Philadelphia’s art scene is as much mapped out of street blocks as gilded mounts.
The city’s grid frames over 4,000 murals that lock, stock, and stop you on the sidewalk—the most in the world—and a Champs-Élysées-inspired allée of oaks, whose mile-long colonnades usher visitors towards Modiglianis and Matisses at The Barnes Foundation, Rodins at his namesake gallery, and Renoirs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Travellers can have their very own night at the museum in a hotel that houses 1,800 plus works of homegrown art, or catch live music atop a 3,40,000-square-foot Art Deco building, filled with hundreds of craft-centric tenants, from chefs and tattoo artists to glass blowers and ceramic-makers. In between gallery-hopping, taste historic techniques and fresh flavours at a centuries-old sweet shop, full of copper cauldrons and candy casts, and sample Revolutionary-era ale recipes at an award-winning brewery.
Here, artistry ambles through the avenues, and it’s not afraid to be boxed in.
While the Mütter Museum’s (muttermuseum.org) second storey promises stern portraits of physicians, the institute’s real draw is the curation of its 19th-century cabinet museum. Find yourself in a wood-panelled gallery surrounded by slides of Einstein’s brain preserved in glass slides (for which he never gave permission), an array of 139 human skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894), and an American president’s (Grover Cleveland) tumour bottled in a glass jar.
Study the reactions of your fellow museum-goers as they discover the dried large intestine (stuffed with straw and fabric) of a 19th-century man who suffered month-long bouts of constipation up until the age of 29, when he died on the proverbial throne with a ‘megacolon’ filled with 18 kilos of unpassed excrement. Also on display are a 33.5-kilo ovarian cyst and a pound of prostate. While, for some beholders, these artifacts smack of bathroom humour, the competence of preservation displayed evinces assiduous finesse. The Mütter’s special exhibits are particularly felicitous, such as the historical examination of the Spanish Influenza virus in Philadelphia.
Next, stroll through U-Penn’s campus (artcollection.upenn.edu/exhibitions/campus-sculpture-tour), taking in the dozens of 19th-21st century outdoor sculptures. While there are a few nods to Benjamin Franklin, one of the most remarkable public works is Mark Lueders’ “The Kelly Family Gates” 2003, which opens up to Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall. Meticulously crafted bronze hands accent the rungs, holding everything from paintbrushes to cameras. The sculpture pays homage to the cartoonist Charles Addams, who is both an alumnus and the creator of the Addams Family characters. Fans of the pop culture flick will recognise that the metal hands resemble the Thing from Addams Family (a sprightly disembodied hand).
Pop into PAFA (pafa.org), or Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first American Art school and one of the very first American museums. But don’t presume the 1805-era institution is all smoke jackets and gold-flecked fixtures. Instead, you’ll find a 51-foot-high paintbrush angling out of PAFA’s Lenfest Plaza at 60-degrees, leaning over a six-foot-tall cremsicle-coloured dollop of paint. The sculpture stands sandwiched between the late 19th-century Landmark Building—whose bizarrely beautiful Gothic revival facade is often referred to as a ‘bedazzled jewellery box’—and the early 20th century, 10-storey Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building that comprise the campus, both of which hold galleries and classes.
The brainchild of Philadelphia architects Frank Furness and George Hewitt, the Landmark Building is a heritage structure spun out of the particular ability to weave in more than what’s immediately in front of you: a legacy handily threaded into the very fibre of PAFA’s collections and stewardship. The building represents, perhaps, the most fundamentally American architecture after the teepee, though in this case by virtue of ‘borrowing’ a variety of styles—think Victorian ornamentation and brickwork, Moorish arches, and Venetian Gothic wallpaper—along with technology fresh out of the industrial age: stone columns were made from steam-powered lathes, decorative reliefs were sandblasted, the intricate stairwell lamps foretold deco and steampunk elements, steel scaffolding (a breakthrough that helped inspire the skyscraper) helped support the glass roof, and a passive ventilation system used a mechanical sash system to cool the building.
Then comes an unparalleled collection of American art, which allows PAFA to dip into its personal collection of 16,000 works to help curate epic exhibits like “Women In Motion: 150 Years Of Women’s Artistic Networks At PAFA,” which explores the networks of female artists that exhibited, studied, and taught at PAFA from its inception to the culmination of WWII. Along with household names like Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe, discover works by Laura Wheeler Waring (1887–1948) and May Howard Jackson (1877–1931). You’ll also see Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington (“The Lansdowne Portrait”), which went on to become the blueprint portrait for the one-dollar bill, facing “George Washington at Princeton” by Charles Willson Peale, and realise the two look like far-removed cousins. Here, you’ll learn that G.W. did not like to sit for portraits, especially those done by Stuart, opting to sit longer and thus allow a more accurate painting for the lesser-known Peale, a captain in the Revolutionary Army.
Near Rittenhouse Square venture for vittles at Harper’s Garden (harpersgardenphilly.com), a New American eatery that shades guests under their lush patio of hanging plants. The bar is well-equipped to cater to oenophiles and craft cocktail lovers, and the rotating menu features fresh seasonal produce from the region: here you can be sure your asparagus wasn’t thawed out of the deep freezer. A crash course of their vision can be achieved by cracking into delightfully crisp skin that gives way to a tender filet of rainbow trout accompanied by a sensational squid ink purée, sunflower romesco, and hazelnut picada that enjoys the company of a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. Those looking for a heartier route to satisfaction plumb for the double patty ‘Merica Burger betwixt milk buns, best washed down with a Bloody Mary. Polish off your meal with a peach cobbler.
Embark on an outing with Mural Arts Philadephia (muralarts.org), a non-profit that conducts regular public and private tours that explore various neighbourhoods of the city painted with thousands of mesmerising murals. It wasn’t happenstance that gave Philly the most prolific collection of public paintings in the world—that superlative was hard-earned by compassion and hardworking local talent. In the early 1980s, graffiti got you three choices if you were caught in the city, a fine, jail time, or community service by way of slathering grey buckets of paint over unsanctioned street art and tags.
In 1984, Jane Golden (now the Founder and Executive Director of Mural Arts Philadephia) was hired as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, her first project the creation of its first mural. Over 600 feet of Spring Garden Street Bridge was painted by a crew of nearly 100 West Philly youths over four weeks, titled “Life in the City.” Instead of whitewashing neighbourhoods, the programme began to commission some of the very artists and taggers that were originally persecuted, along with rallying volunteers from the community and reaching out to established muralists. Today, Mural Arts is hundreds of members and thousands of artworks strong, offering programmes for students, recovering substance abusers, and ex-convicts.
At sunset, sip on a pint at Yard’s Brewing (yardsbrewing.com), a local hero that has helped put Philly back on the map as a beer-loving city built on taste and tradition since opening in 1994. Every beer they make exemplifies this spirit, but none do so better than the Revolutionary series, including Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale, an 8 per cent golden ale, based on the Founding Father’s recipe, which calls for local honey; General Washington’s Tavern Porter, inspired by the molasses-based recipe Washington dictated to his officers during the Revolutionary War; and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce, an amber ale that follows Benjamin Franklin’s original recipe, for which blue spruce clippings are sourced from a local organic farm. You can try all of these as a sample slider. It’s also wise to save room for some of their classics, like the Signature IPA, English Mild (Brawler), and their Loyal Lager.
Take your dinner at Laser Wolf (laserwolfphilly.com); Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook’s Israeli grill house—known as a shipudya— ignites a distinction James Beard, the “Dean of American cookery,” speaks of in Beard on Food, “Grilling, broiling, barbecuing—whatever you want to call it—is an art, not just a matter of building a pyre and throwing on a piece of meat as a sacrifice to the gods of the stomach.” This is, perhaps, unsurprising given the co-owners have collectively bagged five James Beard Awards under the banner of their local hospitality group, CookNSolo, which has gone seven for seven on Philadephia-based restaurants that have reinvigorated the bedrock of Israeli-inspired cooking in the United States.
While the warehouse-turned-restaurant’s bright kitchen interiors and the crew’s tropical shirts angle on the aloof, at first glance, chalk it up to the staff having fun knowing they’re going to serve a set of satiable souvenirs you’re gonna savour for a lifespan. You see, before James Beard was the figure Julia Child heralded as the chef who “brought American cooking to America,” he was once an unsuccessful actor, and that’s just what the team at Laser Wolf—named after the butcher in The Fiddler on the Roof—is, a band of no-good thespians whose almost unset smiles can’t hide the fact that they are formidable on the floor (front of house) and fastidious over the fire.
Every meal is anchored by the salatim, a stainless steel platter featuring a swirl of award-winning hummus encircled by 10 stainless steel bowls—much like a thali—each featuring a different vegetable dish, from the sinfully smoky kale baba ganoush to sapid ajvar that prompts your pita-wielding hand to get pinching. But while the salatim is the heart of any meal at the smokehouse, the sizzling meat is the soul. Linger over the lamb merguez and bulge bright-eyed over the beef shilik, but know the Iraqi short ribs don’t take the scenic route to satisfaction. Served off the bone, braised in amba, and charred to perfection, it has an almost brisket-y bark that gives way to succulent meat. Remember to try their in-house arak and make your reservations well in advance.
Following a night at Laser Wolf, head to K’FAR (kfarcafe.com) for another taste of CookNSolo’s mastery at this Israeli-goods pastry shop. Arrive at 8 a.m. on the dot, if not you’ll find a queue that’ll question your perseverance as sweet-scented pistachio sticky buns hold your senses hostage. First-timers may seek out the smoked salmon Jerusalem bagel—if you’ve ever had a better lox bagel, pat yourself on the back. Take your food to-go to the nearby Rittenhouse square, and find a park bench or stretch of lawn to relax upon as you listen to live jazz in the park and watch the happy hubbub of a summertime farmer’s market that hugs its periphery.
After a relaxing morning, visit the permanent collection at The Barnes Foundation (barnesfoundation.org). It features a tour de force of European Impressionists and early modern painters. Each gallery was curated by Barnes himself, which he referred to as ‘ensembles’, pairing the work of well-known masters like Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Renoir, and Soutine along with metal-based African sculptures and Pennsylvanian German woodwork.
Further down the Avenue of the Arts at the Rodin Museum (rodinmuseum.org), the only such facility outside of France, walk past an enormous open-air sculpture of “The Thinker” and enter an institution that holds close to 150 bronzes, marbles, and plasters by the namesake virtuoso. Both the chief architect and designer of the museum’s garden were also French, making this a veritable artistic embassy of France, which has long shared a historical connection to Philadelphia.
Fine art Francophiles will get yet another dose of big-name Impressionist and Post-Impressionist creations at the New European Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (philamuseum.org), with notable works by Renoir, Monet, Manet, Degas, and Cézanne on display. However, a visit to this pantheon-inspired museum will lead you across 6,00,000 plus accoutred square feet assorted with over 2,00,000 works of art spanning 2,000 years.
2021 marked the unveiling of 90,000 square feet of the main building redesign per Frank Gehry’s plans, including 20,000 square feet of repurposed New American galleries that feature a particularly poignant acknowledgement of the lack of inclusivity and narrative of art created in the United States between 1650 and 1850. Forget about whiling away the day here, you could spend a lifetime of enjoying art at the PMA, flitting from Rabindranath Tagores to Diego Riveras, to discovering a reassembled, 16th-century Madurai mandapam (festival hall) or a ceremonial Japanese tea house from early 20th-century Tokyo.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, embark on a food tour with Urban Adventures (urbanadventures.com) to snack your way through the city centre. The tour docent is especially useful when navigating the history and scope of institutions like Reading Terminal Market, which holds over 200 eateries. Learn about the region’s historic Amish community as you snack on fluffy pretzels, welcoming whoopie pies, and a forkful of scrapple dipped in apple butter. Over the two-hour jaunt, you’ll likely swap jokes with the owner of one of Philly’s most famous cheesesteak outlets, Carmens, and lean on your guide’s knowledge when it comes to picking out local gifts, from ryes to fresh preserves.
End your day pouring over 1,800 works of art made by Philadelphia-based artists housed within the 351-room Curio Collection Hilton Hotel, The Logan (theloganhotel.com). The lavish lodging does more than honour the Museum Mile art foundations just outside its doorstep, it practically is one, offering guests their very own night at the museum. Upon entering the lobby you’re greeted by a chandelier that hangs over 300 portraits of iconic Philadelphians, but it’s not the hallmark faces you see everywhere—right next to Walt Whitman or Edgar Allan Poe hang John Fryer, a gay rights activist, and Dorothy Harrison Eustis, credited with coming up with the seeing-eye dog.
Near the reception desk stands a sculpture that any museum would be lucky to have, PAFA grad Miguel Antonio Horn’s Hombre de Hiero “Man of Iron,” a 7½-foot humanoid structure that’s layered out of steel plates. Venture off to the lobby’s cosy library and you’ll even find the walls feature portraits for sale. Patrons will discover each room features Philly-inspired art and every floor is graced by a different portrait of the Philadelphia native, Grace Kelly.
Line your stomach with a cheesesteak at Campo’s before you let your sweet tooth loose. One of the very first candy stores in America, Shane Confectionery (shanecandies.com) is the closest thing you’ll get to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in this life. You’ll first pass its close-cousins on the corner of Market Street, Franklin Ice Cream Bar—seek out standout scoops of vanilla suffused with beans from Madagascar and Mexico—and Franklin Fountain, a haven of hot fudge sundaes topped with Bordeaux cherries, signature root beer floats, and build-your-own-sodas fashioned out of house-made syrups like lavender and raspberry.
Next door, you’ll find Shane Confectionery’s old-timey storefront. Curved bay windows bend inward to a recessed entrance topped with a prismatic transom, framing a bright display of antique apothecary jars chock full of candies. Step inside, and you’ll find delectable, finely-crafted chocolate bars wrapped with delightfully detailed designs, alongside classics like clear toys, an old Pennsylvania Dutch technique that uses intricate metal moulds—imagine elaborate schooners and sitting cats—to make see-through sugar candies. Make sure to partake in a historic tour of the sweetshop or opt for one of their famous chocolate tasting workshops.
Get to know Isaiah Zagar; during the late 1960s, the mosaic artist began to create mural art in the then rough-and-tumble South Street neighbourhood. His passion is so prolific that over the years Zagar created hundreds of, typically, massive mosaics, mammoth walls made of dumpster finds, a patchwork of alleyway castaways: broken ceramics from tiles to china, smashed mirrors, tossed out bottles and bent bicycle wheels, doodled over with iconic caricatures and self-quotes delineated out of paint and marker. Zagar’s oeuvre helped bolster the “South Street Renaissance,” a movement of local artists that helped deter a highway project that would have cut through the community.
The Magic Gardens are seen by many as Zagar’s magnum opus. The structure was born from a couple of once-vacant lots (located near Zagar’s studio). In 1991 Zagar began toying with the property, first adding mosaic to the walls of the adjacent buildings, then sculpturing layers of walls out of scavenged objects. He was creating a living jamboree of junk. However, he didn’t own the space, and in 2004, the Boston-based owners of the lots demanded he deconstruct his chateau of mostly discarded items. But the community wouldn’t let that happen, rallying to his side in protest. A non-profit organisation would go on to purchase the lost and preserve Zagar’s work, allowing him to further add to the site, eventually unveiled in 2008.
Explore the Magic Gardens as a part of Philadelphia Urban Tours, a cracking pedestrian-tour outfit that takes you down a labyrinth of charming alleys, plastered with some of Zagar’s best work, where children play and neighbours chat. You’ll then amble along 9th Street, known to tourists as “the street where Rocky runs,” to taste warm bread at the neighbourhood stalwart, Sarcones Bakery, and sample various ages of provolone at the landmark Di Bruno’s—a very well-stocked and generous cheese store. You may recognise some facades as film locations for The Irishman along the busy street hugged by fresh fruit and veg vendors: shop for small-batch Lambrusco vinaigrettes at Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom and intricate Italian mocha pots at Fante’s Kitchen Shop. After the tour visit Isgoro’s for their scrumptious ricotta cookies, hang back for dinner on 9th Street, which offers you home-style Italian-American fare at the historic Ralph’s restaurant, James Beard-award-winning Thai cuisine at Kalaya, or wholesome barbacao tacos and chickpea-lamb consommé at South Philly Barbacao of Chef’s Table fame.
Odds are your travel plans often don’t involve trips to defunct high schools. But you probably weren’t imagining a place wherein a single structure you can flit from tattoo parlours to hairdressers, and get your car repaired, take an ESL or cooking class, see a chiropractor, and then finish out the day with a cold beer on a massive rooftop terrace. Typically, when a metropolitan high school goes up for sale in America, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to be turned into a condominium. This was not the case for South Philly’s BOK Building (buildingbok.com), a 1930s-established vocational school, a full city block in size, comprising eight stories of art deco architecture.
When a multi-use design firm purchased the structure in 2015 they made their mark with restraint: they didn’t raze the building or break down walls to put in that year’s fashionable facades. In their words, their work was simply a ‘light-touch,’ a gradual process of revamping spaces to be safe and tailored to their tenants’ needs, who can be seen whizzing on skateboards and walking their dogs down locker-filled halls.
The appeal of Philadelphia’s art scene is that the majority of the people invested in it haven’t sold their city out. Be it a mosaic master who has worked his wizardry on his neighbourhood’s walls for decades, or the preservation of historic structures by coteries of creatives, in Philadelphia, stories of the local spirit are stitched with éclat. How a neighbourhood worked together to return a stolen antique chachka to a beloved dive bar (El Bar); how the crime rate dropped on streets outfitted with neon art installations; or how artists who were once punished for their graffiti came to create some of the city’s most iconic artworks.
Philly doesn’t project a papier-mâché personality—it’s got as much brawn as it does hundreds of bronze statues—but it’s also a place where paintbrushes pop-up out of its pavement, and pastels reach across its concrete bones up to the shimmering skyline, making it feel like the world’s most abundant open-air museum.
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Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.