Our very short pandemic vacation was three days in one of the most Parisian cities in America: Philadelphia. This 2021 mini-trip to Philadelphia was short on hassle and long on fun things to do with kids or without, even with new city-wide mask regulations going into place the day we arrived. I hope my Philly readers are inspired to vacation close to home, and I hope my out-of-town friends will visit soon.
We planned a one-day trip, but we had such a great time that we extended a night at the Sonesta hotel on 18th and Market, which is a very walkable part of the city. For about $200 per night, we got a modern room in an art-themed hotel. The staff was great, but really it was all about the pool, since it was in the high 90’s while we were there. For $7, we took a SEPTA train from our home in the ‘burbs to Suburban Station, only a block from the hotel. It’s very easy to get to.
Philly is a food town, so be prepared to eat. And please, for God’s sake, don’t go to a national chain restaurant while you are here. There are too many great local options, like the chicken and waffles at Sabrina’s Cafe on 18th and Callowhill.
We happened upon a fun Philly tradition: Le Dîner en Blanc. Started over 33 years ago in France, it is an elegant party with hundreds of picnickers, all dressed and accessorized in white, descending onto a public space. People register a year in advance, but the location is very secret until hours before the event. We watched the crowd line up, walk to, and then take over Rittenhouse Square on Thursday night.
Anyone who happened to be near the Square enjoyed the Dîner en Blanc concert, and even some street performers, like these cancan dancers. Paris, I miss you!
When we are in Paris, we make daily stops at Amorino’s Gelato. In Philadelphia, our faux France for the weekend, we enjoyed rolled ice cream at Sweet Charlie’s on the corner of Rittenhouse Square. My kid explained rolled ice cream to me. She knows about it from YouTube videos.
Visiting Rittenhouse Square Park the next day for their huge farmer’s market, the park itself was as clean and open as ever. With its Victorian guardhouse, large fountain, and lovely trees shading plentiful public benches, it feels very much like a French park.
Doesn’t this gorgeous corner flower market transport you right to Paris?
When you visit Philadelphia, there’s one thing you MUST do: park your car and walk as much as you can! Each numbered block is 1/10th of a mile, so it’s roughly two miles from the Delaware river on the east to the Schuylkill river on the west side, but you’ll miss so much if you are in your car. Most of the tourist sights can be visited on the Philly Phlash bus, which is $2 per ride, $5 to ride all day, or $9 for a 2-day pass online. SEPTA pass and key card holders ride free. Phlash bus service just resumed May 2021. It’s a smaller bus, was never completely full, is air-conditioned, and required masks for everyone, so it worked for us on a very hot day. It goes right past these fountains on the Ben Franklin Parkway down from the Art Museum.
If you only have a couple of days in Philadelphia, there are places you must visit! It’s the law, or nearly so. Check with each venue as the pandemic continues to see what their hours and offerings are. This is still a fluid situation, and we’re all being flexible.
Absolutely visit Independence Hall if you are from out of town. We didn’t go inside this time, since we’ve done it before, but I still always love to walk by the Hall and the Liberty Bell, which is in a beautiful pavilion just next door. This picture demonstrates that this part of town is very wheelchair, bike, and stroller friendly.
We visited the Museum of the American Revolution on this trip. My daughter is a huge fan of Hamilton, the musical, so she was really into it. Don’t miss the shows every hour featuring George Washington’s tent. I know, how exciting can a canvas tent be, right? It was oddly moving! Hot tip: these museum tickets are good for 2 days.
Just around the corner from the museum, we tried bubble tea at Panda Tea on 2nd Street. My daughter didn’t like the tapioca pearls, so I enjoyed two bubble teas. Lucky me! Yum!
You don’t really have to think ahead to your next meal in Philly, unless you want reservations to eat outside. Many streets have been narrowed or completely closed to make way for outdoor seating, and the locals know to make reservations for these prime spots.
We noticed this ramen restaurant a block from the hotel and our kid-friendly, poolside dinner was decided! Everything in the city can be ordered ahead on an app or directly at the restaurant for pickup.
One of my favorite places is the French Second Empire-styled City Hall. You can walk right through from all four directions into the inner courtyard, but this trip we played in Dilworth Plaza on the west side of the building. There are spray parks for the kids (and the young at heart), inviting swings, cafe tables, and a window service-only Starbucks.
Love Park is directly across the street from Dilworth Plaza. There is another spray park there, plenty of cafe tables, and beautiful al fresco restaurant. Love Park is more fun when there is something going on there, like the Christmas Market, but if you’ve never been, you at least have to take your picture under this iconic LOVE statue.
When I moved here decades ago, the bike trail that ran south stopped at the art museum, but now it runs along the east side of the Schuylkill river connecting the Art Museum area to South Philly. We walked from Rittenhouse Square to the Locust Street trail entrance, and were graciously served water at Ambrosia Restaurant. This cute BYOB has a quiet, local neighborhood feel and Parisian decor.
Once you enter the trail at Locust St., it’s wide and beautiful, with benches, grassy banks for picnics, and even a water fountain along the way. It’s very different from La Seine, but I wouldn’t hold that against Philly. La Seine has her unique charms.
Approaching the Art Museum from the south, we saw a skate park I’ve never noticed before. It’s not my thing, but it’s fun to watch the skateboarders and bikers test their skills.
We enjoyed the park around the Philadelphia Art Museum, and rested with snacks and live music at the Cosmic Cafe just before the start of Boathouse Row.
From the Art Museum, we took the Philly Phlash bus back to the historic part of town and wrapped up our trip with a visit to Franklin Park. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve driven by this park a million times and I never realized how big and lovely it is. The center fountain has fun choreographed water shows each half hour. There is a carousel (very French!) that costs only $2 per ride. The snack bar serves a full picnic menu and ice cream. The playground is large and well-appointed. The bathrooms are clean and free. There is even a beer garden with food and live music. We enjoyed the Philly-themed mini-golf with holes the included the “Rocky steps” and the Eagles themes. I think the garage parking at the Visitor Center just two blocks away is the way to go. Buy your mini-golf tickets at the Visitor Center for a discount, and ask for a break on your parking fees. I’m looking forward to visiting for the next Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Park.
Here are my top 5 places to visit if you’ve never been to Philadelphia before:
- Liberty Bell
- Independence Hall
- Art Museum (Rocky steps optional)
- Rittenhouse Square Park
- Phillies game
Here are my top 5 places to visit if you’ve already done the tourist spots above:
- Franklin Square Park
- Schuylkill River Trail, including Boathouse Row just north of the Art Museum
- Museum of the American Revolution
- Dilworth Plaza and a City Hall tower or architecture tour if you have time
- Walk the Center City area between Market and Walnut streets, Broad Street to 20th.
Philadelphia weather is nice from April through about October, and most of the things I’ve mentioned here are enjoyable even in cold weather. Dilworth Plaza turns into an ice skating rink for the winter, for example. Whenever you visit, there will be plenty to do and eat!
So many pictures…so little time. Thanks for joining me in one of my favorite cities, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I hope you are getting a vacation soon, but if not, I hope this gave you a little escape.