PHILADELPHIA — It’s possible to get a deal on a round-trip flight from Boston to Philadelphia on JetBlue’s new service or with US Airways’ matching prices. But what good is a bargain if you end up spending too much on lodging, meals, and entertainment in the City of Brotherly Love?
Fortunately Philadelphia is the East Coast’s most affordable big city, with a cost of living about 9 percent lower than Boston’s. With a growing number of just-scraping-by young hipsters, the city has been called the “Portland of the East.”
If you’re interested in how Philly continued the nation-building started in Boston, the first thing to book after your flight is your Independence Hall (www.nps.gov/inde) ticket. Some slots are available first come, first served at Independence Visitor Center (Market and Sixth streets, 800-537-7676, phlvisitorcenter.com), but with only a $1.50 online booking fee, why risk it? Then go to phillyfunguide.com and sign up for the local cultural alliance’s FunSavers, a weekly e-mail blast of half-price discount offers on local theater and music performances and sightseeing tours.
Next find a centrally-located affordable place to stay. Best bets if you don’t like to bid are the boutique Alexander Inn, the elegantly aged La Reserve B&B, or the B&B Connections of Philadelphia agency (all with prices starting in the low $100s for a single room with private bath) or the similarly well situated but more conventional Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown, Hilton Garden Inn, and Club Quarters (all often available on standard travel booking sites such as Travelocity and Expedia for as low as $150). Pricewise you will probably do better on Priceline.com or the hobbyist-innkeeper Airbnb.com. Last summer Priceline bidders scored a number of large three-star downtown hotels like the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown for $60 to $80, according to bid-tracking site biddingfortravel.com. Just make sure to specify Convention Center, Center City, historic district, Old City, Penn’s Landing, Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square, or the Gayborhood on these sites lest you end up spending too much time and money getting to and from your budget lodging.
Speaking of transportation: The cheapest efficient way to get into the city from the airport is by local rail. Follow terminal signs for the Airport Line and if you’re arriving early in the day ask the conductor for an Independence Pass ($11 or $28 for a family), which will cover the $7 train ride into the city as well as unlimited bus and subway rides (normally $2 each, www.septa.org ) for the rest of the day. Philly’s grid-like downtown, called Center City, is flat and walkable from end to end in about a half-hour but it’s nice to be able to jump on a bus when you’re tired.
Other transportation options for people who’ll be hitting a lot of tourist spots during daylight hours are the purple PHLASH tourist buses ($2 a ride with no passes, 215-389-8687, www.phillyphlash.com ) or the hop-on, hop-off buses and trolleys ($27 for sightseeing commentary and unlimited daytime rides for 24 hours). Cabs are plentiful in Center City and can take you almost anywhere within it for $10 or less, including tip.
If history is why you’re here, Independence Hall should be first on your list, along with the Liberty Bell across the street (it’s free and doesn’t require a ticket). A number of companies offer one- to two-hour guided walking tours that pull together some of the second-tier historic sites (Carpenters’ Hall, Betsy Ross House, Ben Franklin’s grave, and more) including one from the tip-only www.freetoursbyfoot.com. For an overall view of the city take the tiny elevator to the top of the country’s largest, tallest, and scariest-looking City Hall (featured in the Brad Pitt movie “Twelve Monkeys”) for $6 (reservations must be made day-of by calling 686-2840).
Those with artistic interests should try to visit the first week of any month for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s first Sunday pay-what-you-can admission (versus the usual $20, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 215-763--8100, www.philamuseum.org), and the Old City art gallery district’s First Friday, a monthly open house-and-happy hour which, in good weather, spills out onto the sidewalks. Admission to the Rodin Museum a few blocks away (2151 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 215-763-8100, www.rodinmuseum.org) is always pay-what-you-can and its sculpture garden is free.
More inexpensive outdoor fun, particularly popular with teens and on warm summer evenings, is popping in and out of low-end jewelry, clothing, and snack shops on South Street. Families with younger kids should check out the not-for-profit Franklin Square, a park with free twin playgrounds, a carousel, and a mini golf course (South and Race streets, 215-629-4026, www.historicphiladelphia.org).
Besides the FunSavers e-blast, the best deal on theater and music is the $10 “community rush” seats offered by the Kimmel Center (300 South Broad St., 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org) for Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and other events. Upcoming concerts feature Wynton Marsalis, Steve Martin (playing bluegrass banjo), and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Sales begin at 5:30 p.m. for evening events but seats are limited, so you should plan on getting in line 30 minutes to an hour before that.
The nearby Academy of Music has a similar same-day-rush-ticket program ($30 for Broadway touring shows like this summer’s “Wicked,” also at www.kimmelcenter.org). By late June the orchestra and other mainstream entertainment moves to the Tanglewood-like outdoor Mann Center amphitheater (52nd Street and Parkside Avenue, 800-653-8000, www.manncenter.org). The value there is the lawn seats: $12.50 for orchestra concerts and about half the covered-seating price for pop and rock acts like the Indigo Girls and Joan Baez, and Steely Dan. You can get there from downtown for just $4 round trip on a special city loop bus, and you can tote in a picnic dinner.
Philly has a long tradition of wonderful street food. In Center City, pick up an Italian hoagie at Primo ($7.29), a cheesesteak from Spataro’s ($8.69), or a flavor-filled roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s ($10.25, when topped with the essential broccoli rabe and provolone cheese). These last two businesses are in Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch streets, 215-922-2317, www.readingterminalmarket.org), a 120-year-old, city-block-size building pulsating with people and reasonably-priced eateries.
High-end city dining is best approached by the budget traveler at happy hour or at high-end restaurateurs’ lower-end experiments. Check out James Beard award-winning chefs Michael Solomonov and Marc Vetri, Iron Chef Jose Garces, and local food czar Stephen Starr during happy hours at their Zahav (Israeli), Alla Spina (Italian beer bar), Distrito (Mexican) and Pod (sci-fi sushi) restaurants, respectively. Most offer select appetizers for a third to half off, and beer, wine, and certain cocktails for $3-$6. (Alla Spina and Pod repeat these deals late nights.) Or visit Solomonov’s trendy Federal Donuts doughnut-fried chicken stands (a $2 Turkish coffee doughnut and $9 chili-fennel-sumac-rubbed half chicken top the interesting choices) or Starr’s casual outdoor beer garden Frankford Hall (where pretzels, half-liter drafts, and sausage sandwiches normally go for $4-$7.50, less at happy hour).
Philly’s arcane liquor laws have resulted in one of the largest concentrations of bring-your-own-bottle restaurants of any city in the country. Typically the first independent ventures of promising young chefs, with no corkage fees or reservations, places like Chloe (New American, entrees $17-
$29), Dmitri’s (Greek seafood, $10-$18), Melograno (Mediterranean, $16-$33), Mercato (New Italian-American, $21-$28), and Radicchio (Italian, $13.50-$23.50) represent some of the finest, best-value dining in the city.
Philly is also a beer lover’s heaven. Philly Beer Week, through June 9, (www.phillybeerweek.org) is proof, as are the city’s many excellent gastropubs, pairing local microbrews with equally good food.
Chefs at Standard Tap, Monk’s, Good Dog, and Resurrection Ale House either used to work at high-end spots or are on their way, but in these cozy, casual surroundings their food craft comes cheap. (Offerings include Standard Tap’s $12 burger and $14 chicken pot pie, Monk’s $9 seitan cheesesteak and $20 mussels with pommes frites, Good Dog’s $11
cheesesteak empanada and $12.50 Roquefort-cheese-stuffed half-pound burger with sweet and regular fries, and Resurrection’s $15 twice-fried chicken.)
Carolyn Wyman, an assistant editor at Philadelphia’s alternative City Paper and author of “The Great Philadelphia Cheesesteak Book,” can be reached at email@example.com.