|The first thing visitors discover about Philadelphia is
that its a "walking" town--most places are within a mile of
City Hall, on pleasant, tree-lined streets with a rich mix of
architecture, ranging from Colonial to Victorian to Bauhaus, sometimes
within the same block. Recent years have seen a burst of building
activity. There are days when it seems like every street in town is
under construction, especially when you're trying to find a parking
space. But its a walking town, so a visitor can leave the car in one
place for the day and find easy paths to wander. Each street leads to
smaller and smaller streets and alleyways, hiding small glories of
houses, clever gardens, footnotes to American history, and even a few
good coffee spots.
Getting Around Philadelphia
This was the first major city to be designed on a grid system, which means that directions make sense: You can walk from the east end of Market Street to the west end, and it will be a straight line. The streets running North-South are numbered from 2 to 69. On-street parking is generally limited to two hours, and some streets have peculiar restrictions on when even that is permitted, so read the signs carefully. There is a lot of construction and street repair going on, but generally these are small projects that only disrupt the traffic flow for a few days at a time in any one spot. (The local joke is that rush hour traffic reports should tell which streets aren't closed today.) There are ample parking garages, with rates lower than New York and discounts for all-day parking. The local public transportation (SEPTA, or South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) has routes that cover all of the city and the suburban area, including a light rail from Philadelphia International Airport. Passes are available at day, weekly, or monthly rates. Cab drivers here are as peculiar as they are anywhere, but they are licensed, and generally very reliable. In Center City, the wait for a cab is no more than five minutes, unless, of course, you really need one, and then it might be 10 minutes.
Whos Who in Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin came from Boston when he was 17 and became a famous and prosperous man here. His mark is everywhere, from Pennsylvania Hospital, which he helped found, to the University of Pennsylvania, which he also helped found, plus the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Franklin Institute, and the images of him everywhere you look. Theres even a street performer who has played Ben every day for 25 years, to a point where hes invited to official ceremonies and introduced to visiting dignitaries as Dr. Franklin.
This citys contributions to industry and science are legendary, from the introduction of the "cowboy hat" (Stetson Company) to the invention of ENIAC, the first electronic computer (University of Pennsylvania). These days the city is becoming better known for breakthroughs in genetic research, thanks to the concentration of schools and independent research facilities in the area.
Philadelphia has made a steady contribution to the arts scene over the years. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his classics here. Comedians W.C. Fields and Bill Cosby, artists Mary Cassatt and Alexander Calder, and the Philadelphia Orchestra all kept a touch of the city in their work. Chef Jacques Perrier turned down offers in Paris and New York and opened his restaurants here. A young Bruce Springsteen played in coffee houses here on the weekends, and used to sleep on a local disk jockeys couch to save money. Singer/actor Will Smith is expected to build a new studio here, in his hometown. And its common these days to see stars like Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington or Oprah Winfrey making another film here.
A City of Neighborhoods
Philadelphia occupies as much land as New York City, but with a smaller population -- about 1.5 million -- spread out over this area. Part of the charm of this city is its neighborhoods. For instance, downtown Philadelphia is referred to as Center City. This covers 30 blocks, from the Delaware River on the east end to the Schuykill River on the west side, and as far north as Spring Garden Street and south to -- well, to South Street. But within this area there are even more neighborhoods.
Start your visit with the first neighborhood, around Independence Hall. This is where the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written and signed; this is where the Liberty Bell rang out; where the Founding Fathers sat. Walk the simple buildings in this district, sit under a tree in the gardens, and mail postcards home from Benjamin Franklins Post Office (besides everything else, he was the first Postmaster General).
By the Delaware River is Society Hill, where some of the richest neighbors live in restored Colonial mansions. A few blocks north of there is Old City, which is Philadelphias version of New Yorks Soho, with wonderful restaurants, small art galleries, and a growing number of design firms; this is the fashionable young hip scene in all its shades. Here you can have a cocktail at an intimate bar, then head up the block to a play, concert, or movie, then discuss the show over a late dinner and head out again to hear music up the street, or do some late night shopping for books or music, all within a few blocks.
West of Old City, between 8th and 13th Streets, is Chinatown. These days Chinatown is about half Chinese and half a combination of Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Burmese, and Pan-Asian, and it rivals any Chinatown in the country. Its also home to the Convention Center and one of the oldest farmers' markets in the country, the Reading Terminal Market.
On the west end of Center City is fashionable Rittenhouse Square, where you can buy great clothing and then wear it to dinner at the place next door.
In between are the business and shopping districts, the Avenue of the Arts, and more small neighborhoods, each with own distinct identity.
The city scene is a strange mix of students from the numerous colleges, blue collar workers, and those in from the suburbs or New Jersey, across the bridge. Some of the other popular areas:
Avenue of the Arts--Broad Street, south of City Hall, is a boulevard of theatres and restaurants. The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Ballet, University of the Arts, and the Wilma, Merriam, Gershman, Prince, and Arts Bank theatres all reside here, interspersed with great restaurants and jazz clubs.
Ben Franklin Parkway--Modeled on Parisian boulevards, the Parkway presents a wonderful, tree-lined walk past Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, several expensive hotels, the main Library, and several museums. At the end of the Parkway, atop a hill, is the neo-classic structure of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This museum is approached by the famous "Rocky" steps, featured in a film years ago and now a famous tourist attraction in their own right. (But go into the museum, where theres a great collection.)
13th Street--Theres no official name for this area, but its the center of the gay community in town. Restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, bookstores, etc., serving the gay community, mixed with residences of professionals and students of three local medical schools.
Delaware Avenue--This is the place to be if you want to party all night (or the place to avoid if you hate staying out late). In the summer, open-air clubs take advantage of the river lights and the breathtaking view of the Ben Franklin Bridge. There are also arcades, pool and table tennis halls, driving ranges, movie theatres, and even shopping centers.
Penns Landing--This walkway along the Delaware River is a backdrop for outdoor festivals and free summer concerts, as well as fireworks on holidays. Or take a ferry across the river to the New Jersey State Aquarium.
South Street--In the 1960s, South Street was the hippie frontier; while there are still some vestiges of this history, these days its mostly a long stretch of chain stores appealing to teenagers and college students, though there are still some good places to hear music or buy good quality antiques at reasonable prices.
Northern Liberties--North of Old City, this is the "new frontier" of the hip scene; not much up there yet, but whats there is young, fashionable, and crowded with interesting conversation and cool music. The Silk City Diner at 5th and Spring Garden is the place to be for a grilled cheese sandwich at 4am Sunday morning, or the best place for huevos rancheros for breakfast.
Manayunk--If you take the Schuykill or Kelly Drive for ten minutes, you'll be along an old canal path in a quaint neighborhood. Main Street is two miles of terrific restaurants, exclusive stores and a nightclub or two.
Center City is surrounded by more neighborhoods: South Philly, where rich Italian history and new communities of Vietnamese and Thai make great dining unavoidable; North Philly, home of the funky Philly Sound, a lively Latin community, and the new mayor; and West Philly, across the Schuykill, where the University of Pennsylvania and six other major schools are the centerpiece of a deep blend of students, immigrants, and old neighborhoods. And there are plenty of other ways to go.
Its possible to get from one end of town to the other in about 20 minutes on one of the efficient subways, but the best way to see the town is just walk around, stop in somewhere that looks good, and start a conversation.