Much like its favorite son, Rocky, the city of Philadelphia often seems to be underestimated. Primarily known for cheese steaks and the Liberty Bell, Philly probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of creative cocktails, gorgeous architecture, flower-filled parks, or edgy public art installations . . . or, you know, funky light fixtures and romantic outdoor weddings. But my sister Trina and I found all that and more during our springtime visit to the City of Gluttony Love.
1. Double-Secret Prohibition
Philly's got a great speakeasy culture, and there's no better place to do a little cloak-and-dagger drinking than at Hop Sing Laundromat.
Named one of the 30 greatest bars in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, Hop Sing is housed behind a nondescript door on a seedy block lined Chinese takeout joints.
Run by an international man of mystery known simply as Lê, Hop Sing has no phone, no internet . . . and absolutely no photos, as they are strictly prohibited.
After handing your ID over to Lê -- dressed quite nattily, as you are also expected to be -- you must then wait patiently in the holding pen while he disappears with it. Is he making a copy to sell to underage college students? Checking for speeding tickets? Adding you to his list of what he refers to as "imperialist Americans"? No one knows, but the list of banned patrons reportedly contains 1,700 names, so it's not just for show.
Make that 1,702.
2. Scratch That Itch
Lots of cities have beautiful gardens, and Philadelphia is no exception.
But I bet very few of them have an STD garden.
I don't know much about plants, but it's looking like poison ivy is the least of my worries.
3. Can You Hear Me Now?
Philadelphia has some awesome public art, both small . . .
. . . and large . . .
and sized just right.
But you didn't hear that from me.
4. With a Cherry on Top
Washington, D.C. puts on an extravaganza of pink petals every spring, but Philly isn't far behind.
But instead of ringing a reservoir as they do in D.C., Philly's cherry blossoms form blush-colored canopies over charming, colonial-era alleyways.
And don't even get me started on those creamy white apple blossoms.
5. Oui ou Yo
It's a little-known fact that Paris and Philadelphia are sister cities. Both revere cheese; both have storied pasts; and citizens of both cities speak English with a foreign accent. Oh, and both have some of the most beautiful doors I've ever seen.
6. Let's Get Lit
I've long speculated that Philly's funky outdoor art is proof that the pot is better here than elsewhere. But throw in their crazy-town blingy bulbs, and I think we can put all speculation to rest.
I mean, Oscar de la Hoya on a neon motorcycle? Come on.
7. Here Comes the Bride
As we strolled around the city, we saw not one but three different beautiful brides. Maybe there was a Groupon?
8. Say Cheese
Philly is known for its cheese steaks, but don't think you have to confine yourself to a bun to get in on the action.
But it certainly doesn't hurt.
9. I'll Take Mine With a Twizzle Stick
New York City has snooty mixologists who demand to be treated like serious chefs; Philly has Stephen Starr, the man who thought cocktails would be more fun if they came garnished with Lucky Charms and Twizzlers. He thought right.
Of course, if you're feeling a little fancier, there's always the blackberry bramble at Del Frisco's; the All the Way Mae at Rouge (think gin, strawberries, and basil); or the fruity frozen margaritas as El Vez.
Or, if you're saving room for a third cheese steak, consider combining cocktail hour with dessert and have the Bananas Foster milkshake with Gosling's rum at the Marathon Grill.
I'm considering having my tonsils removed just so I can live on these for a week without having to explain myself.
10. The Holy Grail of Gastronomic Gluttony
Of course, no visit to Philly (or to the East Coast, really) would be complete without a stop at the Reading Terminal Market. Not only is it the best market in the city, it would be the best market in virtually any city. Where else can you find everything from Philly classics like pork rolls and tomato pie to gargantuan cupcakes and massive pork shanks?
Honorable Mention: Most Obscene Use of Butter Since "Last Tango in Paris"
Making a sticky bun is like working a tanker truck's worth of butter into a blob of dough the size of a Ping-Pong ball, and Beiler's Donuts at Reading Terminal Market affords a front-row seat to all the, um, heart-stopping action.
By the time the kneader is done, every square inch of the place is dripping in butter, and the kneader looks like he's just finished a butter-wrestling match. (Which should totally be an Olympic sport.)
At least that explains why they have that glass between the kneader and the spectators.
11. Lunch for the Swing Set
Whimsical Stephen Starr strikes again, this time with these swingy cocoon chairs at The Continental Midtown.
Just maybe don't attempt these after a night of Twizzler cocktails.
12. The Writing is on the Wall
Or the hubcaps and broken bottles, as the case may be.
13. Sign O' the Times
Philly's got some fun and funky signs . . . but especially if you've been doing some serious day drinking.
14. The Official Sport of Philadelphia
Now that Rocky's retired, I guess it's bread-stacking instead of boxing?
And the decision goes to: Anyone but this guy.
15. Little Nonna, Big Meatballs
Have you been to Little Nonna's yet? If not, finish up that cheese steak, then beat feet over to this charming Center City hangout, where the staff is sweet, the garden is delightful, and the melt-in-your-mouth meatballs are a way better way to get your protein than a glass full of raw eggs.
16. Take Me To Church
Or Sunday school, anyway, where Tria Café in Washington Square West will indoctrinate you in a divine wine and celestial cheese for a heavenly price on Sunday mornings. It's church for food-worshippers.
Until next time, Philly. Save me some cheese.
What's up next? Angel gets nekkid in Anguilla; Tracey wins a conch fritter-eating contest in Key West (sort of...); we discover a hoppin' hula hut in the Hamptons; and my bad hombre and I take a mostly-legal trip to Cuba! Check back soon; subscribe here so you don't have to; or pop on over to Instragram @escape.from.new.york to see how I'm faring in the eating contest that is my life.