The Analogue Chic Guide* to Philadelphia
*Not at all exhaustive.
Thanks to my husband’s employer, my vacation this year was a long weekend in Philadelphia. That is not a complaint, in any way, except that he was working most of the time. So it was a weird solo-trip-together… But a much-needed change of scenery.
I was able to revisit some of my favorite spots from my first trip to PHL with my sister about 4 years ago?? (That seems like a long time, but it’s probably accurate.)
I also got to visit some parts of town that were new to me (which was easy, because Sis and I didn’t venture too far on our mini-trip back then).
I will just start off by saying, I am not a fan of “touristy shit”, and stayed the hell away from the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin’s House, etc.
We stayed in Center City, just east of City Hall. Which is probably the most boring part of the entire city.
If you’re looking for a bench or a tree-shaded spot to eat lunch or read or people watch, good luck—it wasn’t just me thinking that Philly is one of the most tree-less, least “green” cities I have been in.
We arrived just a week too late for the Preservation Alliance’s Art Deco Walking Tour, which seems to be a habit of mine (hello, Montreal, Summer 2010).
I did visit the Fabric Workshop and Museum (#3 on the map), which I discovered on a trip to visit my brother in law a year or 2 ago, and duly noted for a future trip. Fabulous place, which bear-hugs the American Institute of Architects in the same building, and both have gift shops which will make a design-junkie quiver with delight. The FWM is actually a workshop, that provides space, training, and sponsorship to artists working in many media, not just textiles—for example, Cai Guo-Qiang, who works with gunpowder. They have temporary exhibits throughout the year, in addition to a permanent collection which is available for research, etc.
Also keep your eye out for wall murals everywhere! Philly has fully endorsed some beautiful street art with its official Mural Arts Program, which really helps cut down on the stupid, misspelled, and poorly designed kind of graffiti done by suburban kids coming into the city to vent their adolescent angst and buy pot. Hint-hint, Montreal.
And, as “tourist-y” as it is, I spent most of the weekend in Chinatown, for several reasons, which I’ll get to below. Also because it’s the closest I will be getting to China any time soon.
(See more of my photos at Flickr.)
(And here's the map.)
As I mentioned, we stayed in Center City, very close to City Hall, the Convention Center, and Reading Terminal Market—basically, the business district + tourist trap hell.
If you have any dietary issues at all, this is not the area for you. Unless you're on a marathon-training diet and want lots of carbs and protein. And forget about finding a cheap, wholesome breakfast. Just don’t bother.
While I did bring some of my own gut-friendly staple foods and snacks (although our insanely expensive hotel room inexplicably did not have a refrigerator…), I ended up spending a ton of money on the only place in walking distance that served breakfast with even the remote possibility of soy milk. (Le Pain Quotidien on Walnut St. if you're desperate.)
And unless I wanted to travel long distances to various parts of the city in search of non-dairy, non-gluten meals of any substance, I would have lost about 15 pounds and survived on salads and … bun-less, cheese-less cheese steaks.
Consider yourselves warned. Just sublet an apartment, or book one of those extended stay hotels with a kitchenette.
Hence, Chinatown. Carefully navigating the yogurt-laden menus of Indian food (of which there were a couple of restaux in C.T.) and wheat noodles of any kind, I successfully ate my fill for every lunch and dinner but 2 all within the borders of Chinatown (I made a major gluten faux pas for dinner the 1st night, for which I paid dearly in misery yesterday; and the other was Korean lunch I found on South St.).
Pho 75 (#7 on the map), Veggie Lovers (#8) and my super secret favorite Vietnamese deli (#9) (which I almost didn’t want to tell you about) were my favorite finds for cheap, tasty, healthy food that did not make me want to die 48-72 hours later.
And rather in the middle of nowhere (although there were some decent looking bistros of various cuisines scattered just to the North), Sweet Freedom Bakery (#10) is the gluten-, dairy-, nut-, everything-free bake shop on South Street that will be your dietary haven when you are just tired of searching in vain for a snack and a quiet place to read, draw or space out for a while. However, if you’re looking for a cup of coffee or tea, “everything-free” means no soymilk or almond milk (and no dairy, obviously), so you’ll have to settle for coconut milk. And they did not have any black tea when I was there… But the cinnamon sugar donut I had was frigging scrumptious, if a little mushy. And everything looked really yummy.
And then there's Franklin Fountain (#11 ) in Olde City, a very creative little sweet shop serving old-fashion ice cream treats of all kinds– unfortunately they only have 2 or 3 soy-cream flavors, and if you're allergic to soy too, you're S.O.L. If you don't get in the door right after they open, you should plan on standing in a long line during the "season". If you can handle the dairy, it's pretty worth it to get a look at the young men behind the counter with their lovely mustaches and bowties and, if you're lucky watch them making their own waffle cones.
Check it all out on the map.
OK, let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?
In Center City, there is nothing interesting to be had, shopping-wise. Luckily, there are a number of drugstores (Rite Aid, Walgreen’s, CVS) and camera shops, for emergencies, and a big mall on Market St. containing KMart, Ross (like TJ Maxx) and Burlington Coat Factory, if you forgot to pack underwear, or your sandal strap breaks or something like that.
Definitely check out I. Goldberg Army Navy Surplus for:
- clever and handy travel/camping tools and gear;
- non-touristy backpacks, satchels and hip packs made of indestructible fabric with many pockets;
- and, best of all, vintage military surplus from around the world, mostly downstairs, mostly very musty smelling, but nothing you can’t wash and sun-bleach out—I picked up a handful of leather belts and straps; a white leather pouch, Swedish Army issue, that will make a great wallet or clutch; and a many-pocketed olive green canvas vest which I will wear in the fall with a belt.
Also stop in here for water bottles and rather stylish hats, so you don’t faceplant on the sidewalk from heat exhaustion.
And as I mentioned, the gift shop at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (#3) is fabulous, if you love design, or just like clever, colorful gift items and art books, in addition to scarves, ties, and fabric yardage designed by their artists.
You may as well walk down (or up, depending on where you’re staying) South Street, although it is a tourist trap (especially the closer you are to the river), but there are many independent boutiques and gift shops scattered throughout that make it worth the sweaty, sunburnt, shorts-wearing crowds with unruly children.
This time around, I enjoyed Greene Street Consignment (#5), for basics, trendy stuff (men’s too), and great jewelry;
Retrospect (#4) (my 3rd trip there), a vintage shop run by Goodwill – pricier than Goodwill, but cheap for a dedicated vintage place. Very well organized, huge men’s section, relatively speaking.
And if you jog south off South St. onto 4th, you will enter Fabric Row, where you’ll find:
- Wilbur Vintage (#6), a tiny, sparkly, fabulous boutique, with really good jewelry, and vintage (mostly 60s-80s), as well as some newer, trendy/designer pieces;
- and several blocks of die-hard family-owned fabric and trimmings stores, mostly offering décor fabrics, but worth a dig through their remnants, sidewalk sales, and trims for good deals on
crack, I mean, hard to find fabric.
Although I didn’t make it back there this time, I’m pretty sure it’s still open for business, so I have to give a shout-out to Tribal Home, (#12) a small and beautiful shop carrying antiques from around Africa, and a few more modern gift items. I got a very reasonably priced vintage mudcloth a few years ago, which is hanging in my hallway.
Heading back west, get back to Chinatown.
Of course, you could be like everyone else and ogle the fans, paper umbrellas, and “Chinese” tchotchkes while sucking down your bubble tea and digesting your General Tso's Chicken.
Or you could go to Shanghai Bazaar (#1) for the beautiful dishes, embroidered and relief-dyed bedspreads and pillowcases, pricey but very chic clothing from the Tang Dynasty label (of which I can find no info online), and the antique-looking weapons-grade metal hairsticks.
Then you could go upstairs to the New China Book Store, for Mandarin-study books for children and adults, Chinese history and art books, music and videos, rice paper and calligraphy brushes, all manner of books (DIY, biographies, history…) in Mandarin, and mass-market Chinese magazines. And be sure to look at the traditional musical instruments, costumes, and ceremonial accoutrement for celebrating the traditional festivals. In addition to a jaw-dropping selection of beautiful things at every price point, the staff was very helpful and friendly. I seriously came here 2 days in a row and spent a decent amount of money without a drop of guilt. And I even asked them if I could call up later and order things to have them ship it to me…
Stop into Q Jade (#2), a small, crowded shop with the usual gift items and souvenirs, as well as a pretty big selection of beads: glass, cloisonne, and oxbone. The staff here was also very friendly and helpful.
Unlike New York’s Chinatown, C.T. in Philadelphia is very small and compact, a few blocks running along Race Street right downtown, making it very easy to navigate (and spend a lot of money, without regrets). And no stomach-churning, slavery-perpetuating knockoff-handbag hawkers! At least not in public…
(Don’t worry, it’s all on the map.)
Where’s the street style??
I know, that’s just what I was thinking!
I don’t know if it’s the season, or where I was staying, but I literally crossed paths with only 2 people, both men, that I wanted to pull my camera out for.
I know that Philly has more style than that, but come on!
As proof, Broad & Market is doing a fantastic job finding the style gems.
Some other helpful tips for braving Philadelphia in the summer:
- Panhandlers are pretty aggressive. I was called a bitch and a liar while I was still in earshot, and I’m sure some other things that I didn’t hear. Be prepared to give away a lot of cash, or just put on your darkest sunglasses and your most inhumane Manhattan attitude and keep walking.
- The entire city smells relentlessly like shit and rotting garbage. FYI.
- Leave your car at home. The street grid is fairly easy to figure out, and there are no hills to speak of, if you’re willing to walk. Public transit is available every day, so take advantage of it. You can rent a ZipCar at many locations, I think there are other car-share deals available, and I’m sure lots of places to rent a bike.
- If you can, travel in spring or fall to avoid the irresponsible parents, crowds, frat boys of all ages, and (I’m sure) jacked up prices. These factors are the worst in Center City and Old City/Society Hill.
So that covers about 5% of the whole city, from the perspective of my early bird, non-drinking, modest-budgeted, eco-conscious, design-junkie, gluten & dairy-free lifestyle. I hear there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the Northern Liberties and Fishtown ‘hoods, and lots more besides. Do your research, check out some Philly bloggers and Twitterers and independent media for more off the beaten track stuff. Not for Tourists is a good place to start.