A weekend in South Philly, where everything old is new again
South Philadelphia is a neighborhood in a city that knows no limits for having fun. Where in another city revelers might get rowdy in the streets, here they actually climb the telephone poles. The city-sponsored “Crisco cops” have to smear shortening on the neighborhood’s telephone poles after big sporting events to prevent climbing—and after the Eagles won the Superbowl last year, no amount of grease would keep the people down.
Historically an Italian neighborhood (memorialized in Rocky), South Philly’s vibe is now more Carroll Gardens circa 2004, when Frankies 457 opened but when the bathtub virgins were still a normal sight. The residential streets open up into restaurant row in a blink of an eye and you really need a local to show you around. (My friend Erin has lived here for 12 years, now with her husband and dog, and is the reason I stumbled into anything other than a sports bar.)
Spend the day exploring the quirky but astonishing Barnes Foundation nearby, then gear up for a long night of Philly fun. A social club has been converted to one of the trendiest speakeasy bars and an Italian restaurant with opera singers provides the nostalgia of a piano bar, but with much better food. Sandwiched in between are more delicious destinations and a rooftop bar that has all the views with none of the douchery that would be prevalent in NYC. There’s a lesson here about neighborhood changes that take into consideration the existing community and strive to retain what makes the area so special in the first place. The morning after, your head may feel as cracked as the Liberty Bell, but chances are you’ll want to do it all over again the next night.
What to do
Regardless of where you land on the museum-going spectrum, from all the time to hardly ever, Barnes should be a priority on your weekend itinerary. This museum, which is a short Uber trip from the South Philly neighborhood, is an awe-inspiring, gaping-mouth of a gallery. The amount of time that you plan to spend here should be doubled to take in the exhibit of over 900 paintings worth over $25 billion dollars. It was founded in 1922 by Albert Barnes, the developer of a gonorrhea medication (you can’t make this stuff up!) who collected works of Impressionists, Post Impressionists, and Modernists by all of the greats: Monet, Manet, Matisse, Cezanne, and Van Gogh to name just a few. The collection includes 181 paintings by Renoir and 46 by Picasso, for instance. This would be wildly impressive for any museum, but what makes this permanent exhibit even more unique is the methodology Barnes insisted on using to hang the art—the wall ensembles, where every square inch of each room is covered with paintings and random metal bric-brac—things like a fork, a decorative iron, or a ladel. A Degas might be sandwiched between a piece of anonymous Native American art and an antiquity from China. The full history of the museum including its lawsuits and bylaws (for instance, none of the pieces are ever allowed to be loaned out) is fascinating and deserving of a deeper dive. Allow yourself time to wander and let your eyes adjust, otherwise, you run the risk of “Masters fatigue,” seeing too much great work all in one sitting.
Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Admission: $25 adults, college students/ youth: $5, children 12 and under: free.
Where to eat & drink
If you are anywhere near South Philly, people will ask you if you’ve been to Bok Bar. This seasonal rooftop bar has views for days and is roomy enough to hold even the largest parties. A similar kind of place in NYC would be full of investment bankers and cover charges, where Bok Bar is actually fun. It doesn’t take reservations, so depending on the time, there might have a line, but it’s worth it for a casual vibe that encourages relaxing with an IPA and taking in the sunset. Located on top of a vocational school that closed in 2013, the space functions as a sort of maker space with 340,000 square feet dedicated to rug weavers, jewelry designers, and letterpress artists. It would probably be worth spending time visiting the businesses (a partial list found here) or checking out the year-round restaurants in the space if it’s too cold for the bar. Bok Bar, 800 Mifflin St.
South Philly does everything their way, and that also goes for dim sum. It might not be authentic, but the “two dudes from Philly” behind Bing Bing are not trying to be. They’re just trying to make cook what they like to eat, and that includes soup dumplings, rice bowls, spicy dan dan noodles, and drunken mussels. The food is tasty and addictive. Your group may continue to order long past the feeling of satiation, but save room for the inventive cocktails like a pitcher of Emma’s Adult Juice (bourbon, mango, hibiscus, lime, and bitters). Bing Bing Dim Sum, 1648 E. Passyunk Ave.
There is nothing more festive than sitting in a beautiful restaurant with friends, sharing plates of tiny things. Barcelona is an everyday restaurant that also manages to feel like a special occasion. This is a mini chain with a few locations across the country. This shouldn’t stop you from visiting. Exposed wooden beams, raw wood tables, polished concrete floors and plants make for a cozy interior and a giant patio is a great place to spend a fall evening. Tapas and paella are on the menu and you could easily spend the entire night sipping cava over some jamón or manchego. There are many other places to go, though, so don’t linger too long. Barcelona, 1709 E. Passyunk Ave.
Anxious for a piece of Philadelphia history? This establishment has been in operation and family run since 1918. Once a gramophone shop, The Victor Cafe opened its doors as a restaurant and bar after the Prohibition laws were lifted, serving up “classic eats with a side order of Opera.” The menu and decor look like a classic red-sauce joint: checkered tablecloths, tin ceilings, and clams casino style. (The exterior was even used for the Rocky movies.) But the difference is that the food here is supposed to also be excellent. I wouldn’t know, because by the time we came here (late!), we had to beg our bartender for one single aria before the upstairs velvet trimmed lounge closed. The talented waitstaff comes from all over the city, singing every twenty minutes or so, setting a romantic/kitschy vibe for the table. (Make a reservation for dinner.) The Victor Cafe, 1303 Dickinson St.
The first rule of Messina Social Club is: Don’t talk about Messina Social Club. This reincarnation of a neighborhood social club is now one of the hottest bars you can’t get into. Memberships started at $25 a year, and those who’ve paid their dues can bring up to three friends in with them and stay as late as 3am. Founded by Top Chef alum, Jason Cichonski, this is the second private social club to introduced to a new generation in Philadelphia. You literally won’t be able to get in unless you come with a member, but luckily, Philly is a very friendly town. The music is good, the cocktails are great, but the late-night menu option (tomato pie) that we tried fell short. At 3am, though, why would anyone care? Messina Social Club, 1533 S. 10th St.
Where to sleep
The best option for staying in South Philly is to have a friend who lives there and stay in their guest room. Our friends own a massive (by Brooklyn standards) townhouse with a guest room— and a yard—because it’s a city that actually has affordable housing. (In fact, you just might want to buy your own townhouse instead of staying in Brooklyn where you’ll never be able to own and will always be a renter!) There are no hotel options in South Philadelphia, so if you need a hotel to feel like you’re on vacation, you should choose from the glut of options in Center City. Otherwise, you can find some adorable and affordable Airbnbs that will just be a quick stumble home after the last call. (This two bedroom, two bathroom WITH ROOF DECK is only $53/night…can you take it?)
How to get there
A car ride from Brooklyn to South Philadelphia only takes about 2 hours without traffic. A Bolt Bus or Greyhound travels from midtown taking around 2 hours but costing only around $10-$20 roundtrip. Trains travel from Penn Station to Philadelphia in 1 and a half hours (tickets around $50 and up).