Here’s the crazy thing. Prior to last month, I had never been to Philadelphia. I know, I know—and I’m kind of cursing every one of you for not telling me before now that it was a city made for SVV and me. Because while we ultimately went for the art, we didn’t really know what to do in Philadelphia when we arrived, and yet four days there turned out to not be nearly enough time to explore the country’s most historically significant city.
Why we went to Philadelphia
When we converted DMA to a nonprofit a couple years ago, we decided to try and make at least one of our annual quarterly board meetings on location somewhere. A pure artistic retreat, nothing related to our day jobs, just locations we’d always wanted to visit that would creatively fulfill us. Then, the pandemic hit and we had to cancel the hope of doing both St. Petersburg (Florida) and Philadelphia board retreats last year.
However, the desire to visit Philly never waned. As soon as SVV and I were fully vaccinated in February, I started booking flights to what I anticipated would be safe destinations: first to Palm Springs, then to Philadelphia. Was it a good decision? Absolutely. Like many of its northern neighbors, Philadelphia takes the whole situation at present very seriously, and I’m glad we were able to have our first Philly experience be in the glorious late spring, sans crowds.
Planning a pandemic trip to Philly
We got our flights when airfare was still super cheap, paying around $49 each way to fly from Nashville (BNA) to Philadelphia (PHL) on Southwest. Airfare has risen significantly over the past month, but if you plan your trips on off-peak days (namely, Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday), you can still find good deals.
While I love a good hotel, when I’m traveling to a city, I almost always book a vacation rental or Airbnb. Why? Because city hotel rooms are notoriously tiny—think: 200 square feet or so—and for four nights, I’d much rather have space. Plus, if you’ve followed us for some time, you know for my own sanity and restlessness, I need my own room. I found a lovely, light-filled two-bedroom rental in the Old City for $187 a night and immediately jumped on it. With taxes and all Airbnb’s ridiculous fees, it came out to around $1,000 for three nights, but still very, very worth it.
The next thing I did was make a list of all of the museums and attractions that were musts on my list. While, yes, we like having a mixed itinerary of planned activities and ample free time to go with the flow and see where we wind up, traveling in a pandemic world means that you really have to plan accordingly. In the big cities especially the museums that are open are still reduced capacity and almost every one I’ve seen is timed entry with advanced reservations required.
So I booked one museum or art tour a day for the four days we were there, then left the rest of the afternoons free to see where the city streets took us. And, in retrospect, I’m very happy we had that mix of plans and flex.
What to do in Philadelphia
Sure, you know what to do in Philadelphia: see the Liberty Bell, visit Independence Hall, see a Phillies game, tour City Hall, eat a cheesesteak. We didn’t do any of that, though.
Instead, we planned our adventures around art, food, architecture and beer (duh). I naturally gravitate toward interactive attractions and anything with a heavy art focus; as such, Philadelphia’s many museums, galleries and green spaces were right up my alley.
The bulk of Philadelphia museums are located along the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stretching from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, meaning if you’re a museum fan, you can make your base here for a solid day to see the best of the city’s cultural attractions.
Named after Benjamin Franklin, the Franklin Institute is the center of science innovation in Philadelphia. It also houses the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.
But the reason we were so drawn to it as it also has hosted the Crayola Ideaworks exhibit this year that lets you explore your creative and problem-solving skills. You know SVV and I were all about that!
The rest of the museum was very cool, too, with all kinds of exhibitions from how electricity works to a display of old-school train depots. You could literally spend hours wandering these hallowed halls, so plan your time accordingly.
The Barnes Foundation
I’ll admit I knew nothing of the Barnes Foundation until multiple people recommended it when I crowdsourced what to do in Philadelphia. Then, when a Philly friend told me she was getting married there, I knew we had to go!
The Barnes Foundation boasts one of the largest fine art collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and Modern paintings—you’ll see so many by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, van Gogh and other notable artists of the genre—but it’s also got African sculptures and decorative arts spread across three different levels. The collection moved to its current location in 2012, and even if you aren’t a fine art lover, the architecture of the current digs is worth the visit alone.
When I say I was absolutely blown away by Magic Gardens, I can’t fully describe what it’s like to enter into this mosaic compound comprising found objects and feel the sensory overload that smacks you in the face. This site is truly remarkable and should be at the top of things you do in Philadelphia, whether you love art or are a lukewarm consumer of it.
It was started by visionary Isaiah Zagar, who sourced handmade tiles, bottles, bicycle wheels, mirror, and international folk art to make up this miracle world. The indoor galleries and bi-level outdoor sculpture garden are now managed by a nonprofit, and Zagar’s work can be see all over Philly in various murals and installations. Though you really must go see these Gardens, which you’ll only need 20 minutes or so to wander through (book your ticket in advance).
Walking tour with Mural Arts
So much of our own nonprofit work was modeled off what Jane Golden has done in Philadelphia since the 1970s, so we obviously weren’t going to come to Philly without seeing the fruits of her labor up close. In addition to being a celebrated muralist in her own right, Golden started Mural Arts in 1984, and it’s been a huge catalyst for change in Philly, responsible for more than 4,000 murals and countless other educational programs and creative placemaking projects.
Mural Arts operates several guided tours throughout different neighborhoods on various days of the week. It’s a great chance to get out and see the city by foot (or bike) while also learning about the public art that has shaped Philadelphia. My only criticism of this tour was our guide and her limited knowledge of public art; I really wish they had an artist or someone who knew a bit more leading the group because (shocker) I had about 1,000 questions for which she had zero answers.
If you’re short on time or not keen on guided tours, you can use this map to visit the murals on your own.
Neighborhoods to visit in Philadelphia
Of course the bulk of our time was spent wandering the city by foot, seeing what we discovered on our own, as often is how we prefer to travel—at least on our first visit anywhere. And Philadelphia has so many cool neighborhoods with their own unique identities.
We went to Fishtown in search of an afternoon bar and unearthed a very Brooklyn-like neighborhood with dive bars, restaurants and street art galore. Much of the neighborhood is located along or just off of Frankford Avenue, and if you’re looking for a weekend day-drinking adventure, look no further. If you’re coming from downtown or the Old City, you can wander up the Delaware Rive waterfront passing the piers of Northern Liberties as you go.
In Philadelphia, there’s no city center, it’s Center City (confusing, I know). This neighborhood spans the central business district and many of its subsidiaries, so you’ll inevitably find yourself there a few times during your stay in Philly. It also houses several micro-neighborhoods like the Old City and many tourist attractions, too.
The area dubbed Gayborhood is right in the heart of Center City, bypassed by the bustling restaurant corridor of 13th Street, and just north of Magic Gardens.
The Old City may be the more touristy corridor, but we found the historic district to the perfect base for exploring the city. Everything was either a 10-minute ride away or a 20-minute or so walk. We used Lyft or Uber to get around everywhere we couldn’t reach by foot as we opted not to rent a car.
Old City runs from Vine Street to Walnut Street, north to south, and from 7th Street to the Delaware River, west to east. The cool thing is that we had to pass through Independence Mall to get almost anywhere we were going, so while we didn’t go inside the Liberty Bell and surrounding attractions, we definitely got a glimpse of them.
I absolutely loved Queen Village and its residential charm. The old homes! The public art! The independent restaurants and bars! Just south of the Old City, this was probably my favorite neighborhood and where I’d want to live if I moved to Philly (don’t rule it out…).
Eating in Philadelphia
I admittedly did not place as huge an emphasis on restaurant research as I normally do—mainly because of the pandemic and the difficulty just popping in for a meal at leisure—but I asked for recommendations on Instagram and got some great ones. So I made Saturday night dinner and Sunday brunch reservations, then left all the rest of the meals up to chance.
This wound up being a great plan as my dear friend Alex took an impromptu train down from Albany the day we arrived and stayed for two nights, so we enjoyed a couple different meals with her. Here are the places I loved and would absolutely recommend.
Hands down, the best meal we had in Philadelphia was at Talula’s Garden, the one place that I booked a few weeks in advance for a Saturday night dinner. We sat in one of the outside cabins—I love what the city did during the pandemic to take the dining experience outside in cozy huts and other structures—and were blown away by every dish we had, from tuna tartare to smoked pork belly.
Pro tip: the cheddar-chive biscuits and salted honey black pepper butter are a MUST. Also, while overall we found Philadelphia’s cocktail culture lacking, Talula’s drink offerings were A+.
I loved this central cafe and wine bar just off Rittenhouse Square that specializes in cheeses and wines and has an excellent selection of shared plates and sandwiches. We met a friend at Tria for a very blustery outdoor lunch, and I highly recommend adding this to your dining itinerary between shopping and museum visits.
Silk City Diner
This lovely vintage Philly diner occupies an old dining car that dates back to 1952 and was restored and reopened about 15 years ago. Due to limited daytime hours, we struck out trying to do a Thursday lunch there the day we flew in, but wound up looping back for Saturday brunch and it was not a bad decision at all. There’s also an adjoining outdoor patio space and beer garden, too.
Note: Cute brunch date not included.
The one night we went out to eat with Alex, her sister Olivia and Olivia’s fiance John, we found ourselves at the Japanese/Asian-fusion Morimoto, Masaharu Morimoto’s flagship restaurant, which has one of the coolest interiors I’ve seen in some time. (Alas, I didn’t take my camera with me on this trip, so these are all low-quality iPhone photos.)
We had a couple rounds of drinks inside before our table was prepared outside, then once in our exterior cabin, we dug on into some pot stickers, sushi and ramen—all the things that I miss living in the South.
Located along the bustling 13th Street corridor, El Vez is a beloved Philadelphia Mexican restaurant known for its eclectic decor, splashy art and damn good food. We nabbed one of the outdoor cabanas for a Sunday brunch—bonus: they accept reservations, even at brunch—and sipped our way through margaritas and palomas as we fueled up on brunch food. Bonus: El Vez has one of the largest tequila collections in Philly!
Nomad Pizza Co.
If you need a grab-and-go option, as often I find myself needing when on the road, Nomad Pizza Co. is the perfect solution. We were happy houring next door at Hale & True Cider Co. when the urge to eat struck us all, and luckily we were able to order right at the take-out window and dine on spicy sausage, margherita and soppressata pies at the cidery’s outdoor picnic space.
Other restaurants in Philly
Crazy as it is we never had a Philly cheesesteak! And while I had an extensive list of Philadelphia restaurants that friends and Instagram followers sent me, we barely made a dent; some were closed or booked solid, while others we simply didn’t have enough meals to make it to. If you’re heading to Philly, you can check out these recommendations:
- Little Suzies
- DiNic’s in Reading Terminal
- Lost Bread Co.
- Urban Farmer
- Harp & Crown
- The Dandelion
- Mission Taqueria
- Bing Bing Dim Sum
- Loco Pez
- Beddia Pizza
- Laser Wolf
Where to drink in Philadelphia
There are, quite literally, hundreds of breweries in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties. Many, however, were still closed due to the pandemic at the time of our visit. The ones that were open were those that served food. Still, we got a pretty great taste of Philly’s beer scene.
Yards Brewing Co.
Yards was described to me as the OG brewery in Philadelphia, and I always like to mix visits to the originals with what’s trendy. Because we were flying in on a Thursday at lunchtime, we took a Lyft straight here and had a flight with a side of lunch. Yards also has a full menu and restaurant inside, in addition to plenty of patio space.
Independence Beer Garden
I always love getting to meet up with long-time readers of this blog, so nothing thrilled me more than when educator and art historian Erin wanted to meet us for a beer. We settled on meeting at the sprawling, 20,000 square-foot Independence Beer Garden overlooking the Liberty Bell, and it wound up being the perfect spot for a group hang with the ability to quickly and easily order beer and food via the beer garden’s app.
Love City Brewing
This was our last stop of the trip, and I couldn’t have loved Love City Brewing more. The service was excellent, the interior was very airy and pleasing, and the beer was great.
And then when we were leaving to catch our Lyft, we saw this—lots and lots of murals on the outside! There was even a Shepherd Fairey or two. Love City, you rock.
Writer’s Block Rehab
As I noted before, Philadelphia didn’t have a lot of great cocktail bars—beer and wine, yes!—so it was a pleasant surprise when we finished up at Magic Gardens early and had an hour to kill before dinner. I searched on Yelp, and bam, Writer’s Block Rehab came back as a nearby bar that was open. As if the reviews didn’t sell me, the name surely did, not to mention the travel-themed upstairs, the writer-inspired downstairs and, of course, a mural on the outside!
Hale & True
Not a fan of beer like our friend Alex? Philly has a fabulous cidery, Hale & True, worth an evening out. Definitely order a flight! The bar also serves cocktails and beer if you’re going out with a group who has mixed feelings on spirits.
Other bars/breweries in Philly
- Bok Bar
- Craft Hall
- JG Skyhigh Lounge
- Cira Centre
- Chinatown Beer Garden
This was my first time in Philadelphia and I aimed at doing as much art as we could cram into four days, rather than accomplish some tourist checklist. If you want more in-depth Philly recs, check out this list of local historical sites, this foodie guide to Philly, this road map to Terminal Market and a deep dive on the very popular Longwood Gardens.
Do you love Philly as much as we did? Where should we go on our next urban art getaway?
If you love Philadelphia, I’ve got plenty of city guides to places you might want to visit next: