Philadelphia is just an hour and a half from New York City; often overlooked, travelers don’t imagine the potential and creativity that emanates from the city that is known as Philly. Philadelphia is Rocky’s city but it’s much more than that. Visit Philadelphia in 3 days: what to see, where to eat, what not to miss?
Philadelphia in three days:
After picking up our rental car from Carigami, we drove to Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, from the Greek “fraternal friendship”, is a very important city in the history of the United States. An important seat of the American Revolution, it was here in Philadelphia that the Declaration of Independence and the first amendments to the Constitution were drawn up and signed. Philadelphia also had capital status before Washington. But nowadays, Philadelphia is especially famous in the sports world and in the cinema with (among others) this mythical scene of Rocky Balboa breaking through the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (rightly called the Rocky Steps). It’s also the Philadelphia movie with Tom Hanks or more popular, the Cold Case series.
Visiting Philadelphia reminded me a little of Marseille. You know that kind of “ugly duckling” city that you don’t really know how to point on a map or that you just decide not to visit (often without any well-founded reason or because of false statements). Philadelphia is a popular city (in the broadest sense of the word) in the same spirit as New York and much more so than Boston (which is very wise in our eyes). So why is it so much forgotten on the tourist circuits and often set aside in favour of Washington DC? Too bad because Philly is an incredibly cool city with a decidedly artistic soul. And that’s all we hope to show you in this new city guide!
So in Philadelphia there is culture, history, architecture, street art, a lot of art in all forms really. It is a multicultural city where the joyful mix of influences has created a very singular city. An imperfect and popular city (surely like the big American cities). Come on, I’m telling you how to visit Philadelphia in three days!
Here are our recommended places for you to visit Philadelphia and fall in love with the city like us. Cool squares, museums not to be missed, the Rocky Steps of course, an atypical prison, murals. All to see the best of Philly in 3 days!
Love Letter train tour
It is an art project illustrated by Steve Powers, a former graffiti artist, which highlights 50 murals spread out between 45 and 63rd Street. All these frescoes have the same purpose: a “love letter to you”. Some murals express the love of a guy to a girl, an artist to his hometown and locals to their neighbourhood. Two-hour tours are organized to explain the artists’ approaches. But you can very well see his frescoes for yourself by taking the aerial metro (blue line).
Reading Terminal Market
On every trip I like to walk in the markets, it is here that you feel the popular soul of a city. For the record, it’s a bit of an atypical market. Established in 1893, at the Reading Terminal Market you will see Amish people running hot dog stands. You should know that there is a large concentration of Amish not far from Philadelphia, hence their presence. Besides this (little) anecdote, it is a big market where there is something for everyone (sweet, salty, vegetarian, organic market…). It’s a real anthill, the stalls are pretty tight but personally I loved it. A little extra for the neon lights that give a very vintage look to the market.
The Barnes Foundation is THE museum I’d recommend if you were to make one. Mr. Barnes’ huge (private) collection of post-impressionist works. With a desire to offer art to all, this art lover sent a “missionary” to find works of art in Europe. The collection presents quite a few paintings by Renoir, Picasso, Modigliani & Rousseau that you will never have seen. For if the arrangement of the rooms were changed during his lifetime, nowadays no paintings move (there are no loans to other museums either). Ben and I were having fun trying to figure out who did what and it’s surprising because these are generally early career paintings. There are some Picassos I never would have recognized, for example.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
If time permits, I suggest you visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well. Made famous with its famous Rocky Steps, it is above all a museum that offers a wide selection of American Art (not the one we are most used to seeing). Beautiful room also dedicated to contemporary art.
Old city & Elfreth’s Alley
It is not the neighborhood we have explored the most, but it is one of the must-see neighborhoods in Philadelphia. This is the cradle of American history and you will find all the historical monuments dear to the city. Independence Hall, Liberty Bell or Betsy Ross House (where the first American flag would have been sewn). It is here that the resemblance with Boston architecture is also most striking: cobblestones and red bricks typical of the northern US East Coast. Don’t miss Elfreth‘s Alley, the oldest street in America still inhabited.
Our advice to visit the historic district of Philadelphia is to ask for a map (free) at the tourist office super detailed. And it’s all very easy to do on foot. By the way, what’s really nice about Philadelphia is that everything is easy to do on foot.
Fishtown and Old Kensington
Two neighboring neighborhoods where we spent the majority of our trip in Philadelphia. This is where you’ll find the cool shops, cafes and restaurants. Also microbreweries (all our good addresses can be found at the bottom of the article). Let’s be clear, these are the two hipster neighborhoods in Philadelphia where you’ll find the cool, well-dressed people; the kind of neighborhood you like to discover. Like Williamsburg in New York or Mile-End in Montreal. The area has been gentrified but the popular side has stayed there, most certainly due to the aerial subway line that crosses the neighboordhood and gives this little “ghetto” side (while not at all obviously).
Mural Arts program
In Philadelphia you will find no less than 4000 murals spread all over the city that you can find on this digital map. It was THE big attraction that made me want to visit Philadelphia. As a street art lover, I’ve been hearing about Philadelphia for years as a reference in terms of artistic programs that allow communities and individuals to get together, to exchange, to engage in dialogues where there were none before. To get messages across. This is a great boost that allows young people in the neighbourhood to get involved in cultural projects that show solidarity as well.
Some of the murals in the Mural Art program tell the story of Philadelphia and African-Americans (a strong community in Philadelphia) or deal with social issues. It is an open-air place of free expression for the inhabitants and the rest of the world.
Eastern State Penitentiary
It’s a somewhat atypical visit, out of the norm, but definitely a must on a trip to Philadelphia. The Eastern Penitentiary, is a famous neo-gothic style prison known for its atypical star-shaped construction (from the center it is possible by turning on yourself to observe the different blocks of prisoners). But also for having sheltered there for 10 months the famous gangster, Al Capone. Some will say that the prison is haunted; I can only assure you that the visit will take you to the bones.
One Liberty Observatory
It’s the rooftop you don’t want to miss if you want to get up high and watch Philadelphia from the air. However, I advise you to go by day and not by night like us.
During our stay in Philadelphia we were able to test two (great) hotels. The first the Loews, located in Downtown Philadelphia this luxury hotel is best known for being located in Philadelphia’s premier bank. The hotel has kept most of its artefacts (material, marble, Cartier clocks located on each floor, the safe on the first floor, traps for the mail …) while adding a nice touch of modernity. The rooms are spacious, uncluttered and they all have a crazy view of the city. The hotel is one of the tallest buildings in Philadelphia: we were on the 34th floor and what a view! This is also where you will be able to enjoy a really crazy brunch like I’ve never seen before at the Bank & Bourbon.
The second address we recommend for sleeping in Philadelphia is Lokal Fishtown. I had spotted the one in the Old City but due to lack of availability we went to Fishtown (not bad, we loved the neighborhood). Lovers of design & decoration have surely already seen this hotel in some reviews. The Lokal Old City is renowned for its large artist’s canopies, spacious rooms where the decoration wavers between high design and old-fashioned. The Lokal Fishtown, on the other hand, tends more towards Scandinavian design but is just as hot.
My good places to eat in Philadelphia…
Double Knot for Japanese food – Bank & Bourbon for a great brunch – Reading Terminal Market for a quick bite to eat – Saint Benjamin Brewing Company for a homemade beer – reAnimator Coffee for a local café – Good Spoon Soupery as the name suggests for a soupy treat – La Colombe a reference if you like coffee (their croque monsieur is good too) – Frankford Hall for drinking beer and playing ping pong at the same time – Wm. Mulherin’s Sons for Italian food. It’s a little expensive but wow, that was good! You can also sleep there; the hotel is really crazy but as for the restaurant it’s quite expensive. – El Bar to drink a beer + a shooter for 4$ – lunch at the Barnes Foundation of avocado-toast
If, like us, you like popular cities with a strong character. Often contested but with a soul, a vibe, something strong that comes out of it. If you like (counter)culture and street art; Philadelphia is definitely for you! Then if you come on a trip to New York, think about the Philly option, which is fast and cheap by bus (look at Megabus or Greyhound). And if you live in Montreal (like us) it’s easy by car, count between 8 and 10 hours with coffee breaks and customs clearance.
We hope we’ve been able to show you a different side of Philadelphia, or even teach you more about this city that you don’t see very often on travel blogs. Wrongly, we loved it and of course we recommend it wholeheartedly!