Going off the Beaten Path in Philadelphia

  • Grace Lower
May 09, 2017

This January, I wrote a piece on how to keep travel resolutions. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized I hadn’t done a terrific job at following my own advice. My 2017 travel goal had been to see more of the United States—but unless you count the drive from Columbus to Cincinnati as “travel,” I really hadn’t done much to explore beyond my usual stomping ground.

When my boyfriend and I found a cheap set of flights to the East Coast, we knew the timing was right for an adventure. At the time, Josh was interested in attending either Yale or the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school, so we had all the more reason to pack our bags. Within a few short weeks, we were boarding the plane for a city I’d never been to, in a part of the country I’d rarely seen.

After a quick stop in Connecticut to visit Yale, we boarded the train to Philadelphia. We couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy over the East Coast’s ample public transportation. Since we didn’t have to worry about navigation, Josh and I used our three-hour train ride to plan out our day in Philly.  Although we wanted to make our visit to the University of Pennsylvania a top priority, we tried to keep the rest of our itinerary fairly open. Given our limited time, we decided to skip the major tourist destinations (the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Liberty Bell, the Franklin Institute, and so on) in favor of local haunts. It was a risky move in some ways, but Josh and I wanted to get a feel for the Philly that young professionals and grad students knew and loved.

Once we got off the train, we made a beeline for a Philly favorite: Reading Terminal Market. It was a Saturday, so we hadn’t quite prepared for the frenzy of shoppers inside. But once we got used to our cramped quarters, we marveled at the overwhelming variety of food and goods the market offered. From french-fries to falafel, the culinary options seemed limitless. Ravenous from our train ride in, Josh and I decided on Mediterranean pita wraps and fresh-pressed green juices. We sat down at a long wooden table, and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of a Saturday at the market.

After lunch, we headed west for some of Philadelphia’s best-known neighborhoods. Our first stop was Philly’s “Gayborhood.” Located in the heart of Washington Square West, the Gayborhood’s streets were festooned with rainbow flags, vibrant cafes, and quirky local retailers. We were especially delighted by the narrow residential alleys that we found; red brick, English ivy, and flower boxes brought a sense of tranquility to an otherwise bustling part of the city. After a visit to a sun-soaked coffee shop, we strolled over to neighboring Rittenhouse Square—one of Philadelphia’s oldest public green spaces. Coffees in hand, Josh and I relaxed on a park bench and pointed out different dogs that passed by.

Our break was interrupted by a text from our Airbnb host, letting us know that we could drop our bags off at the house. We caught an Uber to West Philly, and let ourselves into our host’s townhome using the lockbox code she provided. Having only stayed in an Airbnb once before, we were impressed by how beautiful the home was in person. With granite countertops, exposed brick, and furniture straight from an Anthropologie catalog, our Airbnb was certainly cooler than any hotel we could have booked—and for only a fraction of the price.

As Josh and I leafed through our host’s quirky collection of magazines and indie comics, we tried to narrow down our dinner options. We knew that Philadelphia was home to a diverse culinary scene, so we decided to try something new: Senegalese food. I couldn’t name any of Senegal's traditional dishes—let alone point Senegal out on a map—but a nearby restaurant received so many raving reviews, we couldn’t pass up the chance to try it out.

When we arrived, we found that the Senegalese restaurant in question, Kilimandjaro, was as unassuming as it was highly recommended. Tucked away in a 70s-era strip mall and decorated with flickering neon lights, it didn’t exactly scream “fine dining.” But once Josh and I had been seated, we could see that we found a culinary treasure. Plate after plate of cinnamon couscous, fried plantains, and breaded fish were paraded past our table. When our meals finally arrived, we both burst out laughing—we didn’t realize that by ordering two of the “poulet Senegal,” we had each ordered half a roast chicken. Josh and I were absolutely stuffed after our enormous meal. Through our food-comas, we agreed that Senegalese food was a new-found favorite.

We wrapped up our night as any pair of twenty-somethings would: in a trendy bar in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Local 44 is a favorite among students and beer-snobs alike. It has all the makings of a hip neighborhood bar—20 rotating craft beers, vegan-friendly menu items, and a vintage venue make Local 44 at once incredibly cool and refreshingly unpretentious. A good beer and a lively conversation were the ideal way to end our long day in a new city.

While my trip to Philadelphia was brief, I was able to see a side of the city that isn’t often showcased in tourism websites or in glossy brochures. Sure, it would have been cool to take a picture with the Liberty Bell or to order a proper Philly Cheesesteak. But a city is not defined by its tourist destinations—even if they’re often labeled as “must-sees.” If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that to truly experience a city, you have to spend more than just a day there. I know I’ll be back to Philadelphia in time—and while I’ll be sure to visit all of the classic tourist destinations then, I’ll make sure to wander off the beaten path, too.




About the Author

Grace Lower

Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

Read more of Grace’s blogs

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