Philadelphia feels like New York without the frenzy, without the high price tags, without the headache of getting there.
On a recent weekend getaway, we stepped onto a plane in Toronto and arrived in Philly in an hour and 25 minutes (it’s an hour and 40 minutes from Montreal, four hours from Calgary). Since it is just 13 kilometres from Philadelphia International Airport to the centre of the city, we could still make the most of Friday night.
Which we did. After tossing our bags in the Rittenhouse Hotel, we walked to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (It’s impossible to get lost here. Thanks to city founder William Penn, the city is laid out in a grid, with east-west streets named after trees and the north-south streets numbered.)
On Friday nights, the museum holds Art After Five, so while we toured the famous Renoirs and Monets, we listened to a live jazz trio, sipped a glass of wine and nibbled hors d’oeuvre. During a late dinner at the Water Works restaurant, we enjoyed moonlit views of the stately late-19th-century buildings of Boathouse Row on the east bank of the Schuykill River.
On the walk back to our hotel, we stopped at the Swann Memorial Fountain and passed several of Philadelphia’s public art pieces. Philadelphia has more than 2,800 murals and the largest amount of public art of any city in the United States. Robert Indiana’s iconic Love statue has become a symbol of the “City of Brotherly Love” and Claes Oldenburg’s Paint Torch is a public signpost for Philly’s art scene.
A friend had told us not to miss the massive mural in the Curtis Center building. Luckily, the doors were still open so we stepped into the deserted foyer to soak in Dream Garden – 100,000 pieces of hand-blown glass that were installed in 1916 by by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who based the design on a painting by Philadelphia-born Maxfield Parrish.
We were almost back to our hotel on Rittenhouse Square when we found Parc, a French bistro with sidewalk tables, and couldn’t resist stopping for a kir royale and some people-watching before turning in.
After breakfast at the hotel, we knew we had to see the Reading Terminal Market. We had read about TV chef Anthony Bourdain’s visit for his new food show, and his Facebook posts raved about the fresh-food markets in Philadelphia. His advice was spot on. After wandering around the 80-plus vendors selling local cheeses, baked goods, spices, flowers and much more, my husband and I shared a hoagie, some soft pretzels and water-ice, a Philly specialty that is like sherbet, but tastier.
Art critics have been raving about the Barnes Foundation, which opened in May on Museum Mile, so we made sure to book our tickets before we arrived. The new Barnes is spectacular. There are more Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modern paintings here than in any other museum in the world. I could have spent a week there and I will certainly go back.
Another museum I was keen to see was the Mutter. This medical museum has been on my must-see list since I read Lori Lansens’s novel The Girls (a fictional autobiography written by conjoined twins). The Mutter was an eccentric balance to the Barnes, but the collection of medical oddities, such as the skeletons of the original Siamese twins, a skull with a unicorn-like horn and a giant colon, was fascinating. Wait until you see the gift shop.
That night, we picked up a bottle of good wine and enjoyed it over dinner at Marigold Kitchen, one of the small BYOBs that are popular here.
We had Sunday brunch at Garces Trading Company on Locust Street, but we could not leave the city without absorbing some history at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Our time in Philadelphia was almost over, but there was one thing we had to do: eat a Philly cheesesteak. Two places, just across from each other, claim to make the best. On our way to the airport, we had our taxi stop at both . I liked the sandwich from Pat’s King of Steaks on East Passyunk Avenue, but Geno’s Steaks on 9th Street came a close second. Difficult to eat, probably bad for you, but additive and delicious: They were a messy end to a delightful weekend.
If you go
Where to stay
The Rittenhouse Hotel: A small, historic luxury boutique hotel on Rittenhouse Square. Deluxe rooms start at $599 (U.S.).
210 West Rittenhouse Square, 215-546-9000; rittenhousehotel.com
What to do
Barnes Foundation: Tickets are timed, but sales have been brisk so be sure to book ahead. 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway; barnesfoundation.org
Where to eat
Parc: Try the steak frites or the salade Lyonnaise. This little bistro has a Left Bank feel.
227 S. 18th St.; 215-545-2262; parcrestaurant.me
Marigold Kitchen: Head here for adventurous food, like duck egg carbonara and basil crème brûlée. 501 S. 45th St., 215-222-3699; marigoldkitchenbyob.com