Historic, hip, and hospitable — there’s so much to love about Philly.
Here in Eastern America, we’re spoiled for big cities that are as historic as they are populous. Just beyond our backyard, Philadelphia balances both: its reputation and history as the birthplace of America with big city vibes, offering the walkability of Washington, DC and the diversity of New York City on a satisfying scale. Unique museums, fantastic food, and bountiful boutique shopping are all just a short train ride away.
This March I visited Philadelphia for four days, and although the city was in the grips of an arctic chill, there was no shortage of warmth when I arrived. The trip there took less than two hours by train from Washington DC’s Union Station to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, which happens to be one of the last remaining grand train stations in America. Stepping into the station’s grand concourse, with its Art Deco interior – including gorgeous ornamentation, chandeliers, and five-story-high windows — was the first clue that I was about to fall in love.
And fall in love I did, which is no surprise considering that the city’s founder, William Penn, based its name on the Ancient Greek term for beloved (phílos). Phílos, when combined with adelphós (brotherly), gives the city its enduring nickname, The City of Brotherly Love.
From the train station, I hailed the first of many Ubers for a quick ride to Loews Philadelphia Hotel, located in the nation’s first skyscraper. The accommodations combine living history with warm sophistication, just like the city of Philadelphia itself. My room on the 25th floor had incredible views overlooking the city, providing glimpses of both the daytime hustle and the nighttime bustle. The room itself was quiet, modern, spacious, and inviting, and the staff was among the most professional, helpful, and friendly that I’ve ever encountered. Downstairs, the first-floor restaurant/bar Bank & Bourbon offers an impressive menu from breakfast to dinner to late-night, and room service is available 24 hours a day. This kid-friendly property also has a liberal pet policy: no deposits and no exclusions. The prime Center City location in the Market East neighborhood offers convenient access to the Pennsylvania Convention Center (two blocks away), Chinatown, the Avenue of the Arts and more.
The hot ticket when I was in town was the Philadelphia Flower Show, and it did not disappoint. The longest-running (dating from 1829) and largest (drawing 250,000 visitors each year) indoor show of its kind, this annual gardening celebration, organized by The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, features stunning displays by the world’s premier floral and landscape designers and more than 150 vendors. This year’s theme was “Wonders of Water,” which summoned summertime fantasies in the middle a raging Nor’easter. Once inside and out of the cold, I was greeted by a rainforest of thousands of plants, featuring flowering vines, a hanging canopy of orchids, birds-of-paradise and anthuriums, and a bamboo-lined path. I spent hours winding my way through the impressive displays and found several unique gifts for family and friends, as well as a few souvenirs for myself.
If you plan to go to the show —which I strongly encourage! – Then you must stay at the Loews Philadelphia. Even in the midst of a powerful snowstorm, I quickly and easily made it back to the hotel, on foot, to settle down and warm up in my room with a few sweet blooms and local chocolate that I picked up at the event.
Another must-see is the Reading Terminal Market, also located less than two blocks from the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. You’ll find everything you need and then some, as long as you have the time to browse the incredible array of groceries, confections, flowers, restaurants, and home goods, all under one roof.
Instead of rushing through a tourist itinerary of museums and historic sites – and there is a seemingly endless assortment of both – I spent one afternoon wandering the city on foot to see where serendipity would take me. I wanted to live like a local, even if only for a few hours. For me, this is the best way to truly learn about a place and the only way to get a real feel for the people and heart of any city. In doing so, I found an incredible and carefully curated independent bookstore, Joseph Fox Bookshop, located a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. I stumbled upon a fantastic cupcake at P.S. & Co, a restaurant on Locust Street offering an organic plant-based, gluten-free menu. I tried to sample the lunch menu at the renowned, elegant, and progressive vegan restaurant Vedge. This self-proclaimed ‘“foodie’s” restaurant – for omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores alike” is so popular that I couldn’t get a seat, even at the bar, in the middle of the afternoon, during a snowstorm.
And although I also missed out on grabbing a cannoli and cheesesteak – two of Philadelphia’s most iconic dishes – I did get a chance to try a few other mainstays of the Philadelphia cuisine scene. Most notably, I was impressed by the experiences I had at Talula’s Garden and Moshulu.
Talula’s Garden offers seasonal American food inspired by the farm and garden. It was named the “most romantic restaurant in Pennsylvania” by Food and Wine in March of 2018, and I can see why. The dim dining room is beautifully outfitted with thick wooden tables and comfortable chairs – everything nearly glows in candlelight reflected in the rustic tableware. The food and drinks were complimentary and impeccable, and the entire staff was helpful and charming.
At Moshulu – the only restaurant venue in the world situated on a Tall Ship – I ate in a private room (formerly the captain’s quarters) that could only be reached by way of the kitchen after first passing a grand staircase reminiscent of the one that Rose and Jack descend in Titanic. And during a refined and tasty meal, I was entertained to the point of laughter by staff who shared some of the ship’s history and stories about interesting guests.
Greensgrow Farms may be the crown jewel of Philadelphia, though. They are an impressive, nationally recognized non-profit urban farm in the middle of the city, and home to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, food access and educational programs, a farm stand, and a garden center. When I visited for a tour and brunch, I spoke directly with Ryan Kuck, Greensgrow Executive Director, who shared his passion for their philosophy to serve and thereby revitalize and build the community. The organization began more than 20 years ago as a small hydroponic farm on a block-sized former brownfield surrounded by closed factories. These days, the farm draws more than 15,000 people a year for food, plants, workshops, classes, and other community events. Some folks stop by just to say hi to the farm animals that live there, including a 180-pound pig named Milkshake, a Muscovy duck named Ping, and a flock of abandoned chickens.
Even though I only had four frigid days in Philly, I was hooked on the intrinsic warmth and appeal of the place long before I had to leave. When I boarded my train for home, I regretted that my trip had to end and immediately began plotting my next visit. Like any good love story, I’m sure this one has another chapter, and I can’t wait to write it.
For a current list of things to do in Philadelphia and surrounding areas, check out: www.visitphilly.com