Philly is so much more than its historic past. Alex Pasquariello takes you to the city’s leafy squares, hidden cobblestone lanes, intimate bars and food-focused BYOBs (with a little hipster-driven urban renewal thrown in for good measure). Here are 72 perfect hours in the City of Brotherly Love. Powdered wig optional.
As shown on A&E’s Parking Wars, a spot in this city can be both a nightmare to find and expensive; leave the car at home and get here via Amtrak and use SEPTA buses, trolleys, subways and cabs to get around. No need to fret about where you’ll bed down, because the last decade has seen an array of boutique brands transform historic buildings into classy sleeps, including the new Hotel Monaco and the Radisson Blu Warwick.
Your fresh perspective on Philly starts at the city’s other river, the once forsaken Schuylkill. Railroads, chemical pipelines and highways dominated the tidal waterway during the city’s industrial heyday, but a decades-long effort has seen the Schuylkill’s banks reclaimed in the form of an extensive park connecting South Street Bridge and the Art Museum and Fairmont Park. In September the newest addition to the park opened, a 2,000-foot boardwalk suspended over the water. The span is quite minimal so as to put the skyline on full display.
The trail’s terminus at the South Street Bridge provides perfect panoramas of the city and easy access to West Philly. Hop the SEPTA 36 Trolley west down Baltimore Avenue, a diverse strip with a bohemian vibe and North African flavor. Quirky Clark Park is lovely in the fall; old men will challenge you to a game of chess, drum circles are commonplace, and Amish farmers bring their bounty to its farmers market every Saturday morning. Just down the street, Gojjo is a family-run Ethiopian gastropub that serves such savory dishes as sautéed beef short ribs rubbed in Ethiopian spices, onions and peppers served over injera, a spongy, flavor-absorbing flatbread. Farther west, BYOB to Aksum, where owner Saba Tedla and chef Wayne Whiteside plate tasty Moroccan fare that fuses the flavors of the entire Mediterranean.
As the neighborhood’s name and location along the Delaware River suggest, Fishtown started life as the hub of the region’s shad fishing industry. The species was fished out in the early 20th century, and today the once rundown cottages, factories and warehouses incubate artists, musicians, chefs and a buzzy tech start-up scene. The heart of this ’hood is Frankford Avenue, where artisanal coffee guru Todd Carmichael just opened La Colombe Torrefaction’s flagship café and bakery. Start your day with a fresh-from-the-oven croissant and some Fishtown coffee, which is made from fair-trade beans from Ethiopia and Guatemala blended by Carmichael himself. Once the caffeine kicks in, stroll down Frankford to Adorn Boutique, which is run by jewelry maker Sarah Lewis. For a tasty and educational lunch, stop in for a slice at Pizza Brain, the world’s first pizza museum/pizzeria; it has the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia — think a mint condition Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Plinko machine, classic Jughead comics and vintage Do the Right Thing movie posters (Spike Lee’s character delivered pies).
There’s no shortage of watering holes along this stretch. Dive into El Bar, a local joint under the elevated train with a junkyard garden in back where you can enjoy the signature Kensington Happy Meal: two hot dogs, a PBR tallboy and a shot of Jim Beam, for $5. Pop in at Bottle Bar East for a selection of 700 craft brews served at a copper bar made out of old church pews; the place also hosts the occasional burlesque show, rock concert and tattoo art exhibit. For a sip of the old country, grab a picnic table at Frankford Hall, an indoor-outdoor German beer garden run by Stephen Starr where housemade pretzels and brats are washed down with suds served in one-liter steins. Fishtown traces its alcohol enthusiasm to the legendary Johnny Brenda’s, a three-story bar-slash-gastropub-slash-music-club where the taps are all local, the food is farm-fresh, and the live music is loud.
Brunch your hangover away with Pub and Kitchen’s “Wrangler,” the spiciest Bloody Mary in the city. The Fitler Square mainstay elevates greasy spoon classics, including a sausage biscuit with gruyere gravy, and shrimp and grits with poached egg and chorizo stew. Then go classy and cab it up to Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philly’s Champs-Elysées, lined with some of the country’s premier art collections. The latest addition is the exquisite Barnes Collection, a $25 billion collection of paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh, among other masters. After making a fortune in the early 20th century by developing a gonorrhea drug, Albert C. Barnes turned his attention to art, collecting more than 800 paintings by Impressionists and Modernist masters. Until 2012 the collection was hidden away in a suburban mansion out of reach to the general public, but now it’s housed in a museum that faithfully recreates the collector’s original presentation of the works. Next, it’s on to the Rodin Museum, where you can consider some 140 bronzes, marbles and plasters representing every phase of Auguste Rodin’s career. They’re housed in an intimate Beaux-Arts building with tranquil gardens designed by French architect Paul Cret and French landscape designer Jacques Gréber. Don’t skip the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a classical temple housing more than 300,000 works. Even if you’re short on time, be sure to run up its famous stone stairs Rocky-style, and end your stay with the classic skyline view.