Literary City Guide | Philadelphia, PA


Let every man or woman here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and with what you are, in Philadelphia, now.
— Russell H. Conwell

Tour Guide: Allison Stadd

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Allison works in social media and writes for the Huffington Post, MediaBistro, The Daily Muse, Ragan.com, and Eater. As Editor in Chief of Philly’s Uwishunu.com for 2+ years, she shared her favorite things about the city every day. She still does so to anyone who will listen!    

Q&A

Relationship to Philadelphia:  Allison moved to Philadelphia to attend Penn 8 years ago and hasn't left.

Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Margaret Atwood

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Marc Vetri

Writing soundtrack: Either the “Soft Hits” station on Slacker, or the “Classical” station on Spotify

Pen or Pencil: Pencil for crosswords, pen for everything else

Coffee or Tea: Both, and lots of it!

Paperback or Hardback: Both, and lots of them!


Good Reads


BOOKSTORES

Book Trader. Book Trader’s two floors of narrow aisles are the perfect place to wander through and discover something wonderful and unexpected to read -- often for just a few bucks.

Mostly Books. The Queen Village location of this store is really more of a warehouse with a selection of 50,000 books housed in 5,000 square feet of rehabbed 19th century workshops and stables. It’s hard to walk out without purchasing an armful.

Book Corner. The Friends of the Free Library’s book shop -- yup, located on a corner -- offers books, records, and CDs 60-90% off list price. The best part is knowing your purchase helps the city’s beleaguered public library system.

LIBRARIES

Free Library’s Central Library. The cornerstore of Philadelphia’s library system is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s main cultural artery. The grand Beaux-Arts building, open since 1927, holds an incredibly vast collection that satisfies any literary interest. It’s fun to climb the cramped iron spiral staircases in some of the reading rooms to access the narrow second-tier balcony of additional bookcases.

The Library Company of Philadelphia. This independent research library was the country’s first public library, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. Still open to the public and free of charge, the Library Company houses rare books, manuscripts, broadsides, prints, photographs, and works of art related to American history and culture.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Penn’s Van Pelt-Dietrich. One of the most incredible experiences, if you’re a word nerd like me, is handling with your bare hands the original work of literary greats. This collection is worthy of museum standing, yet somehow lets you touch and smell its texts as if it’s a bookstore. Special gems include Jonathan Swift’s manuscripts, 17th century cookbooks, and pamphlets from the French Revolution.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Library. This is one of the largest family history libraries in the country, but it also houses 350 years’ worth of materials on the nation’s founding second only to the Library of Congress -- including the first draft of the Constitution and a letter by George Washington.

READINGS & CONFERENCES

First Person Arts. First Person Arts’ twice-monthly StorySlams give a voice to amateur and professional storytellers alike, and the annual First Person Arts Festival brings huge names like Sonia Sanchez and Margot Leitman to the city for workshops and readings each fall.

215 Festival. Philadelphia’s literary arts festival has hosted some of today’s most interesting writers, including Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, George Saunders, and John Hodgman. After taking a hiatus, it returned last fall -- I hope it’s here to stay!

Free Librarys Author Events Series. The clout of one of the country’s largest library systems brings an impressive slate of authors to town throughout the year. I’ve seen Jennifer Weiner, Anne Rice, Jonathan Safran Foer, John Irving -- the list goes on. The readings are often free, too.

Kelly Writers House. Penn’s writing center is open to the public and hosts frequent literary-themed exhibits, book clubs, and readings. The center also posts video and audio recordings of its events that you can access on its website.

Bloomsday at the Rosenbach Museum. You can’t mention “book reading” in Philly and not include the Rosenbach’s annual Bloomsday celebration. A roster of city notables, from the mayor to radio hosts, takes turns reading all 1,000+ pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses in an open-air, all-day festival outside the museum.


“In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?”

― Mark Twain


OTHER FINDS

Edgar Allan Poe House: This is where Poe lived while he wrote “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Gold Bug,” and more of his iconic tales. Preserved by the National Park Service, the site is a must-visit for book lovers.

Pearl S. Buck House: Outside the city in Bucks County, the Pearl S. Buck House at Green Hills Farm honors the first woman to receive both the Novel and Pulitzer Prizes for literature. This is where she wrote most of her 120 books.

Rosenbach Museum & Library: This 1860s rowhouse holds the personal collection of famous art and rare book dealers the Rosenbach brothers, including the original manuscript of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 10,000 rare editions and drawings by Maurice Sendak, notes and outlines of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, first editions of Don Quixote, and much more.

Narberth Dickens Festival: Every year, this suburban Philadelphia neighborhood hosts a family-friendly Dickens Festival featuring costumed characters (think Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit), horse and carriage rides, Victorian carolers, and more.

Good Eats


COFFEE SHOPS

Rival Bros. This mobile coffee truck is docked in West Philly Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

Ultimo Coffee. Named #1 Coffee Shop in America by DailyMeal, Ultimo serves Counter Culture coffee hand-poured using filtered water and served with creamy local Lancaster County milk.

La Colombe. La Colombe supplies top coffee roasts to the best restaurants and gourmet outlets in the country. Co-founder Todd Carmichael was named one of Esquire’s “Top 20 Americans of the Year” in 2011 and starred in his own Travel Channel show called Dangerous Grounds.

A PROPER MEAL

Zahav. Chef Mike Solomonov's modern Israeli menu is absolutely delicious and somehow still affordable. Don’t leave without trying the Turkish hummus made with butter and grilled garlic and served with fresh-out-of-the-oven laffa bread.

Barbuzzo. The buzz about this place is all true. It’s super busy every day of the week, but the wait is worth it for Chef Marcie Turney’s pizzas, pastas, and Mediterranean plates. Order the salted caramel budino for dessert -- you may never enjoy any other dessert ever again.

John’s Roast Pork. Little-known fact: Philly was actually known first for its hoagies and roast pork sandwiches, rather than cheesesteaks. This is where to go for the best in town (they’ve got cheesesteaks, too).

Pizza Brain. The world’s first pizza museum also dishes up extremely tasty pies with inventive topping combos like mozzarella, sun-dried tomato, arugula, and honey goat cheese.

Federal Donuts. Fried chicken + gourmet donuts + custom-blend coffee. Enough said.

TREATS

Little Baby’s Ice Cream: Next door to Pizza Brain, Little Baby’s crafts homemade, locally sourced ice cream in quirky flavors like Blueberry Ginger, Birch Beer Vanilla Bean, Coconut Chai, Chocolate Teriyaki and Rosemary Gingerbread.

Isgro Pastries Cannoli. The cannoli here are the favorite choice of Philly’s iconic Italian chef Marc Vetri. The shells are crisp, and the ricotta strikes the perfect balance between sweet and savory.

Square Burger’s Tastykake Cake Shake. Famed restaurateur Stephen Starr went casual a few years back with this burger shack in Franklin Square park. The Tastykake milkshake is a cult favorite.

Rita’s Water Ice. Philly’s classic “wooder ice” -- Italian ice -- is the perfect refreshing treat on a hot summer day, in fun flavors like Swedish fish and Georgia peach. It’s a chain now, but it started in the Philly area.

Reading Terminal Market. This must-visit food bazaar has been around since 1892, with more than 80 merchants selling everything from steaming hot Chinese food from around-the-corner Chinatown to authentic Amish eats like homemade shoofly pie and buttery soft pretzels. When you’re craving something sweet, it’s a great place to browse for treats: Bassett’s ice cream, Famous 4th Street cookies, Termini Brothers Italian pastries, Flying Monkey cupcakes, and more.

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Allison's 5 Favorites


1. Favorite bookstore. Book Trader. This 30-year-old institution in Old City is brimming with gently used books on every subject from military history and romance to true crime and chick lit. The staff is knowledgeable but not pretentious, and friendly but not bothersome.

2. Favorite place to write. Elixr Coffee has free wifi, lots of outlets, wide tables with plenty of room for back-to-back laptops, and excellent single-origin hand-poured coffee. It's also completely eco-friendly, from the bar counter to the cups.

3. Favorite museum. Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The under-sung nearby little sibling of the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art displays some of the institutions more contemporary and cutting-edge collections. The Art Deco architecture is stunning, and it's quieter and arguably more special viewing experience.

4. Favorite coffee shop.  My favorite coffee shop is actually a coffee truck called Rival Bros. Started by one of the city's favorite chefs and his childhood friend, an artisanal coffee expert, Rival Bros is basically a coffee shop on wheels with a custom roaster, built-in pour-over stations, and top-notch Italian equipment.

5. Favorite thing about Philly. Walkability. You can get anywhere in Philly by foot or bike in 25 minutes or less. It has the culture, restaurant scene, and diversity of any major city but in a more manageable size.