Philadelphia was, for me, a surprising city. The surprise came in just how much I liked it and after spending a few days there, I realised I could easily come back and happily spend more time in this Pennsylvanian city. Here are some of the reasons I loved Philly and why you should too!
The architecture is actually old!
A preconception I certainly had about the United States is that it doesn’t really have any old buildings, at least by European standards. And indeed, while there are no castles, millennia old ruins or ancient cities per se, Philadelphia does have a lot of architecture dating back to the 18th century. Walking through the downtown, I felt that I could easily be in parts of central London that I feel very familiar with, which was a surprising feeling to experience on the opposite side of the Atlantic! However, thinking about it, it makes a lot of sense as Philadelphia was founded in 1682 and so much of its original buildings date from the 17th and 18th century, and of course it was at that time a British colony, so of course the styles would be similar!
There’s cool street art
Though the quantity of street art was not quite as high as I had expected (at least in downtown Philly and in South Philadelphia), the quality was definitely above what I hoped. Much of it is clearly commissioned by the city or private businesses and it is therefore well maintained and respected. The huge murals covering the entire side of buildings in South Philadelphia especially are something to keep an eye out for.
Isaiah Zagar’s mosaics
In addition to the typical murals around the city, there’s a whole other kind of street art to be found just south of the downtown area. These are the mosaics of Isaiah Zagar, a local artist who covers walls, garden fences, shop fronts or entire buildings with pottery and other ceramics, blended with pieces of mirror and a few other odd things. The main attraction of his work is the Philadelphia Magic Garden on South Street, but there’s no need to pay to go see it when there are dozens of his pieces on the streets and alleyways nearby. There’s actually a map available at the Magic Garden with the locations of all his works marked, and a walk through the dozen or so blocks to see the majority of them can be completed in just under an hour.
These blue and gold signs are all over the oldest parts of the city, telling brief histories of certain locations and pointing out the oldest, structures, people who lived in them or historical events that took place there. They tell some fascinating stories, and reading some of them paints a really interesting picture of just how liberal a city Philadelphia has been, even three hundred years ago!
There are tons of independent businesses
Of course there are all the chains you’d expect to see in any US city present in Philadelphia, but it was nice to see that it doesn’t seem to be at the detriment of independent businesses. The area around South Street in Washington Square West especially seemed to be a particularly dense spot for boutique clothes shops, independent cafés, thrift stores and other quirky things.
So much great vegan food
Honestly one of the main reasons I was interested in visiting Philadelphia in the first place, I’d heard that the city had a wide range of vegan food to be found covering everything from fast food to fine dining. And this certainly proved to be the case, and it was all great! There’ll be a vegan city guide coming soon, though some highlights were P. S. & Co, Vedge and Blackbird Pizzeria.
Water, water, everywhere
Philadelphia proper is bordered to the east and west by rivers: the Schuylkill (pronounced school-kill) to the west and the Delaware to the east. Along both edges of the central city, you can walk along the water and have great views, especially at sunset. Along the Schuylkill is the Schuylkill River Trail, an entirely pedestrian and cycle path, completely separate from the roads allowing for easy access on foot.
The alternative vibe
Something that’s not quite so easy to define or point at specifically, but I definitely had the feeling that there’s something a bit atypical about Philadelphia that you don’t experience in other US cities. I felt it through small, subtle expressions of liberalism (or even anarchic tendencies) that might go almost unnoticed, but together I was painted a picture of a very alternative and even rebellious city (especially in the current climate), which I liked a lot!
The tiny, narrow streets
So so tiny! Some of the residential streets in South Philadelphia are so narrow you can hardly imagine how people drive down them, but of course, being American, they do! Of course, they’re not busy, making for lovely little retreats from the car-heavy streets and they’re just so very cute.
One of the coolest art museums I’ve visited, this place is immense and you could easily spend half a day exploring all of its exhibitions with everything from contemporary American art to classical Persian tiling and everything in between. Come on a Wednesday evening after 5pm when entry is as much as you want to pay and it’s open late. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming and even though it’s a classical art museum, it feels very modern and accessible to everyone.
Have you been to Philadelphia? What do you love most about it?