Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Philadelphia for Tourists

Though growing up in Philadelphia felt claustrophobic, I have a newfound appreciation for it having returned to live there (part time) 20 years later. Following are some of my opinions as an insider/outsider.

Contrary to many people’s image, it’s a beautiful city - well, certain parts of it. And that’s the key. It has a split personality perfectly summarized by the nickname “Bostroit”. It is about the size of Boston and Detroit combined and has a historic city center with educated, affluent professionals surrounded by neighborhoods that are the epitome of urban blight.

Center City Philadelphia (the original city laid out by William Penn in 1683) has beautiful colonial and 19th century architecture, quaint cobblestone streets, great museums and restaurants and an urban density that makes it one of the most walkable cities in America.

However, it is surrounded by some of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in America. Which is the image that tends to be displayed in the media – Killadelphia, the murder capital of the United States.

The average tourist never sees Killadelphia. The hotels, historical sights, museums and nightlife are all in Center City. You can spend a weekend at a Center City hotel and walk everywhere you want to go and never see the murder capital of the United States. The only hint of the poverty, despair and urban blight for which Philadelphia is known is the occasional aggressive panhandler or cracked out homeless person on the street.

It makes for an excellent weekend trip (and a week may be a little too much). The best way to experience it is just walking around. Yeah, you should go to the museum(s) and maybe take a tour of Independence Hall. But the joy of Philly is its streetscapes and architecture as well as its restaurants and nightlife. Walk all day, eat a nice brunch and dinner and have a few drinks.

Center City is generally considered the area between the Delaware River (Front St, equivalent to 1st Street) and the Schuylkill River and Spring Garden and South St.

Society Hill
The essence of Philadelphia, home of most of the historical sites, and the oldest (preserved) section of Philadelphia. The main tourist area (including Independence Hall) is Chestnut to Walnut from Front to 6th St. The nicer area, in my opinion, is between Walnut and South. Its like a living, breathing Colonial Williamsburg and is much less touristy. Possibly the nicest section of Philadelphia, it has beautiful blocks and alleyways filled with well preserved colonial homes. Perfect for an afternoon stroll.
– Chestnut to South St. from Front (1st) to 6th St.

Old City
Old City is considered the “Soho” of Philly. The title is a little misleading since this area tends to have later 19th century architecture (with the exception of Elfreths Alley, the oldest residential street in America and the early 18th century Christ Church). Art galleries and furniture stores abound. It is also a (straight) nightlife hub on 2nd and 3rd Streets just south of Market.
– Chestnut to Vine St. from Front to 6th St.

Rittenhouse Square
Centered around the Square itself, this area contains grand 19th century architecture, high end restaurants and shopping. Generally considered the most exclusive section of Philadelphia. My favorite stroll is Delancey Place between 17th and 21st Street, a quiet street of elegant townhouses. Walnut Street between 15th and 18th has the best (and most expensive) restaurants and shopping in Philadelphia.
– Chestnut to South St. from Broad St to the Schuylkill River

Art Museum
Benjamin Franklin Parkway, designed in the early 20th century as a grande boulevard, leads from City Hall to the Art Museum. A wide street with fountains and museums but without restaurants or shopping. While the “Art Museum” area is north of the Parkway and contains 19th century townhouses (newer and less grand than Rittenhouse Square), more worthwhile is Boathouse Row and the beginning of Fairmount Park on the other side of the Art Museum.
-Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Fairmount Ave, Broad St to the Schuylkill River

Washington Square West / Gayborhood
The best combination of quaint streets, restaurants and nightlife. Though it is the gayborhood, it has a lot of straight nightlife and restaurants and is increasingly an alternative to the hyper-straight Old City or high-end Rittenhouse Square (similar to Dupont Circle in Washington).
- Chestnut to South St from 8th St to Broad St

Avenue of the Arts
A nickname for Broad Street south of City Hall (the dividing line between Washington Square West and Rittenhouse Square), it contains the Kimmel Center, the Academy of Music and various theaters.
-Broad St from Market to South St

Other neighborhoods:
There is a lot more to see in Philadelphia if you have more than a weekend. Some interesting areas bordering Center City which are gentrifying, thanks to the real estate boom and increased interest in urban living, include:

University City - 30th St. to 40th St.
home to University of Pennsylvania and Drexel

Queens Village/South Philly - south of South St, east of Broad St.
the Italian Market (grocers market and Italian food) and Pats/Genos (not the best but the most popular cheesesteaks) are both on 9th Street. There are also some good newer restaurants and historic blocks of townhouses.

Northern Libertiesnorth of Spring Garden, Front to 5th St.
The gentrifying, hipster neighborhood with good live music venues though a little sketchy after dark.

[More to come, including a guide to the gay bars]

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