Philadelphia effortlessly wears so many epithets on its sleeve — the latest one as FIFA venue, but it is a beguiling mix of so many fascinating things that defy description or labels.
It isn’t every day that a city wakes up to find its most ardent wish come true. In June this year that’s exactly what happened to Philadelphia, on the East Coast of the United States: it was chosen as one of the 11 US cities to host FIFA 2026. The adrenaline high is yet to come down. But this city is truly worthy of the honour. It has quietly metamorphosed over the last few years to become not just a world-class city but also a truly trendy one.
Philly’s history is inextricably tied with that of the nation, but it has shaken off the image of a yellowing fuddy-duddy that traces its roots back to the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Rather, it wears its energy, effervescence, and friendliness on its sleeve. The last comes from its very name: Philadelphia is the amalgamation of two Greek words that mean brotherly love. Here, historic buildings rub shoulders with thousands of bright, colourful murals, sprawling museums lie cheek by jowl with trendy restaurants and cafes, and the sense of community pops up in the predictable as well as the most unexpected places. Spending two days here is all too easy, so here’s how I, and now you, can make the best of it.
Day 1 –Philly’s history in a nutshell
On the first day, start bright and early with breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market, the city’s longest indoor farmers’ market with some Pennsylvania Dutch (German immigrants who settled in the region and whose dishes have become part of the local culture) favourites. I loved the apple dumplings at the Dutch Eating Place, doughnuts at Beilers Bakery, Amish soft pretzels at Miller’s Twist, and fresh coffee from Old City Coffee.
Walking is the best way to experience the heritage of Philadelphia, and thankfully most of the places are about 10-15 minutes from each other. But wear comfortable shoes since you could end up walking about 4-5 km in total. Start at Philly’s best-known monument, Liberty Bell, the symbol of American Independence, and head next door to the other symbol, Independence Hall. Both are free but the bell can sometimes have long queues, so consider circling back. From here, head northeast for about 15 minutes, to Elfreth’s Alley, stopping at Benjamin Franklin’s grave on the way. At Elfreth’s, you can take a quick walk through history: it’s a narrow cobbled lane with colourful and charming 18th-century houses sitting close together, and is considered to be America’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street.
The morning’s walk should have digested breakfast by now. It’s time for another iconic local dish: Philly cheese steak. I had mine at Campo’s. on Market Street, about seven minutes away, sitting on the pavement, people watching. The soft hoagie roll filled with sliced beef steak and melted cheese with condiments was juicy, bursting with flavour, and utterly delicious. The deli serves up vegetarian and vegan versions as well. It only seemed fair to end lunch with a scoop of ice-cream from a local favourite, Franklin Fountain, located just a few doors away.
The feeling of well-being from lunch can be extended through a long stroll, about 25 minutes, via shaded avenues and parks to the Magic Gardens. Stop on the way at Washington Square to gaze at memorials to George Washington and the American Revolution’s unknown soldiers. In the gardens, wander within the labyrinth of mosaic work by artist Isaiah Zagar, with its half indoor, half outdoor structure. It is mesmerising and magical, and an afternoon well spent. Catch the last evening rays on Delaware River before heading to McGillins Olde Ale House for a pint at the city’s oldest pub or head for a leisurely dinner at Harper’s Garden, a chic restaurant with beautiful al fresco seating that dishes up the most delicious cocktails and modern American cuisine. Try the Nihilist #2 with tequila, lime, and chilli and the Froze with Kiki vodka, strawberry, and lemon. The cheese board is exceptionally good, as are the oysters, pork chops served with babaganoush and tabbouleh, and chicken two ways. I chose to spend the night at the 4-star Canopy by Hilton in the city centre but there are a plethora of options across budgets in the area.
Day 2 – Swirl in heritage, art, and culture
It is only apt that the second day is all about the city’s sobriquet of brotherly love, and by extension, local communities, and culture. Opt for comfortable shoes again as you might end up walking about 5 km. Have breakfast at FRIEDA. on Walnut Street, a modern European style deli focused on establishing connections between people across generations. Then take a taxi to the Eastern State Penitentiary, for an audio-guided tour of the Gothic building from the early 19th century which housed prisoners including the infamous Al Capone. Museum lovers can take their pick from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum, and Franklin Institute but not to be missed are the Rocky steps and the statue of Rocky Bilboa near the art museum, all within 15-20 minutes. There are plenty of lunch choices, but I went to Bar Bombon. on South 18th Street (about a 15-minute distance), a bright Puerto Rican vegan spot serving arepas, empanadas and beautiful juices; my fellow diners were from all over the world.
Spend the afternoon wandering around The Mural Mile in the centre of the city around South Broad Street which highlights some of the city’s best murals. Philly is known as the world’s mural capital owing to its public arts and mural programme which has resulted in thousands of murals over the years, with the active participation of local communities. Themes range across a wide spectrum including diversity, ecology, and identity, but it is the artistry and brilliant hues that are bound to captivate. I spent several hours looking for them and revelling in their magic. Those interested can download maps of murals located across the city.
If the murals get overwhelming, it is a good idea to head to the Schuylkill River Walk in the west of the city, a 15-minute walk from the city centre, for a calm walk and beautiful views. For my last dinner in Philly, I went to Vedge. on Locust Street. Located in an ancient mansion with various rooms serving as dining spaces in which the restaurant’s James Beard-nominated chefs serve up inventive vegetarian and vegan dishes using seasonal ingredients that were not just novel but incredibly delicious, and just the thing to end a memorable trip.