The first thing visitors discover about Philadelphia is that it's a walking town. You'll find most places are within a mile of City Hall. Stroll on pleasant, tree-lined streets that display a rich mix of architecture ranging from Colonial to Victorian to Bauhaus, sometimes all presented within the same block. Each street connects to smaller and smaller streets and alleyways that hide small groups of houses, clever gardens, footnotes to American history and good coffee spots to take a rest. Downtown Philadelphia is referred to as Center City, but within this area there are even more neighborhoods.
Start your visit with the neighborhood around Independence Hall. This is where the Liberty Bell rang out and where the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written and signed. Sit under a tree in the gardens. Mail postcards home from Benjamin Franklin's Post Office (besides everything else, he was the first Postmaster General). This area is Society Hill, where you can tour Independence National Park, then do some shopping and have a cocktail at an intimate bar; then head up the block to a play, concert, or movie; then discuss the show over a late dinner and head out again to hear live music, all within a few blocks.
North of Market Street is Old City, which is Philadelphia's version of New York's Soho, with wonderful restaurants like Chlöe and Cuba Libre, small art galleries like Gallery Joe and a growing number of theaters and performance spaces like Painted Bride; this is the fashionable young hip scene in all its shades.
East of Old City, along the Delaware River, Penn's Landing is a backdrop for outdoor festivals and free summer concerts, as well as fireworks on holidays. Or you can take a ferry across the river to the aquarium. In the summer, open-air clubs north of the Ben Franklin Bridge (such as Dave and Busters or the River Deck) take advantage of the breathtaking view.
West of Old City, between 8th and 13th Streets, is Chinatown. These days Chinatown is about half Chinese and half a combination of Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Burmese and Pan-Asian, and rivals any Chinatown in the country. It's also home to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Reading Terminal Market.
On the west end of Center City is the fashionable Rittenhouse Square district, where you can buy great clothing and then wear it to dinner at the place next door (possibly Monk's Cafe or Alma De Cuba). Lovers of the offbeat might venture into the Mütter Museum, a veritable cavalcade of creepy medical mysteries.
Avenue of the Arts
Broad Street, south of City Hall, is the Avenue of the Arts. The orchestra, the ballet and the Wilma, Gershman, and Prince theaters all reside here, interspersed with great restaurants and jazz clubs. Modeled on Parisian boulevards, the Ben Franklin Parkway presents a wonderful, tree-lined walk past Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, several expensive hotels, the main Library and several museums. At the end of the Parkway, atop a hill, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This is where rich Italian history and new communities of Vietnamese and Thai are just the tips of the iceberg when it comes to great dining. Cantina El Caballito brings the spice, Horizons caters to forward-thinking vegans, and the old Italian Market has got a little something for everyone.
Across the Schuykill River in West Philly, the University of Pennsylvania and six other major schools are the centerpiece of a deep blend of students, immigrants and old neighborhoods. Take in some art at the Institute of Contemporary Art and then take in some grub at White Dog Cafe.
And north of Old City, this is the "new frontier" of the hip scene. The Standard Tap will take care of your eating-and-drinking needs, and Johnny Brenda's will keep you entertained into the wee hours with its packed concert calendar. For dancing, head for Transit or the Barbary. After that, Silk City Diner at 5th and Spring Garden is the place to go for a grilled cheese sandwich at 4am Sunday morning or the best huevos rancheros for breakfast.