So you can rap the entire Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song from memory. Maybe you’ve even witnessed a heated Pat’s vs. Geno’s cheesesteak debate, and you know that much like Boston sports fans, Philadelphians take their teams very seriously. That’s a start. But Will Smith, meat sandwiches and overzealous Eagles enthusiasts aside, the City of Brotherly Love has a lot to offer, especially to travelers who aren’t afraid of a little grit and a dive bar or two.
Philadelphia is the country’s fifth largest city, but thanks to urban sprawl, here it’s all about the neighborhoods, compellingly branded with names like the Eraserhood, Fishtown and the Gayborhood. Every ’hood has a vibrant art and music scene, with live shows, gallery openings and masterful murals everywhere you look. On the culinary front, the city is home to award-winning chefs, a fleet of food trucks and local personalities like West Philly’s Carrot Cake Man, who barely makes it out of his neighborhood before running out of his famous—and generously frosted—treats. Plus, with a high concentration of microbreweries in town, Philly is acknowledged as one of the best beer-drinking cities in the country.
Before you start noshing and quaffing through town, check into the Hotel Palomar, a Kimpton Hotel conveniently situated in Center City (the least creatively named of Philly’s hoods). It’s an ideal home base for explorers, though the sleek yet cheeky decor—think colorful busts of Benjamin Franklin lining the lobby and blue velvet easy chairs by the fireplace for lounging—may make it hard to leave.
Head to Zahav in Old City for dinner, but be sure to make a reservation. Locals and visitors alike flock to James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov’s Middle Eastern eatery for traditional mezze like grilled halloumi with sweet dates and lamb merguez with pumpkin, plus killer cocktails like the Sun Rose in the West, a blood orange and vodka libation flecked with sumac. Alternatively, if you’re hankering for continental fare—with a side of live jazz—Heritage, in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, serves healthy heaps of veggie-centric apps like buttermilk-soaked roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts with whipped goat cheese, but chef Sean Magee isn’t afraid to tackle meatier treats like pig’s head roulade, duck sausage and rabbit meatballs. Just save plenty of room for dessert at the Franklin Fountain, where the menu boasts old-timey ice cream concoctions like the Peach Melba Parfait, malted milkshakes and a staggering 25 flavors of phosphates. During colder months, the Franklin Fountain rolls out a winter menu that includes European drinking chocolates, hot sodas (just try one) and “hot milkshakes,” so there’s no excuse not to party like it’s 1899.
Music lovers will find plenty of tucked-away spots to enjoy local bands, like Johnny Brenda’s in Kensington. Grab a pint of craft beer and killer comfort food downstairs; then head upstairs to catch bands like Grandchildren and Honey Radar. Union Transfer, operated by NYC’s the Bowery, is another go-to for live music, regularly booking indie headliners such as the Kills and Leon Bridges. Back in Center City, ultra-divey basement bar Medusa Lounge is a favorite for cheap drinks, European underground club vibes and all-night dance parties courtesy of a roster of resident DJs like David Alexander, who spins techno and deep house each month.
Time for a nightcap, or several. There are a number of great speakeasies in town, like Hop Sing Laundromat in Chinatown. Every local group of friends has a “The Time We Couldn’t Get into Hop Sing” story, but if you do pass the thorough wardrobe inspection (no flip-flops, sneakers or hats—and they mean it) and make it past the nondescript front door, you’ll find some of the best cocktails in the city. Just don’t try to snap a picture to make your social media followers jealous—photography is strictly forbidden, so much so that a number of decidedly uncool guests sneak off to the bathroom for mirror selfies.
The next day, continue your tippling with Philly Brew Tours, which stops for tastings at Saint Benjamin Brewing Company, 2nd Story Brewing Co. and more. Afterward, head to the Italian Market in South Philly for a snack of small-batch, house-made sausages, whipped up old-school style at Fiorella’s. The family has been serving these pork-tenderloin babies for 120 years, and they’re a tasty, authentic alternative to the played-out cheesesteak.
Of course, there’s plenty to do besides eat and drink. You can get a unique view of the city with a free Mural Arts Program tour of 17 of Philadelphia’s diverse murals; just power up your phone and download a map of the 2.5-mile, C-shaped route, along with the podcast that serves as an audio guide. Or, if the weather isn’t cooperating, check out one of the incredible art museums, like the Barnes Foundation, a staggering private collection of American, European and African art, or the gargantuan Philadelphia Museum of Art, the front steps of which, I am legally obligated to tell you, were featured in that scene from Rocky—a totally allowable detour in your decidedly untouristy trip.
-Pay a visit to the home of Boston-born writer Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart,” among other works, while he lived in Philadelphia.
-Get a workout along the Schuylkill River. Run or walk the newly built Schuylkill Banks trail or rent a bike—the 1.2-mile trail connects to several other bike trails in the city.
Barnes Foundation barnesfoundation.org
Edgar Allan Poe House nps.gov/edal
The Franklin Fountain franklinfountain.com
Hop Sing Laundromat hopsinglaundromat.com
Hotel Palomar hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com
Johnny Brenda’s johnnybrendas.com
Medusa Lounge medusalounge.com
Mural Arts Program muralarts.org
Philadelphia Museum of Art philamuseum.org
Philly Brew Tours phillybrewtours.com
Schuylkill Banks schuylkillbanks.org
Union Transfer utphilly.com