Magical gardens, escargot tarts, a vibrant market, and feel-good coffee: while not at all what I had expected, these are just a few of the wonderful things you can experience when you travel solo to Philadelphia.
On my first trip to the city, I had only two days to explore. There is so much to see and do that it will definitely warrant a return visit or two. I felt completely comfortable on my own, and found the people to be very friendly and helpful.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights of my weekend, supplemented by recommendations from both locals and travelers who are members of our Solo Travel Society on Facebook.
Solo Travel Philadelphia: Where to Eat
A short walk down the street from City Hall is the Reading Terminal Market, a big, busy, bustling center of food, music, and conversation. I visited more than once during the course of the weekend and it was filled with people and activity all the time. I had been told that one of the must-try foods was the roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s, but the line-up for the “Best Sandwich in America” was too long for the amount of time that I had. However, the line-up for 4th Street Cookies was more manageable. Although I had intended to bring home some Chocolate Macadamia Nut and Peanut Butter Chocolate cookies to share with friends, this did not happen. It’s as though they disappeared from my bag as I walked around the city.
I dare not wade into the debate around where to get the best Philly Cheesesteak; I will simply report what the Solo Travel Society had to say. It's a contentious topic! For the uninitiated, a Philly Cheesesteak is essentially thinly sliced chopped steak topped with melted American cheese, provolone, or Cheez Whiz (and possibly fried onions) on a hoagie roll. According to Grex, “tourists go to Pat's or Geno's” and according to Cassandra, “Pat’s and Geno’s both suck.” See what I mean? But Grex does have another recommendation. His “personal favorite for cheesesteak is Dalessandro's, a few miles from downtown Philly.” For some additional options, here is The Ultimate Guide to Cheesesteaks in Philly from Eater.
If you're a cheese lover, you must visit Di Bruno Bros. In business for 80+ years, their flagship location is in Rittenhouse Square, with multiple other locations around the city. Suzanne, a Philly local, recommends her favorite restaurants: Parc, a French-style bistro; The Dandelion, a British-style pub; and El Vez for Mexican fare. She also recommends Zahav as a foodie delight, though it can be tough to get a reservation. However, if you travel solo to Philadelphia, you might just get lucky as they offer bar seating, which can be much easier to snag when you're a party of one.
Another tip from a local, Kim says, “One of my favorite things about living in Philly again is the tomato pie. Go for it at Italian bakeries, not pizza places. Sarcone's is top notch in the Italian market, Liberty Kitchen and Pizza Shackamaxon (I know it's a pizza place, but they know their stuff) if you're up in Fishtown.
What to See
A great starting point for my visit was a trip in the tiny little elevator to the top of the City Hall Tower. Philadelphia has the largest city hall in the United States, and it is located right in the center of the city. From the observation deck, I had a 360 degree view of the city below.
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is one of the most unusual art installations I have ever encountered. Constructed over fourteen years by mosaic mural artist Isaiah Zagar, this incredible art environment covers half a city block. You really must experience this for yourself. Part indoor gallery, part sculpture garden, this curious amalgam of objects from handmade tiles to glass bottles to bicycles to mirrors is captivating.
There are also a number of well-known sites that are popular with visitors: the Liberty Bell, the “Rocky Steps” and statue, and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed. When visiting City Hall, I read a plaque out front and was surprised to discover that Mother's Day was founded by Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia.
Where to Stay
Both travelers and locals recommend staying near Rittenhouse Square when you travel solo to Philadelphia. “I’m local, and recommend staying near Rittenhouse Park. It’s a very nice area for dinner and drinks in the evenings, shopping, and it's walkable to everything,” said Cassandra.
Another advantage to staying in this area is that you will be on the doorstep of a fantastic market if you are there on a Saturday. I considered myself very lucky to be in Philadelphia on the day of the Rittenhouse Farmers' Market. Set up on the sidewalk around the park at 18th and Walnut, this friendly market made my day. It was clear that there were a lot of regular customers picking up their organic vegetables, fresh baked goods, and local eggs and cheese as I listened to them bantering with the vendors. This market runs year-round, and was the perfect place for me to grab breakfast. Sitting on a bench in the sun, watching children play in the park, enjoying a freshly-baked escargot tart and a locally-grown apple, I was definitely in my happy place.
Our go-to for finding places to stay when we travel is booking.com – which is where I discovered that the hotel I stayed at in Philly is no longer operating. But you will find lots of options, from hostels to the Ritz.
Things to Do when You Travel Solo to Philadelphia
There is no shortage of galleries and museums in Philadelphia, but perhaps the most unique is the Mütter Museum. Run by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, “the goal of the Museum is to help visitors understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” It is weird and creepy, fascinating and eerie. I have seen it described as “disturbingly informative” and that sounds about right to me. It may not be for everyone, but I found it strangely compelling and definitely unforgettable. I recommend checking out their website before going, to get a feel for the types of exhibits you will encounter.
A good resource for things to do in Philly is Uwishunu, created by the folks at Visit Philadelphia.
Suzanne told us the Barnes Foundation–which boasts, among other things, a wonderful collection of modern European paintings, including works by Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Modigliani–is fantastic as is the Rodin Museum next door, which contains one of the largest collections of his sculptures outside of Paris. Cassandra offered this: “The Philadelphia Museum of Art is great. There’s also the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) and the Locust Walk on the UPenn campus, which is lovely to walk through.
Not only did I have the most delicious Americano – okay, several of the most delicious Americanos – at La Colombe but I was also able to feel really good about the company that served the coffee. The beans are sourced directly from farmers, fairly traded, eco-friendly, and the product of long-term relationships. How can you not love a company that describes itself like this: “La Colombe's mission is simple – change the world by making people happy. What started out as a vision for serving the best coffee, became an opportunity to influence meaningful, long-lasting change and leave this world better than we found it.” The staff in the cafe were very knowledgable and welcoming, and I loved the decor. The perfect spot to warm up and refuel. They now have five locations in Philadelphia.
Beth told us, “I really recommend the guide-led tours at Eastern State Penitentiary (once the most famous and expensive prison in the world). It was fascinating!” Joanne shared, “If you get tired of the historical sights The Philly Zoo is beautiful.”
I understand that Philadelphia has a great transit system, though I didn’t make use of it on this trip. I walked everywhere, all day long, then took a very reasonably-priced taxi back to my hotel at the end of the day.
You could definitely see more than I did on a weekend trip, and there are many things that I missed out on. I’m a slow traveler, though, more interested in soaking up the personality of a neighborhood than in making sure that I see every famous sight or taste every local food. Which explains why there are no photos of a Philly Cheesesteak in this post. Next time!