve noticed hotel prices can be relatively high in the city center, sometimes outrageously high, but we managed a good <$100 room at the Doubletree by Hilton Philadelphia City Center, which was perfectly placed just a few blocks from City Hall and Rittenhouse Square and everywhere you need to be. It had a pool and, if you’re a Hilton Gold member, includes free buffet breakfast (with some of the best omelettes I’ve ever had!), an upgrade, and possibly access to the executive lounge. Not to go off topic but how can you become Hilton Gold? Get an Amex Platinum and you’ll be instantly upgraded to Gold status. See more here or apply directly with our referral link.
A few Philly Tips
1) Center City (downtown) has most of the highlights but if you have the time, definitely leave and visit more of the neighborhoods, because how can you truly know a city if you don’t? We will be sure to do so next time.
2) For Canadians, flights to Philly can be relatively cheap. For example, we found prices from Edmonton to be about half the price to flying to Canadian cities like Montreal or Toronto. It can be a cheap flight and is consistently priced lower that other cities in North America. Look for flight deals and make your Phillycation a reality.
3) If you like music – hip hop or electronica – check out the Made in America Festival in September (it’s put on by Jay-Z). There’s also the awesome Roots Picnic in June.
4) Great websites: Visit Philly has tons of info including events listings and itineraries. It’s your one stop guide. Also see: uwishunu.com.
5) Pre-visit viewing: It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and all the Rocky movies (all of them) need to be viewed before your trip.
♦ In summary 36 hours isn’t enough. Spend a long weekend here, and include some activities or events (i.e. sporting event, concerts, etc). But do visit Philly and explore the city.
Disclaimer: All hotel, flight and food expenses were our own, however Visit Philly helped us with the cost of some attractions/museums and transportation (Philly Phlash and Bus Tour).