You may have heard that Philly is one of the greatest walking cities in the country — and it’s true. If you’re staying downtown (in the area we call Center City) you’ll be able to see plenty of amazing historic sites and attractions while working up an appetite to taste the city’s famous dishes. Of course you should try a cheesesteak while you’re in town, but as Philadelphians, we have to say that the Philly food scene is about so much more: hoagies, roast pork sandwiches, pretty much any sandwich, tomato pies, soft pretzels, scrapple, Tastykakes … and even exquisite, elevated cuisine.
In our “weekender” posts, we’ll tell you where we stayed and what we did with 48 hours in interesting cities around the U.S. and beyond. Here’s how to spend a weekend in Philadelphia, our favorite city and most frequent weekend destination.
Where to Stay
You’ll probably have a bit of sticker shock as you look at hotel prices for your weekend stay in Philly. Sometimes we luck out and find a deal, other times the prices are double what we’d expect to pay. But location is important for your quick trip. If you’re exploring the historic sites and nightlife in Old City (the lower numbered streets toward the Delaware River) you may want to stay in that area, but we prefer to stay near Rittenhouse Square — the beautiful park that’s perfect for people watching and dog petting and surrounded by great restaurants.
We like to stay a few blocks away from the square. If we’re only in town for the weekend, we go with Motto by Hilton on 19th and Market(ish), which offers small and affordable rooms that are modern, clean and inexpensive. The hotel has a great rooftop bar, ground floor restaurant, and coffee shop on site.
If we’re staying longer or traveling with pets, we book the nearby Sofitel instead. We also love the Warwick lobby so much that we had our wedding photos taken there when our outdoor sites got rained out.
Check In and Check It Out
If you’re arriving on Friday night, you’ll want to check in at Motto and head right for the rooftop bar, El Techo, where you can get tacos and drinks and check out the views of the city (you have to go back to the front desk to get elevator access). Otherwise you can make a reservation for the restaurant on the first floor, Condesa, which serves delicious and elevated Mexican fare.
There are plenty of bars, live music venues, nightlife spots, and other activities in the city. We’re old and out of the loop, so do some research to find what suits you.
Wake Up and Explore the City
Wake up early, grab a coffee at El Café on the first floor of Motto, and save your appetite for your self-guided walking tour of Philly.
Make your way 7 blocks east and a few blocks North to Reading Terminal Market, which is famous for its food stalls. On your way, be sure to cut through City Hall, which stands tall on Broad Street and makes you feel like you’re in Europe. Snap a photo of William Penn overlooking the city from the top of the landmark. Note that Philly doesn’t have a 14th Street. Broad Street is the main artery between 13th and 15th. Other than that, Philly is an easy-to-navigate grid with numbered streets running north and south and tree-named streets (and a few others) running east and west.
You may want to plan ahead for your visit to Reading Terminal Market because it’s always crowded on the weekend. That’s why we recommend starting your day there with breakfast. Have a Plan A, B, and C for where you might want to eat — maybe try some scrapple (our weird breakfast mystery meat that we all grew up on). But don’t get too full because there will be cheesesteaks in your near future.
OK. Next it’s time to check out all the historic sites: Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Elfreth’s Alley, the Museum of the American Revolution, Christ Church, and the Liberty Bell — just to name a few. Pro tip: If the line is too long at the Liberty Bell, you can actually see the old cracked bell from outside, through the window. You won’t see the crack, but if you don’t care, than just skip the line, look through the window, and get on with your day.
Ready for lunch? Now you’ll want to make your way to South Street for cheesesteaks. Everyone always asks us: Pat’s or Geno’s? Our answer is: Neither. They are out of the way tourists traps with average sandwiches. Instead, go to Jim’s on South Street. It’s conveniently located for your walking weekend visit to Philly and makes delicious cheesesteaks and hoagies that are quintessentially Philadelphian. Don’t worry about trying to order a “steak wit” or “wit out.” Just let them know whether you want grilled onions or mushrooms and what kind of cheese you want (American, Provolone, or Cheese Whiz). If anyone criticizes your choices, politely tell them to go fuck themselves. It’s Philly. They’ll probably respect you for that.
Pro tip: If the line is too long at Jim’s or if you’d rather have a chicken cheesesteak, go across the street to Ishkabibbles, which is also fantastic. (Update: Sadly, we just learned the that Jim’s is temporarily closed due to a fire.)
It’s time to do more exploring. South Street is known for its weird shops and quirky bars. Check out the unique inventory at Condom Kingdom, have a drink at Tattooed Mom (ask for the whiskey that’s so cheap it’s below the shelf), and check out the art at the end of the pier. There’s also that mosaic place that we’ve walked by a billion times. People seem to like that. And if you saved room, go to Rita’s for a water ice (yes, we pronounce it wooder ice). It’s pretty much Italian ice, but better. I like mine mixed with frozen custard.
From South Street, you can head over to 9th and Christian to check out the Italian Market.
If you’re into museums, you can Uber over to the Philadelphia Art Museum (yes, the Rocky stairs and statue are there, but there’s also an excellent art collection inside). We were members for several years, and our favorite is the impressionist exhibit. The Philadelphia Art Museum also tends to have great temporary exhibits and events on Friday nights. You could also check out the Barnes, the Franklin Institute, the Mutter Museum, and many other options in town.
Dine Around Town
Are you still hungry? By now you’ve had some of Philly’s best affordable foods, so it’s time to try some of the city’s finer cuisine. Note: Reservations are pretty much necessary for dinner. Our favorite spot is Vernick Food & Drink for creative small plates. You might try your luck reserving a table at Zahav for its famous lamb shoulder or delicious Israeli small plates (and if nothing’s available, try the Resy “notify” option). And if you’re in the mood for sushi, Zama offers delicate and delicious dishes. Or you could try one of Stephen Starr’s many concepts in Philly. We love Parc, which is right at Rittenhouse Square.
Enjoy a Few More Moments
Sunday morning has arrived and you’re likely exhausted from all the walking and eating you did this weekend. So sleeping in is a good option. You might want to check out a few of the things you missed yesterday before you head out of town, people watch at Rittenhouse Square, or try the brunch at a Philly staple: Stephen Starr’s The Continental Mid-town, which is only two blocks from Motto on 18th and Chestnut.
If you took Amtrak into town, you can easily walk back to 30th Street Station. If you’re catching a flight, be sure to get to PHL early. Lines can get long and TSA and CLEAR lanes aren’t always open.
We hope you love Philly as much as we do. What’s your favorite spot? Let us know in the comments.