The first thing visitors discover about Philadelphia is that it's a walking town. You'll find most places are within a mile of City Hall. Stroll on pleasant, tree-lined streets that display a rich mix of architecture ranging from Colonial to Victorian to Bauhaus, sometimes all presented within the same block. Recent years have seen a burst of building activity and 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 because it's a walking town, visitors can leave the car and wander. Each street connects to smaller and smaller streets and alleyways that hide small groups of houses, clever gardens, footnotes to American history and good coffee spots to take a rest.
Getting Around Philadelphia
This was the first major city to be designed on a grid system, which means that directions make sense: You can walk from the east end of Market Street to the west end in a straight line. The streets running north to south are numbered from two to 69. On-street parking is generally limited to two hours and some streets have their own peculiar restrictions, so read the signs carefully. There is a lot of construction and street repair going on, but generally these are small projects that only disrupt the traffic flow for a few days at a time in any one spot. There are ample parking garages with rates lower than New York and discounts for all-day parking. The local public transportation, SEPTA, has routes that cover the whole region, including a light rail from the airport. SEPTA passes are available at day, weekly or monthly rates. Cab drivers here are as peculiar as they are anywhere, but they are all licenced and generally very reliable. In centre City, the wait for a cab should be no more than five minutes.
A City of neighbourhoods
Philadelphia occupies as much land as New York City, but with a smaller population of about 1.5 million spread out over the area. Downtown Philadelphia is referred to as centre City
. This covers 30 blocks from the Delaware River on the east end to the Schuykill River on the west side, as far north as Spring Garden Street and south to South Street. But within this area there are even more neighbourhoods.
Start your visit with the neighbourhood around Independence Hall. This is where the Liberty Bell
rang out and where the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written and signed. Sit under a tree in the gardens. Mail postcards home from Benjamin Franklin's Post Office (besides everything else, he was the first Postmaster General). This area is Society Hill
, where you can tour Independence National Park, then do some shopping and 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 live music, all within a few blocks. North of Market Street 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.
East of Old City, along the Delaware River, Penn's Landing
is a backdrop for outdoor festivals and free summer concerts, as well as fireworks on holidays. Or you can take a ferry across the river to the aquarium. In the summer, open-air clubs north of the Ben Franklin Bridge take advantage of the breathtaking view.
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 rivals any Chinatown in the country. It's also home to the Pennsylvania Convention centre
and the Reading Terminal Market
On the west end of centre City is the fashionable Rittenhouse Square
district, where you can buy great clothing and then wear it to dinner at the place next door.
Other Areas of Interest
Broad Street, south of City Hall, is the Avenue of the Arts
. The orchestra, the ballet and the Wilma, Merriam, Gershman, Prince and Arts Bank theatres all reside here, interspersed with great restaurants and jazz clubs. Modeled on Parisian boulevards, the Ben Franklin Parkway
presents a wonderful, tree-lined walk past Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, several expensive hotels, the main Library and several museums. At the end of the Parkway, atop a hill, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
is where rich Italian history and new communities of Vietnamese and Thai make great dining unavoidable. Across the Schuykill River in West Philly
, the University of Pennsylvania and six other major schools are the centrepiece of a deep blend of students, immigrants and old neighbourhoods. And north of Old City, Northern Liberties
is the "new frontier" of the hip scene. The Silk City Diner
at 5th and Spring Garden is the place to go for a grilled cheese sandwich at 4am Sunday morning or the best huevos rancheros for breakfast.
Take the Schuykill Expressway or Kelly Drive for ten minutes to an old canal path in Manayunk
. Main Street is two miles of terrific restaurants, exclusive stores and a nightclub or two.