Philadelphia: City of Neighborhoods

June 1, 2018 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

William Penn statue atop Philadelphia’s City Hall. (Photo: B. Krist/Visit Philadelphia)

JACL National Convention attendees have endless sights and food choices to discover when they descend upon the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ in July.

By Rob Buscher, Member, JACL Philadelphia board of directors

Despite its growing population and increasing number of visitors, Philadelphia remains a city of neighborhoods, which is perhaps what makes it so special. There are dozens of neighborhoods to explore, each with their own distinct character located within a short walking distance of one another. As the “City of Brotherly Love” prepares to welcome JACL National Convention attendees, this article highlights a few of these spots and provides some suggestions for conventiongoers to do, see and eat between sessions this July 18-22.

Steeped in history as the first capitol of the U.S., Philadelphia was founded on the Quaker principles of religious tolerance and freedom that were evangelized by Pennsylvania namesake William Penn. It also served as the center of civic and economic life in this country until New York City outpaced its growth in the mid-19th century.

While some have derisively called it the “sixth borough” of New York, Philadelphia has established and maintained a character that is uniquely its own. Center City Philadelphia is the country’s second-most-densely populated area outside of Midtown Manhattan, with a population of approximately 1.5 million in the city proper. Including the suburban metro area, Philadelphia is also the second-largest metropolitan region on the East Coast with a total population of 5.5 million, and fifth largest city in the country.

And after becoming the first U.S. city to be officially recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2015, Philadelphia has firmly established itself as a premier travel destination in America.

City Hall

Located just a few blocks southeast from the JACL National Convention host hotel, the Sheraton Downtown, is Philadelphia’s City Hall, the country’s largest municipal building, which was lavishly built in the Second Empire Style that was popular during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte in France. The City Hall Courtyard, Dilworth Plaza, and the adjacent Love Park are some of Philadelphia’s most vibrant public spaces and host to a number of free events including live music, film screenings and more.

  • What to Do

Join a tour of the City Hall Tower and take in the view from the observation deck, located 548-feet above ground. One can also visit the world’s largest pipe organ across the street at Macy’s in the old Wanamaker building for a free concert at noon daily, except Sundays.

  • Where to Eat

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia’s top food destination, is a few short blocks from City Hall located on 11th and 12th streets between Arch and Filbert. Home to more than 60 individually owned market stalls that feature an incredible variety of fresh ingredients and ready-made food, the market is also one of the few places in urban Pennsylvania where one can find genuine Amish food.

Parkway/Art Museum District

Designed after the Champs-Élysées and other grand avenues of Europe, the Parkway is a mile-long stretch of tree-lined sidewalks, parks and museums located half a block from the convention hotel. Philadelphia Museum of Art, perhaps best known as the “Rocky” steps, is at the end of the promenade, with Pop artist Robert Indiana’s famous Love sculpture at the other.

  • What to Do

“Rocky” steps (Photo: J. Fusco/Visit Philadelphia)

One can take an early morning jog up the Parkway and run the “Rocky” steps, then walk back leisurely and enjoy the Rodin Museum’s outdoor sculpture garden. There is also plenty to see at the Franklin Institute and Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences — both are located off the Logan Square section of the Parkway, two blocks west of the convention hotel.

  • Where to Eat

There are a number of trendy restaurants on Callowhill between 20th and 18th streets ranging from Japanese BBQ chain Gyu-Kaku to a taqueria owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces called Buena Onda, which specializes in fish tacos. For those looking for more variety, check out the massive Whole Foods Market located at 22nd and Hamilton streets, which features pared-down menus from several of Philly’s up-and-coming restaurateurs in its newly completed restaurant row.

Chinatown

Philadelphia’s Chinatown is both the second-oldest and -largest on the East Coast, home to some 10,000 Chinese and other Asian Americans from many different ethnic communities.

Chinatown (Photo: G. Widman for GPTMC)

Located six short blocks east of the convention hotel, Chinatown has upward of three-dozen restaurants, bars, bakeries and cafés, including late-night food options until 3 a.m. or later.

  • What to Do

Visit the Chinatown Square food hall on Race Street between 11th and 10th streets for an eclectic sampling of Asian dishes ranging from Hawaiian poke to Cambodian chicken wings and many things in between. Afterward, stop by Hop Sing Laundromat, a speakeasy cocktail bar across the street that serves top-shelf spirits in a 1920s Prohibition-era environ — just be sure to meet the dress code: No jeans or sneakers are allowed, and resist the urge to take photos or use a cell phone inside, since both are prohibited.

  • Where to Eat

The entire neighborhood is packed full of good eats, but of particular note is Terakawa Ramen, located on 9th Street just north of Race. Known for its Kumamoto-style tonkotsu (rich pork broth) ramen, the restaurant has limited seating, so expect a 30- to 40-minute wait. After putting one’s name on the waitlist, take a stroll down 9th Street to Ray’s Café & Teahouse and try its 12-hour cold-brewed ice coffee, perfect on a warm day.

Rittenhouse

Home to many of the leaders in Philadelphia’s business community and other wealthy elite, this Center City neighborhood is the undisputed shopping destination for all things fashion. Ranging from major mass-fashion outlets to specialty boutiques, Rittenhouse Square, in particular, is the place to see and be seen.

The neighborhood is about a 10-minute walk due south from the convention hotel.

  • What to Do

Rittenhouse Square (Photo: M. Edlow/Visit Philadelphia)

Window shop through the main fashion corridor from the Bellevue on Broad Street, going west down Walnut Street until you hit the park on 18th. Then, catch some street performers in Rittenhouse Square or people watch from one of the many sidewalk cafés lining the park.

  • Where to Eat

Far from standard pub fare, the Dandelion is one of restaurateur Stephen Starr’s crowning achievements — mastering the best of English cuisine with an upscale flare. Fun fact: The upholstery and other furnishings were all imported directly from real pubs in the U.K. that were closing down or being renovated. Located at the corner of 18th and Sansom streets, reservations are recommended, but the Dandelion does welcome walk-ins at the bar.

Midtown Village

Affectionately nicknamed the “Gayborhood” by locals, Midtown Village is a bustling restaurant and shopping corridor along 12th and 13th from Chestnut to Spruce streets that once housed Philadelphia’s Greek community. Home to Giovanni’s, the oldest continuously operated LGBTQ+ bookstore, Midtown Village is also the undisputed headquarters of Philly’s gay nightlife. The neighborhood is about a 10-minute walk southeast from the convention hotel.

  • What to Do

Stop by trendy Greek bar/restaurant Opa, located on Sansom between 13th and Broad streets, for happy hour, then grab dinner and a live jazz show next door at Time or down the street at Chris’ Jazz Café. For those feeling adventurous, check out after-hours nightclubs Voyeur or Woody’s, located opposite of each other on 13th street just south of Walnut.

  • Where to Eat

Don’t let its lounge bar atmosphere be deceiving, as Valanni, located on Spruce just east of 13th Street, is home to one of the best Mediterranean-inspired brunches in the village with a highly innovative cocktail menu as well. Afterward, visit Big Gay Ice Cream a few blocks away on South Street near Broad and try one of its signature flavors like “salty pimp.”

Old City

Old City is Philadelphia’s most historic district, which features dozens of Colonial-era buildings and other monuments related to the birth of American democracy. In recent decades, the neighborhood has also become a vibrant nightlife destination, complete with dozens of restaurants and bars, plus a number of art galleries that often host public events. The neighborhood is about a 20-minute walk due east from the convention hotel or a short cab ride away.

  • What to Do

Independence Hall

Visit Independence Hall (must reserve tickets in advance) for a self-guided tour of the first U.S. capitol building, then see the Liberty Bell, which is located across the street on the corner of Chestnut and 6th streets. After that, walk east on Chestnut to the portrait gallery, which is housed in the Second Bank of the U.S., home to oil paintings detailing many of America’s Founding Fathers, then walk through Franklin Court to see Benjamin Franklin’s printing press and post office.

  • Where to Eat

Cuba Libre on 2nd Street just south of Market is sure to please with its innovative take on traditional Cuban dishes and selection of fresh fruit juices. For dessert, check out the Franklin Fountain, a Victorian-era soda fountain and ice cream parlor located on Market between 2nd and Front streets.

Italian Market

Italian Market (Photo: R Kennedy/GPTMC)

One of Philly’s few European ethnic enclave communities where Italian and Sicilian are still commonly spoken, this neighborhood is named after the bustling street produce market where the famed training montage in 1976’s “Rocky” takes place. In recent decades, the market has also expanded to include shops and restaurants owned by newer immigrant communities from Southeast Asia and Central America. Located two miles south of the convention hotel, it’s probably best to take a cab here.

  • What to Do

Enjoy the sights and smells of Old World Italy by way of South Philly’s Italian American community. Visit Claudio’s Specialty Foods on 924 S. 9th Street to sample its house-aged sharp provolone cheese and Isgro Pastries on 1009 Christian St. for the cannoli. Walk down 9th Street, south of Washington Avenue, to check out the Mexican section of the market and grab a paleta (Mexican popsicle) from El Pueblo Refresqueria on the corner of 9th and Ellsworth streets.

  • Where to Eat

For home-style Italian American food, Villa di Roma on 9th Street, just south of Claudio’s, is always a great bet, or for fresh fish, check out Anastasi Seafood at the corner of 9th and Washington streets. But for those really wanting to try a famous cheesesteak, then walk down 9th street to the intersection of Passyunk Avenue, home to the famous Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, which are opposite of each other — both are open 24 hours.

Passyunk Square

An emerging neighborhood in South Philly located south of the Italian Market, Passyunk Square is a great place for dining or shopping at one of its fashion boutiques.

  • What to Do

Grab a gelato from Capogiro, located on Passyunk just south of Tasker Street, and people watch at the Singing Fountain in the square.

  • Where to Eat

Visit Saté Kampar on Passyunk Avenue near the corner of 13th street, Philadelphia’s only Malaysian restaurant and one of the few places where customers can order halal and non-halal meals from the same kitchen. A Malaysian immigrant, chef/owner Ange Branca strives to re-create the integrated diversity of her native Kuala Lumpur, inviting Muslims and individuals of other faiths to break fast together during their Iftar dinners in the month of Ramadan. Currently, the restaurant is open for dinner service only, and reservations are recommended.

University City

Located on the West bank of the Schuylkill River, University City is just two subway stops away from the City Hall station on the Market Frankford line or a 10-minute cab ride from the convention hotel. Named for its proximity to Ivy League giant University of Pennsylvania and STEM-heavy Drexel University, both campuses have ample outdoor space and dining options.

  • What to Do

Penn Museum of Archeology (Photo: R. Kennedy/GPTMC)

Visit Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art, located at the corner of 36th and Sansom streets, then head due south to stroll through Penn’s scenic Locust Walk. End this trip with a visit to the Penn Museum of Archaeology, which features one of the world’s most extensive Egyptian collections; it currently is housing a special exhibit on Middle Eastern art in the age of ISIS titled “Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories From Syria and Iraq.”

  • Where to Eat

Japanese chef Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka recently opened his izakaya concept coZara at the corner of 33rd and Chestnut streets. Before opening his own restaurant, Tanaka oversaw the kitchen at Iron Chef Morimoto’s Philadelphia restaurant, Morimoto. Craving soul food? Then try Baby Blues BBQ at 34th and Sansom streets.

These are just some of the many highlights Philadelphia has to offer. Convention is only a few weeks away. Mark these suggestions down and get ready to experience what is sure to create memories that will last a lifetime!

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