Joanna Whitehead falls hard for this spirited city


Overlook Philadelphia at your peril. The capital of Pennsylvania is a city with grit and heart, packed with history, art and gays galore. Known as The City of Brotherly Love (and Sisterly Affection), the early settler William Penn named the metropolis after the Greek words for love (philos) and brother (adelphos) – the perfect euphemism for same-sex passion if ever there was one. Plus, it’s just been named as one of only two US must-visit destinations for 2020 in National Geographic Traveler, evidence of the growing attention on this part of the world.

Despite being the sixth biggest city in the US, it feels remarkably easy to negotiate both on foot or using the city’s subway. And strolling around the city is really one of the best ways to soak up everything it has to offer.

As the home of the first and oldest art school and art museum in the US (, it’s no surprise that creativity oozes from every corner of the city. Classical and contemporary art, public sculptures and an annual design festival, DesignPhiladelphia, make this an ideal destination for active imaginations. 

My first stop in the city is the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), located in the heart of University City. During my visit, there are exhibits by the queer arts collective fierce pussy, plus an exploration of the “afterlife” of slavery. With a free entry policy, it’s worth following up your culture fix at the White Dog Cafe less than a minute’s walk away. This eclectic, dog-themed (much classier than it sounds) establishment focuses on local, sustainable cooking to great effect – and it’s a fab place to head for happy hour drinks.   

Film buffs won’t be able to resist a cinematic sprint up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. More widely known as the steps that Rocky runs up during the classic 80s film, it’s also home to one of the largest and most famous collections of art in the country. During my stay, I head to Friday Remix, an occasional after-hours takeover by an eclectic collection of artists, musicians and performers. Experimental and improvisational, I suggest subjects for a lift rapper, watch incredible acrobats throw themselves around the hallowed space and listen to electronic sounds in a grand and rainbow-lit great hall – perfect.  

Foodies will love Reading Terminal Market, one of the US’ largest and oldest public markets housed since 1893 in a National Historic Landmark building. With all tastes catered for, from gumbo to giant breakfasts, cookies to chow mein, ensure you arrive hungry and wear elasticated trousers. 

It would be remiss of me not to mention the city’s most famous food export: the Philly cheese steak. Comprised of beefsteak and cheese and served up in a long bread roll, the fast food dish is synonymous with the city. While I didn’t actually try one because I’m fussy about the kind of meat I put in my maw (snigger), I have it on excellent authority that Jim’s Steaks on the corner of fourth and South serve up some of the city’s best.  

One of the great things about Philadelphia is that its “gayborhood” is situated in the very heart of the city centre. One of the first major LGBTQI demonstrations in the US was held at Independence Hall in 1965 in the heart of the gayborhood, with activists such as Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny fighting for the rights of gay and lesbian people to have full citizenship. 

Today, it is a friendly, relaxed and fun place to explore, complete with rainbow sidewalks, dogs aplenty and enough bars and restaurants to keep you fed and watered. The district is also home to Giovanni’s Room (, the oldest continuously operated LGBTQI bookshop in the US and an absolute dream for book lovers. Spend your coins at this special place, where you can also pick up a copy of the local newspaper Philadelphia Gay News – a fantastic and free community resource. 

Inspect your purchases at Bud and Marilyn’s, a queer owned, chic American diner that’s a great choice for brunch, lunch and people watching (request a window seat). Order the crispy cheese curds and thank me later. 

The gayborhood is also home to the city’s annual OutFest (, a free event which attracts a fantastically diverse range of folks from across the LGBTQI+ rainbow and a perfect place to make new friends and dance in the streets. If you’re looking for action, head to the Toasted Walnut, which was literally heaving with queer women of all ages when I visited. 

On the outskirts of the gayborhood is South Street, home to the Magic Garden, a giant folk-art installation and community centre comprised of mosaics and other found materials. Local artist Isaiah Zagar spent years working on the project, which is a truly unique experience and well worth a visit. 

History remains a major draw for many visitors to Philadelphia, with major attractions such at the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin museum all located in the Old City (arrive early to avoid long queues). A gentle stroll around the old buildings and green spaces is a lovely way to spend an early morning, particularly Elfreth’s Alley – a picturesque cobbled street famous for being the oldest inhabited road in the US. 

A short walk takes you to Third Street, where you can splash your cash in an array of boutique and interiors shops, galleries and coffee outlets. It’s also home to The Center for Art in Wood, a fascinating space which featured an exhibit on women in woodwork during my visit. 

It’s impossible to miss the many colourful and diverse murals that adorn Philly streets. The city started to be decorated with giant murals back in 1984 and now the city has 4,200, making it the nation’s largest public art project and the unofficial mural capital of the world. As well as being beautiful to look at, the initiative behind the scheme, Mural Arts, is admirable indeed, with a major focus on community building and connecting with marginalised groups, such as immigrants and those leaving prison.

Communities can apply for a mural that reflects their area and demography and, incredibly, only 4% of Philly’s murals have been defaced with graffiti or tags, evidencing the high regard with which people view the project. I joined a Mural Arts walking tour that took me into Center City and gave me an insight into a part of Philly I might never have otherwise ventured. Even if you’re just passing through the city, joining a Mural Arts tour is an absolute must. 

Finally: Fishtown! Apparently, this is where all the lesbians live, although I didn’t clock any major queer PDAs, sadly. It’s also home to a great time, with plenty of bars, bistros and bakeshops to explore – drop by Cake Life, a queer-owned bakery in Market Street for all the cakes and cookies your sweet tooth desires. Front Street Cafe is a great stop for healthy plates which – along with Fishtown Brewpub, a veritable dream for craft beer lovers – has also played host to a monthly queer meet-up in the city.  

Despite the claims of a certain TV show, it might not always be sunny in Philadelphia, but it’s certainly a city on the rise and packed with places to explore, things to do and new people to meet. Away from the superficialities of the nation’s coastal cities, this is US realness personified, complete with friendly natives and a pulse. Philly’s star is on the ascendant, so believe the hype and start planning your trip. 

Where to stay in Philly?

While there are plenty of options for places to rest your head in Philly, we liked the Fairfield Inn and Suites Downtown & Center City (, which sits in the beating heart of the gaybourhood – perfect for people-watching, making new friends and with easy access to all the bars and restaurants your queer heart desires. This contemporary boutique hotel comes with giant beds, flat-screen TVs and subway-tiled bathrooms. There’s also a 24-hour fitness centre for gym bunnies and fitness fans. 

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