The Philadelphian’s Case for Being a Tourist in Your Own Hometown
And why this is the summer to do it.
I barely knew Philadelphia when I moved here in 2007, but within weeks of settling in, I was inviting everyone I knew from my past lives in other places to come see it. You’re from Chicago? Denver? Austin? Atlanta? Well, wait till you see this place, I’d say. There’s just nothing like it.
I didn’t realize then how true that sentiment was — how Philly could only ever be Philly, for better and for worse. I meant it in the best sense, like how I once wandered into one of the many red-brick Colonial buildings in Old City — the American Philosophical Society, not exactly a tourist hot spot — and saw a handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, scrawled with edits from John Adams and Ben Franklin. You just don’t get that sort of thing in, say, Los Angeles. And even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to mosey over a few blocks, on foot, to find Mother Bethel’s stained glass, or Chinatown’s Friendship Gate, or Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens, or the guys slicing and dicing steaks on the grill at Jim’s. Not to mention all the twee little streets and public art masterpieces and historical landmarks that live betwixt and between.
I bring all this up now because of COVID. Because as hard as it is to see the singular magic of this city when you’re grinding your way through it every day, it’s been virtually impossible to see it in these pandemic times. Because our lives got smaller and our views were less interesting; because the city, forced into cultural hibernation, felt like nothing but nuts and bolts (okay, nuts and bolts and trash) for so long. So much burden, so little beauty. All of the grit, none of the Gritty. Philly for the worse, in other words. And even as our lives and city have been opening back up, it’s been hard to shake the deeply unmagical malaise that set in.
What finally saved me from all that — what I think will save you, too — was taking a walk one day in a place I hadn’t been in a while. Killing time before an appointment, I strolled along the Schuylkill and wound up on a teeny old street in Fitler Square with teeny old houses I had somehow never seen before, or at least never paid attention to. There it was, so pretty, with the light hitting just right, and voilà: a spark. Like a date night after months of nothing but diapers. Like a vacation when you’ve forgotten what life is besides work. That’s what it felt like. Like remembering.
It’s possible that the seductive streets or the scribbles on the Declaration or the steaks at Jim’s don’t do it for you. Fine! There’s always more and different out there. Harry Kalas’s grave at Mount Laurel, maybe? (He’s outta here!) Octavius Catto at City Hall? The Rib Rack in Bustleton! Point is, you know the magic when you find it, and in Philly, you don’t have to look far. You just have to remember to look. In case you need help there, let the following pages be your starting point: We’ve got a micro-guide to five niche neighborhoods, the most picture-perfect views of the city from three popular Instagrammers, ways to see your favorite museums in a totally new light, under-the-radar sites and sights from Philly aficionados, and dozens of other ways to be a tourist in this city … but a tourist with the inside track.
Speaking of which: It’s going to be a big year for tourism here. Time magazine recently named Philly one of the 100 best places to visit on the planet; the number of people coming to see us has been climbing steadily back up to pre-COVID numbers, which, by the way, were hitting record highs (46 million visitors in 2019!). All of which is to say: There’s no better time than right now to get out there and see your city again, and rekindle the spark before the lines get longer and the whoopwiches sell out. What, you haven’t tried one yet? See our “Try This” guide to Reading Terminal Market, and put it on your bucket list. There’s just nothing like it.
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Published as “The Case for Being a Tourist in Your Own Hometown” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.