things to do in Philadelphia
November 20, 2018 6:44 AM   Subscribe

I would like to visit Philadelphia. But I have no plan; help me make one! Difficulty level: Thanksgiving-adjacent.

I'm nearby visiting my in-laws and would like to spend a day in Philadelphia, either tomorrow or Friday (probably Friday), because it seems ridiculous that I have never been there. But I also don't really have time to do my usual insane level of research and planning, so I'm hoping the brilliant minds of AskMetafilter can point me in the right direction.

I enjoy museums (natural history, art, science, whatever), used bookshops, botanic gardens, and walking around taking pictures of things, and as a former Boston resident of 11 years, I love cities with history. I hear that Philadelphia has some of that, but I have no idea what the gems are. I also have no sense of how walkable the city is or what the public transit system is like. So, basically, assume that my knowledge of Philly is limited to "there's this bell thing" and "stuff happened there." (Plus, you know, there's baseball, but it's not exactly in season right now.) Bonus points for things that are free or cheap, but I don't mind paying admission somewhere if it's worth it. I have no objection whatsoever to touristy things for this trip -- but I'm in the area several times a year, so I will surely drag my husband back at some point and can explore the more "hole in the wall"-type places then too.

I'm a vegetarian, so I probably won't be eating any cheesesteaks (although my husband might), but if there happen to be any nice cafes or lunch spots near a thing you are recommending, I'd love to hear about that as well.
posted by cellar door to Travel & Transportation around Philadelphia, PA (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Philly has a huge vegetarian food scene, and you can find vegetarian and vegan cheesesteaks! Govinda's Vegetarian Cuisine and Blackbird Pizzeria are both supposed to be really good.

For museums, check out The Mutter Museum. It's full of, er, medical curiosities. There's also the Rodin Museum, and Barnes Foundation on the Parkway. (Along with some other, famous museum you might have heard of on top of those steps.)

My favorite used book store is House of Our Own, on Spruce Street in West Philadelphia, and Book Corner behind the Main Library is also worth checking out.

If you've got time for a show, check out the Walnut Street Theatre. It's America's oldest continually operating theatre. Right now they're doing a production of Matilda: The Musical.

If you enjoy fancy drinks, check out the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company.
posted by SansPoint at 6:55 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are right downtown and Ben Franklin's grave is just about two blocks away. From there, walk over to Reading Terminal Market and get some cannoli.
posted by soelo at 7:07 AM on November 20, 2018

Thursday begins the time of year when Philly becomes the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.

If you are an OMGHOLIDAYS! person, check this out: 14 Must-See Holiday Attractions Opening Over Thanksgiving Weekend In Philadelphia.

If you are NOT that person, read that link anyway for places to completely avoid on Friday.

Either way, if you want a lovely cup of coffee, I will always recommend one of the Elixr Coffee locations.
posted by kimberussell at 7:09 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely lower-tier museums than the Barnes and the Museum of Art, but if you're a book nerd, the Rosenbach Museum and the Library Company of Philadelphia are worth checking out. And the Penn Anthropology Museum is my favorite museum in the city, partially because it has cool stuff and a globally-significant Middle East collection, but also because it's a dramatically under-visited museum and sometimes you feel like you get the whole place to yourself. Hours can be wonky when school is closed, though.

They aren't running any tours that weekend, but if you're interested in the architectural and social history of Philly, the Hidden City walking tours are fantastic.

And tourist-y central Philly is eminently walkable. You can walk from one end of the tourist-y bits to the other in about an hour and a half.

(If you want true hole-in-the wall Philly dining, go to John's Roast Pork. You'll need to drive, and the smart money calls their order in beforehand because the lines are significant and when the factory next door is running, the air will sometimes make your teeth feel furry, but by God, that roast pork sandwich with spinach is spectacular. Bring your own sriracha for maximum deliciousness.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:10 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding Blackbird! You’ll find a lot of vegan cheesesteaks around.

Take a walk up Passyunk Ave from the Snyder stop on the Broad Steet line up to Cheesesteak Vegas (Pats and Genos) just to see the spectacle. On your way stop by (can’t miss) Nice Things Handmade and all the other cute shops out that way.
posted by OrangeVelour at 7:39 AM on November 20, 2018

Lots of good suggestions - Nthing Reading Terminal (there will be tourists, but it's still pretty great) and Elixr. Don't let your husband fall into the cheesesteak hype! I love a good hoagie but the best hoagie he'll ever have is some little Korean place in a South Philly basement that you'll never find again; the two giant popular spots are fine but not worth the lines or sitting outside in the cold IMO.

These days I prefer Philly's Chinatown to those in NYC or SF, (ditto Little Italy). Especially for the Vegetarian inclined I'd recommend digging around for a good soup dumpling spot (Dim Sum Garden is fine, but there are others). Blue Corn may be the best sit-down Mexican place in Philly. Parc, which has a sister restaurant here in DC, is a lovely warm French spot right next to Rittenhouse Square - it's the kind of place that actually benefits from being part of a larger restaurant group, because their sourcing, staffing, and general vibe are consistently solid.

For something not already mentioned, whether or not you like the accordion, Liberty Bellows is weirdly delightful.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:48 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have made day trips to philly to eat at South Philly Barbacoa. The chef has been featured in Ugly Delicious and Chef's table on netflix. Cristina is a force of nature - not only does she make possibly the worlds most perfect taco (and the consomme!) but shes an incredible advocate for undocumented folks in general and a person to aspire to be more like on the regular.

shes not great at signage or menus - but the secret is that if you go and ask for veggie food, you'll be gladly accomodated. sure, the crowds are there for the lamb barbacoa tacos, pork pancita (maybe just as good) but they put a ton of care and love into everything they do, which includes off menu veggie tacos.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 9:17 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

You've gotten good suggestions so far!

Re: sandwiches, you might consider the Hip City Veg "Philly steak" (multiple locations) and your husband would be well-served to go for a roast pork sandwich instead (DiNic's, if you go to RTM and can stand the line).

If you're into the holiday scene, you could walk from 30th Street, past the Comcast Center, through the Christmas Village at Love Park, see City Hall, go to the light show at Macy's and end at Reading Terminal--this would give you a ~15 block walk with some spots to pop in from the cold.
posted by trixie119 at 9:31 AM on November 20, 2018

Re: getting around: a lot of times Mefi folks will claim areas are "walkable" and I think they're being a tiny bit delusional. But Philly is actually pretty good for getting about on foot/on transit, as long as you're not mobility-impaired. It's also way more fun than I was expecting the first time I went down (for work), so I'm sure you'll have a good time!
posted by praemunire at 10:11 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I spent a week in Philly for work, and had an absolute blast thanks to AskMe! What a fun town! For museums I recommend Eastern State Penitentiary, which has a great audio tour by, I believe, Steve Buscemi. I haven't gotten to go to Philly's Magic Gardens, but I really want to.

There's a café right near Eastern State Penitentiary called OCF that's got some good sandwiches, tea, coffee, etc. It's approximately across the street, and I went here a few times when I wasn't visiting the penitentiary - solid grilled cheese wins me over any time.

For other museums, there's a lot that tends toward tourist-heavy, which may or may not be your thing and may or may not be open. The Federal Reserve is a more interesting museum than many people think, and the Philadelphia Art Museum is nice.

For food, go to Vedge and V Street - great vegan (and thus vegetarian) food! Farmer's Keep is awesome and will have options for both you and your husband, it's cafeteria style pay by weight and always has interesting and delicious stuff. IndeBlue is great if you like Indian. Reading Terminal Market is great for pretty much anything, and is a cool thing to see just on its own. If you're into checking out vegan bakeries, Sweet Freedom is really good.

I really enjoyed the Random Tea and Curiosity Shop, and also a small café called Elixr closer to downtown.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:00 AM on November 20, 2018

If you are a vegetarian and your husband wishes to have a cheesesteak, your best bet is probably just to go to Reading Terminal. He can get a good one - or better yet, a roast pork sandwich - at Tony Dinic's, and you can find something that suits your needs.

I was pretty impressed with the Barnes, and I'm not exactly an art buff. The main Art Museum is also nice, although I was last there years ago.

More food: I had a great meal at Noord, a vaguely Northern European restaurant in South Philly, if you want something more foodie. Not sure about the vegetarian options there, though. I've also had some good eats just wandering through the Italian Market area - good coffee, too.

(I keep expounding on food because Philly is one of the best food cities in the US.)

If the weather is nice, Old City and South Philly are nice places to walk around. There's a clutch of vintage shops in the Queen Village area (just south of South St.) that have some interesting things, including books. The Liberty Bell is honestly pretty underwhelming, but Independence Hall is worth a visit.

Finally, nthing that Philly is highly walkable. Center City is easily traversed on foot, and some attractions like the Barnes are just on the outskirts of it. If you want to check out South Philly, you may want to jump on the Broad Street Line (subway) for a few stops, but the system is very easy to figure out - there are just two lines, which intersect at City Hall.
posted by breakin' the law at 12:30 PM on November 20, 2018

If you're in Center City, consider checking out the Wanamaker Organ in the Macy's store. It's the largest pipe organ in the world and they usually play a brief concert at noon and 5:30 on weekdays and Saturdays. I don't know if they've put up the Christmas lights yet but if they have then the store puts on a show with them in the early evenings (6:00 or so?). It's free. And it's also across the street from city hall which is a pretty neat building in its own right.

I don't care much for the Liberty Bell (although the bit where they have preserved some of the archaeological dig is cool) but I really think it's worth getting (free) tickets for Independence Hall if you've never been. It takes about an hour but it's a fantastic tour if you have any interest in U.S. history. I particularly like the part of the tour where you walk through and sit in Congress Hall where the first U.S. Congress deliberated. I've been a few times and I still go with family and friends when they visit.
posted by ElKevbo at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2018

For more historical goodness, the Museum of the American Revolution and the African American Museum are both fantastic.

The Fabric Workshop and Museum is also great, completely free, and very close to Reading Terminal Market.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 1:16 PM on November 20, 2018

Lots of great suggestions here, but I want to second (only second?) the Italian Market area for a few hours of decadence. Eat their food (Isgro Pastries, Cucina Forte), buy their gifts (Grassia's, Claudio's), drink their espresso (Anthony's). There's a FANTASTIC kitchen store there if you like that kind of thing (or at least there used to be...don't see it on Google Maps and can't remember the name).
posted by nosila at 1:34 PM on November 20, 2018

As a heads up: most of the places that have been mentioned are going to be PACKED this week. The Italian Market shops will have lines out the door tomorrow (although probably a bit less crowded on Friday). Reading Terminal will also be wall-to-wall humans. The Barnes generally requires tickets and it's possible they are sold out for tomorrow and Friday, so check before heading over.

Also note that South Philly Barbacoa is only open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

A couple of museums that haven't been mentioned: The National Museum of American Jewish History and The National Constitution Center.

Some suggestions for food in Chinatown: Penang (a pretty big Malaysian restaurant with an extensive menu, 117 N 10th St.), Lee How Fook (a small Chinese restaurant, 219 N 11th St) and Bubblefish Sushi (909 Arch Street).

A restaurant in South Philly that I enjoy is Bing Bing Dim Sum (delicious and interesting fusion dim sum, 1648 E Passyunk Ave).

Also if you like donuts (and/or your husband likes fried chicken), check out Federal Donuts. There are locations throughout the city. The donuts are delicious and warm.
posted by mcduff at 3:08 PM on November 20, 2018

Also, if you happen to come back to Philly on a Tuesday, join Tuesdays with Toomey at our weekly protest outside of Senator Toomey's offices (2nd and Chestnut at 12:20 for 45 minutes or so). We've been at it for over two years now and there's nothing more quintessentially Philly than protesting.
posted by mcduff at 3:11 PM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just came into second House of Our Own. I don't live in Philly so I have no idea if they'll be open or not. It's a mom and pop place run by an elderly couple, but I stopped in on the recommendation of Metafilter earlier this year and it was an absolute thrill. It's everything you could possibly want in an old book shop and I ended up talking to the woman who runs the shop for over a half an hour. Just a lovely place and lovely people. I can't imagine anything better during the holiday season.
posted by FakePalindrome at 3:22 PM on November 20, 2018

We visited not long ago. After checking with Atlas Obscura, we split our two full days into history and art, since they are grouped together in different parts of the city. We hit the big spots and mapped out the obscure ones to walk to as we moved through the city. The Tiffany Glass Mural was awesome, but we did not like the Mutter Museum. We did like Reading terminal and the organ at Macy’s was cool but the o my reason we really went was to buy a shirt for a wedding we were attending. The Italian District is colorful and authentic and there’s a very cool Used bookstore called Molly’s. Finding Grip the Raven was like a fun treasure hunt, and you SHOULD see it because it’s in the very back of a small book museum at the library. Silly thing to do that turned in to one of those unusual details that make great memories.
posted by raisingsand at 6:41 PM on November 20, 2018

Response by poster: Fantastic suggestions. Thanks, everyone!
posted by cellar door at 7:02 AM on November 23, 2018

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