Philadelphia is on the move. A decade ago the City of Brotherly Love was anything but, with one of the highest crime rates in the world and a rotting, neglected core. But today Philadelphia is staging its own revival, seemingly intent upon reclaiming its former glory. This rebound creates an interesting conundrum for Philadelphians: while the city remains affordable compared to its nearby New England cousins, its rediscovered energy comes with a price tag that might leave those living on a budget baffled.
Is it still possible to enjoy this re-energized city without sapping out the vital forces of one’s own wallet? Of course: Philadelphia’s still got a lot of of love for the budget brother. You just gotta be in the know, bro.
Philadelphia offers up its own unique mix of high- and not-so-highbrow pleasures. During the day you can expand your mind at one of the city’s world-renowned museums or sink yourself into America’s primordial past at a colonial site straight out of your eighth grade history textbook, then at night find yourself caught in the irreverent joviality in this city that does public drunkenness like few others. The trick is to do it all on a budget.
On Sundays make like Rocky up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for pay-what-you-want admission (but please, don’t actually mount the staircase and dance about in imitation of the Italian Stallion–such cliches are for tourists and steroid-addled actors only). You read that right: one of the largest, grandest, most-esteemed art museums in the Western hemisphere–227,000 pieces of art–for, like, however much you want to give them. The nearby Rodin Museum (also owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art) is free every day, though a $5 donation is strongly encouraged. But hey, five bucks is a pittance for the photo-op the ground’s gardens grant you: put fist to chin next to the world’s most famous statue–The Thinker–for a far classier cliche than pumping your arms like Rocky.
Art of the now variety is on display at First Fridays, where on the first Friday of every month from around 5 to 9pm forty art galleries fill the streets from First to Third and Market to Vine. Mingling and people-watching are as essential to the event as the art itself.
If you’ve had your fill of art, get yourself to Fairmount Park. One of the oldest and largest urban parks in the nation, Fairmount Park offers loads more than open, rolling fields and wooded trails. Wander through colonial homes and boathouses, take the trolley, and tour the Fairmount Water Works. And of course its all free.
If tranquility isn’t exactly your thing, more action-packed wandering can be found at Penn’s Landing, where the historic waterfront walk along the Delaware River has found new life as a bustling entertainment district. You probably can’t afford to eat around here, but there are an amazing number of free concerts, festivals, movies, and fireworks shows every week. Of particular note is Wawa’s Welcome America festival, a week-long party featuring concerts, art, and food, all culminating in a spectacular July 4th finale (this was the city where the Declaration was signed, after all). Oh, yeah, and it’s pretty much all FREE.
For cheap entertainment visit the Ritz Theater on Wednesdays, where tickets are $6 all day and night. Another excellent Wednesday deal can be found at Helium Comedy Club: buy a drink before 7pm and get a free ticket to that night’s show.
Finally, if you feel compelled to do your patriotic duty, visit the Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall. Entrance to both is free, as are their tours (though Independence Hall recommends you reserve tickets ahead of time, for a fee of $1.50). But don’t go inside–lines are typically long on weekends and in the summer, and the bell can be seen from the outside through a big glass window on Market St. Waiting in line is one of those free activities we’ll leave for the tourists; those of us on a budget know that time is money.
Make for the markets. Eating out on the cheap in Philly is all about wandering through and around the two excellent, old-style markets. Amish meets Italian at the Reading Terminal Market, where some of the most uniquely-American food you might never have tasted is on offer at reasonable prices. Enormous stacks of pancakes will fill your belly for hours on only a few dollars at the Dutch Eating Place. But don’t think Reading Terminal is limited to traditional Pennsylvanian food–everything from cheap Chinese, Middle Eastern, Cajun, Thai, and sushi are on offer.
The 9th Street Italian Market is the oldest outdoor market in America and remains the best and cheapest place to find Italian food in Philadelphia (if not the entire country). Pick up a hoagie, a stromboli, or an iconic cheesesteak.
Speaking of which, Pat’s King of Steaks invented the cheesesteak and at $7 for a massive, whiz-covered sandwich remains one of the most affordable places to stuff your face. Just make sure you learn how to order like a local.
Oscar’s Tavern is dingy and dirty but you can score a massive 23oz domestic for just $3.25 or $6.25 for a lager and a cheesesteak. Also a great place to pick a fight.
$2 PBRs, $3 Tecates, and $5 ‘City-Wides’ (that’s a shot of whiskey in a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, something of a Philly cheapo specialty) make the Barbary one of the cheapest places to shake it in all of Philadelphia.
For the ultimate happy hour hit up Lucy’s Hat Shop, where on Fridays and Saturdays Miller High Lifes go for $1, Twisted Teas $2.50, Sailor Jerry’s $3, and Tuaca shots $4. On Thursdays you can snag a High Life for $0.75 (can you buy anything for three quarters anymore?).
Bus, trolley, and subway fares on SEPTA, Philly’s public transportation system, start at $2 a trip. Buy tokens in packs of two, five, and ten for a discount (a full $4.50–or almost 25%– in savings if you go with the ten pack). Day passes will cost you $7 for eight rides or $11 for unlimited trips, so studying the map and planning ahead to limit yourself to eight rides can save you an easy $4 every day. If you’ll be depending heavily on SEPTA go with the TransPass, which guarantees unlimited rides for $22 weekly or $83 monthly. The TrailPass includes rides on the outlying rail lines, with prices varying upon the zone (the system offers wide coverage of the Philadelphia-Camden metro) with prices starting at $91 for Zone 1.
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Picture by Kevin Burkett via Flickr