If there’s one thing you should know before exploring South Philadelphia, it’s that you need to come hungry. From the Italian Market, to the new restaurants popping up in East Passyunk, to the legendary intersection of 9th and Passyunk hosting the decades–long cheesesteak rivalry between Geno’s and Pat’s, South Philadelphia’s food scene is anything but sparse. However, this full food scene didn’t come from nothing; it sprouted from a rich immigrant history, with many of Philadelphia’s immigrant population growing their own vibrant communities that make South Philadelphia the culturally–rich place it is today. With the plethora of cultural landmarks, festivals, museums, and art, you’re sure to find many ways to burn the calories you’re fated to consume upon your time in South Philly.
For breakfast, which is recommended because you’ll want to have a separate lunch (no brunching here, folks!) there are several options. Head over to Essen Bakery, founded by experienced pastry chef and 2018 James Beard semi–finalist Tova du Plessis, for decadent Jewish baked goods that even your bubbe would approve of. Their babkas are to die for, coming in two different flavors: chocolate halva (a candy made from tahini and sugar) and cinnamon hazelnut. If you’re looking for something more substantive, they offer three kinds of sandwiches: tunisian tuna, salmon, and za’atar, as well as toasts on challah or rye.
While there are a few seats available at Essen, it’s still pretty small. If you’re looking for a sit–down breakfast option for a larger group, Sabrina’s Café in the Italian Market is always a reliable option for the college crowd. Other bakeries serving bread and pastries that are sure to satisfy any morning sugar craving are Sarcone’s Bakery and Isgro Pastries—both mainstays of South Philly for over 100 years now. Sarcone’s breads are ridiculously fresh and fluffy, while Isgro is known for their award–winning cannolis.
Just a six minute walk from Essen Bakery is Theatre Exile, a nonprofit performing arts theatre that is putting on Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree from February 14 to March 10. The catch is that every night a new actor goes on stage “having neither seen nor read a word of the play they’re in … until they’re in it.” If you’re into experimental theatre or looking for a good deal (they give discounts for students!), head over and see what it’s all about. They’ll also be staging another play this May if you’re planning on going in the warmer months.
If sitting still for a while isn’t really your thing, take it upon yourself to explore the beautiful and historically–significant murals that populate the area. To name a few, there’s “Migrating Home” in Passyunk Square, which highlights South Philly’s rich immigrant cultures, “Remembering a Forgotten Hero” at Universal Charter School on Catherine Street, which features activist and educator Octavius Catto, who was assassinated while advocating for black suffrage in 1871, and “History of Passyunk” on 1600 E Passyunk Avenue.
There are also a few museums and galleries that range from exploring the roots of South Philadelphia’s Italian population, to the Mummers, to art from local artists. While you might only see the Mummers on New Years Day strutting down Broad Street and then partying on Two Street, there’s a whole museum dedicated to explaining the history behind the wonderfully flamboyant Mummer performances and costumes. Closer to the Italian Market and Passyunk area is the Fleisher Art Memorial, which encourages community art exploration through classes for children and adults as well as regular art exhibitions and even the occasional opera. Part of the building is built off of a former Episcopalian church that still has the original pulpit, stained glass windows, and bell tower from when it was still functional.
For lunch, head over to the famous corner of 9th and Passyunk Streets and pledge your loyalty to one of Philadelphia’s two cheesesteak giants: Geno’s Steaks or Pat’s King of Steaks. While there are other famous cheesesteak joints like Jim’s, Dalessandro’s, John’s Roast Pork, and more, these two are by far the most notorious and polarizing. While I must say I am biased to Geno’s and keep my loyalty with them, I recommend splitting one cheesesteak from each with a friend to see which is better and determine your preference. Lines are ridiculously long on a weekend at peak lunch times so split up, send one person to each, and meet once you’ve gotten both steaks to ensure a fair comparison.
Walk a couple blocks north on 9th Street to enter the heart of the Italian Market. Explore the many vendors and their unique specialties, including pasta, spices, produce, meats, and cheeses. A personal highlight is the original Di Bruno Bros store with their mouth–watering cured meats and imported cheeses. Do yourself a favor and see this food emporium for yourself!
If you’re not already stuffed and want to experience another cultural cuisine of the area, head over to Pho Ha on 6th and Washington for what is arguably the best and most authentic Pho in South Philly. If Pho isn’t your jam, the menu is filled with other authentic Vietnamese specialties.
For those not in a food coma by now, head over to South Street’s Theatre of Living Arts and take in a show for a fun late–night activity that’ll get your blood pumping.