Karrie Gavin has backpacked throughout the United States and Europe, and lived in San Francisco and Ireland — but only Philadelphia has ever been “home.” Karrie was eager to write Moon Philadelphia to share her favorite Philly gems with locals and newcomers alike. She’s always had a large dose of Philly hometown pride, and here she shares some of her best insider tips.
Karrie Gavin Talks Philadelphia
1. Describe the spirit of Philadelphia in your own words.
Philly has been called the biggest small town in America. It rivals any major urban center in its diverse cultural opportunities, yet it also has a cozy, small-town feel. While Center City is a bustling metropolis, the city is made up of close-knit neighborhoods where families have been rooted for generations. Like Rocky Balboa, Philly’s favorite fictional son, Philly is a town known for its scrappy, fighting spirit, excessive pride, loyalty, and determination. But under the tough exterior, Philadelphians are also friendly and fun-loving. There are no prouder locals anywhere in the world, and while we enjoy a weekend visit to nearby New York, the rumored underdog complex is a myth; locals genuinely believe that Philly is better than NYC.
2. What is your favorite restaurant in Philly?
On a weekday when I just don’t feel like cooking, we head to Nam Phuong, a great, inexpensive Vietnamese restaurant on Washington Avenue, or order takeout from Vic Sushi or Tiffin (Indian). There are tons of great BYOBs (bring your own bottle) in town, and Dmitri's and Mercato are two of my faves. When you’re ready to lay down a few bucks, head to Amada (or really any of Jose Garces’ restaurants) or Tequilas Restaurant for a lively night-on-the-town atmosphere and excellent food and drinks.
3. It’s 5pm and you’re ready for a happy hour cocktail. Where do you go?
I’ll often choose a good old dive, like Bob & Barbara’s or Oscar's, where the Friday happy hour often turns into a raucous dance party. Or I’ll stop at my favorite neighborhood bar, Sidecar, where I can munch on half-priced nachos with my craft beer at one of the outdoor tables. For a fancy cocktail and cool mob-era atmosphere, Prohibition Taproom is tops.
4. Let’s talk transportation. What’s the best way to get around town?
In Center City, walking and biking are excellent options for navigating the flat grid of streets while avoiding parking and traffic. New bike lanes have been recently added on many major thoroughfares, making biking better than ever. Public transit is extensive is Center City, and you can get pretty much anywhere by bus, subway, or regional rail line. A car comes in handy for exploring Fairmount Park or the Northwest section of the city, where things are more spread out and public transit is less extensive. When going out for a night on the town, walking or grabbing a cab is usually the quickest and easiest, especially in Center City and surrounding neighborhoods.
5. What is the best place, or places, to stay on a budget?
The two best options for budget travelers are Apple Hostels in the heart of Old City and Chamounix Mansion in Fairmount Park. Both offer dorm-style accommodations and a few semi-private quarters. Chamounix is a cool, converted historic mansion, but it’s off the main drag, so having a car is useful when staying there. Apple, on the other hand, is right in the heart of Old City, so it may be a bit loud and active, but this is the place for you if you don’t want to worry about transportation and if you plan on hitting all the Old city attractions by day and bars by night. For those looking for a reasonably-priced digs with a bit more privacy, check out some of the smaller bed-and-breakfasts in Center City East or South Philly, where you can stay in a cozy room in a converted home for less than you’d spend at most hotels.
6. If money is no option, where is the ultimate place to rest your head? ?
The Rittenhouse Hotel overlooks Rittenhouse Square, the park in the heart of Center City surrounded by many of the swankiest restaurants and shops in the city. It is in the perfect location, with every amenity. Mark Wahlberg, Oprah, Bill Clinton, and Tom Hanks are among the many visiting celebrities who have stayed there. Need I say more?
7. When is the best time of the year to visit?
Philly has four distinct seasons typical of the Northeast. Each one is beautiful in its own right, but spring and fall are generally pleasant and mild, while winter and summer can be brutally cold or hot at times. Summer is the most crowded with tourists, with long lines at some of the most popular attractions, and slightly higher hotel rates. May and September are excellent months to visit, because it’s a bit less crowded and hot than summer, but all the seasonal attractions are still open.
8. What’s your favorite Philly neighborhood, and why?
Tough question. Each neighborhood has its own unique energy. South Philly is top-notch for food, as it’s home to the Italian Market, as well as a slew of affordable Italian, Asian and Mexican restaurants. Northern Liberties has excellent nightlife and a lively young energy. Old City is best for tourist sites and getting a sense of Old Philadelphia, and the Rittenhouse area of Center City West is best for shopping, strolling and people-watching on a weekend afternoon. And since I grew up in Mt. Airy, I must give it a shout-out for its lovely tree-lined streets, diverse community, and access to Wissahickon Park.
9. What is there to do with kids in Philadelphia?
All of the historic sites are very family-friendly, and offer kids a great history lesson in a fun setting. The Please Touch Museum is a world-class interactive kids museum in Fairmount Park, and the Franklin Institute (and IMAX theatre), Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Constitution Center, are excellent attractions for kids with interactive, hands-on exhibits. Smith Playground is a free 100+-year-old playground and playhouse in Fairmount Park with a giant old wooden slide that can fit about 10 kids across—it’s definitely off the tourist track, but very popular with locals. I had many a memorable birthday party there in my youth!
10. Tell us something you think people would be surprised to know about Philly.
Philly is home to more murals than any other city in the world, with more than 3,000 murals beautifying walls across the city, courtesy of the Mural Arts Program. Guided trolley tours offer a chance to check out the elaborate works of art and catch a glimpse of many neighborhoods most people wouldn’t otherwise see. Also, I’m not sure if people know that Philly has the largest urban park system in the world, so outdoor recreational opportunities abound.
For more information about travel to Philadelphia, buy a copy of Moon Philadelphia.