36 (Fun and Food-Filled) Hours in Philadelphia

Dear readers, I’m in Maryland, having just buried my beloved uncle and now helping to tend to my ailing father. Since I’ve been distracted away from ye olde blog this week, I gratefully accepted my friend Mara Gorman’s (The Mother of All Trips) offer of a guest post. I’ll soon resume a more regular schedule, but in the meantime, I truly hope you enjoy Mara’s writing and travel advice as much as I do.


LOVE signs in Philadelphia

LOVE signs in Philadelphia

Here’s a myth: To really relax, you need at least ten days of vacation.

As a busy parent of two busy boys, though, weekends away are often the only option for me and my husband.

Luckily for me, I’m a big believer in the restorative qualities of a quick getaway, and since I live smack in between New York City and Washington, DC I have lots of options when it comes to an urban retreat. And so, a cold spring weekend found my husband Matt and I dropping our children at my sister’s house outside of Reading, Pennsylvania and heading for downtown Philadelphia for a sybaritic, if short, visit.

If you’re planning a quick trip to Philadelphia, I recommend booking a hotel through the Visit Philly website where you will find different deals, often including admission to local attractions or events. When we visited in March of 2011, we used the Philly Overnight Hotel Package, which gave us two nights at the Hotel Sofitel in a spacious junior suite plus free parking for $500. The hotels offering this deal change routinely, so check back often if you don’t see anything that appeals.

I loved the Sofitel, which has a great location just blocks from the chic shops of Rittenhouse Square in one direction and City Hall in the other. Although our room didn’t have much of a view, the huge bathroom (complete with a separate shower and tub, both quite large), super-comfy bed, and generous sofa more than made up for this. There’s a totally French vibe here, with L’Occitane toiletries, divinely dark coffee (free for pick up in the hotel restaurant), and adorably scarved desk clerks who greet guests with a chipper “Bonjour!” It was also quiet, which for parents making a getaway is so very key (I’m not going to reveal here how long we slept each night, but let’s just say I didn’t wake up feeling like I needed an immediate infusion of caffeine as I usually do).

After checking in on Friday evening, we immediately decamped to Village Whiskey, which is right around the corner, for some bar food. But this isn’t your mother’s bar food, oh no. Let’s just start with the French fries, shall we? They are cooked in duck fat. If you want (and you want) you can order them with a side of cheddar cheese sauce. Somehow we managed to devour ours along with a dinner-plate sized hamburger and a pulled pork sandwich drenched in whiskey barbeque sauce. It would have been easy to linger over drinks and people watching. But we knew that others were waiting for our table, and not wanting to deprive anyone the chance to sample some of those fries, we rolled back to our room.

On Saturday morning we decided that coffee in the hotel wasn’t quite French enough and headed over to Rittenhouse Square for brunch at Parc where I satisfied my cravings for pastries with an entire basket of them. From the subway tile to the antiqued glass mirrors, this bistro is perfectly Parisian; the one inauthentic thing is that the hosts actually smile at you when you arrive – aren’t they adorable?

The hosts at Parc Bistro in Rittenhouse Square

The hosts at Parc Bistro in Rittenhouse Square

Enjoying brunch at Parc

Enjoying brunch at Parc

Heading back towards the Sofitel, we decided to pop into Joseph Fox Books, which is across the street. This deceptively small store has such a lovingly curated collection of books, especially in the category of art and architecture, that if you’re like us, you’ll find it hard to get out of there with just two or three. In keeping with the theme of the weekend, I purchased a reproduction of a 1902 book titled Trente Six Vues de la Tour Eiffel (Thirty Six View of the Eiffel Tower), lithographs showing the Eiffel Tower from various vantage points around Paris as it was constructed. I could have happily sat in the Sofitel bar and looked at my new treasure all afternoon, but the city beckoned.

Joseph Fox books in Philadelphia

Joseph Fox books in Philadelphia

We continued our wander over to 13th Street between Chestnut and Sansom Streets where we found a newly hip stretch of shops and restaurants developed by chefs Marcy Turney and Valerie Safran.  From coasters to chocolate to chic purses to cupcakes, you’ll find just about anything you want for your house or person here, with Mexican and Indian restaurants thrown in for good measure. We lingered for a good long time while I almost bought a completely impractical purse but decided (somewhat to my chagrin, as I look again at the pictures) that I shouldn’t let the freedom of the weekend go to my head.

Shopping at Verde on 13th Street, Philadelphia

Shopping at Verde on 13th Street, Philadelphia

The rest of that afternoon was spent walking through Old City where we actually took the time to read the historical placards in Washington Square (although I’ve walked through it many times before, I had no idea it used to be a potter’s field). There’s of course lots to explore in the national park that surrounds Independence Hall, but we’d seen most of it before, so we limited ourselves to a quick visit to Carpenter’s Hall before ending our walk in Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest (and perhaps cutest) residential street in the United States.

Washington Square Philadelphia

Washington Square in Philadelphia

Indepdence Hall Philadelphia

Indepdence Hall under wraps

Tired of walking, we hopped in a cab and went back to our room for a rest before gussying up for the evening. I was glad I had brought my glamour-girl heels when we walked into the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company, a lovingly restored former speakeasy that was once the front for the largest alcohol ring in the country. This is a place where you go to drink and not much else – the cocktail menu is literally a book, with chapters titled “The Flowing Bowl” and “I Asked Her for Water and She Gave Me Gasoline.” The drinks themselves are amazingly complex and delicious, including unusual ingredients like blackberry-habeñero syrup or cinnamon tincture. It’s a sexy, dim place that might be dangerous for a first date. Or maybe not, depending on how you roll.

With a slightly wobbly hail, we grabbed a taxi and headed over to Fork, which is our favorite restaurant in Philadelphia. The seasonal American food here never disappoints, nor does the eclectic and reasonably priced wine list. If you can, ask to be seated in one of the deep leather banquettes that line the back wall – they are totally luxurious to recline against while sipping that lovely French wine you’ve never heard of before.

After another fabulous night of sleep we drove just out of the city to Merion where we had reservations to see the amazing collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings at the Barnes Foundation. You have until July 3, 2011 to see the paintings in their original location; after that they will be moving to a new and very controversial location on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Wherever you get to see this art, I recommend doing so – the collection includes almost 200 paintings by Renoir, to say nothing of dozens of Cézannes, Matisses, and Picassos.

Well-fed and relaxed, we left Philly feeling like we’d definitely gotten the most out of our brief time away. Our well-being was short-lived since we received a call on the way to pick up our children that our older son had badly broken his arm. But the glow did manage to last all the way to the door of the emergency room, and that’s something!


Mara Gorman has been traveling her whole life, more recently with her two school-age sons to destinations ranging from California to Paris to India. Her credo includes stylish shoes, carry-on luggage, anything French, high thread-count sheets, hiking, afternoon tea, and ice cream. She blogs about family travel at The Mother of All Trips.


  1. I hadn’t thought of Philly as a romantic travel destination before. Thanks, Mara. 🙂


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