A (Christmas) Weekend in Philadelphia
Winter markets, great food, and holiday lights in the home of Rocky and the Constitution
I’m a native New Yorker who grew up with the Rockefeller Christmas tree, the Macy’s Day Parade, and waiting to visit the “real” Santa at the Daily News Building. I grew up in Brooklyn, where the local Guarino Funeral Home (yes — a funeral home), would put up a stunning animated Christmas display, long before Clark Griswold attempted to light his Chicago suburban home.
Living in Miami, Christmas is very different. Although there are some pop-up bars and a few holiday “theme parks”, they seem inauthentic except for the very real (and amazing) Krampus Nacht at the German-American Club about an hour north of the Magic City.
So, each year in December, I set off in search of a city that does a good Christmas. I’ve traveled to Door County (Wisconsin), Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., London, and Paris in the past few years.
This year I chose Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love might be the most underrated city for food and Christmas lights: it boasts neighborhoods that go all out in decorating, two festive markets, several holiday pop-up bars, and Julie Andrews narrating a Christmas light show at Macy’s. Not to mention the amazing food. If you want to hang with Santa, Rocky Balboa, and Ben Franklin, here’s where to go.
Where to Stay
Like most cities, you’ll find many hotels in every budget, but I love the Kimpton Hotel Monaco. Here, you’ll be greeted with a glass of champagne on arrival. Your room will have a “Rocky” inspired robe and (hopefully) a view of Independence Hall, where the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Liberty Bell is also directly across the street. The hotel’s Red Owl Tavern does a good burger, if you get in late, and the hotel is centrally located in Old City, just a few blocks from the Betsy Ross House, City Hall, and Reading Terminal Market.
Where to Eat
Located in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, VIlla Di Roma is an old-school, classic red sauce Italian joint that’s completely no-frills. The restaurant is open for lunch (unless it’s not, as I learned) and doesn’t serve food at the bar (unless it does like in my case where they took pity on me, I guess). None of that matters once your plate of rigatoni and meatballs arrives. Just that first scent of slightly tart tomato sauce was enough to bring me straight home to Canarsie — if you know, you know — true Italian red sauce can only be had in homes and a few restaurants that have been around for ages. Bring cash, because cards aren’t accepted (told ya it was old school).
The first time I visited Reading Terminal Market, I think I must have cried a few tears of joy. This bustling market inside the former Reading Railroad Terminal is both farmers market and food hall (but it’s so much more). Here, locals shop for fresh meat and produce at stands run by Amish families who travel daily from their farms in Lancaster. There’s also freshly baked breads, hot sauce, candies, seafood, honey, and more. The market is also home to many mini restaurants where you can get everything from bialys and oysters to pastrami sandwiches and cheesesteaks. I like Carmen’s for cheesesteaks and DiNic’s for brisket. Plan to spend a few hours at this foodie nirvana because you’re going to want to eat your way through an entire afternoon.
The best thing about chef/restaurateur Michael Solomonov is his commitment to quality whether we’re talking about his award-winning Zahav or simply snagging a doughnut at Federal Donuts (of which there are several throughout the city). K’Far, located in tony Rittenhouse Square, is a bright, pastel-colored place to get breakfast and lunch. The restaurant does sandwiches on Jerusalem bagels, along with some gorgeous pastries - the lemon babka is simply to die for. The only drawback is the lack of free WiFi (why, Michael, why?) but if you’re lucky you can get onto Target’s WiFi, which is located right around the corner — or simply enjoy your lunch lo-fi.
It’s no secret that Pastis remains one of my favorite restaurants. If you like Pastis, you’ll love Parc - another charming (and bustling) Parisian bistro that (like Pastis) offers fantastic French onion soup, fresh oysters, and an outstanding chicken paillard — all by Stephen Starr. On a brisk and breezy Monday afternoon, the bar was filled with people happily enjoying soup, spritzers, and conversation under sprigs of holly and boughs of evergreens festooned in lights.
Chef/restaurateur Michael Schulson just opened this chic French bar that served me my favorite cocktail of 2023 — the Plum Blossom 75 is (as you might guess), a take on a French 75, but made with Damson plum gin, which gives the cocktail a subtle tartness and a gorgeous light purple hue. For food, my mushroom tart was buttery and rich and my salmon, smoked at the table, was perfection. It was one of my most memorable meals of 2023.
Where to Drink
If you like an old bar in an alley that screams “Santa just tossed his cookies here”, then you’re gonna love McGillin’s. This is a Philadelphia institution — it’s been around since 1860 — and is beloved by both locals and tourists alike. At Christmas, the place is decorated to the max, leading me to believe that it’s the OG of Christmas pop-up bars long before there were “Miracle” and “Frosty’s”. Get here (be prepared to wait in the alley) and hoist a pint of one of 30 Pennsylvania-brewed beers on tap - you can’t get better than this. You simply can’t.
Just across the street from Love Park, the Uptown Beer Garden transforms into a multi-themed Christmas village (with alcohol). Take your pick: Tiki Santa with Flamingos, Grinchmas with the Whos, Christmas Vacation, Heat Miser and Snow Miser, and the Polar Express are all here in separate indoor/outdoor spaces.
A magic-themed bar might sound kitschy, but somehow Cauldron is more of a hangout for local magical beings. Yes, there are giant drinks served on bubbling cauldrons. There are cocktails named after mythical creatures and magical Christmas-themed libations — all made by super-friendly bartenders who will make you feel at home.
You’ve seen wine-o-matic bars — so meet a beer-o-matic bar! This is a great place for trying a bunch of beers without driving your beertender insane. Choose from about three dozen taps and pour as you like with the card you’re given. You can do short pours and tastes before you commit to a pint or two. Take your beer to one of the swings and enjoy!
What to Do (Christmas Edition)
Philadelphia boasts two different holiday markets: The Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market takes over City Hall’s grounds. It features an ice skating rink, a Biergarten, an indoor cafe, a two-tiered carousel of fantastic creatures, and holiday shopping. There’s also mulled wine, craft beer, and Starbucks for sale (and a few food vendors). Directly across the street, Love Park hosts the Philadelphia Christmas Village where you can chow down on raclette and strudel, drink mulled wine, listen to carolers, and shop for German ornaments.
Each year for one magical month, the residents of the 1600 block of 13th Street get together and make Christmas magic. People travel near and far to drive through this magical street, but the best way to experience it is on foot. Miracle also hosts toy drives and collects for charities. Expect to see Santa, the Grinch or even snow on this magical street that simply cannot be missed.
For about half a century, there’s been a free holiday light show in the building that first houses Wanamaker’s and now Macy’s. The show uses more than 100,000 LED lights to tell the story of the Nutcracker, Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman — all narrated by Julie Andrews and accompanied by a giant grand organ!