As the bustling centerpiece of Philadelphia, you will probably find yourself exploring Center City at one point during your Philly trip. While Old City houses the most historical sites in the city, Center City continues to receive praise for its’ expanding foodie scene, yearly lineup of events, and numerous entertainment offerings. Below are 12 must-dos in Center City.
1. Visit one of the country’s oldest department stores
Macy’s in Center City was once the Wanamaker Department store, one of the country’s first department stores. The historic building opened in 1911, was the first to use electric lighting, and at one point had 12 floors of shopping space! Today you can browse through 3 massive floors of retail heaven, along with admiring the spectacular architecture, which includes the mesmerizing 115+ year old, opulent 7 story Wanamaker Organ.
The Wannamaker is so much more than simply a department store. The store is also home to the world’s largest playing organ. Stop by for the live concert, occurring 2 times daily except for Sunday (check out the current schedule). During the holiday season, a festive LED light show featuring holiday tunes runs 7 days a week. Also, a section of the 3rd floor transforms into “A Christmas Carol” for the annual Dickens Village celebration.
2. Brunch at Parc Restaurant
Dining at Parc in trendy Rittenhouse Square is one of the quintessential brunch experiences in Center City. This popular foodie restaurant serves delicious French fare in a beautiful space overlooking nearby Rittenhouse Square. The food is terrific and the place is always bustling with loads of people just like an authentic cafe in Paris. During the warmer season, you can dine al fresco on one of Philly’s best patios.
The complimentary bread basket is the best part of the meal. As far as entrees go, you will find everything from traditional French favorites to modern fare. Vol-Au-Vent (scrambled eggs and asparagus in a puff pastry) is quite a delicious choice. They also serve delicious house coffee and various espresso based drinks.
3. Take an afternoon coffee break at La Colombe
Although Center City’s coffee scene is not as bustling as that found in Old City, there are still quite a few interesting options here. La Colombe is a Philly born favorite which has spread from its’ flagship base in Rittenhouse Square, to numerous other cities including New York, L.A., and Chicago. La Colombe is regarded to be one of the pioneers of the third wave coffee movement, which basically means they are dedicating to sourcing the best possible beans and using the best roasting methods.
Whether you prefer traditional drip, espresso, or pour over, everything at La Colombe is made with perfect attention to detail. Served in gorgeous custom made mugs, the drinks look just as good as they taste. And, there are plenty of scrumptious treats to go along with that cup of joe including fresh croissants, moist muffins, and even a handful of gluten-free and vegan treats.
4. Ice skate at Dilworth Park
Amongst many cities across the country, ice skating has become one of the most beloved winter traditions. With 2 massive real ice rinks, Philly is no exception. Center City’s Dilworth Park opens up a beautiful ice rink right next to City Hall in the beginning of November each year. Starting with the winter holiday season and continuing on through the cold winter months, skating is a great way to get outside and burn some calories during an otherwise lazy time of the year.
The historic ambiance gives this rink an edge over most others. The ambiance is great with attractive old architecture comprising the backdrop. And, the convenient walking distance to many restaurants and attractions makes this a perfect winter date night activity. Skating and rentals combined will only set you back 10 bucks – what a great budget friendly winter activity!
5. Feast on vegetarian Chinese food at Su Xing House
The best Chinese restaurant in Philly just happens to be a 100% vegetarian restaurant. This is great news for anyone who loves Chinese food, particularly so for anyone who also hates attempting to find meat-free choices besides fried rice. The menu here is rather large with so many enticing options including lots of fun appetizers. I always start with the miso or hot and sour soup, spring rolls, and then either the Veggie fried rice or the Lo Mein for a fulfilling main dish.
The setting here is tranquil, perfect for a date night escape from the tourist crowds. It’s always easy to get a seat here unlike many restaurants where you have to make a reservation months in advance. Overall, Su Xing House is a great place to enjoy healthy food in a quiet, non-touristy setting.
6. Take your picture by the LOVE sculpture
Pop art icon Robert Indiana’s famous Love sculpture is located in Philly’s John F. Kennedy Park. While this is just a quick stop, it’s worthy of a visit for the amazing photo opportunity. The cityscape view from here is pretty amazing As an added bonus, Love Park is home to a number of events throughout the year including free fitness classes, concerts, and most famously, the German inspired Christmas Village.
7. Feast on Philly favorites at the Reading Terminal Market
Foodies will want to place a visit to the Reading Terminal Market high on your to-do list. Eat your way through Philly’s diverse food scene by way of cheesesteaks, local coffee, fresh produce & bakery goods, authentic Italian cuisine, classic Pennsylvania Dutch food, and more.
The Reading Market opened back in 1893 and continues to be a tourist favorite. At one point, it was referred to as “the greatest food market in the world.” Today, both locals and tourists enjoy foods and goods from over 80 local businesses. Be sure to test out a Philly style soft pretzel at Miller’s Twist, Italian cookies at Termini Brothers, and a cheesesteak at By George. Check out this directory of businesses at the Reading Terminal Market.
8. Take a nature break at Rittenhouse Square
William Penn planned 5 beautiful public squares throughout Philadelphia. In Center City, you will want to check out leafy Rittenhouse Square, home to lovely fountains, various animal sculptures, plenty of trees, and featuring great views of the skyline. Take a refreshing walk around the grounds, grab a coffee from a local shop and enjoy the ambiance, people watch – simply spend an hour or 2 getting back to nature in one of Philly’s best urban parks.
9. Enjoy a show on the largest LED screen
In 2005, the largest 4mm LED screen was installed at The Comcast Center in Philadelphia. The 10 million pixel screen provides the most amazingly crisp picture, 5x the resolution of of an HD television. During the Christmas season, they air a tremendous holiday production, a spirited 15 minute show featuring poplar carols and a brief hint of The Nutcracker production performed by the Pennsylvania ballet. As one of the city’s top holiday tradition, this is definitely one for the bucket list.
10. Treat yourself to authentic Italian food
Of course, you would never visit Philadelphia without testing out some authentic Italian food. From pizza, to lasagna, to ravioli, to gelato, you can find all your Italian favorites here. From casual to elegant, classic to modern, numerous Italian restaurant are sprinkled throughout Center City. For terrific traditional old-world Italian food, check out Ralph’s Italian (America’s oldest Italian restaurant), Dante & Luigi’s, or Giorgio’s on Pine. Gran Caffe L’Aquila and Tredici Enoteca are fun modern Italian establishments to add to your bucket list.
For the best pizza in the area, stop by Manny and Aldo’s. This classic no frills pizza joint serves the best comfort fare in the city including traditional pies, hoagies, strombolis, assorted pasta dishes, and traditional Italian desserts. Conveniently located just a short walk from Dilworth park, this is a perfect lunch choice in between activities.
11. Enjoy sporting events at the oldest pub in the city
McGills Old Ale House opened in 1860 and is now the oldest continuously operating tavern in the city. The ambiance here is loud and rowdy most of the time, thus making it a more popular hangout for drinks and sporting events, rather than a traditional Irish pub where you come more for the great food. Nevertheless, it’s a fun place to watch an Eagles game.
Also, they always host big events (with various food & drink specials) for all the biggest sporting events, most notably the Superbowl. The menu includes traditional Irish fare plus fun game day appetizers. As a bonus, they offer numerous vegetarian options so anyone avoiding meat no longer has to sit out on the fun. And, as you can see in the photo above, this place goes all out on the Christmas decor.
12. Eat your way through Chinatown
While Philly’s Chinatown may not be as large as New York and San Francisco, there are still plenty of great Asian restaurants and shops to check out. A beautiful gilt painted Friendship Gate welcomes you to the area. You will find everything here from dim sum, to matcha green tea infused desserts, to ramen, to rolled ice cream to enjoy during your time here.
One unique place you must try is an unusual French/Asian bakery which specializes in European style desserts infused with an Asian touch. Feast your eyes on the decadent assortment of desserts as you walk in, all of which look too good to eat. Treat yourself to a refreshing matcha green tea milkshake or a decadent matcha cheesecake.