|The first thing visitors discover about
Philadelphia is that it's 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 it's 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
Getting Around Philadelphia
Who's Who in Philadelphia
This city's 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 jockey's couch to save money. Singer/actor Will Smith is expected to build a new studio here, in his hometown. And it's common these days to see stars like Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington or Oprah Winfrey making another film here.
A City of 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 Franklin's 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 Philadelphia's version of New York's 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. It's 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 there's a great collection.)
13th Street--There's no official name for this area, but it's 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.
Penn's 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 it's 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 what's 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.
It's 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.
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