A First Timer’s Guide to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I’ve experienced the cultures of many different cities throughout my time as travel bloggers, but there’s one city in particular that officially stole my heart, and for good reason. Philadelphia, with its seemingly scruffy and rugged exterior is, at it’s core, an extremely eccentric and charming city (and in my humble opinion, one of the most underrated in America).

Not only is Philly a city rich in American traditions, it is also affordable to visit and easy to access. In fact, I simply hopped on an evening BoltBus from Washington, DC ($21.00 round trip), and were there in less than three hours.

This summer, I partnered up with VisitPhilly for a whirlwind three-day tour to experience first-hand some of the best sights and sounds that Philly has to offer. The verdict? I have nothing but love for the “City of Brotherly Love!”

Below, you can read about my adventures throughout the city in a bit more detail. I hope my words and photos inspire readers to book a trip of their own to this truly magical and historical retreat located in America’s heartland.

First Stop:
Philadelphia Magic Gardens (1914, 1020 South St, Philadelphia, PA 19147)

 

 

 

I first learned of the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, a nonprofit visionary art environment and community arts center, prior to our trip through the Instagram account of KevinandAmanda. Spanning almost an entire city block on Philadelphia’s South Street, the brainchild of artist Isaiah Zagar features shapes and sculptures made from materials such as folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colorful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors. The intricately placed ceramic tiles and smoothened shards of glass closely resemble the beautiful Selaron Steps of Rio de Janeiro.

As an added bonus, visitors get to learn about Zagar himself as they journey through the site which is enveloped in visual anecdotes and personal narratives that refer to Zagar’s life, family, and community, as well as quotes from other influential historians and artists.

Tickets for adults are $10, $8 for students and seniors, and $5 for children.

Second Stop:
The Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia, PA 19130)

 

 

Even with a packed schedule which left little time to fit all of the things I wanted to do into 72-hours (just gives me an excuse to come back, I suppose!), I could’t pass up a quick visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A city staple, this landmark building began as a legacy of the great Centennial Exhibition of 1876. In the early 1900s, the Museum published its first collection handbook and initiated an Education program for the general public, and in the 1920’s opened the Fairmont location – known as the main building –  which welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to this day.

Visitors come from near and far to not only admire the museum’s world-class art, but to run the steps featured in the iconic movie “Rocky” and to take in the breathtaking views of Fairmont Park’s Historic Houses, located behind the museum, which closely resemble the intricate marble structures of old Europe. Even if visitors don’t have the time to tour the entire museum, I highly recommend checking out the exterior grounds, if only for a photo or two (Instagram goals are real, people).

Third Stop:
Green Eggs Cafe (719 N 2nd St Philadelphia, PA 19123, 2 other locations)

After working up an appetite walking the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I decided to check out another one of Philly’s most famous staples – Green Eggs Cafe. A brunch-style restaurant that creates some serious food porn, Green Eggs Cafe takes pride in using the highest quality ingredients to craft the highest quality fare, while striving to minimize and reduce their carbon footprint. With their eco-conscious philosophy, they value both the planet and the people they serve.

Most known for their outrageously creative brunch menu, I decided to taste test a few of their dishes first hand to see what the hype was all about. (Hint: it’s SO real.)

After sipping on a couple rounds of cocktails, I immediately gravitated towards the “Red Velvet Pancakes” listed on the brunch menu, and for good reason. This dish wasn’t the average run-of-the-mill pancake dish, for starters. This was a double layer of moist, ooey-gooey, cake-like pancakes with melted chocolate morsels, that hugged a thick layer of strawberry mascarpone frosting, and finally topped off with a generous dollop of Chantilly cream, fresh strawberries, and maple syrup.

 

 

Next up was the famous “Cookie Dough Stuffed French Toast” or, as I like to refer to it, a “sugar coma” on a plate! To break this beast down into simplified terms not to scare any readers away, this dish consisted of two thick slices of lightly fried challah bread stuffed with chocolate chip cookie dough, topped with vanilla anglaise, chocolate chips, 100 percent real maple syrup, and brown sugar. It was like eating one giant chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven (but even better!)

 

Lastly, I decided to try something a bit on the savory side (think bacon, people).

Because I like all things cheesy (who doesn’t?) as well as dishes that have a bit of a “kick” to them, I ordered the “Bacon Jalepeno Mac n’ Cheese.” This dish (featured above) was the perfect ratio of meat, cheese, and spice. The bacon added a salty crunch while the rich and creamy melted cheddar was the perfect offset to the slight sting left on our tongues from the diced jalepeno. On a spicy scale of 1-10, this was a 2, so even amateurs could conquer this feat!

 

 

For an indulgent brunch that won’t break the bank, add Green Eggs Cafe to your “must see” list of Philly destinations.

Fourth Stop:
Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19130)

I decided it would be a smart idea to burn off some of the calories I consumed at brunch (but being honest, I didn’t feel all that guilty about it.)

Once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, the eerily beautiful architecture of the Eastern State Penitentiary now stands as an empty shell full of mystery, untold stories, and haunting history.

The world’s first true “penitentiary,” Eastern State now serves as a raw reminder of the way things once were during the ambitious age of the American Revolution and the birth of prison design and reform.

Prior to the construction of Eastern State, prisons were simply large holding pens that failed to separate men from women and children, and petty thieves from potent murderers causing an array of issues, including an increase in physical abuse between prisoners and guards and the prisoners themselves.

In its hay day, Eastern State was truly a masterpiece of it’s time. It’s high-vaulted, skylit ceilings gave prisoners a rare glimpse of light, which designers thought would encourage spiritual reflection and change.

Throughout it’s glory years, some of the country’s most notorious criminals passed through it’s hollow walls. Among the most notable was mob boss Alphonse “Scarface” Capone (his cell as it looked during his incarceration is below), witch doctor Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber, and murderer Victor “Babe” Andreoli.

Ultimately, the prison met it’s end in 1971 at 142 years old. The property was aquired by the City of Philadelphia in 1980, and in 1994, The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours that are still enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of passerbys each year.

Many of them simply make the trip to see the creepy ESP wing where there old hospital was located, and where Capone had his tonsils taken out on September 5, 1929, by Dr. Herbert Goddard).

Fifth Stop:
Independence Hall (Chestnut Street, between 5th and 6th Streets)

What is more appropriate than a visit to Independence Hall – the birthplace of our great nation – on our nation’s birthday?

The nation’s Founding Fathers debated, adopted, and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the United States Constitution in 1787 at Independence Hall. Now the centerpiece of the Independence National Historical Park, the popular tourist attraction spans four city blocks and boasts the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, the reconstructed Graff House where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration, the iconic Liberty Bell, and City Tavern, which served as the center of Revolutionary War activities.

Even though both Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell have remained protected in secure zones with entry at security screening buildings post September 11, more than 600,000 people pass through its interior every year. Not only has it provided visitors a rare glimpse into a day that changed the history of the world, it has also served as a platform for multiple protests, Presidential speeches, and civil rights movements.

Tours are offered year round, with the exception of Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from September 6, 2016 to May 2017, and from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

If it wasn’t interesting enough, all visits to Independence Hall are free! Based on our experience, however, I do recommend arriving at the entrance to go through security at least 20 minutes prior to the designated tour time.

Sixth Stop:
Ramona Susan’s Bakeshop (1255 Marlborough St, Philadelphia, PA 19125)

My sixth stop was the sweetest of them all! I traveled to Philly’s “Fishtown” to visit Ramona Susan’s bakeshop, the brainchild of the extremely talented confectioners Betty Halpenny and Elly Koenig.

Open since 2013, Ramona Susan’s Bakeshop is most famous for their home-style sweets, and I was lucky enough to sample some of them!

What sets Ramona Susan’s creations apart from other bakeries, are the intricate designs and colors of each scrumptious treat. Take for example these “Italian flag” cake bites (pictured below) covered in chocolate ganache and rainbow sprinkles. The gooey chocolate coating served as the perfect casing to the fluffy, moist cake layers inside. While this particular item isn’t on Ramona Susan’s daily menu, customers can always place an order to take home and enjoy. (You’ll thank us later).

In regards to Ramona’s daily menu, they offer an array of cakes, brownies, and cookies for immediate purchase during regular operating hours.

To ensure I had my sugar fix, Ramona’s hooked me up with just about one (or ten) of everything the shop had to offer! Below (from left to right) are the chocolate cream sandwich cookies (think of it as a homemade oreo cookie!), the almond butter sandwich cookies, peanut butter and jelly cookies, and chocolate chip with M&M’s cookies. At the top is one of Ramona Susan’s jumbo chewy double chocolate chip brownies.

Just a heads up: have plenty of napkins on hand when consuming these! The brownie in particular is *so* moist and gooey that chocolate will more than likely get everywhere.

Ramona’s offers other delicious treats such as “Monster Cookies” on Friday, Saturday, and Sundays only which consist of two chocolate chip cookies sandwiched with cupcake icing, dipped in sprinkes and topped with candy eyes (these are extremely cute, by the way).

Buttercake, a Philadelphia tradition with a rich and gooey sweet vanilla center topped with a yeasted crust, is also a popular item at Ramonas (hat tip: microwave for 30 seconds after purchasing and eat warm with a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream). Assorted cupcakes in Vanilla, Chocolate, Red Velvet, and Birthday cake flavors are available daily, while flavors such as Pumpkin, Iced Honey-Whiskey, and (our personal favorite) Unicorn, are seasonal flavors.

Besides all of the tasty, homemade sweets, the most appealing aspect of this darling bakeshop, is that it’s extremely affordable. All cupcakes range from $2.25-3, and cookies are $.50 each. $.50 each, people! Essentially pocket change.

Open Wedesneday-Friday from 5pm – 9pm, Saturday from 10am-10pm, and Sunday 11am – 6pm, you can satisfy your sweet tooth just about any time you want.

Seventh Stop:
Stratus Lounge (433 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19106)

Rising above the Philly skyline on the rooftop of Hotel Monaco, sits a beautiful restaurant called the Stratus Lounge. With its elegant decor and inviting open air seating, I felt like I was a VIP in the City of Brotherly Love. The best part about Stratus Lounge is that the rooftop becomes enclosed during the cooler months so patrons can enjoy the plush atmosphere all year around. I couldn’t wait to try some of their cocktails and bar bites!

To start the night off, I decided to order the Kir Royal cocktail. This ruby red drink is made with Crème de Cassis or St Germain Liqueur and topped with Sparkling Wine. It was the perfect drink to enjoy on a hot summer day, and a feeling of complete relaxation washed over me as I sipped and watched the flames dance on the decorative fire wall.

After working up an appetite, we ordered some of Stratus Lounge’s most popular small bites. Chicken Tinga Tacos, Pear and Blue Cheese Flatbread and the Chef’s Selection Cheese Board (pictured below in that order) all made appearances at our table, but they didn’t last long!  Our personal favorite was the Blue Cheese Flatbread- it’s tangy flavors paired perfectly with the a Kir Royal cocktail.

Travelers tip: Stratus Lounge is a very popular dining destination, so booking a reservation ahead of time will ensure a table with a great view. They also offer fantastic daily happy hour specials from 5-7 pm.

  • $5 Prosecco
  • $5 Red and white house wine
  • $10 specialty cocktails
  • $5 domestic beer and $6 craft beer
  • ½ price bottles off our bottle menu (not including wine)

If you’re visiting Philly, book a reservation for dinner at Stratus Lounge ASAP. You won’t regret it.

Eighth Stop:

Pat’s Steaks (1237 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19147) & Geno’s Steaks (1219 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147)

It’s not a trip to Philly unless Pat’s and Geno’s gets involved! Two of the oldest and most well-known cheesesteak establishments in the city, the infamous Pat’s vs. Geno rivalry is one that every tourist should get a healthy (or not-so-healthy?) dose of! To make comparing the two even more enticing, both restaurants are located directly across the street from one another. (The stars have collided, everyone.)

I, of course, had to try both. In terms of the texture of the meat, my favorite was Geno’s. In terms of the flavor and the consistency of the cheese whiz, I preferred Pat’s. In terms of our overall favorite, I chose: neither! My absolute favorite was a small establishment located on Market Street named Campo’s Deli. Served in a basket over a pool of melted cheese whiz, the jumbo cheese steak was juicy, rare, and full of flavor. Just as a heads up, instead of placing a large amount of meat on the grill at once, the cook only browns enough meat for one cheesesteak (so the other meat doesn’t get cold or stale). It takes longer to compile than the average cheesesteak, but it’s well worth it!

 

 

To experience some of the nation’s richest history, most delicious foods, and most beautiful architecture, book a trip to Philadelphia today! If you’re looking top-notch accommodation while staying in Philly, I highly suggest Penn’s View Inn which you can read more about this charming hotel here. If you happen to stop in to visit any of our friends mentioned above, don’t forget to tell them that East Coast Contessa sent you.

27 replies to “A First Timer’s Guide to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”

  1. I agree that Philadelphia is an underrated city. I visited once briefly many years ago when I was looking at colleges and there was something about it that I loved. The pictures and details you add in this post make it seem even more appealing. If I ever make my way back to Philadelphia I will check out some of the places you highlighted here! (p.s. all the food is making me hungry. those cookies look delicious!)

  2. I had to do a double take on “The Magic Garden” photos, they looked ‘unreal’ so incredibly magical is an understatement, but don’t know what other way to describe but breathtaking, eye opening and brought a huge smile to my eyes!

  3. once in ohili the feeling of paradise comes to mind, guess what i have never been there but your post made me feel i was there in person and thats the paradise feeling. thanks for giving me joy with your post and pictures. AMAZING.

  4. Hey Alex … small world! I knew you blogged but am just now stumbling upon this. What a great roundup of stuff from Philly. I love how you have a mixture of history and food! I really loved those first photos of the magic gardens too!

    Nina
    aworldofdresses.com

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