At this point, odds are you've heard the buzz about Philadelphia; it's been lauded by The New Times, called the "Next Great American City" by National Geographic Traveler and even name-checked as "cool" on the WB's "Gilmore Girls."
The national attention comes as no surprise to Philly's 1.5 million residents - we've always known Philadelphia was cool. How else to describe a city that gave birth to the Mummers, a group of working-class dudes that don feathered costumes, lipstick and sequins for an elaborate annual New Year's Day parade down Broad Street, the city's main, um, drag?
In recent years, Philadelphia's quirky traditions, world-renowned cultural institutions and rich history have drawn people of every stripe to Center City, and the locals continue to maintain the character of the city's neighborhoods: historical Society Hill, Italian Bella Vista, charming Rittenhouse Square, Chinatown, punky South Street, crunchy West Philly, each of them blocks - and worlds - apart. The result is a city that's vibrant and eclectic, worldly and provincial.
And therein lies the secret of Philadelphia's coolness. From the cobblestone streets of Old City, where Ben Franklin impersonators stroll between art galleries, hip restaurants and boutiques on their way to the Liberty Bell (often stopping to gab on their cell phones or gnaw on a hoagie, in true period fashion) to the far side of the Schuylkill River, where students at the University of Pennsylvania study in restaurants owned by Ethiopian expatriates, Philadelphia is and always has been a study in contrasts. It is a sprawling city and a small town, a place where the past and the future coexist and a uniquely American city that truly holds something for everyone.
Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance is still going strong - new places open practically monthly. But if you only have a few days, you'll want to make sure you hit the best ones. So Philadelphia Inquirer's Craig LaBan - one of the most influential and feared restaurant critics in the country - tells us his three current favorites by price range.
Haute Couture: Bon Appétit recently called Vetri "probably the best Italian restaurant in America." When you're in town, LaBan recommend's chef Marc Vetri's prosciutto: The house-aged rib chop, seared with rock salt in a cast-iron pan, is "the greatest single slice of beef in town." 1312 Spruce St., (215) 732-3478; dinner only, call for reservations; entrées: $18-$38 www.vetriristorante.com
Gourmet: "[Southwark] is an excellent, new-ish Queen Village gastropub with a very ambitious menu - roast pheasant, grilled rabbit, sweetbreads with blue cheese bread pudding - that really delivers," says LaBan. 701 S. Fourth St., (215) 238-1888; entrées: $20 or less
Good ?n' Cheap: The colonial awning, dark cherrywood tables and warm lighting of Vietnam Restaurant give this local favorite an ambience not often seen in Chinatown. Plus, Vietnam's grilled stuffed grape leaves have quelled wars - or at least arguments over what to order for an appetizer. 221 N. 11th St., (215) 592-1163; entrees: $8-$14; www.eatatvietnam.com
Philadelphia Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross makes it his business to know the city's hottest nightspots. He let us in on the best places to get cocktails with a side of scoop.
The Hottest Spot: 32 Degrees is "a favorite of high-rolling athletes and beautiful women," says Gross. "Dress is chic, the soundtrack is hip-hop and dance, and for those who like to be seen spending mad cash, there's European bottle service." 16 S. Second St., (215) 627-3132; www.32lounge.com
The Rockin' Spot: The Khyber. "This venerable rock institution is a stone's throw from 32 Degrees, but it's a mile apart inside. You can catch hot indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie playing downstairs. SNL's Horatio Sanz dropped by when he was in town," Gross notes. 56 S. Second St., (215) 238-5888; www.thekhyber.com
The Sports Spot: Chickie's & Pete's. "This sports bar is a favorite of Bon Jovi's," say Gross; the rocker got it featured on Oprah. "Order the amazing crab fries and a tall tap of beer for your table - and drink fast to keep it cold." 1526 Packer Ave., (215) 218-0500; www.chickiesandpetes.com
As Philadelphia Magazine's resident shopping expert, Lauren McCutcheon spends her days scouring shops for just the right thing. She knows she can always find it at these places.
Modern/Minimalist: "Matthew Izzo's new store is like a giant white box, outfitted with Jonathan Adler couches, vases and tables, splashy modern art, and shelves of Izzo's own deliciously scented candles," McCutcheon gushes. Matthew Izzo Lifestyle, 1109 Walnut St., (215) 922-2570; www.matthewizzo.com
Fun/Funky: "There are so many cool boutiques in Old City, but this is the one that started it all," McCutcheon says of Vagabond. The owners sell locally made clothing and art, funky-chic jewelry and accessories (like adorable clutches and purses) and knitting materials. "It's one-stop shopping for the boho fashionista." 37 N. Third St., (267) 671-0737; www.vagabondboutique.com
Body/Mind: "OK, this isn't technically a shop, but what's a vacation if you can't unwind?" ponders McCutcheon. She calls Rescue Rittenhouse Spa Lounge the ideal day spa: "Slightly hidden, cozy but spare, completely serene ... the best facials, best massages, best mani/pedis, best makeovers - really, the best of everything." 255 S. 17th St., Second floor; (215) 772-2766; www.rescuerittenhousespa.com