While working as an au pair, I was lucky to live less than 5 miles from the centre of Philadelphia, so I spent a lot of evenings and weekends exploring the city. Here are my recommendations for a perfect day in the city of brotherly love!
9am – Brunch at Sabrina’s
There is no better way to gear up for a long day of sightseeing than brunch at Sabrina’s. With locations in University City, Fairmount and Italian market (as well as a reality TV themed brunch menu and a BYOB policy), Sabrina’s is a huge hit with locals and visitors so be sure to make a reservation. Try the ‘French Toast Wars’ special for one of your five of a day piled on top of thick, buttery cinammon French toast and smothered in coconut-mango-lime cream cheese. Yum!
10am – Unleash your inner Rocky
You can’t visit Philadelphia without doing your best Rocky Balboa impression and racing up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even if you couldn’t care less about the movie, go anyway – there are great views of the city from the top of the steps, as well as the amor statue which makes a wonderful backdrop for those cheesy, romantic photographs. The museum itself is also worth a visit, with current galleries including sculptures by Marcel Duchamp and a gorgeous ‘painting through glass’ exhibit by Lino Tagliapetra. Pro tip: on the first Sunday of the month and every Wednesday evening, the museum is pay-what-you-wish!
12:30pm – Choose a cheesesteak
After walking down the JFK plaza (and passed the famous Love statue) to build up an appetite, it’s a good idea to sample Philadelphia’s number one delicacy: the Philly cheesesteak. The two most common cheesesteak choices are Geno’s and Pat’s, and there is no quicker way to start an argument between Philly natives than by asking which is better. Personally, I prefer Geno’s but the queues at both places are incredibly long and the cheesesteaks are (dare I say it) a little bit overpriced. For somewhere a little bit closer to the museum, and with less of a wait, try Steve’s Prince of Steaks on 16th street. You can get your cheesesteak with cheese whiz or provolone and ‘wit’ or ‘witout’ onions. Some places like to go a little fancy and add mushrooms or peppers but this is another common source of Philly rage. I like to keep it traditional, and usually ask for whiz witout.
1:30pm – Satisfy your sweet tooth at Reading terminal market
If you aren’t too full from your cheesesteak, head down to Reading terminal market for dessert. This indoor farmer’s market is one of my favourite places to visit in Philadelphia and you could easily lose an hour in the labyrinth of stores. There probably aren’t too many types of food or craft items you can’t buy in the market: from alligator gumbo (delicious) to massive beeswax candles to African beaded necklaces to the best sandwich in America . That last one isn’t just my opinion: the roast pork sandwich from Dinic’s was voted best in the country by the Travel Channel, and it is definitely worthy of the award. Wander round, try some free samples but do NOT leave without sampling one of the enormous (and life-changing) cannoli from Termini Bros bakery.
2:30pm – Step back in time at Independence Hall
By now, it’s probably time to take a little break from food and instead soak up some culture. Independence hall is one of the most historically important spots in Philadelphia (it was where the declaration of independence was signed) and it’s really interesting to take a look around and learn about what happened there in the past. The tour is free, but you will need to reserve a ticket in advance if you are visiting between March and December. While you are there, you can also take a peek in at the liberty bell, which rang out to alert the 18th century Philadelphians that America had declared independence.
4.00m – Take a walk down South Street
There really is something for everyone on South Street. Crammed with over 400 restaurants, bars and shops, it is one of the most interesting and diverse areas of the city. One of the most unique parts of South Street is the Philadelphia Magic Gardens: a huge art installation which covers half a city block, created entirely by one man. A few of my friends visited the Magic Gardens and didn’t enjoy it at all, but I thought it was immersive, visually stunning and quite moving at times (artist Isaac Zagar tells stories from his life within the mosaic using letter tiles, and the parts about his wife are too sweet for words.) You can see some of the installation from the street, but to get the full impact it’s worth buying a ticket and exploring it all.
6:00pm – Stop for a drink at Brauhaus
While you are at South Street, a visit to Brauhaus Schmitz is an absolute must. This traditional German bar – complete with dirndl-wearing bartenders – has a massive selection of beers, a lively atmosphere and authentic German food that has won the approval of actual Germans (high praise indeed). If you are around in May, check the dates for Brahaus’ Maifest – a huge beer festival that takes over a block of South Street and brings a little piece of Europe to the US. Head down early, grab a table and enjoy a flight of beers to the sounds of traditional German music.
7:30pm – Relax in Spruce Street Harbour Park
If I could only recommend one place in Philadelphia, this would be it. It’s every photographer’s dream and it’s the ideal place to spend a warm summer’s night. Situated right on the river, the park is lit by ever-changing coloured lights that give everything a warm, summery glow. There is lots to do here: from giant chess games to pedal boating on the Delaware river, but for me there is nothing better than lying back in a hammock, eating crab fries from the Chickie’s and Pete’s crabshack and watching the sun go down and the lights turn on.
9:30pm – Stop in for a drink at the Victoria Freehouse
Whenever I got homesick for England, my first stop was the Victoria Freehouse. Yes it’s a cheesy and Americanised version of an English pub, but it’s also completely charming and in some ways it’s really authentic. It’s also the only place in the US that I managed to find a sausage roll or a halfway decent Sunday dinner so for that alone it gets my vote. So much goes on at the Victoria Freehouse, but you really can’t go wrong with Quizo followed by open mic comedy on a Wednesday night. Keep an eye on the website for special themes and events; they have everything from Harry Potter quiz nights to a Game of Thrones burlesque show.
11pm – Get an ice cream for the road at the Franklin Fountain
Is there time for one last stop before you head off to bed? Even at 11pm, there will certainly be queues at the Franklin Fountain, and for very good reason. Their rich, velvety ice creams – in flavours like maple walnut, green tea and cherry vanilla – are the perfect antidote to one two many beers at the Victoria Freehouse and will give you that last little bit of energy you need to drag yourself back to the train station and get yourself home to bed.
Where to stay: Philadelphia has so many great Airbnb’s, with choices ranging from $30 per night rooms, to $1500 per night luxury apartments – so there really is something for every budget. For something a little more upmarket, the Loews hotel is pricey but in a perfect location (plus the views from the rooftop bar – shown on the left – are just phenomenal). On a budget? Don’t rule out staying in cheaper accomodation in New Jersey and travelling in to the city
How to travel: PATCO trains run regularly from South Jersey to a few key locations in Philadelphia, but for destinations further out from centre city you may want to consider an Uber. Philly also has many bus routes and although they are fairly cheap they aren’t always the most reliable, so think twice if you are on a tight time limit.
There is so much more to do in Philadelphia, but even I admit that there is only so many things you can do in one day! Did I miss out anything important? Let me know in the comments.