12 Smelliest Places in Philadelphia

The scent of our city isn't always good, but it's always recognizable.

A while back I read a fascinating article in GQ that ranked the smelliest cities in the planet. Philly wasn’t on the list (for once!), but I took special note anyway because the author, Chandler Burr, the magazine’s scent critic and a sort of well-known smelling expert, wrote this: “Cities, like people, have their own smell, their own body odors and perfumes that take on personalities.” He went on to write rather prettily about places like Bogota, with its smell of “new car, concrete and aftershave” and New Orleans, with its “soporific scent of humidity.” its perfume of dead moss and briny Gulf air and frying fat and mud.

This all got me thinking about what Philadelphia’s own scent personality really is—beyond just “cheesesteak”— and what it says about us. I wrote a whole story about it here, published in the September issue of Philly Mag.

While researching the story and talking to people in our city about what they smell, something occured to me: We might not talk about it very much, but we all know the smell of our city. I’d argue that as Philadelphians we’re even sort of united by this shared experience. After all, who among us—rich or poor, black or white, male or female—couldn’t recognize, blindfolded, the smell of Jim’s Steaks at Fourth and South, or the dumpster stink of Sansom and Fifteenth on a hot day?

For the story, I asked several of my fellow Philadelphians to name the smelliest* spots in the city, and, to no great surprise, both of those places popped up really regularly in people’s answers. Those and the rest of the responses I got shed a little light on exactly what exactly our “smell personality” might be. I thought it was sort of fascinating how many of the same spots kept coming up. Here, some of the highlights and lowlights of Eau de Philly. Missing anything? Tell me in the comments.

  1. Independence Mall in Old City, where horses meets asphalt.
  2. Roosevelt Boulevard, which smells like cookies when you drive past the old Nabisco factory. “I remember hanging my head out the car window to sniff as a kid!”
  3. I-95 on the way to the airport. “Is it the pollution control plant? OMG.”
  4. 15th and Market. “Smells like doughnuts.”
  5. Subway. Any subway, every subway. Namely the underground stations.
  6. Chinatown. “Chinatown in the rain or the fog smells like hot neon, wet lettuce and old cigarettes.
  7. 19th and JFK. “Smells like an open sewer.” In fact, “sewer” in various places is a popular pick.
  8. Reading Terminal. Famous Fourth’s cookies meets Amish whoopie pies meets flower vendor meets cement meets mingling scents of frying meat and pizza. Is there any better Philly scent mash-up than this?
  9. Dumpsters. Sansom’s hardly the only offender.
  10. 9th Street, between Washington and Christian. “Fish!”
  11. Sarcone’s Bakery.
  12. Temple on 13th Street, now always filled with food truck smells.

*Not all smells are bad. Just … odorific.