Much like the rest of my knowledge, I learned about Philadelphia’s greatness from pop culture references, passionate word of mouth, and terrifyingly lovable mascots. I had a very specific vision in mind for my first visit: eating a foot-long cheesesteak on the Rocky steps, drinking in several smoky dives reminiscent of Paddy’s Pub, and gawking at landmarks aplenty…all while “Motownphilly” blared from every speaker in town. I did most of those things when I actually went (minus the Boyz II Men soundtrack), but there’s much more to the city than what my wild imagination created.
A proper tourist could spend an entire 24 hours doing a deep dive into America’s roots, admiring Center City’s historic homes, and following an 18th-century reenactor around the Liberty Bell. Then again, you could always find the information they’re shelling out in history textbooks. To get a true sense of the town, hop around to spots in the three equally cool neighborhoods—Fishtown, East Philly, and Rittenhouse Square—that locals love.
No inch is left un-mosaiced at Isaiah Zagar’s unconventional escape. He created his multidimensional art installation and gallery space with nontraditional resources like loose bicycle wheels, miniature sculptures, emerald glass bottles, and other colorful trinkets. Quirky murals crawl up and around the building and adjacent gardens, creating a wonderland for Zagar’s lighthearted approach to art.
Pub on Passyunk East
The cornerside conclave warmly known as the P.O.P.E. initially reads like a drinking hole straight from Middle Earth, with its slightly dank brick walls and minimum lighting. But then you realize you’re in a place even more special than the Shire when you see the beer list stacked with rare finds; the rock-and-roll–centric jukebox with deep cuts from yesteryear; the vegan-friendly cheesesteak on the bar menu; and a life-size cutout of the Pope hanging out in the corner. Eccentric bars are few and far between, especially in today’s drinking culture, but this pub perfectly reflects the weird Philly its inhabitants know and love.
This farm-to-table, all-day operation takes “putting a bird on it” to a new extreme. Its aesthetic may come straight from a Portlandia sketch (there’s even a taxidermied bird hanging behind the bar), but the comparisons end once you try some of Scott Schroeder and Pat O’Malley’s homey dishes. Swing by in the morning for a seasonal galette; come back for an after-school cheese board and an affogato; and end your night with homemade pasta and the best garlic bread you’ll ever have.
We have plenty of La Colombes in New York—and I’ve been to most of them—but the Fishtown location is by far the best. Wooden touches galore (from the exposed beams overhead to the communal tables cluttered with notebooks and MacBooks), a sprawling shrine to caffeine made by modern muralist ESPO, and a weekly concert series dedicated to social change are just a few reasons why you’d want to linger in its headquarter warehouse for a while. Don’t expect to make the wifi-less café your impromptu office, but the environment is inspiring enough to get your offline projects done after a few draft lattes.
Olde Kensington’s converted warehouses may house some of the City of Brotherly Love’s most buzzing breweries, but this relatively new taproom is making waves with its heirloom ciders. Seasonal drafts come cheap ($3 cheap!) during happy hour—even its pumpkin spice varietal, a flavor profile that often disappoints or is annoyingly sweet or both, is perfectly pleasing with shaved nutmeg and a dollop of vanilla bourbon cream on top. Don’t worry if you accidentally kill more time than you’d expect here; playing through the wide selection of board games new and old is hard to resist.
Follow the musty aromas into this frenzied mecca for artifacts and knickknacks of yore. You’ll instantaneously start planning out an apartment renovation when you spot Victorian-era furniture, weathered literature, mid-century frocks, and century-old lighting fixtures throughout the chaotic store. You may feel a bit like a bull in a china shop as you saunter through the aisles, but the challenge is well worth the dangerous walk-through.
Because you can’t leave this collegiate town without hitting up a single museum, make it this one. Housed inside a multidimensional building, chemist–turned–art collector A.C. Barnes’s wide-ranging collection boasts some of the most famous Post-Impressionist works in history. Reflect on the evolution of art inside the museum’s peaceful interior courtyard when you need a break from analyzing Matisse and Van Gogh pieces.
Joseph Fox Bookshop
The family-owned small business ironically dons the same name as the big-box Fox Books in You’ve Got Mail—but the real-life bookstore came before the fictitious one (1951 versus 1998). “Controlled curated chaos” would best describe the filled-to-the-brim shelves stocked with bestsellers, niche coffee-table reads, signed hardcovers, and beyond. The shop even hosts a lecture series with the Free Library of Philadelphia, bringing in the likes of Tom Hanks, Jeff Tweedy, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Just refrain from taking any selfies; the store has a strict no-photo policy.
It was only a matter of time until restaurateur Stephen Starr found a way to modernize British pub grub for today’s eager eaters. Cheap pours of 20-ounce casked drafts, sumptuous rabbit stew hiding underneath a golden puff pastry, and fresh sourdough served with extra-smooth ricotta makes for a quintessential lunch inside the cozy townhouse straight out of Notting Hill. As an added bonus, Starr’s Federal Donuts is only a few minutes away for a midday sugar rush.