By Joey Amato
The first time I visited Philadelphia was for last year’s NLGJA conference and to be perfectly honest, I really didn’t think much of the city. The main reason for my feeling was mostly because I was stuck in a hotel conference room most of my stay. Apart from brief visits to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and The 'Rocky Stairs', aka, the Philadelphia Art Museum, I really didn’t have the opportunity to explore the city.
Fast forward almost one year later and I found myself in the City of Brotherly Love once again. This time was for pleasure, not work, so I knew my experience would be drastically different than my last. And I was right!
I stayed at the Cambria Hotel & Suites, which is located pretty much in the heart of the city. What I like most about the city is its walkability. The property is brand new, and the amenities are very nice. Most rooms offer great views of the city, but its biggest asset is the location.
I began my stay in Philly with a trip to the Liberty One Observation Deck. Not only is it atop one of the city’s most iconic buildings, but it will also give you the chance to get yourself oriented and familiar with the city. I always like to view a city from an observation tower when I first arrive as it tends to help me navigate easier.
I recommend visiting Maison 208 for dinner. The gorgeous, two-floor restaurant from Top Chef contestant Sylva Senat stands out in Midtown Village’s dining scene—and not just because of its spacious design and retractable roof, the only one in the city. Maison’s New American menu offers cleverly chic updates on American dishes. The cocktail list includes delicious concoctions such as the “black rose,” made with vermouth-and-blackberry and dressed with rosemary.
After dinner, head to the Gayborhood. Yes, that’s the actual name of their gay neighborhood. There are dozens of gay nightlife venues in this part of town so and it’s almost impossible to visit them all. Usually I like to highlight a few venues that I enjoyed, but Philadelphia’s Gayborhood really offers so many nightlife options that it’s hard to focus on just one or two. There really is something for everyone.
If you aren’t hungover the following morning, I suggest waking up early, grabbing a nice breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant Social Circle and then walking up Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Art Museum and the famed Rocky Stairs. You will see dozens of folks reenacting the Rocky scene, so don’t be embarrassed if you want to run up the stairs as well. The top of the stairs also offers a great view of the city.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the third-largest art museum in the country and houses an extraordinary collection that spans 2,000 years of artistic achievement. A one-acre garden features an ever-changing selection of sculpture. During my visit, the museum was exhibiting Keith Smith at Home, the first major monographic exhibition in 50 years of the work of Keith Smith, an LGBT American bookmaker, photographer and craft-centered artist. Smith’s highly personal pieces deal with his home, coming out and change. The museum library’s accompanying exhibition explores Smith’s bookmaking process.
Along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, swing by the Rodin Museum, home to the largest Rodin collection outside of Paris. Masterpieces that can be found here include The Thinker, Eternal Springtime and The Gates of Hell, plus a beautiful formal garden.
For a unique cultural experience, head to Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, site of the continent’s first Japanese garden. Created for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Shofuso includes a traditional 17th-century-style house—a 1953 postwar gift from Japan to the U.S.—and a stunning, 1.2-acre Japanese pond and garden by landscape designer Tansai Sano. We had the opportunity to feed the beautiful koi and explore the house and tearoom.
After a long day of sightseeing, head to Serpico. I had the opportunity to dine with the Scott Conant, LGBTQ editor at Comcast. It was love at first bite. He even invited us to a private dance party, but I wasn’t feeling that well, so decided to call it a night. We still had another jam-packed day ahead of us.
After breakfast, I left for The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Open to the public free of charge, the ICA has been instrumental in showcasing the work of emerging and under-recognized artists for more than 50 years. The ICA led the way with the first-ever museum shows of Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana and other influential artists. Tag: Proposals on Queer Play and the Ways Forward, on display during my visit, explores how the expanding influence of digital and online technologies, fandom subcultures and artistic discourse has created new possibilities for queer identification, changing how personal roles and forms of expressions are defined in contemporary society. I wasn’t a huge fan of this exhibition. Although I am a huge fan of fine art, this particular exhibit was a bit too abstract for my taste.
It's always 5:00 somewhere, so I decided to head to Philadelphia Distilling, which is housed in an old, 15,000 square-foot Fishtown factory. Philly’s first post-Prohibition distillery uses hand-hammered copper stills and Hall-Woodford wooden fermentation vessels to create batches of Bluecoat American Dry Gin, Blue Coat Barrel Finished Gin, Vieux Carré Absinthe, Penn 1681 Vodka and THE BAY Seasoned Vodka. The distillery offers a full bar and restaurant with an outdoor patio and a tasting room. I really enjoyed most every spirit we sampled. The absinthe however carries quite a punch.
If you’re in town on a Sunday, go to Bud & Marilyn’s for brunch. Located in the heart of the Gayborhood, Bud & Marilyn’s is a retro-inspired restaurant-bar owned and operated by business and life partners chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. Inspired by Turney’s restaurateur grandparents, the restaurant serves new takes on American classics like meatloaf, wedge salad and chop suey, paired with cocktails like the Blinker, a whiskey sour made with rye, and Marilyn’s O-F, a brandy old-fashioned.
It is safe to say this visit to Philadelphia was extremely different than my last experience. I really felt like I had a chance to explore the city and get a feel for some of its neighborhoods. I enjoyed it so much that I am eager to visit again in the near future.
Joey Amato is the publisher of Pride Journeys, an LGBTQ+ travel and lifestyle website. Originally from New York City, he's a Nashville resident, country music fan, and wine lover.