A Guide to Philadelphia Neighborhoods

by Rich Rubin

As someone who’s lived in Philadelphia for over a decade now, there’s one thing I can tell you with no hesitation: it’s a city of neighborhoods.

The Bike Stop is Philadelphia’s leather bar, though very all-welcoming, with three floors of fun (proceed with caution to the more risqué basement). ICandy likewise has several different environments, with a first-floor bar and various dance spaces and terraces upstairs. In the mood for something more relaxed? Tavern on Camac boasts a piano bar that draws a wide range of ages and genders, while the upstairs space is used for cabaret and other performances and the basement has an appealing restaurant—always a fun time at Tavern!

A few doors down, Venture Inn draws the most mature crowds in town, but the warm welcome (and sassy drag brunch) are there for all! Sporting a new design as of a few years ago, the formerly-dowdy (I’m just sayin’) U Bar is looking pretty spiffy, updating its name from Uncle’s while still drawing primarily a crowd of avuncular types. Boxers, the latest entry, is a branch of the New York sports bar, with its muscular, scantily-clad servers and bartenders setting the jocky atmosphere which is a lot of fun if that’s your thing. Meanwhile, for those who just don’t want the action to stop, Voyeur is the late-night dance club, now open seven days a week and often offering shows in the hours before the late-night dance action.

Want to experience a variety of nightlife in one grand tour? Check out the Pink Pub Crawl, which occurs 2-3 times a year (one is always Thanksgiving eve). For one admission price (discount for wearing pink) you’re given entry and drinks at various bars. It’s a great way to see the bars in the company of a huge number of locals, as the event has grown from modest beginnings to be one of the most popular happenings in the city.

A symbol of freedom and equality for all, the Liberty Bell remains one of Philadelphia’s most-visited attractions. In view of Independence Hall and The President’s House, where nine enslaved Africans served the first president, it’s a reminder of the fragility of liberty and the determination of Americans.

A symbol of freedom and equality for all, the Liberty Bell remains one of Philadelphia’s most-visited
attractions. In view of Independence Hall and The President’s House, where nine enslaved Africans
served the first president, it’s a reminder of the fragility of liberty and the determination of Americans.

Then, for God’s sake, get some sleep. We have a lot more walking to do.

Rittenhouse Square: Graciousness by the Park

Head due west from the Gayborhood (hint: the street numbers get bigger), and you’ll soon find yourself in Rittenhouse Square. It’s one of the city’s priciest areas, and as you stroll its lovely streets, set around Rittenhouse Square Park, you can see why. A combination of modern and vintage buildings surround the park, which is one of the prettiest in-city parks I know. I’ve whiled away many a day sitting on one of the benches watching life go by. Life is quiet here among the diagonal walkways and statuary, and on a summer day there’s nowhere nicer.

My beloved Tria has three branches close by: the original wine bar, their Tria Taproom, which features beer, wine, and soda on tap (along with their usual great small plates), and a new café/dinner place on nearby Fitler Square. Another Rittenhouse favorite is Tinto, where Basque dishes are the focus and the food is as spectacular as you’d expect from local celebrity Jose Garces. I love too, his Village Whiskey, where the booze is accompanied by great burgers, fries, and specialties like Lobster Mac.

One of Philadelphia’s premiere coffeehouses is here too: La Colombe. Their coffee is served at restaurants all over town, but it’s best here in the always-crowded café where the baked goods are also top-notch. Another cool choice, Elixr, is hidden on a little alleyway street just east of the park, where coffee devotees enjoy single-origin brews at the funky/chic wooden tables.

Coffee up, because the nearby Mütter Museum takes some energy. Run by the College of Physicians, it’s the quirkiest museum you’re likely to see, devoted to medical oddities from skull collections to (I kid you not) pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain. Moving right along…check out what’s happening at historic Plays & Players, which just celebrated its hundredth anniversary and where it’s not surprising to find an LGBT-themed play, particularly during the August GayFest!, for which P&P serves as one of the prime venues.

A drink after the show? Stir is the only non-gayborhood LGBT bar, and I do mean LGBT, as this friendly neighborhood hangout is truly all-welcoming. A place to lie your head? The Rittenhouse area is blessed with hotels. I love the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, which has given high-style new life to the old Warwick hotel, and where the rooms, some boasting incredible views, are as comfortable as the public areas are enticing. The nearby Palomar has all the fabulous design and gay-friendliness you’d expect from a Kimpton hotel, and you can’t go wrong with the coolly understated design of this stylish spot set in a classic Art Deco building. A few blocks north of the immediate neighborhood is the alluring Le Méridien, another winning combination of classic and modern styles, with the added temptation of incredible eclairs served in the coffeehouse-style lobby. Head there for eclairs even if you’re not a guest. They’re just like Rittenhouse: sweet, alluring, and satisfying.

Nestled on a tiny street in Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood,” Tavern on Camac boasts three distinct floors featuring a restaurant, a piano bar and a nightclub, making it easy to see why one of the oldest gay and lesbian bars in the country is also a very popular one.

Nestled on a tiny street in Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood,” Tavern on Camac boasts three distinct floors featuring a restaurant, a piano bar and a nightclub, making it easy to see why one of the oldest gay and lesbian bars in the country is also a very popular one.

Old City: History and Hipness

Now let’s head east from the Gayborhood where street numbers grow smaller. Within ten minutes you’re at a crossroads. Turn right and you’re in Old City. Turn left and you’re on Society Hill. Let’s do the former first. Here you’re in the heart of Philadelphia and U.S. history, with some of the most important buildings in the country.

Here you’ll find the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall (where the Constitution was signed. You’ll also find Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential street in the U.S. and the National Constitution Center, a beautifully-designed museum devoted to this historic document, its history, and its more modern ramifications. The Constitution Center is the major host for Reminder 2015, with its exhibit (through September 7) “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court.”

The African-American Museum, which celebrates both the local and national history of the African-American population, and the National Museum of Jewish History, which does the same for Jewish history, are also Reminder 2015 hosts.

Tour Independence Hall. Walk up to the Liberty Bell (yes, you can). Learn about history. Then see that history come alive in lovely streets lined with centuries-old buildings. There’s also a hip overlay here, as you’ll see on streets like 2nd St. with its plethora of galleries offering everything from pottery to original paintings. Amada, the first restaurant opened by Jose Garces, remains one of the finest in the city for shareable plates with a Spanish flair, while Fork is an always-bustling exemplar of contemporary American cuisine. Old City Coffee redefines the word hip, set back from the street and offering light bites in addition to coffee. At the edge of the district is the concrete riverview plaza Penn’s Landing, which locals know as the locale of June’s Gay Pride Festival. Hotels? Well, you’ll see an example of neighborhood chic if you check in at the Monaco, the city’s second Kimpton hotel, which combines high-design comfort with a view of all that’s historic—Old City is old and new in stunning juxtaposition.

Society Hill: More Living History

A few steps south of Old City lies Society Hill, to my mind the most beautiful area of town. The “sights” here are the streets themselves, lined with a magnificent display of vintage architecture: blocks and blocks of early nineteenth and late eighteenth-century houses. It’s one of the most spectacular neighborhoods in the country for fans of historic architecture. There’s not much to “do” here but walk and enjoy, but take it from me you won’t want to miss this most spectacular of neighborhoods.

At its eastern edge, along the Delaware River, summer marks the emergence of a “pop up park” called Spruce Street Harbor Park, with food vendors, beer and ale stands, ever-changing light sculptures, and stunning river views. Definitely check out this see-and-be-seen spot that’s among the most exciting in the city.

At the southeast end of Society Hill lies Headhouse Square, a charming square with its picturesque “shambles” (a Georgian firehouse), where the city’s busy Sunday farmer’s market is held. It’s a popular backdrop for wedding photos (I’ve seen more gay couples posing in front of this arched arcade than I can count), and the plaza itself is lined with nice little restaurants. My favorite is Xochitl, a modern Mexican place where the cuisine leans to the unexpected. Another Society Hill fave is Zahav, where James Beard winner Michael Solomonov does amazing things with Israeli cuisine.

Mainly, though, your time on Society Hill will be spent oohing and ahhing the architecture, wandering aimlessly through gorgeous streets, and wishing you could afford a house there. It’s a living tribute to history and to the fact that a neighborhood can capture your imagination even without a range of standard tourist “sights.”

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