It's up for debate

Local (Or Semi-Local) Guide to Philadelphia

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It’s been 75 degrees in Philadelphia for the past two days, so we can safely say that winter is dead and gone. With warm weather comes more visitors passing through our city, but I’ve also recently been speaking to both younger travelers and even some more-long-term stays who want to know the more “local” must-dos and could-dos. While I’m aiming to make our Independence Visitor Center desk include more local and unique activities and events in and just outside Philadelphia, I thought I’d list my favorites and top recommendations here as well. And you can be assured that this post won’t be without mention of plants.




Benjamin Franklin Bridge

One way I get acclimated to a new place is to take morning runs in different neighborhoods, something I often did in Budapest. Not only do you obviously get around quicker, but on foot, you can stop and look, and, being morning time, there are fewer people about. One of my favorite and peaceful routes takes me across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as the sun rises over the New Jersey horizon. On the way back across, you can watch the sun creep up the beautiful sloping glass of the tallest building (for now) in Philadelphia, Comcast Center.

Washington Avenue Green

Also one of my favorite running routes, Washington Avenue Green is worth a visit for both its fascinating history and ecology. And while it’s small, it’s one of the few green spaces you can escape to when the concrete, noise, and traffic smog get too much. This was Philadelphia’s busy immigration station from 1870 until it was torn down in 1915 and was the entry point for millions of immigrants, especially coming in droves from eastern and southern Europe. The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent featured (and hopefully still does, though I have to confirm) illustrations of pier-side scenes, vendors and fee collectors and even brides getting married on the spot so they could enter the country legally!

Sunrise over the piers at Washington Avenue Green

Sunrise over the piers at Washington Avenue Green

The Green was recently restored to its state prior to serving as an immigration station. A path winds through bursting sprays of purple asters and beggar-ticks with red mulberry (Morus rubra) and princesstrees (Paulownia tomentosa) overhead. I’ve even found lovely white campion (Silene latifolia) growing in tall grasses and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) on the sloped embankments in between piers as well as the spindly common melilot (Melilotus officinalis).

There. I got the plant stuff out of the way. Now onto more…

Bartram’s Garden

Plants! Although this is mentioned last in the outdoors-themed to-dos in Philadelphia, it’s certainly not the least. If you’re into the outdoors and into history, I recommend reading up on the history of the garden and of the very farmer who was instrumental in Philadelphia becoming, at one point, known for being a botanical and horticultural hotspot, respected by even the forerunners of the field over in the United Kingdom.

The following PDFs or books, while a bit bland but full of fascinating stories and giving an excellent overview of the property are worth giving a read (and I’m all about book exchange, so feel free to contact me!):

PDF: History American Landscapes Survey – John Bartram’s House and Garden
Book: The Plant Hunters by Tyler Whittle

Bartram’s Garden is located a bit out of the way and in West Philly, but you can get there by tram or, my preferred method, by bicycle.


Music Venues


Not to be confused with the Chinese Rotunda at the very excellent and nearby Penn Museum. Photo absconded from Penn Museum's flickr

Not to be confused with the Chinese Rotunda at the very excellent and nearby Penn Museum.
Photo absconded from Penn Museum’s flickr

International House & The Rotunda

Over in University City, International House couldn’t be a better place for entertainment, especially for students studying abroad. The center hosts symposiums, movie screenings, concerts with music from around the world, and more. They even offer housing for students and language courses for anyone interested. The Rotunda offers a similar array of entertainment with more of an educational bent. The surrounding area boasts plenty of great places to eat, including a cozy and spicy favorite of mine, Pattaya Thai Cuisine.

Kimmel Center

Yes, it’s a pretty well-known venue, but while I’ve been to some amazing full-orchestra concerts (my favorite being The Danish Quartet), Kimmel Center has smaller venues within it, many of them free and sometimes pretty intimate. They’ve got a wide range of concerts such as freestyle jazz, spoken word, jazz, experimental, jazz, jazz, jazz…they’ve got a lot of jazz. As much as The Painted Bride at times, another excellent venue but that doesn’t get its own title heading.


Curtis Center Student Recitals

Free. And unbelievably so. These concerts are a chance for students to perform for an audience and show off their skills, and their skills are nothing short of awe-some.




Chemical Heritage Foundation

While I’ve already mentioned and definitely encourage locals and somewhat-locals to pay a visit to the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent to get a close look at the city and its beginnings, I’m also a massive fan of the free (always a good modifier) Chemical Heritage Foundation in the historic district. This small “science museum” shows how chemistry’s been used in the past as well as everyday life and features traveling exhibits such as the one I caught last year by chance, a display of ancient manuscripts that explained the chemical dyes (from PLANTS) used to illustrate their beautiful pages.

The beautiful arched entrance of the Masonic Temple. Photo from Wikipedia because I can't find mine.

The beautiful arched entrance of the Masonic Temple. Photo from Wikipedia because I can’t find mine.

Masonic Temple

Always a winner. Dan Brown’s yet to write about a murder that takes place within one of the seven gorgeous lodge rooms and thank the Masonic overlords for that. Tours are given of this place of architectural and historical interest, and you can then pop across the street to see…

Wanamaker Organ

Philadelphia’s always claiming “first” on things, often with a lot of addendums, but this one is true to its name and damn impressive. The organ – stretching up through several floors of Macy’s – is the largest playable pipe organ in the world and is played twice daily. Despite the amazing, sonorous sound it can produce, I still find it unbelievable that this organ is made up of ten effing thousand – that’s 10,000 – pipes.

St. Peter’s, Old Pine, & Mother Bethel churches

Occasionally, I’ll have a visitor ask for a historically significant church recommendation besides Christ Church. Each of these has its own unique characteristic, St. Peter’s for its trees I’ve written about previously, Old Pine for its architecture style and somber but beautiful stained glass windows, and Mother Bethel for its role in African American progressive history.




For those who know my more hate-than-love relationship with food, I’m surprised myself I’d have a listing for restaurant recommendations.

But I absolutely, unashamedly have to give my accolades to my favorite city restaurant, Kabul. If you’re not so accustomed to Middle Eastern food, I’d start out, as I did on my first visit, with the Norenge Palaw, deliciously tender lamb under a mountain of saffron rice topped with citrus peels. My mouth is watering as I write this. The portions are large, the side dishes tasty, the service great, and the atmosphere casual and no frills and yet transportive, like you’re eating in another country.

For an alternative area of food options besides the usual Old City eats and fancier Rittenhouse Square fares, I’m also fond of the East Passyunk Avenue area in South Philadelphia below Dickinson Street.


I could add so much more to each – Morris Arboretum and John Heinz Wildlife Refuge for outdoors and volunteer opportunities; smaller restaurants, local bars, and sites in my area of Queen Village (including the Shot Tower, the nearby Show Tower Café, and a cavernous second-hand bookstore at 5th and Bainbridge); and some honorable mentions for artsy and musicy venues such as Fleisher Art Memorial and Settlement Music School not to mention the numerous free concerts at Hawthorne Park during the summertime.

And now that it’s summertime in February, I recommend getting out there in your shorts and tank tops, throw caution to the wind and some Norenge Palaw in your mouth, and try out some of these fantastic places.


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  1. […] action? Either way, the piles here and those of the old immigration station of the 1870s at Washington Avenue Pier may be abandoned but not by these advantageous pioneers that have been clinging and thriving there […]

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