Friendly Philly: Two Days in the City of Brotherly Love
For two-and-a-half centuries Philadelphia has been one of America’s most important cities; we find out what’s good these days.
The worst thing about Philly is that it’s not New York; the best thing about Philly is that it sure isn’t New York. Despite being almost cruelly easy to get to, Pennsylvania’s largest city flies under the radar for Torontonians due to its proximity to Manhattan. However, Philadelphia is an ideal refuge for those of us seeking a leisurely weekend away, with plenty of offerings for avid foodies and culture vultures alike.
An hour-long flight and a brief taxi ride later, and visitors are in the heart of this highly walkable city (a grid street pattern always helps). With its history as the first capital of the United States, the city is steeped in eye-catching architecture – from its Georgian-style row houses in a plethora of hues to City Hall’s impressive Beaux-Arts lines. It possesses a certain grandeur that still remains approachable and contrasts nicely with the friendly nature of its citizens.
It’s basically unheard of to visit Philly without setting foot in Reading Terminal Market. (That’s “RED-ing,” not what you do with a book.) This indoor market, built in 1893, has a block of eateries and food vendors selling everything from farm-fresh veg to toothsome hunks of fudge. Must-eats include Dinic’s roast pork sandwich –loaded up with gooey provolone and garlicky broccoli rabe – and the melt-in-your-mouth pastrami Reuben at neighbouring Hershel’s East Side Deli.
For dessert go Amish. Beiler’s is definitely worth any length of wait in their snaking line. Their yeast-risen doughnuts are pillowy perfection. On Saturdays, they
can plow through a cool 8,000 rounds in flavours like maple bacon and pumpkin spice. The entire Amish portion is closed on Sundays, so plan accordingly.
Following an extensive chow-down in the market, head out for a walk. Since Chinatown is on the way to the next stop, anyone with a corner of stomach left to fill could pop into Xi’an Sizzling Woks. This no-frills joint has drawn plenty of press for its spicy beef sandwich. Arguably the oldest bun-plus-filling offering in the world, the Chinese burger sees cumin-y hunks of beef hugged by flat, clay baked discs of bread. Super cheap and tasty.
BEILER’S IS DEFINITELY WORTH ANY LENGTH OF WAIT IN THEIR SNAKING LINE
The rest of the afternoon should scratch the itch of history buffs. Found in the Independence National Historical Park (a very American-sounding mouthful), the Liberty Bell is a big ole symbol of independence. Thanks to Philly’s previous life as the capital, the iconic bell remains in its birthplace; it first rang out on July 8, 1776, announcing to the world that the Declaration of Independence was about to be read for the very first time.
Continuing the whole American history thing, the Betsy Ross House is up next on the mini-tour. It is here that Ross, who cut her teeth as a highly skilled upholsterer,
sewed the first American flag. While the Stars and Stripes was the design of George Washington, Ross did put her stamp on it. When Washington and two other men
brought her the original sketch in 1776, the flag featured six-pointed stars. Ross convinced them that five-pointers would be an improvement. They listened.
Next, if you’re still on that history train, the brand new Museum of the American Revolution is a decent walk away. Located in Old Town Philly, it digs deep into the colonial revolt that originated in 1765. The surrounding area is ideal for a casual mosey, offering plenty of charm and a good look at those picturesque row houses.
Heard of a little cookbook called Zahav? Chef Michael Solomonov opened his modern Israeli restaurant by the same name back in 2008 and it’s been drawing accolades ever since. While grabbing a reservation isn’t easy, getting a seat at the bar is highly doable. A daily queue starts at 4:45 p.m., with diners ushered in at 5
p.m. sharp for a pre-dinner bite. Must-eats include the gossamer-like hummus, which arrives with their famed oven-baked laffa, and the kibbe naya, raw lamb with bulgur. The cocktail menu is innovative (an Israeli salad martini?!) and the service highly personable. You’ll leave feeling giddy.
PARC BRASSERIE IS WORTH IT FOR THE MADCAP ATMOSPHERE ALONE
After so much dining, taking a break before a late dinner is your best bet. Talula’s Garden has been doing its farm-to-table thing since 2011 and is always packed
– especially during the warmer months when that namesake garden is peacocking. Noted restaurateurs Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr oversee a menu that shifts shape depending on what’s in season. Pasta options might include a sour cream ravioli with roasted mushrooms from Kennett Square, a region known as the ‘shroom capital of the globe. Pair with wine from their list that focuses on biodynamic and organic picks.
Eschew that hotel coffee and do your weary head right with an Americano over at La Colombe. With java in hand, a pre-brunch amble is far more manageable, and the area surrounding Rittenhouse Square is made for roaming. Once you have an appetite, Parc Brasserie is worth it for the madcap atmosphere alone. Bistro faves such as eggs en cocotte with caviar, a wedge of quiche Lorraine and croque madame are offered. Add a mimosa and grand surroundings and this is people watching at its finest.
With a long list of museums, both artsy and historical, it’s hard to pinpoint which to visit. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a no-brainer, marrying high and pop culture thanks to its iconic Rocky steps. Nearby, the Barnes Foundation houses an incredible collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern art. Paintings by the likes of Renoir, Cézanne and Picasso are juxtaposed with familiar household objects, as per collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s careful compositions.
But you needn’t mini-tour a museum to experience art; the city of brotherly love has an alter ego as the “City of Murals.” Over 3,800 public works of art decorate building facades all over town, adding a natural liveliness to the cityscape.
PRO TIP: ACT LIKE A LOCAL AND ASK FOR “ONE WHIZ WITH”
After racking up plenty of steps, more grub is required. Countless eateries turn out their version of a little number called the Philly cheesesteak. This dish that put the city on the global food map can be sampled at two battling sandwich shops – inventor of the cheesesteak Pat’s versus neighbouring Geno’s – or at some less touristy jewels.
Steve’s Prince of Steaks, a go-to for 30 years, has a loyal following. Their slender iterations arrive on soft hoagie rolls with paper-thin slices of steak, so you don’t emerge feeling like you’ve run a marathon. Pro tip: act like a local and ask for “one whiz with” (with Cheez Whiz and fried onions) or “one provolone without,” ifyou’d like provolone, but no onions.
Where to Stay
Thanks to its stellar location, Sonesta Philadelphia Hotel is an ideal basecamp for a weekend away. The 445-room hotel offers contemporary rooms with floor-to ceiling windows. Warm weather visitors can take advantage of the rooftop pool while a 24-hour fitness centre is a real bonus after all the eating that’s bound to happen.
For those seeking to stray from the well-trodden tourist path, Fishtown is a burgeoning nabe, with shopping gems like Two Percent to Glory offering thrifty finds in a cool-girl living room setting. Next door, Vestige has a stellar jumpsuit collection plus neat-o jewellery that Iris Apfel would happily wear. There’s also the quirky Pizza
Brain, a Guinness-stamped pizzeria with the most by-the-slice memorabilia in the world.
It may come as a surprise that such a meaty city is also home to one of American’s top vegan restaurants. Vedge is the work of pioneering chefs Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby, who spin out plant-based fare that won’t ostracize meat eaters. The interior of the restaurant will conjure up your fave lipstick bohemian’s living space. Dishes like the stuffed avocado in a rice cracker shell are made for sharing. The Reuben is turned on its head in their wood-roasted carrot dish; a superbly grilled half carrot is paired with a white bean puree, pumpernickel toast and a carrot kraut. Cocktails are just as innovative; the Life of Poblano matches tequila with Aperol, rhubarb and its namesake chili.
For post-dinner merriment best pop over to the Gaybourhood where the Tavern on Carmac’s nightly entertainment revolves around a grand piano and truly showcases Philly’s world-famous bonhomie.
The next time the flashier members of America’s family tree come up as possible destinations consider their more walkable, amiable sibling. Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love, so you’ll get generous servings of culture and history to go with the delicious food and drink.