Over the last two years, despite the pandemic, Philadelphia is seeing an expansion of exciting new hotels, restaurants, and cultural developments.
When someone tells you there’s been a bombing in Philadelphia these days, you might want to investigate the scene, since they’re probably refering to the colorful, joy-bringing work of local “yarn bombing” artist Nicole Nikolich.
Swapping out spray paint for yarn, this textile (and tactile) form of street art sees fences, walls, tree trunks, street posts, lamps, and benches decked out in crochet installations. The openly lesbian Nikolich has been at yarn bombing for four years, documenting her work on the Instagram account Lace In the Moon (instagram.com/lace_in_the_moon).
In June 2021, Philly’s gayborhood popped with queer-themed yarn bombs galore, including a 13-foot-long rainbow at 5th and South (50 hours and 70 skeins of yarn were involved), which can still be seen at that location, and a full-sized Liberty Bell replica, which is on display through part of 2022 at the National Liberty Museum (321 Chestnut St. Tel: 215-925-2800. libertymuseum.org).
Pride month was a particularly jubilant time to be in Philadelphia love. On the Friday night of my visit, excited, thirsty crowds and lines wound out the doors of two new LGBTQ+ nightclubs: the two-level Cockatoo (208S 13th St. Tel: 267-324-5603. cockatoo.fun) and predominantly black Level Up (1330 Walnut St. Tel: 215-545- 1959. levelupphl.com), both of which host drag queen performances, tea dances, activities and more. Cockatoo also serves up Latin American food, while Level Up spices up its calendar with sexy First Friday parties featuring male erotic dancers, 1st and 3rd Wednesday’s “Lumps & Humps” body positivity themed nights, and hookahs.
Despite on-going COVID concerns the pandemic couldn’t stop progress and queer enterprise in Philadelphia, which saw exciting new hotels, restaurants, and cultural developments fill the cityscape, from a fabulous LGBTQ-inclusive burlesque and cabaret nightclub to the hotly anticipated debut of the Frank Gehry-designed expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Indeed, so much is going on that I made a second visit in October, which was easy, quick, and pleasurable thanks to Amtrak’s (amtrak.com) direct service from NYC’s stunning new Moynihan Train Hall (moynihantrainhall.nyc) at Penn Station. Housed in the historic, former Farley Post Office with a worth-every-penny $1.6 billion rennovation, Moynihan boasts a first class Amtrak lounge on the second level with fabulous balcony views of the glass-ceilinged station, a ground level lounge for other ticketed passengers, plus a colorful glass triptych installation by openly gay, black artist Kehinde Wiley (who famously painted President Obama’s official portrait).
One is spoilt for choice when it comes to chic, contemporary accommodations in Philly today. Occupying the uppermost floors of the city’s tallest, newest skyscraper, the 219- room Four Seasons Philadelphia (One North 19th St. Tel: 215-419-5000. fourseasons.com/philadelphia) at Comcast Center opened in 2019. If you’re wondering where visiting celebrities, sports teams, and VIPs are staying, it’s almost surely here, and with good reason. The 57th floor’s spa boasts 700 lbs of healing crystals in its walls (each of the seven treatment rooms are named after a type of crystal), and the indoor pool is fabulous, so bring a bathing suit.
Even if you’re not a guest, the glass elevator ride to Four Seasons’ 60th floor Sky Lobby is a popular must for its cinematic ascent above Museum Mile, in-house floral director Eduardo Verdi’s ever-changing, Instagrammable arrangements, and chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s JG Skyhigh elevated cocktail bar and, just down a short flight of steps a fine dining namesake restaurant. All offer sumptuous views, drinks, and cuisine. Also at the hotel, the ground level’s Vernick Fish is likely Philly’s best seafood restaurant with a tasty raw bar. And the adjacent building’s Vernick Coffee Bar serves outstanding craft coffee, pastries, and cafe fare.
Another 2019 opening, located steps from the 30th Street train station, the private Fitler Club (2400 Market St. Tel: 215- 575-9092. fitlerclub.com) has been billed as the lovechild of Soho House, Equinox gym, and WeWork. Members’ amenities include 25,000 square foot gym, 75-foot, 3 lane indoor lap pool; bowling lanes; work spaces; full service bars; dining venues; and an extensive art collection that continues to grow thanks to an Artist In Residence program. Good news for visitors: guests staying in one of its 14 rooms have instant access to all of the above! Fitler regularly hosts LGBTQ events including drag brunches, while its openly queer, genius pastry chef Jeremy Intille (Instagram @jerbear_and_his_stickybuns) creates delicious ice cream, cookies, cakes, and other tasty creations.
The 12-suite boutique property Guild House (1307 Locust St. Tel: 855-484- 5333. guildhousehotel.com) is a historic landmark 19th Century rowhouse that once served as the home of the women’s empowerment group New Century Guild and has been beautifully restored and designed, blending past and present by the female-led Rohe Creative.
Fall 2021 saw the long awaited opening of W Philadelphia (1439 Chestnut St. Tel: 215- 709-8000. marriott.com/hotels/travel/phlwh-w-philadelphia), just opposite the Philadelphia Film Society (1412 Chestnut St. Tel: 267-239-2941. filmadelphia.org). The 295- room property features W mainstays like heated WET outdoor pool, deck, and full service AWAY spa, while wood and copper- toned rooms pay homage to the city and its history with a dash of cheek (a throw pillow displays the iconic “LOVE” on one side, and “LUST” on the other). I’ve one nitpick, that the floor-to-ceiling windows aren’t effectively soundproofed so street sounds and a nearby bell can be heard even on the upper floors, but excellent ground level Italian restaurant Dolce and the W’s wow factor lobby and Living Room lounge make up for it.
Meanwhile, W’s adjacent 460-room sister property Element (1441 Chestnut St. Tel: 215- 709-0000. marriott.com/hotels/travel/phlel-element-philadelphia) offers a more budget- minded price point and kitchenettes, while still being fresh, contemporary, and providing plenty of light and views.
Easily the most exciting unveiling of 2021 for art lovers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tel: 215-763-8100. philamuseum.org) debuted its $233 million expansion. Four years in the making, architect Frank Gehry’s renovations add a completely refreshed south entrance, 640-foot skylit underground passage and cafe, Piranesian switchback staircase, and 20,000 square feet of new gallery space. Exhibitions for 2022 are still being announced, but LGBTQ+ artists’ work can easily be found in the Museum’s collection.
Located away from the Museum Mile in downtown Philly, The Fabric Workshop and Museum, aka FWM (1214 Arch St. Tel: 215-561-8888. fabricworkshopandmuseum.org) is one of the city’s most underrated cultural attractions. Dedicated to artists who work with textiles, 2021 saw FWM host the first solo exhibition by queer black Philly artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase. Called “Big Wash,” it transformed an entire floor into an outrageous laundromat-style space with multimedia works that while thematically intimate, nostalgic, and tender, boasted wickedly humorous and erotic elements. 2022’s calendar is rich with BIPOC and female representation, with exhibitions by Ahmed Alsoudani, Jayson Musson, Rose B. Simpson, and Henry Taylor among others, while the FWM store is jam packed with handmade home items, plush animals, clothing, accessories, and more.
All sorts of cool (and queer) art exhibitions and installations and studio spaces can be found at the Delaware River Waterfront’s Cherry Street Pier (cherrystreetpier.com). A dilapidated century-old shipping pier and warehouse was reborn as this vibrant hub for art, food vendors, and seasonal markets and events.