Body parts are everywhere: an unblinking eye sizes me up from the floor, lips pout from the wall and bare breasts are plastered overhead.
“This was a woman who was stalking me for two years,” laughs Isaiah Zagar, whose boho ensemble belies his years. We’re surrounded by his outlandish oeuvre: a labyrinth of multicoloured mosaics made of bottles, bicycle wheels and shards of broken mirror, spread across every inch of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens — a fitting name for this enchanting art gallery.
“There are many people who get involved with something in their environment that they feel they can work with — make something with. Maybe it starts out small, but then it becomes this passion that’s just unstoppable, and they give up everything to continue,” Isiah enthuses. “They’re obsessed. They’re possessed. I’m possessed. I have to work at this every day.”
It’s this unbound innovation and imagination that courses through Philadelphia’s veins — the United States of America was born here in 1776; and it’s since been the seat of the country’s first newspaper, medical school, hospital and zoo. And while that may make it sound like the City of Brotherly Love considers its past accommplishments as its glory days, think again.
“The city’s going through a renaissance right now,” says James, my waiter at Zahav, as I spoon creamy paprika hummus onto freshly baked laffa bread. “And not a lot of people know about Philly.” Eschewing the still-ubiquitous pasta-and-pizza joints, chefs like Zahav’s Michael Solomonov are expanding the city’s epicurean offerings, while strict liquor laws have bred a prospering BYOB culture. A zanier bring-your-own spot I visit is Pizza Brain, which houses the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia, and slings slices with tough-to-beat toppings such as blue cheese, brisket and horseradish.
Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is in Kensington, an area — along with Fishtown — whose recent regeneration has brought with it bars, boutiques and bistros. Throw in a vibrant waterfront that crowds with pop-up food and drink stands in summer, a recent bike-sharing programme with 70 stations across the city and a brand new world-class museum, and it’s clear Philly is emerging from the shadow of New York and DC as a cultural powerhouse with bags of quirk and confidence.
See & do
Reading Terminal Market: This 125-year-old market is a homage to Pennsylvanian produce. Source a slice of buttery Cabot Clothbound cheddar from Valley Shepherd Creamery; nibble spicy venison sticks from Smucker’s, or scoff a buttercream-filled whoopie pie from the Amish-run Beiler’s Bakery.
Independence National Historical Park: The good ole USA was born here, and this park packs a punch with icons including the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Nearby is City Tavern, a replica of the pub frequented by the oft-thirsty Founding Fathers.
Barnes Foundation: Soak up one of the world’s largest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings. It’s all the more surprising that the 900-strong haul of Cézannes, Van Goghs, Matisses and Picassos was owned by one man — Dr Albert Barnes.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens: Artist Isaiah Zagar has been covering the walls of this 3,000sq ft indoor and outdoor space — along with various surfaces around South Street — with a kaleidoscopic array of murals made of recycled accoutrements, such as bike wheels and bottles. It’s a mad-as-a-hatter wonderland.
Mutter Museum: Disturbingly informative, and not for sensitive stomachs. Medical curiosities include President Grover Cleveland’s tumour, pieces of Einstein’s brain, a book bound by human skin and a corpse that turned into soap.
Museum of the American Revolution: Having opened its doors last April, this is the latest museum to join Philly’s already outstanding cultural line-up. Dedicated to America’s founding, it’s full of objects, manuscripts and theatres that create a chronological journey from the roots of conflict to the making of a nation.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Run up the Rocky Steps to this Parthenon-like pile, the third-largest art museum in the United States. And its collection really is exhaustive: it spans Renaissance and American art to impressionist and modern pieces with work by the likes of Dali and Duchamp.
Mural Arts: What began as an anti-graffiti initiative has spawned one of the world’s largest outdoor art galleries. There are up to 100 new public art projects each year with nearly 4,000 murals already on display — check out some of this sprawling street art by booking a walking or trolley tour.
£ John’s Roast Pork: Cheesesteak may get all the attention in Philly, but the roast pork deserves some love too. Head to South Philadelphia to this bare-bones joint, where patrons order a crusty ‘hoagie’ piled with roast pork, sharp provolone and garlicky greens.
££ Standard Tap: This is what the city is all about — a laid-back gastropub in Northern Liberties with a 20-strong tap devoted to local breweries, plus sublime pub grub. Highlights include a juicy Lancaster Angus beef burger with muenster cheese or jerk goat sausages with coconut-braised black beans.
£££ Zahav: The first in chef Michael Solomonov’s mini-restaurant empire, this buzzy Israeli joint is king of small plates. Try the chicken liver with fig and Fresno chilli or the tehina (tahini) topped with cumin, garlic and lemon, perfect scooped up with freshly baked laffa bread. It was so good I even bought the chef’s cookbook.
£ La Reserve Bed & Breakfast: It’s easy to confuse La Reserve with a favourite old aunt’s place — head inside the red-brick, 19th-century townhouse and there’s a baby grand for nimble-fingered pianists, board games in the sitting room, homemade cookies each afternoon and playfully patterned rooms.
££ Kimpton Hotel Palomar: Effortlessly cool, in a 1929 black-and-gold art deco tower, just off Rittenhouse Square. The stylish rooms look out across the rooftops and free wine hours are held amid Day-Glo portraits and pop art busts of Benjamin Franklin.
£££ The Ritz-Carlton: The Greek Doric columns of the facade could well be mistaken for a temple — and beyond is one of the most luxurious hotels in Philly. Sexed-up suites come with views of the City Hall clock tower, the spa offers treatments including a hibiscus and honey wrap, and the elegant interiors feature gilt chandeliers and coffered ceilings.
Hoof and Antler: It’s like walking into an ancient explorer’s study, brimming with bizarre tchotchkes like a taxidermied deer head and South African porcupine quills, plus fading scientific journals and a rusting first aid kit from the 1920s. There’s great vintage clothing, but the curiosities are simply wonderful.
Di Bruno Bros: This Philly institution now has five locations touting gourmet goods. With their own blend of coffee, signature cheeses such as pinot grigio and fig, Hawaiian black lava sea salt cashews, and provolone- and prosciutto-stuffed peppers, this is the spot to pick up edible gifts.
Vagabond: This lovely little indie boutique sells women’s clothing against a backdrop of exposed brick and chunky wooden tables. Located in Old City, where the shopping is fantastic, this place sells handmade vintage, the shop’s own line of clothing plus pieces from designers including Bario Neal and Rachel Comey.
Like a local
First Friday: On the first Friday of each month, more than 40 galleries in the Old City and neighbourhoods including Fishtown open their doors from 5-9pm. In the summer, there are also artists’ workshops, pop-up installations and music.
BYOB: Raise a glass to the city’s strict liquor laws — there are now dozens of restaurants serving top-notch cuisine without the booze markup. Helm is one of the best, offering ‘locally farmed vegetables and properly raised meats’, while the seasonally focused Will BYOB has playfully themed tasting menus.
Spruce Street Harbor Park: This is a local haunt in summer, when colourful hammocks spread near the boardwalk, lanterns dangle from trees and punters get in line for a series of pop-ups, including craft beer and stands selling tacos, hot dogs and doughnuts. May-September.
Franklin Bar: This subterranean speakeasy is lined with burgundy booths and peppered with bartenders mixing a frequently changing list of $15 (£11) cocktails. They’re worth the price — my favourite was the Spry Friar (Plymouth gin, pineapple, lemon, honey and absinthe).
Tria Taproom: True to its moniker, there are no bottles at the bar — just 24 draft beers and cider. Pair it with a grilled flatbread piled with fennel sausage and smoked mozzarella, and take in the industrial vibes of blackened steel and exposed brick.
Philadelphia Brewing Company: You’re likely to find PBC on draught across the city, but why not drink from the source? This red-brick warehouse serves beers like Walt Wit (named after American poet Walt Whitman) or seasonal Kenz O’ Lantern, a dark pumpkin ale. Free tours on Saturdays.
Getting there & around
There are direct flights from Heathrow to Philadelphia with American Airlines, Delta and British Airways, which will increase its flight schedule to 10 flights per week from April.
Average flight time: 7h 45m.
The city centre is walkable, or accessible using services from SEPTA (subways, trains, trolleys and buses), which operates a train from the airport with several stops downtown. Taxis are also plentiful.
When to go
The city’s parks and outdoor spaces are at their best during summer, when temperatures are in the mid-20s, while spring and autumn are also pleasant. Winters are unpredictable and can be very cold with high snowfall, averaging around -3C in January.
How to do it
America As You Like It has four nights from £755 per person including return flights on British Airways from Heathrow and four nights at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Philadelphia Center City.
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)