Insider’s Guide to Philly
Recession-busting Philly Travel Tips from the Owner of Philly’s Most Affordable Food Tour
1. When you take the tour this holiday season plan some extra time to visit the giant model train display in the Market’s Piano Court area. Almost a third of a mile of track jand 17 train lines run through a mini Philly in the train display, which is up and available for viewing daily through Dec. 31 from 10 a.m. to Market close. There are also four free holiday light shows in Center City Philly. They include the time-honored organ-accompanied light show and animated “Christmas Carol” diorama at Macy’s (just three blocks away from the Market) and the comparatively new 3-D holiday show on the giant video wall at the nearby Comcast Center (1701 JFK Boulevard). Both these shows run on the hour from 10 a.m. to at least 5 p.m.(and often until as late as 8) through New Year’s Eve or Day (every even hour at Macy's and every hour except 5 p.m. weekdays at Comcast). There are also free holiday light shows at Penn's Landing from dusk to 11 p.m. on the hour and half-hour as part of the Waterfront Winterfest skating park and in Franklin Square at Sixth and Race from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the half hour. Or attend one of the fun TubaChristmas concerts in the lobby of the Kimmel Center at noon and 5 p.m. Sun., Dec. 21. Meanwhile, at Fourth and Race streets in Old City, real sheep, goats and a cow live in a creche you can visit for free from Dec. 11 to 30. At 5 p.m. Christmas Eve, they're joined by the sponsoring Old First Churchcongregation members playing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and other stars of the Christmas story. A Christmas Eve candlelight service follows at 8 p.m. inside the church. Free New Year’s weekend events include fireworks at 6 p.m. and midnight on the Delaware River at Penn’s Landing on New Year’s Eve and the Mummer’s Parade down Broad Street on New Year’s Day. (See below for my Philadelphia Inquirer story about playing with a Mummers' band.) Cold standing on that sidewalk? Duck into the Kimmel Center on New Year’s Day from 10 a.m. on to get warm and listen to free, family-friendly performances.
2. Take the local train to and from the Airport. The Airport Line train picks up at all the airport terminals and has three dropoffs in the heart of Center City Philly. Then get around Philly on one of SEPTA’s one-day convenience passes for $12 or $28 (covering unlimited bus/train/subway/trolley rides for one person and a family of five respectively, including your train ride in from the airport). These are great deals considering that a single bus or subway ride is $2.25, and that the train ticket from the airport can cost up to $8, as is the minimum price of a single local cab ride to/from anywhere in Center City. Or, if you’re 65 or over, just show your Medicare card for free SEPTA bus/subway/trolley rides and $1 train rides. Another affordable option for just getting around town weekends through Dec. 28: the purple Phlash bus ($2 per ride or $5 for an all-day pass).
3. Score a $10 “community rush” seat to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert as well as some other events listed here on the Kimmel Center website. Sales begin at 11:30 a.m. for matinees and 5:30 p.m. for evening concerts but seats are limited so you should plan on getting in this line 30 minutes to an hour before that, one ticket per person. (The sales usually end by 6 p.m. so you’ll have time to grab dinner before the show.) The Academy of Music just down the street from the Kimmel also has a rush program for their Broadway series with some $30 seats released at the box office two hours before performances that are not already sold out. Click on the just-mentioned website or call 215-893-1999 for more info on either program.
4. The Curtis Institute on Rittenhouse Square is one of the best music schools in the country, producing musical legends like Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lang Lang and Hilary Hahn. See America’s future classical music stars today at one of the Curtis Institute’s free student recitals, held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday when school is in session. Get the current schedule at curtis.edu or by calling 215-893-5261.
5. The Free Library of Philadelphia’s schedule of evening author events includes a bunch of programs living up to the free in its name. Notable gratis programs feature U.S. inaugural poet Richard Blanco (Oct. 27), Caldecott-winning children's book author Chris Van Allsburg (Nov. 8) and graphic novelists Richard McGuire, Charles Burns and Chip Kidd (Dec. 2). See the full schedule of free and $15 events here.
6. You don’t have to be a student or a senior citizen to get reduced prices on professional theater in downtown Philly, at least not if you time your visit right. The final dress rehearsal (before the first preview) of any show at the respected Arden Theatre is pay-what-you-can and whatever you pay benefits a local charity. Tickets for preview performances at 1812 Productions (all-comedy) or Interact (social-issues drama) are between $22 and $26 versus the usual $34 to $40. There are no date (or age) restrictions on the two other local theater deals: Thanks to a grant from the Wyncote Foundation, tickets to all regular performances at the Wilma Theater are $25. The historic Walnut Street Theatre, a musical theater specialist, reserves the last row of the balcony every night for us cheapies: Seats there are $24.50 (including service fees) but must be purchased well in advance. Or check out FringeArts'Scratch Night, a free grab-bag preview of works in progress from local arts groups held the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m.
7. Make a day excursion to New York City for as little as $3 roundtrip (processing fees included) on a spiffy new Bolt or Mega bus, departing right across the street from 30th Street rail station (Mega also stops near the Visitors Center). Must purchase these nonrefundable tickets online (BoltBus.com or MegaBus.com) and the further ahead you make your reservation, the better the chances of snagging the $3 seats. Their more typical fares of $18 to $32 roundtrip depending on demand are still not that expensive and less hassle than the train.
8. If you’re in town the first week of the month plan your Philadelphia Museum of Art visit for that first Sunday when admission is pay-as-you-wish instead of the usual $22. Admission is also pay-what-you-wish on Wednesdays after 5 p.m., when a whole bunch of interactive family-friendly activities (yoga classes, drawing sessions, tours) are also scheduled. Or visit on Friday afternoons, when regular admission includes live music in the Great Stair Hall from about 6 to 9 p.m. See PhilaMuseum.org for the current schedule. Or check out some of the many free open houses held at art galleries throughout town as part of Philly's First Friday of the month event. The University of Pennsylvania-affiliated Institute of Contemporary Art in West Philly is open Wednesdays to Sundays and always free.
9. If you’re going to be in town on a Friday at noon and like indie rock/blues/roots or folk music visit progressive rock station XPN.org or call them at 800-565-WXPN to sign up for the free weekly Live at Noon concert at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St. in West Philly. Past performers have included the Indigo Girls, Loudon Wainwright, Dr. Dog, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Osborne as well as less well-known but talented up-and-comers.
10. Go to www.phillyfunguide.com and sign up to receive the weekly “Fun Savers” e-mail blast to save up to 50 percent on local concerts, tours and theatrical events. The blast goes out on Thursdays for events scheduled that week.
11. Breakfast on the coffee preferred by Martha Stewart, Daniel Boulud, Jeans-Georges Vongerichten and other renown foodies along with some delicious flaky pastry while soaking up Philly’s hippest coffeehouse scene at La Colombe coffeehouse, 130 S. 19th St. Cost: less than $5.
12. Lunch on one of Philly’s famous hoagies at Chickie’s Deli on Federal in South Philly or Primos at 2043 Chestnut St. in Center City or one of Philly’s even more famous cheesesteaks from Sonny’s, Campo’s or Jim’s in Center City or Pat’s, Geno’s, Philip’s, Tony Luke’s or John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Cost: less than $10.
13. Eat dinner at one of Philly’s many charming neighborhood BYO restaurants like Melograno (Mediterranean), Cuchina Forte (famous for gnocchi, also Bella Vista), Chloe (New American/Old City), Radicchio (Italian/Old City) enjoying some of the best cooking Philly has to offer with alcohol you purchase yourself for a fraction of what licensed restaurants would charge (Buy your wine at one of many Center City state liquor store locations – addresses at finewineandgoodspirits.com and your beer at a bar or deli.) Cost: Typically less than $25 per entrée plus the cost of your own liquor. These restaurants usually don’t charge a corkage fee but many also don’t take reservations – expect a wait on weekends unless you go very early or very late.
How to Order a Cheesesteak: A Guide for Tourists
There is a protocol to ordering a cheesesteak at the cheesesteak epicenter of Ninth and Wharton, which, if not followed, can result in being sent to the back of the line Soup Nazi–style, or even worse, getting less meat. At Pat’s and Geno’s, you must order by saying the name of the cheese you want and then “with” or “without” (or as it is often pronounced in South Philly, “wit” or “witout”), which means with or without grilled onions. A correct and traditional order there would be “Whiz wit.” “Mushrooms witout” will get you a steak sandwich with mushrooms but no onions or cheese. You order and pay for your drinks and fries at a separate window.
This ordering system is chiefly used at high-volume shops, which need to keep their lines moving quickly, or other places (many out-of-town) who are trying to provide an “authentic” Philly cheesesteak experience. Slavishly adhering to the “wit or witout” phraseology at a more low-key neighborhood joint in Philly will mark you as a nervous tourist. Many of these out-of-the-limelight places don’t even offer Cheez Whiz. White American is the more common cheese default regionwide, along with provolone and mozzarella.
Acceptable cheesesteak condiments include peppers of all kinds, hot pepper relish, hot sauce, ketchup, dill or sweet pickles but not mustard and mayo (although a really good steak won’t need any condiments).
As weird and arbitrary as some of the above principles may seem, holding as tightly to them as you do to your wallet while placing your order should leave the impression that you know what you are doing, always a good thing for a stranger in a strange town.
Read more content from my "Great Philly Cheesesteak Book"
Four Meals in Philly
I set some eating priorities for visitors and newcomers to Philly in Primer, City Paper’s annual insider’s guide to the city. See the story on page 20 of this pretty navigable issuu.com document.
The Mummer’s New Year’s parade is as distinctive and beloved a Philly tradition as the cheesesteak and even more fun as this story about my experience with the Greater Overbrook String Band illustrates.
I pit snack foods already made by Tasty Baking’s new owners against comparable locally beloved Tastykakes in this scary City Paper story.