It began on a windless but chilly Saturday morning on a block in Queen Village, sandwiched between a row of sex toy shops and pre–teens selling Girl Scout cookies. I heavily consider buying two boxes—one of Samoas and one of Tagalongs—but, ultimately, decide against it. After all, I didn’t come here to fuel my cookie addiction. I came here to eat donuts.
The Philadelphia Downtown Donut Tour, an offshoot of the hit Chicago series, spans a 1.2 mile stretch from the heart of Queen Village—South Street—to the stomach of Philadelphia, Reading Terminal Market. Using the city’s vibrant history, food trivia, and eclectic storefronts to fill the space in between doughnuts, tour guide Neil crafts a Philly narrative that’s not about doughnuts, but tied together by them.
The tour, which runs on Saturdays and Sundays every weekend, begins at a Federal Donuts, started by restaurateurs Steven Cook (W ’95) and Michael Solomonov. Neil explained in a room drenched in scents of vanilla, maple, and childhood that the pair of owners merely stumbled upon half of Federal Donuts' menu. Their fried chicken, cuts of white meat glazed with the same care as their donuts, arose from experimentation, aimed to turn Federal Donuts into something more than a run–of–the–mill doughnuttery. Neil then invites us to peer over the counter and into the kitchen, where fresh, piping hot donuts are made. Simplifying a process that would probably stymie even the most dedicated Engineering student, Neil paints the Federal Donut kitchen with rich imagery and kid–like wonder, making me feel like an extra in Willy Wonka.
We split cinnamon brown sugar donuts and fortify our stomachs for the rest of the tour. The donut tastes like autumn, with undertones of spice cloaking the brown sugar flavor. The texture is wonderful, too—soft yet slightly chewy. I decide it’s my favorite donut before trying the other ones, and sneak an extra half into my purse.
Neil takes us on a roundabout walk to our next destination and vegan cornerstone, Dottie’s Donuts. On the way there, we pause in front of Jim’s Steaks, one of the original Philly Cheesesteak giants. Neil rattles off fun facts like it’s his job (literally, it is) explaining that, much like New York’s hero, the cheesesteak is the food of Philly’s working class. A favorite among cab drivers, the sandwich grew via word–of–mouth. Somewhere in this tangent, Neil slips in that “Philadelphia invented the hot dog,” because he “read about it in his texts.” I imagine our tour guide slumped over a textbook in a dimly lit library, poring over the history of America’s favorite pseudo–sandwich. It’s been about a half hour, and I’m jonesing again. Where is my second donut?
We arrive at Dottie’s, a hole–in–the–wall with a history so punk rock it should vend at Warped Tour. The product of a vegan’s creativity, Dottie’s represents the future of Philly, where traditions breed innovation. We split the daily specials, which are typically announced on the shop’s Instagram. One was a cookies and cream variety that tasted like getting your hand caught in the cookie jar—sweet yet mischievous, thanks to a surprisingly doughy center. The other was ginger–flavored, and tasted exactly like you’d expect it to: refreshing, with a punchy aftertaste.
We begin winding our way toward Center City proper, with Neil showing us the important stuff—James Madison’s brownstone, the Mother Bethel A.M.E. church. At this point, I’ve realized that silly, misquoted Ralph Emerson saying is true: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. The Philadelphia Downtown Donut Tour isn’t about the donuts; it’s about the community that makes them. It’s about the family splitting a box of doughnuts a block away from Federal, the daughter smearing frosting on her nose. It’s about the lovely cashier at Dottie’s, who arranges the goods specifically for photos. It’s about the love so endemic to Philly, and the doughnuts it produces.
We arrive at our third location, Sweet Charlie’s. A purveyor of Thai rolled ice cream in both virgin and alcoholic varieties, nearly every person on the tour was confused and hangry. Despite all the pervasive sentiments about love and community, this is a donut tour. The people signed up for donuts, not pasty ice cream.
Rest assured, Sweet Charlie’s delivered. The team whipped up versions of the Tall Charlie—an oversized ice cream roll, slathered in condensed milk and sandwiched between two oblong glazed donuts. Fresh out the oven, the doughnuts melt the ice cream just slightly, making the whole experience reminiscent of french toast a la mode. It’s sticky, sweet, messy, and all around delicious, making it the highlight of the tour.
Finally, we amble our way through the hustle and bustle of the Fashion District to the hotspot of tourists, foodies, and people who thrive in crowds everywhere—Reading Terminal Market. Neil corrals us through the space with surprising precision, weaving us through selfie sticks and long lines. He paints the Market’s history in sweeping strokes, giving it an arc full of character development. It’s gone from construction nightmare to tourist destination to the final stop on our donut tour. We huddle in a corner, eating Beiler’s signature blueberry fritters. Dense yet airy, with an evenly distributed layer of blueberries, the fritter concludes the tour impactfully.
Overall, the Philadelphia Downtown Donut Tour rewrites Philly’s history to include not just donuts, but the essence of the city itself. Book a trip if you’re a donut enthusiast, a history buff, or someone looking to fall in love with Philly again and again.
Philadelphia Downtown Donut Tour
Queen Village | Old City | Center City
Sat — Sun: 11 a.m. — 1 p.m.