Why visit Philadelphia you ask? Does it have architecture and history? Art and culture? Does it have beer? Well, all of the above as it turns out, and much more.

Philadelphia is slightly over one hour by air from Toronto. It’s the fifth most populous city in the United States (with over 1.5 million inhabitants), one of its most historic, and also the country’s birthplace. Yet a lot of people in Canada (and I suspect the world) don’t know exactly where Philly is located, and what it has to offer, besides its famous cheesesteak sandwich.

Philadelphia is located between New York City and Washington, DC, in the state of Pennsylvania. It exudes the stateliness of DC and the energy of a mini New York without feeling frantic.

City Hall, Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s stunning City Hall

Fortunately, thanks to the very dedicated team at Visit Philly, the city is slowly gaining popularity with foreign travellers, and 2015 was a record year for domestic visitation. Philadelphia got on my radar over two years ago, but I only made it there this month after being accepted into BlogHouse, a “retreat” and mentorship for a small group of select bloggers.

Two and a half days of sightseeing weren’t nearly enough to cover everything, but sufficient to get a good first impression. Here are five reasons why I think you should visit Philadelphia.

1. History and architecture

Philadelphia dates back to 1682, served as the first U.S. capital, and is home to Independence Hall. This is where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, leading to the birth of the United States.

The 35 square blocks that compose Old City are filled with buildings from the 18th and 19th century and home to many historical events. To gain a better understanding of all that history, I took a walking tour with a historian, compliments of Context Travel, a company that leads small group tours for intellectually curious travellers.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall, historic Philadelphia’s focal point

For something a little more casual that the whole family can enjoy, the historic district presents “storytelling benches” in 13 locations this summer. Come listen to professional storytellers recount 5-minute tales and secret stories of the city in the places where they happened. And it’s free!

You can also discover historic Philadelphia through several tours and events in the company of costumed actors. Some are free, while others include a meal or drinks.

2. Arts and culture

Philadelphia punches well above its weight on the art and cultural scene. Several museums cluster around Old City such as the Benjamin Franklin Museum, African American Museum and National Museum of American Jewish History.

You can find art museums along Benjamin Franklin Parkway as well as downtown. I paid a visit to the small but well-endowed Barnes Foundation focusing on impressionist paintings. Further up the road, you’ll find the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art — known for the steps that Rocky ran up in his eponymous movie.

For something more unusual, you could check out the Mutter Museum (medical exhibits) or Insectarium.

Broad Street, Philly’s main north-south artery, is also called Avenue of the Arts, due to its many theatres and performing art spaces. Just north of City Hall is the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts which I visited during a rainy spell.

Inside Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

Inside Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Even if you don’t want to fork out the money to visit museums, you can still see impressive sculptures, as well as murals (4000 of them at last count) all over town.

Then of course you have the festivals: Pride Parade, PIFA (Philadelphia International
Festival of the Arts), Chinese Lantern Festival, and more. I barely scratched the surface.

3. Beer

I’m normally more a wine person than a beer person, but beer is mostly what I drank during my visit to Philly. From people’s recommendations to BlogHouse events, choices seemed to focus on beer. Beer Gardens are all the rage in Philly. You won’t have trouble finding breweries and craft beers either. One of our BlogHouse evening receptions took place at 2nd Story Brewing Co. and we also enjoyed a lunch at Independence Beer Garden.

Independence Beer Garden, Philadelphia

Independence Beer Garden, located right next to Independence National Historical Park

4. Neighbourhoods

Philadelphia is a city of vibrant neighbourhoods, with names like Fish Town, Bella Vista and East Passyunk. In that respect, it reminded me of Toronto. The Italian Market, centered on South 9th Street, also bears resemblance to Toronto’s Kensington Market, having welcomed generations of immigrants from different parts of the world. Besides Italian shops and bakeries you also find Mexican, Chinese, and Middle-Eastern food businesses.

Italian Market, Philadelphia

Al fresco lunch at the Italian Market

I spent my first two nights in an AirBnB room in East Passyunk, which Food & Wine magazine recently named one of the “10 Best Foodie Streets In America”. Some of the narrow one-way residential streets in that area actually reminded me of Montreal, with the townhouse facades grazing the sidewalks.

For BlogHouse, I moved to the Rittenhouse Square neighbourhood, an area of downtown surrounding a shady and peaceful park. There, I stayed at the Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square where the workshops were being held. This was a luxurious option to be sure, and not the kind of place that I can normally afford, but the Sonesta gave us a very good rate. The hotel has recently been renovated with an art theme in shades of red, grey and white.

My room at the Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square Hotel

My room at the Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square Hotel

5. You don’t need a car

I love walkable cities, and Philadelphia is definitely walkable. It even has two subway lines, several bus lines, and a purple tourist bus called the Phlash bus, which makes more than 20 stops near popular attractions during summer. If you prefer a hop-on hop-off double-decker sightseeing bus, Philly has that too!

As a solo female, I had no trouble walking around and using the public transit. I did so mostly during the day, but one night I walked a few blocks in downtown on my own and felt comfortable. There were people all over the streets (it was a Saturday) and good lighting.

A subway station in Philadelphia

A subway station in Philadelphia

This year looks like a big one for Philadelphia. Recently named the first and only World Heritage City in the United States and Lonely Planet’s “Best in the U.S.” destination for 2016, it will come into the public eye when it holds the Democratic National Convention in July.

So if you don’t have Philadelphia on your list of places to visit in the U.S. yet, better add it now. I know I’ll be looking for a reason to go back. 🙂

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