About the Author: Lauren Fritsky is a Jersey girl who lived in Philadelphia until she moved to Sydney in early 2010. She’s traveled to 40 U.S. States and nine countries. While she loves Australia, she desperately misses pizza and buffalo wings from back home. Read more about her at thelifethatbroke.com.
As a former nine-year resident of the City of Brotherly Love, I can tell you a thing — or a dozen — about the best things to do on your visit. Forget all the lists saying the city is rude, fat and lacking life. Good culture and even better beer await.
Twisted Like a Pretzel
Philly flavor equals soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, hoagies, cheese fries, pizza and buffalo wings. Anything that goes well with a beer and sinks to the bottom of your stomach works. You can easily get soft pretzels at any convenience store downtown (plain or stuffed with cheese in the fab chain Wawa), but the Soft Pretzel Factory is a good place to start.
A strong cheesesteak rivalry persists, and as a non-beef eater, I can’t tell you my favorite. Some eateries consistently making the list of Best Cheesesteak — yes, we do have such a ranking — include South Philly’s Pat’s and Geno’s, which stand on opposite corners like rival gangs, and Jim’s Steaks on South Street and other locations. Make sure you’re prepared when you go up to the counter; the custom is to spit out your order in rapid-fire fashion and include which kind of cheese you crave and if you want onions.
Will Smith told you all about the greatness of Lorenzo’s pizza, also on South Street, in his song “Summertime,” and the joint lives up to its hype after a bender at the bar. Some award winners for best pie are Marra’s in South Philly and Rustic in Northern Liberties. This city’s also known for tomato pie, and you can get a colossal version at Marchiano’s Bakery in Roxborough. Union Jack’s, with locations in Roxborough and the suburb of Glenside, professes to have the greatest buffalo chicken wings, and the small pub may be onto something. If you want spicy and smothered, it’s the place to go. For cheese fries, a lot of locals like the ones with Old Bay seasoning at Chickie and Pete’s, with locations in South and Northeast Philly, but you can find them in different kinds of cheese like whiz or mozzarella and doused in gravy at any diner.
Of course, fancier or less heart attack-inducing fare does exist. You can find bubble tea, fried wontons and duck in Chinatown, or try Asian-inspired Buddakhan near the historic district and French-Chinese Cin Cin in Chestnut Hill. Stick to South Philly for Italian, try Lolita at South 13th Street for Mexican and head to West Philly or University City for African and Middle Eastern. You can get sexy with your sweets at Naked Chocolate, whose glass counters tempt you with almost unbearably decadent drinks, cupcakes, pastries and more (plus, it stays open late for a dessert place).
Get Down Tonight
You can find plenty of party buses and pub crawls to help you tipsily troll the city. If you want to set up shop in one spot for the night, head to Old City, which offers classy lounges like Bleu Martini, diner-cum-martini bar Continental and live music venues such as Tin Angel. Outdoor cafes and tables also line Market Street if you want to people watch and feel a cool night breeze. Northern Liberties has Finnegan’s Wake for the straight-out-of-college and young adult populations. Expect live cover bands and a packed dance floor.
South Street is better for rowdier crowds looking for a more diverse and less flash scene. Try Paddy Whacks, which has huge rooms on two floors, Fat Tuesday, which welcomes you even when it’s not Mardi Gras, and Blarney. The Dark Horse Pub and the Artful Dodger offer historical settings in which to sip your pint(s).
Nearer to Center City, you’ll find joints for the schooled beer drinker like Noddinghead Brewery and McGillin’s, the city’s oldest continuously operating tavern. If you prefer a bottle of red, Tria offers a suitable wine selection with luscious cheese plates and candle-lit ambience. If you want some grub with your food, late night pubs include Royal Tavern and Standard Tap. Not far from the Philadelphia Art Museum in the Fairmount section of the city, you can find adequate ale at Bishop’s Collar and North Star Bar.
A word about the beer: it rocks. I’m not talking the domestic stuff like Miller Lite. Philly has some stellar local brews like Victory, with a restaurant and bar in Old City, Sly Fox and Iron Hill. You can find these brews at a lot of bars, but you’ll get quite a selection of these and global beers at places like the Grey Lodge in the Northeast. The pub, on the list of the 50 Best Beer Bars in America, constantly rotates its beer selection and has as many as 25 different brews on tap each week.
Pick a Square, Any Square
Philly is known for its many public squares, from Logan to Washington. Among the most well-known and best to see is Rittenhouse Square in Center City. What’s interesting about this quad is that it’s an open space surrounded by very visible action — high rises, restaurants, book shops, clothing stores. Read a book, throw a Frisbee or take a nap on the bench, then walk right across the street to resume your day. Stop by the lion and goat statues or try to get the attention of one of the many pups being paraded down the walkway.
Depending on the weather and your activity level, you can find plenty of places in which to enjoy the outdoors. Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River is prime for taking a jog or cycling, plus you may see the college crew teams practicing — it’s worth checking out Boathouse Row, where they store their small vessels. The Wissahickon also provides some of nature’s best where the woods meet the streams, plus the quaint Valley Green sits nearby to offer coffee or a hardy brunch for the overexercised. Pennypack Park in the Northeast section of the city supplies spots for fishing or just walking the day away.
Get Down with Franklin
If short on time, you can find a concentration of “old stuff” in the Independence Mall area of the city. Here lie Independence Hall, where guys like Ben Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, the cracked Liberty Bell and the Constitution Center. A walk down Market Street will lead to Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential road in America. Nearby is another must-see — Christ Church, erected in 1695 and the final resting spots of many of the country’s early leaders.
Make sure to step out of the Old City area and into spots like the Edgar Allen Poe National Historical Site on Spring Garden Street, and Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue.
Make sure you get out of the downtown and into some of the funkier neighborhoods. Mt. Airy sits in a diverse area northwest of the city and has heaps little cafes, restaurants with Southern, Caribbean and Mediterranean cuisine and good bars like McMenamin’s. You can get authentic Polish grub in Port Richmond and go to hip pubs with live music like Johnny’s Brenda’s in Fishtown.
Flickr Photo: ajlvi