Philadelphia, the East Coast's "orphan" city, is a mere two-hour drive from New York and Washington, but is often missed by tourists. For those who do make the trip and want to see more than the storied sights of U.S. independence, Philly is a treat: a city of brick and stone neighbourhoods - some tony blueblood enclaves, others gritty, some still rife with social tension. Each is an adventure. Each has a story. The Northern Liberties tale began more than a century ago with horse stables, breweries, factories and mills. Now an artsy enclave, for all its hip swagger, the neighbourhood has kept its dusty old industrial feel and is still a rough-edged working-class outpost - albeit with good restaurants, unique shopping and a great nightlife.
PUERTO RICAN COMFORT FOOD
1700 North 3rd St.; 267-319-1218; elcafeito.com
Late mornings and long breakfasts suit the local lifestyle. Outstanding breakfast joints include Cafe Sabrina and Silk City, but El Cafeito, a Puerto Rican morning hot spot presided over by chef/owner Lisa Lombo Padilla, is the coziest. Surrounded by community posters and nostalgic photos of Old San Juan, Latino old-timers lounge all morning with steamy cups of café con leche while young artists drop by for guava and cheese breakfast sandwiches and quesitos, Puerto Rican pastries. For the ultimate Puerto Rican comfort food, nothing beats the chef's updated version of avena (a.k.a. oatmeal).
Crane Arts Building
1400 North American St.; 215-232-5678; cranearts.com
For the irreverent and socially conscious art scene, head for the Crane Arts Building. Among the many artist-run galleries and studios housed in this old plumbing factory, you'll find Nexus, an "art incubator" featuring international experimental art. There is also the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, whose edgy aesthetic fulfills its mission to become a "place where important photography gets made, shown and talked about."
2nd Street and Germantown Avenue; 215-467-4603; atthepiazza.com
Not long ago, the area around the old Schmidt's brewery was an urban wasteland. Today, the Piazza at Schmidt's is a revitalized "village" of one-of-a-kind shops, cool restaurants and airy residences surrounding a Philly version of an Italian piazza. The 10,000-square-metre public space bustles with crowds attending evening concerts or watching the local baseball team on the Piazza's giant TV screen. The 75 retail spaces (not one is a chain) house everything from a gallery of tattoo art and a magic shop to an indoor training station for runners and a swim club-cum-restaurant.
VICTORIAN DANDYISM AND SIDESHOW CHIC
Delicious Boutique & Corseterie
1040 North American St. ; 215-413-0375; deliciousboutique.com
The leather-and-lace-filled shop has an old-time carnival ambience and a clientele devoted to the peculiar and popular genre of art, music and invention called steampunk. The genre is a mashup of Victorian aesthetic, science-fiction literature and hacker politics. At Delicious, worshippers of anachronism and anime come to play dress-up under the tutelage of designer Psydde Delicious, who clearly loves what he calls his "post-apocalyptic costume-y pieces." In addition to the de rigueur corsets and laced-up-the-side dresses, the boutique offers ornate leather pouches, tool belts and holster bags ("to keep your stuff in at Burning Man"), as well as accessories from Canadian designers Jungle Tribe and Juniper Lindquist Fletcher.
RAISE A LOT OF GLASSES
700 North Second St.; 215-413-3181; the700.org
Philadelphia, called the "cradle of liberty" for its role in American independence, is also called the "cradle of libation." Home to America's earliest breweries, Philly hosts the world's largest beer festival in the world. Northern Liberties is a big part of that brew history and headquarters for today's craft beer. Ortlieb's and Schmidt's - historic but now-vacant breweries - anchor the neighbourhood alongside the newer Yard's and Philadelphia Brewing plants. Craft-beer hangouts include The 700. It has an old-fashioned ambience, three tables, a long row of bar stools and close to 100 brands of beer. Visitors are warmly welcomed by the bar's mix of construction workers, artists and soccer and women's roller derby fans. For beer made just around the corner, try Yard's extra special ale (ESA) with its almost grapefruit-like hoppiness.
1001 North Delaware Ave.; 267-232-2000; sugarhousecasino.com
Philadelphia's brand-new casino doesn't reach for Vegas glitz. What it does have going for it is its red, turquoise and gold interior; the odd geometry of the walls and ceiling; and dozens of quirky, colourful light fixtures. The casino's best feature, however, is its location on the edge of the Delaware River. Visitors who choose to skip the gambling can dine outside at SugarHouse's riverside restaurant and then stroll along the river's edge on the casino's nature paths.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Palomar Philadelphia
117 South 17th St.; (215) 563-5006; www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com
The Palomar, Philly's newest, hippest hotel also gets a gold star for being the most environmentally friendly garnering a prestigious LEED certification. Bed throws are made of recycled bottles and the hotel's printed materials use soy ink. From $200.
Penn's View Hotel
14 North Front St.; 215-922-7600; www.pennsviewhotel.com
The family-owned Penn's View Hotel is a little bit of Europe in Philly. Napoli-born Lucca Sena transformed a 300-year-old building into a restaurant and boutique hotel with 51 rooms, some with gas fireplaces and river views. From $150.
Special to The Globe and Mail