On the occasional Friday night when I don’t have anything to do, I find myself enjoying a few pints at my local brewery. I’ve been there often enough now that I’m considered one of the ‘regulars’, and I can look around in the crowd and with a wordless nod, recognize the others who faithfully congregate here week after week. I’ve had some friendly conversations, met some nice people, but the only constant face I can always rely on and expect to see is Chelsea, the unfailingly amiable bartender.
A couple weeks ago, on a slower than usual night, we talked about holiday plans. Whose relatives would be visiting whom, who decided to forego all of the holiday traditions and run off to some warm Caribbean island. And she mentioned she and her friends would be visiting Philadelphia sometime in January. Immediately my ears perked up. It’s been pretty obvious if you’ve read some of my posts that Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities, holding a lot of special and emotional memories for me. So jumped at the opportunity to share some of my experience, knowledge, and dare I say ‘expertise’, with someone who was about to explore it for the first time. I wrote up a little travel guide breaking Philly up into Center City, with Market Street and the heart of the historic district and waterfront, and South Philly, the artistic, creative, colorful, but troubled younger sibling.
I don’t know if I’ve ever fully laid out my ideal Philly trip map, but I figured since I went to the trouble to create this for her, I ought to share with you all too. Whether Philly is one of your own favorite destinations or you too have never visited the City of Brotherly Love, I hope you might find something here that entices you, encourages you, excites you, calling you to Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Winter Guide
***SEASONAL*** RiverRink Winterfest at Penn’s Landing (now until the end of February)
Penn’s Landing is a beautiful waterfront area with a boardwalk and it’s just a short walk from Center City and all of Philly’s historic attractions. During the winter the area is transformed into a winter village, with an ice skating rink, a giant Christmas tree, restaurants, and an outdoor area with fire pits, board games, and little cabins with seats and blankets. It stays open pretty late, so it’s a nice place to check out at night and get some ‘adult’ hot chocolate, relax in one of the mini cabins, or go ice skating.
Franklin Fountain and Shane Confectionery – 116 Market St.
This place is awesome for that old-timey vintage feel that’s legitimately authentic, and not hipster-y. They even still use the same original push-button register from when the Fountain first opened. The staff still wear the same white apron and red bow ties of old-fashioned soda perks and ice cream parlors. They make their ice cream in-house, and in winter they have a special menu with things like hot milkshakes and fresh baked apple pies, brownies, and cookies. Their ice cream is super-rich and they’ve got some interesting and unique flavors. Then next door there’s the Shane Confectionery, where they make all their chocolates by scratch. It’s a great place to get snacks and souvenirs. Their truffles come in like a hundred different flavors, they have great decadent bon bons, and the chocolate covered potato chips are really good.
Sonny’s Famous – 228 Market St.
Philly is undoubtedly the land of cheesesteaks, and everyone has their favorite. I can’t tell you Sonny’s is the best in Philly. But I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of cheesesteaks, and I only go back to Sonny’s. Maybe it’s the fresh bread delivered daily. Or the fact that they use whole, thin slices of rib-eye beef slow cooked in its own juices, without oil. Maybe it’s the mushroom and onions that I add to my Cheese-Whiz. Or I’m just a creature of habit. But it’s right in Center City, in between the historic district and the waterfront, so it’s all along the way.
Reading Terminal Market – 51 N 12th St.
If you ever needed proof that God loved us and is in everything, just wander Reading Terminal Market, and you’ll understand that there is a great and wonderful beauty in the chaos of the universe. There are some great eateries, like Pearl’s Oyster Bar for some great chowder, po’ boys, and fresh oysters, or the numerous Chinese stalls with tender juicy roast pork and crispy duck. There’s also an Amish confection booth that has the BEST gummy bears ever. Don’t ask me why or how. The mini ones are best. Have lunch, or grab some fresh unique doughnuts, ice cream, or whatever. Walk around and explore the countless seafood stalls run by scrupulous Chinese families with an exacting eye for the freshest and best seafood. Grab a few free samples of the incredible array of fine cheeses and charcuterie at the cheese and cured meat stands. Look and marvel in horror at the chocolate covered onions. I wouldn’t recommend actually trying it though.
Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House (CASH ONLY) – 1022 Race Street
A block away from Reading Terminal is Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House. Take a wild guess what their specialty is. Chewy, fresh-made noodles stretched by hand through hundreds of folds to create incredibly long strands of perfect noodles. It’s surprisingly incredibly cheap to get some of the best, most authentic Chinese food in Philly at this historic restaurant. They have an equally impressive and superbly flavorful selection of appetizers and dim sum. I don’t know how adventurous you are, but I would highly recommend getting either the spicy beef tendon or spicy pig’s ears to go with your noodles. Regardless, you can never go wrong with delicious pork and chive dumplings, if you must.
Time! – 1315 Sansom St.
I have to admit to my own great shame that of my numerous trips to Philly, I only recently discovered Time! on my last one. Not too far away from Reading Terminal, Time! is an incredibly impressive bar with a kitchen menu that rivals its drinks menu. I sat at the bar, alternating between one modest yet sophisticated cocktail and a plate of understated but quality food. Deviled eggs, a macaroni and cheese with crab meat and smoked bacon, a juicy house-made sausage, punctuated with perfectly made Sazeracs, Negronis, Old Fashioneds, and their own oak-aged Vieux Carre. If you’re not a cocktail person they also have an impressive selection of fine whiskey with options for tasting flights, but the real reason why I want you to go to Time! and make sure you have at least two hours to dedicate to the visit is the fact that Time! always has an amazing lineup of live jazz bands performing in the corner of its simple bar room.
Brauhaus Schmitz – 718 South St.
Hard to miss Brauhaus Schmitz as you’re wandering Philly’s more ‘artistic’ and ‘flavorful’ district of South Street. The exterior reminds you of a giant beer barrel, beckoning you inside. Brauhaus Schmitz is the best place for authentic German food and beer. They have over thirty German beers on draft and a mouthwatering selection of imported cured meats, authentic German bratwurst, knockwurst, and every-wurst, and wonderfully crispy schnitzel. It’s undeniably German and yet still feels like eating dinner at home.
Philadelphia Magic Gardens – 1020 South St.
The Magic Gardens is the ongoing and literally boundless project of local Philly artist Isaiah Zagar. He moved to the area in the 1960s, and his artwork can be seen all around South Philly in murals and mosaics decorating building walls all around South Street. The Magic Gardens doubles as his studio and also a living, breathing, ever-changing work of art. He creates these elaborate and beautiful mosaics using reclaimed materials like broken mirrors and glasses, bottles, bicycles, and hubcaps. You can enter the exhibit and see some of Zagar’s works in progress, and it’s a complete departure from the Philly city life. The outdoor area is a labyrinth of narrow stairways and passageways, all built around whatever Zagar could find and where he could put it. As long as the weather is dry, the Magic Gardens is open to the public.
Atomic City Comics – 638 South St.
Between the Marvel movies and the spread of things like anime and manga, it’s time to admit that nerd culture has become pop culture. Atomic City Comics existed way before everyone and their neighbor suddenly thought it was ‘cool’ to be ‘uncool’. They have a few vintage arcade games in the back you can play for a quarter and an extensive collection of Western and Asian comics and collectibles. It’s fun just to walk in, browse, explore, and read for a bit. The staff is super friendly and knowledgeable, and depending on the level of your nerd-dom, this place could be pretty fun to check out.
Condom Kingdom – 437 South St.
Look I don’t know who you’re going to Philly with. Maybe they’re cool, maybe they’re not. If they’re not, don’t go here. If they are, absolutely check out Condom Kingdom. This is not for the faint of heart. That becomes readily apparent when you say the many sex toys hanging from the ceiling, and the sex toy crane game. They take the sale of high-end sex toys for both men and women as seriously as any discerning sommelier would treat picking a selection of wines. They also have a wide assortment of novelties and gag (no pun intended) gifts for bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, or you know, birthday parties if you’re so inclined.
Pho Ha (CASH ONLY) – 600 Washington Ave
I have long since said that Philadelphia has the best pho in the country, and Pho Ha has the best pho in Philly, so you know what that means. The bowls of pho are ridiculously large and filling for what amounts to chump change. You can customize your pho, with different cuts of beet like brisket, flank, or top round steak. I would recommend brisket, beef tendon, beef tripe, and beef balls. If you’ve never had Asian beef balls before, they’re very different from western meat balls. The meat is minced finely and repeatedly beaten and pounded to create a chewy, bouncy texture. The bowls are served with heaping plates of fresh cilantro, lime, jalapenos, and bean sprouts to add to the still hot broth to cook right at the table. Vietnamese iced coffee, sweetened with thick condensed milk, is perfect to cool down from the warm soup.