Despite government prohibition, Philadelphia was the bootlegging, speakeasy capital of the United States for more than a decade. At one point, some 8000 secret bars heaved in the basements of this city. Today it still carries on this rich legacy of bars, pubs and late-night cheesesteaks. The bars in Philadelphia are like a good book: you can’t judge them by their front doors. Planning a night here without first recognising the city as one of the 1920s wettest and wickedest would be perilous.
This was once the wild west of Prohibition, where the sons of Italian, Irish and Polish mobsters ran rum up and down the coast and established some of the most notorious breweries and brothels. This history has defined the late-night culture, but as both Rittenhouse Square and Old City still retain this alluring underworld and cobblestoned charm – reminiscent of a Boardwalk Empire episode – if you spent all your time in these two well-known haunts, you would fail to unlock a drinking scene that now rivals Williamsburg in Brooklyn. In recent years, like the roots of a giant tree in search of water or one of those mobsters seeking out his rum, Philadelphia has begun its natural gentrification into its outer neighbourhoods. Now both locals and tourists are discovering a new Philly under intense revival in the streets of Northern Liberties and Fishtown. Here is a comeback that is still underpinned – for the better – by its grimy bootlegging past.
Philadelphia is home to one of America’s largest and oldest public markets. Reading Street Terminal has been in the same location since 1893 and is awash every day with boisterous traders, exotic produce, food stalls and bars. An afternoon of shopping in the city is hungry and thirsty work, so if you’re starting your evening here you won’t be short of options. But as you peek over the swarming mass of shoppers, follow your nose to Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies. The line will be long and the service will be loud (for some reason, they prefer to shout), but you won’t be disappointed. Order a Classic Cheesesteak and wait for your playing card (a unique take on your service number) to be called, which will happen quicker than your belly can rumble. Instead of eating your food here, get it to take away and prop yourself up in the common seating area of the main market before slinking into Molly Molloy’s for a pint among the organised chaos.
Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies & Molly Molloy’s, Reading Terminal Market
51 N 12th St, Philadelphia, PA 19107, USA
Set in the heart of the more bourgeois section of Rittenhouse Square, Good Dog Bar is a hidden ode to man’s best friend, where drinkers are encouraged to come and spend the afternoon among the pooch-themed décor. It’s also a local favourite for catching the city’s beloved football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Almost every bar in the city offers a ridiculous discount on beer when the team is playing. The bar has a well-curated beer list, a head chef who is determined to return this hidden gem to its former gastro pub glory days, and the crowd is a mix of young professionals, barristers and bike couriers all finishing their days and starting their nights.
Good Dog Bar
224 S 15th St, Philadelphia, PA 19102, USA
In a city so famous for drinking, its world-class Chinatown district is often overlooked. Confined within a six-block radius, this throwback oriental microcosm is home to some of the best bars and restaurants in town and a trip here is not complete without a visit to Bing Bing Dim Sum. A small, local eatery that takes very limited reservations, Bing Bing represents everything that is good about a true Chinatown cultural melting pot in a big city, as is serves up small south Chinese plates with a Jewish-American twist. We needn’t tell you what to order here, just get one of everything.
Bing Bing Dim Sum
1648 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia,
PA 19148, USA
Before Philly’s dirty Prohibition past, its history was rooted in liberty and democracy. Philadelphia was once the temporary capital of the United States and when you’re meandering the streets of its Old City at night, you can’t help but picture a young Thomas Jefferson and John Adams scurrying between its watering holes and scribbling down policies over a pint for their boss, George Washington. The Glory Beer Bar and Kitchen is a symbol of present-day beer democracy that its city forefathers would be proud of, with three long communal drinking tables, 36 taps and a beer bottle list with more than a hundred varieties.
Glory Beer Bar & Kitchen
126 Chestnut St, Philadelphia,
PA 19106, USA
Leaving the justice fanfare behind, it’s time to channel your inner Philly mobster. This is where you disappear down a dark alley on historic Chestnut Street and look for a concealed black door with two red ‘R’s. Once you enter The Ranstead Room, a hostess will take you through another hidden door into a small, dark bar, illuminated only by the lighting on the pin-up style nudes on the wall, setting a sultry mood. This is old-world Philadelphia and the boutique, luxury leather stools are reminiscent of a 1930s Roadster’s rumble seats. But it’s the seasonal menu of cocktails that are true works of art. Designed in layers, don’t go past the Gin, Gin, Ginny and make sure to munch on the spiced popcorn – you’ll never look at the corn kernel snack the same way again.
The Ranstead Room
2013 Ranstead St, Philadelphia,
PA 19103, USA
With stomachs full of liquor, food is fast becoming a necessity for the night. When Philly bellies start to rumble, locals typically make their way to the bustling Northern Liberties precinct. Heritage is the new kid on the block in NoLibs, but it’s quickly becoming a crowd favourite for cashed-up hipsters. This high-ceilinged venue offers a beer selection you couldn’t get through in a lifetime and live jazz every night of the week. Its menu is also vast, meaty and cheesy (exactly what you would expect in this city). Share a platter of slow-roasted chicken and braised ribs, while some of the best jazz musicians in town serenade you.
914 N 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19123, USA
It might be the pints talking, but there’s something strangely alluring about ten-pin bowling and neon lights at this time of night. Nearly every bar in NoLibs is a big kid’s playground with arcade games and skee-ball aplenty, but just across the road from Heritage you’ll find a place to channel your inner 12-year-old. North Bowl is not your typical bowling alley. It’s a modern take on a classic American pastime and this classy bar-cum-recreational venue crashed its way into NoLibs a decade ago offering a drinks service right to your lane, retro bowling benches from the 1950s and an sculptural upstairs bar that looks down on the mayhem of the less-than-impressive ‘bowling’ taking place below. Book a lane ahead and you’re guaranteed a good time.
909 N 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19123, USA
As the witching hour strikes, it’s time to return to adult life. Fishtown is no place to drop your guard. Not because it’s unsafe – this part of Philadelphia is under a warp-speed transformation, recently earning the reputation as America’s hottest new neighbourhood. You’ll likely arrive here from Downtown on “the El”, one of the country’s oldest elevated subways. As the doors jolt open, prepare to be smacked in the face by a cacophony of hipsters, eateries and new bars so thick you would think you were in downtown Portland or Melbourne. Garage Philly represents everything that’s eclectic and new about Fishtown. You can bring your own food to this giant converted mechanics garage and enjoy its somewhat daunting selection of beers and cocktails. On a summer night, sit in the window and watch as restored trolleys from the 1960s, thunder by the bustling footpath.
100 E Girard Ave, Philadelphia,
PA 19125, USA
From that same window you’ll soon peep (if you don’t smell it first) Joe’s Steak and Soda just across the road. This favourite has been a beacon of late-night drunk munchies since 1949 and is the undisputed king of cheese, meat and bread in Philadelphia. Order just about anything on the menu here and be assured of a no-fuss, sandwich in an old diner guaranteed to make that hangover tomorrow just a little more bearable.
Joe’s Steak and Soda
1 W Girard Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19123, USA
United flies to Philadelphia via Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne.
Philadelphia has some of the best boutique hotels on the East Coast, including USA Today’s newest top hotel in America; Wm. Mulherin’s Sons. But if you’re only there for a short time, be sure to stay in the central Rittenhouse Square area in a boutique loft apartment via Airbnb.
For more ideas on what to see in Philadelphia, check out the website.