Philadelphia is underrated. It’s so close to the cultural icon that is NYC and the political powerhouse of Washington DC, so it’s easy to see how it might get lost in the shuffle. Famous for cheesesteak sandwiches and being the “birthplace of America,” the city is full of art, culture, and darn good food. Reunited with my squad of two from Hamburg, Germany, I took my husband to Philly for the first time in his life. I hadn’t been there since I was a child, so it was a discovery trip for me as well.
First stop: Magic Gardens, 1020 South St, Philadelphia: Wednesday—Monday 11am to 6pm, general admission $10
Created (somewhat illegally at first) by Philly’s most famous mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, the gardens are a huge private art space. What has once an old building and an empty lot are now a museum, studio, and subterranean collection of… junk. But artistically arranged junk.
Anything and everything can be a part of the artwork— smashed, dismantled, reassembled and created into something new. Catch a tour with one of Isaiah’s apprentices to get a clearer picture of the mosaic making process and the history of the garden. (Some slightly racist comments from one of the apprentices as well… but we are in America, so it’s not that surprising.)
Isaiah’s other mosaics are scattered throughout the city, especially the south side district. Magic Gardens is a more personal, uncensored, collage of his work. Kids under five are admitted for free, but may have questions about all the body parts featured in this private collection.
On to: city walking
Philadelphia is a very walkable city. About the size of Manhattan, you can enjoy the major sites and shopping districts without killing your feet or buying a transportation pass. (Unless you decide to wear brand new boots like I foolishly did.)
We traversed much of the arts and theatre district around South and Walnut streets. We caught a look at city hall, Rittenhaus Square, and made our way over to China Town. Center City has plenty to enjoy besides the Liberty Bell. We put about five miles on our shoes and a new blister on my left heel.
Finally: dinner and bubble tea in China Town
Dim Sum Garden, 1020 Race St, Philadelphia
Tea Do, 132 N 10th St, Philadelphia
I wish I had taken more photos during dinner because it was amazing. Though, possibly, the fact that I could not bothered to take a break and photograph anything might be the greater testament to the quality of the meal. I only managed to snap one photo through the whole meal. It was of the last dish of the evening, a Pork Moon Cake.
We had about four courses of dim sum and a few plates of noodles shared among the group. It worked out to about $25 a person which is very reasonable for the amount of dumplings we put away. The variety of authentic dishes has something for every enthusiast of Hong Kong style cuisine. However, keep in mind that like many small businesses in Philadelphia, they are cash only.
For dessert, we went around the block to Tea Do, a bubble tea shop that also has a variety of snacks on the menu. We were all very contented with our bellies full of dim sum and stuck to tea. What struck me first about this shop is that they are very similar to my favorite Taiwanese (now international) chain: Gong Cha. Like Gong Cha, they have dozens of teas to choose from; green, black, fruit, milk. Plus they have more than just the usual black tapioca pearls to choose from as toppings. They have the classic pearls along with fruit flavored pooping boba, fruit jelly, and aloe. You can also adjust how much sugar and ice you want in your drink.
We finished our night roaming back to the Hamburg Squad’s temporary residence, cups of tea in our hands.
Philadelphia is an approachable city full of cool sites and a variety of ethnic foods and cultural features. Even if US history and cheesesteaks aren’t your thing, don’t write Philly off. It made the perfect day trip for us and we’re eager to go back and enjoy more of the character of the city soon.