The city of Philadelphia is both a playground for the young as well as a bastion of old-school traditions.
Known for its American history, the Rocky stairs, and as the city of cheesesteaks, Philadelphia is, certainly, a bastion of old-school traditions and literal hitching posts, but also a modern metropolis with top universities, upscale suburbs and a burgeoning biotech industry. It has a deeper psychology than its motto as “The City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love.” Philadelphians embrace their “gritty and proud” reputation with glee, and residents of New York City, its rival to the north, can’t match the city for loyalty and pride.
Plan your visit to Philly with these insider tips on what to expect, including information on health, safety and etiquette.
Stroll among the charming historic architecture of Philadelphia’s individual neighborhoods © Winnie Tu / Getty Images
1. Explore Philly’s patchwork of neighborhoods one at a time
When it comes to the parts of Philadelphia that travelers come to see, it’s a relatively compressed area, and it feels even smaller when you understand that it’s a city of neighborhoods, each with their own distinctive identity.
Wander around neighborhoods like Queen Village, Graduate Hospital, Society Hill and Fitler Square to name a few, and you’ll discover charming cobblestone alleyways lined with stunning 18th- and 19th-century brick brownstones mixed with more contemporary, eclectic architecture. Kids play outside, traffic cones are sometimes strategically placed to block onward traffic. It’s not unusual to come upon impromptu block parties, parents with a wine or beer in hand catching up with neighbors.
2. Pack your casual gear for nights out
Philly is, generally speaking, a casual town, so don’t worry too much about packing your fancy clothes. Of course, there are spots, especially around Rittenhouse Square and upscale restaurants and bars in Center City where you’ll see suits and high heels.
This is also not a city that never sleeps. Everything closes by 2am, including public transportation. Have some cash at hand since food trucks and bars are often cash-only. There are over a hundred BYOB restaurants – great for saving money – and in the warmer months, pop-up beer gardens are a great way to experience the local scene.
3. Plan your time wisely, there’s a lot to see
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation and Constitution Center are on most people’s lists of top things to do. And Philadelphia’s plethora of historical sites, best seen on walking tours, are part of the city’s tourism identity. But plan time to check out at least a few of the lesser-known one-of-a-kind attractions.
The Mutter Museum is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in the macabre. The Mummer’s Parade, a uniquely and heavily drunken South Philly tradition, the oldest folk parade in the country, takes place on January 1. And the Italian Market Festival, another distinctively South Philly eating and drinking bacchanal happens in early September; don’t miss the competitive climbing of the greased pole.
Try a few and decide for yourself which place in Philadelphia serves the best cheesesteak © Sergio Amiti / Getty Images
4. The debate over where to find the best cheesesteak rages on
Ask a group of people where to get the best cheesesteak and you will be subjected to an endless parsing of the nuanced merits of Shank’s versus Campo’s or whether an aioli sauce undermines the sandwiches’ authenticity. At its essence the cheesesteak is a delicious mess of griddle-fried beef and melted cheese on a roll, but passions run deep here, and loyalty is valued.
Pat’s Kings of Steaks and Geno’s, next to one another on East Passyunk in South Philly and Jim’s on South St (reopening soon after fire damage in 2022) are popular and centrally located. Other favorites, like Dallesandro’s in Manayunk or Chubby’s in Roxborough, are worth a bit of a trek.
5. Learn how to talk like a Philadelphian, or at least how to understand them
Geographically, the city is part of the Mid-Atlantic but the old-school Philadelphian accent is all its own. Water ice, the Philadelphia equivalent of Italian ice, is pronounced “wooder ice”. Grandma and grandpa are “MomMom” and “PopPop”. One of South Philly’s main restaurant corridors, East Passyunk, is pronounced “PASH-unk”.
Wawa, a large chain convenience store, is beloved. If you ask for a Yuengling (the local beer from the nation’s oldest beer brewery), it’s a giveaway you’re from out of town – locals just order a “lager” when they want a Yuengling. Native Philadelphians use the word “jawn” to refer to a place or thing, as in “Put some onions on that jawn,” and cheesesteaks are “wit” or “widdout” fried onions. Summertime, everyone goes “down the shore.” And they always put the numbered street before the named street, so it’s 9th and Spruce, not Spruce and 9th.
Broad St is the scene of sports-related celebrations in Philadelphia © VisionsofAmerica / Joe Sohm / Getty Images
6. There is fierce pride in local sports teams
Philly’s mood ebbs and flows – or rather becomes deeply depressed or volcanically joyful – depending on the wins and losses of the Philadelphia Eagles (football), Philadelphia Phillies (baseball) and Philadelphia 76ers (basketball). Philly fans are as hardcore as they get. They’re known for neither forgiving nor forgetting, and revel in an apocryphal story of Eagles fans throwing snowballs at a costumed Santa during a loss.
On game days, the city turns green or red or blue, depending on the sport played, and practically shuts down during the playoffs. On fall football Sundays, entire blocks become mini sports bars. Traffic cones go up at either end of small streets, drinks get poured and big projector screens show the game to jersey-wearing Philadelphians of all ages. Win a championship? The length of Broad St, the city’s main north–south thoroughfare turns into a Mardi Gras-like drunken party. Dip into sports talk radio, 97.5 the Fanatic, for a taste of the Philly-specific sport fan psychology.
7. It’s pedestrian friendly, yet pedestrian unfriendly…
Few large American cities can compete with central Philly’s walkability. Stretching from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill and the edge of South Philly (which, depending on who you ask, is demarcated by South St or Christian St or Washington St) to Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the north, Philadelphia is easily one of the most beautiful urban areas in the US. It’s like walking through New York’s Greenwich Village many times over. However, the city’s sidewalks are notoriously ankle-sprains waiting to happen with uneven, broken pavements and cobblestones. Please be careful and watch where you’re going.
More threatening, however, may be Philly drivers’ casual non-compliance with stop signs, especially dangerous on the city’s many one-way and narrow streets. The “Philly rolling stop” is a thing. Drivers tap their brakes, barely, and just barrel through. To be safe, always make eye contact with drivers before crossing intersections.
8. Take warnings seriously, but with a grain of salt
City centers around the country took a pummeling during and after COVID. Dire predictions about their demise, however, especially Philadelphia’s, are belied by their steady return to life. However, if you speak to some locals about safety, you might never go out at night. And if you log in to certain apps, you might think package deliveries always get stolen.
No doubt, there are legitimate concerns with some neighborhoods suffering high incidences of crime and violence, so keep your wits about you, as you would in any city. And because Philly is so small, it’s never a long drive, or bus ride, from a picturesque upscale area to one that’s struggling, economically and otherwise.
There are some neighborhoods probably best avoided. North Philly around Temple University, and far south and west Philly aren’t places to wander, especially at night, and Kensington, not far north of gentrifying and lively Northern Liberties and Fishtown, is experiencing an upsurge in drugs and crime.