Insider’s Guide to Philly
Recession-busting Philly Travel Tips from the Owner of Philly’s Most Affordable Food Tour
1. Check out some of Philly’s hottest restaurants at a fraction of the usual cost from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays June 4 through Aug. 27 as part of the Center City District’s summer Sips program. Appetizers are half-priced and selected drinks are $3-$5 during this special happy hour. Among notable restaurants participating are Jose Garces' Rosa Blanca and Garces Trading Company, the Ritz-Carleton's 10 Arts and the atmospheric Farmer's Cabinet. Visit centercityphila.org for more information. The evening gourmet food truck confab known as Night Market is also fun and affordable. It's happening at West Oak Lane on June 19 and Lancaster Avenue on Aug. 21.
2. Lots of free programs at Penn's Landing (walk over I-95 on Chestnut Street from Old City to the Delaware River waterfront) this summer, including fireworks on July 5 and concerts to appeal to fans of smooth jazz (every Friday in Aug. at 7:30 p.m.) and gospel (Smokie Norful is part of the lineup 3-8 p.m. Aug. 23). Visit welcomeamerica.com for details on the free July 2 hoagie chowdown, the July 4 Roots concert (this year Jennifer Hudson, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande will also be featured) and fireworks on the Parkway and all the other Independence week events. Or take a SEPTA trolley across Philly’s other river into West Philly and catch some free Shakespeare in Clark Park, specifically “Henry IV,” at 7 p.m. July 30 to Aug. 3. Or attend one of the free staged readings of new plays at the Adrienne theater in Center City as part of the PlayPenn Festival July 11 to 27. Visit PlayPenn.org for the schedule and reservations information.
3. The air-conditioned Free Library of Philadelphia’s schedule of evening author events living up to the free in its name continues through the summer. Notable free appearances include a romance writer panel on June 30, food preserver Marisa McClellan on July 31 and Watergate-era White House counsel John Dean on July 31. See the full schedule here.
4. Take the local train to and from the Airport. The R-1 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 (the latter covers unlimited bus/train/subway/trolley rides for a family of five, including your train ride in from the airport). The passes can’t be purchased at the airport but if you present your receipt from the R-1 at a SEPTA ticket counter at one of the downtown stations it will be credited when you buy your pass. These are great deals considering that a single bus or subway ride is $2.25, and that the train ticket from the airport is $8, and that the minimum price of a single local cab ride to/from anywhere in Center City is about $10. Or, if you’re 65 or over, just show your Medicare card for free SEPTA bus/train/trolley rides and $1 train rides. Another affordable option for just getting around town: the purple Phlash bus for $2 per ride or $5 a day.
5. Score a discounted “community rush” seat to any event listed on the Kimmel Web site as “Kimmel Center Presents.” Click here for a listing of current "on-sale" shows and how to get the tickets. Or catch the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann outdoor amphitheater. Lawn seats perfect for picnicking are only $15 for these classical concerts (free for the July 16 and Aug. 1 ones, though these must be reserved ahead online on June 16) and you can get to the Mann via a SEPTA Loop bus that picks up from Center City at regular SEPTA bus prices ($2.25 or a token). The orchestra is also doing one free outdoor concert at Penn’s Landing’s on July 2 at 8 p.m. Also make the longest day of the year pass a little faster by going to free concerts all over town all day June 21 -- see the schedule at makemusicphilly.org.
6. 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.
7. 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 $20. Or visit any Wednesday after 5 p.m., when the pay-what-you wish admission includes family-friendly interactive activities, or Friday afternoons, when regular admission includes a free world-class jazz concert in the Great Stair Hall from about 6 to 9 p.m. See PhilaMuseum.org for the current schedule. The nearby Rodin Museum is always pay-what-you-wish. The Barnes Foundation offers free early-evening performances with regular ($18) admission on the first Friday of every month. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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 lcb.state.pa.us 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.
Slice of the Shore in Philly
Can’t make it to the Jersey Shore this summer? Go there gastronomically with a tangy pie from the here-discussed Joey Mack’s Boardwalk Pizza parlor in South Philly.
I pit snack foods already made by Tasty Baking’s new owners against comparable locally beloved Tastykakes in this scary City Paper story.