Everything to See on Your Next Trip to Philadelphia
From coffee to cheesesteaks to the best museums, a hotel insider reveals his best tips for visiting the City of Brotherly Love.
The Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia opened in 1989 on Rittenhouse Square and has been an iconic, five-star hotel ever since. Chef Concierge and Les Clefs d’Or USA member Sean McCarthy arrived in 1993 as a hotel messenger; today, he leads a crack team of concierges who know the City of Brotherly Love better than most natives.
Below, his plan for making the most of your time in town.
InsideHook: Where can I get a cup of coffee and go for a good walk?
McCarthy: Hands down the best place to go is La Colombe on 19th Street. The original location of this now-national brand is still located a half block from the hotel. As for walking in Philadelphia, there are two distinct routes we generally recommend. Firstly, a walk north of the hotel to the art museum district down the Ben Franklin Parkway (modeled after the Champs Elysees in Paris) past the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Kelly Drive. Kelly Drive brings you along the Schuylkill River past the boat houses where local universities and high schools send out their rowing teams. It is also where cyclists and runners abound. Second would be a walk down Walnut Street past the local shops on Rittenhouse Row to the historic section of Philadelphia. At 6th and Walnut you will see the back of Independence Hall, which is surrounded with many of the most iconic Philadelphia landmarks in our historic square mile.
How about a restaurant where only locals go?
South Philadelphia generally — more specifically Passyunk Avenue, which is home to many small foodie-oriented options, including Stateside (gastropub), Laurel (stylish French American) and Bing Bing Dim Sum (Chinese with a Jewish twist). Additionally, five staples of South Philadelphia would be Dante and Luigis, Ralph’s, Villa Di Roma, Pesto and The Saloon.
Best budget eats in town?
Fez Moroccan cuisine, offering a seven-course feast for $25 per person; Canto House in Chinatown features authentic Cantonese cuisine; Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House offers bargain noodle dishes with handmade noodles; Dizengoff, a small and modern Israeli restaurant located three blocks from The Rittenhouse Hotel, and a casual option for those that cannot get into the top Philadelphia restaurant Zahav; and Caribou Cafe, a French cafe/bar with the best cheesesteak in the city.
Where can I go for the best dessert?
For gelato, make your way to Gran Caffe L’Aquilla; get blissful ice cream at The Franklin Fountain in Old City; find cookies at Famous Fourth Street in Reading Terminal Market; and try everything at Miel Patisserie on 17th Street, but specifically the macarons.
Best place for a sunset cocktail?
I’d recommend either Moshulu, a historic floating restaurant on the Delaware River with dockside dining or JG SkyHigh at the Four Seasons Hotel, located on the 60th floor of Philadelphia’s tallest building.
Where should I go in the area for a day spent outside?
Most definitely Kelly Drive in the historic district.
Where’s a good spot to snap an Instagram-worthy photo?
The Rocky statue at the top of the Philadelphia Museum steps (of course). Also stop by the “LOVE” and “AMOR” statues on Ben Franklin Parkway.
Best neighborhood to take a four-hour stroll if I want to get acquainted with a more “authentic” side of the city?
East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia; Queen Village and Society Hill for historic homes; Fitler Square for a quiet, quaint neighborhood just steps away from the business district. For a more edgy, young neighborhood I would say Fishtown or Northern Liberties, two neighborhoods going through a gentrification process and home to many of our younger Philadelphians.
What’s the easiest way to get around town, in terms of transportation?
SEPTA, our bus and train routes, go everywhere if you’re used to public transportation. If not, Philadelphia is a very walkable city. Uber and Lyft are also prevalent in the city.
What’s a lesser-known cultural institution worth visiting?
The Rosenbach, a small literary museum housed in a historic home on Delancey Street; Mütter Museum, the 19th Century medical museum in the College of Physicians building; and the Barnes Foundation, the world’s best privately owned collection of Impressionist and post-impressionist works, as well as sculptures and other items.
What’s a cool architectural site that’s not mobbed with tourists?
The Wanamaker Building at 13th And Market Street (now Macy’s) was the original John Wanamaker’s department store, as seen in the movie Mannequin; The Bourse building is an original granary exchange in the historic district; the Reading Terminal Market (which is generally mobbed unfortunately, however is worth the visit) is a historic train shed for the Reading Railroad Company, now an indoor public market.
What’s the best thing you can only get in your city?
Traditional cheesesteaks, of course. Recommended spots include Geno’s, Pat’s King of Steaks, Sonny’s in Old City, Dalessandro’s in Roxborough and my favorite, the French inspired cheesesteak at the Caribou Cafe, made with filet on a French baguette, topped with brie, caramelized onions and pomme frites. We also offer house-made soft pretzels at The Rittenhouse Hotel.
What’s the best thing you can only do in your city?
History, history, history! We are the city where the country as we know it was born. It’s also the only place where you can run up the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, just like he did in the movie.
What’s something I can say or do to endear myself to locals?
Know how to order a cheesesteak, “wit or witout,” that is with or without onions. Know how to pronounce the river between Center City and University City, which is the Schuylkill River, pronounced SKOOKLE. And never show up on our streets wearing anything related to the Dallas Cowboys; we love our Eagles.
What’s something that tourists tend to do that really annoys locals?
Walk down our small sidewalks side by side, slowly, drive slowly, sit through a traffic light without turning right on red (which is allowed here), or wear Dallas Cowboys gear.
What’s an item or activity that tourists tend to get ripped off on? Any tips on how to avoid that? Our taxi rate from Philadelphia International Airport is $28.50 plus $1 per additional person to Center City. Don’t let the taxis tell you any differently.
I’m looking for a low-key brunch. Where to?
Sam’s Morning Glory Diner in Bella Vista offers great coffee and homemade biscuits. Famous Fourth Street Deli on Bainbridge serves up huge portions of corned beef hash, challah French toasts and the best cookies! Green Eggs Cafe and Bluestone are very good traditional brunch spots. Off the beaten path on 13th and Callowhill is Cafe Lift, an industrial design casual space with tasty food options.
Best place to eat a meal or have a beer outside when the weather’s good?
Parc for sure. It’s a great Parisian cafe on Rittenhouse Square and good for people watching. We also have beer gardens all over the city from north to south, east to west. My favorites are the Independence Beer Garden in the historic district and Philadelphia Brewing Company on Frankford Avenue. I also love the amazing selections at Second District Brewing in South Philadelphia. They have an array of house-brewed beers on tap and great food to boot, in addition to a variety of vegan options. This is an open-air neighborhood spot combined with personality. Just ask for Paul and he will walk you through the selections on tap.
Any potential issues I should be worried about or pay attention to when it comes to public transportation (busy times, delays, petty crime, etc.)?
Not any different from other cities, but always be aware that you are in a city. Busiest times (of course) are rush hour in the morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and evening from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., as well as before and after events at the sports complex, if you are on the Broad Street SEPTA Line. Although Philadelphia hasn’t always had the best reputation with media, it is generally a very enjoyable and safe city, and that goes for the public transportation system, too. That being said, don’t enjoy six or more beers at Second District Brewing and then get on the Broad Street Line by yourself flaunting your bling at 1 a.m.
What’s the one thing everyone forgets to pack? Or the one thing everyone should remember to pack when visiting?
Phone chargers — everyone forgets them. We do offer a selection at The Rittenhouse Hotel, however, we do not have enough for everyone. Comfortable shoes are also a must since Philadelphia is a walking city.
Finally, what’s the best book to read about the area before I come?
Perfect Square on the history of Rittenhouse Square and Finding the Hidden City, a modern take on the history of Philadelphia that still exists under everyone’s noses, such as the old train lines that go beneath Center City, old landmarks decaying in every neighborhood and other landmarks that have been repurposed into useable spaces. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels is another good read covering the founder and namesake of the Mutter Museum.
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