Having generally found myself making a beeline for New York when heading East, my two recent visits to Philadelphia, the nation’s six largest city, proved reason to expand my geographical preference. While its huge trove of historical monuments documenting the American Revolution attract many tourists, Philly’s cultural diversity, artistic excellence, high environmental ethic — the current mayor Michael Nutter is on a mission to make it the nation’s greenest city — and over-riding friendliness render it a city in the now as much as the past.
Once you’ve get past Independence Hall and the requisite viewing of The Liberty Bell, spend some time in Philly’s many other colorful districts and venues. A few of my picks:
The Philadelphia Art Museum is simply stunning. Perched on hill overlooking the city, it plays host to a series of special exhibits — a fine collection of Renoir was on display opened in June— and is home to works by important Philadelphia artists as well as important Asian, European and American works and a fine trove of Modernists.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens represent folk art at its best. Housed on a block of South Street, the Magic Gardens are a honeycomb of mosaic walls, sculptures and patios by longtime Philly resident Isaiah Zagar who began mosaicing his neighborhood in the 1960s.. Pick up a map so you can tour other Zagar mosaic installations and commissions around town.
World Cafe Live hosts touring and local bands representing jazz, rock&roll, world and breaking singer-songwriters seven nights a week on both its up and downstairs stages. Monday nights, the upstairs is given over to Philly Rising Open Stage. Consisting of a high-caliber showcase of local and touring independent artists, its several notches above your average open mic. Plus the bar menu consists of actual real food and good drink (aka, fresh salads, gourmet burgers, soups).
Equal parts restaurant and music venue, The Tin Angel is at once upscale and down home. Catering to refined tastes without pretense, the top floor is given over to a listening room for touring and local acoustic music acts, while the ground floor is a fine restaurant serving international cuisine. If you like your literate music and food served up in smaller venues, this is your place.
Yes, there’s also more to Philly than cheesesteak, pretzels and frozen ice. Quite a number of locals are interested in the sustainable, farm-to-table food movement. One collective doing quite a fine job of that is the Pumpkin Cafe, Market and Restaurant. Housed in three loosely connected buildings on South Street, you can pick up locally grown produce or roasted coffee at the market, eat an artfully constructed panini at a sidewalk table across the street or make a reservation for the Sunday tasting menu at the restaurant.
The refined menu of Marigold Restaurant on the border of University City and West Philly is testamount to chef and Philly native Robert Halpern’s training in some of the nation’s more famous kitchens including Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe and Hugo’s in Maine. The spring menu featured an adventurous selection including English Pea Raviolis, Frog Legs and Monkfish with artichokes.