Desi City Guide for Philadelphia

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June 20, 2013

Desi City Guide for Philadelphia

The population of South Asians in Philadelphia has grown enormously from 2% in the 1990’s to over 5% in recent years. They make up 5% of the 1.5 million plus population of the city. The South Asian population is concentrated mainly in the suburbs and the Northeast Philadelphia area. According to recent statistics, the city has the fourth largest population of South Asians in the country.

‘Philly’ and ‘City of Brotherly Love’, as the city is popularly nicknamed, is the biggest city and an important cultural and educational center in the state of Pennsylvania. Its economy is mainly focused on food processing, biotechnology, health care, oil refining and tourism, the latter being one of the most important. The city houses numerous Fortune 500 companies such as the internet giants Comcast, GlaxoSmithKline, Aramark and of course the Philadelphia Stock Exchange.

The Pennsylvania Hospital has initiated a huge importance for the city in terms of medical services. Being the first ever medical school of the country at the Pennsylvania University, it employs much of the city’s population as well. Over the years, the city has also become an important center for medical research and studies.

Desi attractions in Philadelphia

There is a bazaar situated on Chestnut Street in Pennsylvania is a place where you can get anything from food items to fabrics and exotic South Asian items. The main specialty that most ‘Desi’ tourists prefer at the bazaar is the beads. The variety and intricacy in designs in itself is stunning. However, they do tend to be a bit on the expensive side. Philadelphia also boasts of several South Asian art emporiums and markets in the Pittsburg area

Other attractions in Philadelphia include:

  • The Mercer Museum is a must visit if you’re in Philadelphia at the time of the Annual Folk Fest. The 18th century styled folk festival is as authentic as can get and will definitely be a memorable experience for you.
  • An inspiring sculpture of Joan of Arc was modeled by Emmanuel Fremiet on 25th Street in the year 1890. For art lovers and historians, this is a must see. However, you should know that in Philadelphia, the lady is referred to as ‘Joanie on a Pony’!
  • The Philadelphia Zoo is a great place to spend some fun time with the family, even better when you have kids in the group. It has the unique distinction of being the first full fledged zoo in America! The place consists of a large Victorian style garden area with walkways lined by beautiful trees. The zoo also contains a lot of firsts like the orangutan and chimps born for the first time in the U.S. and the first white lions. The zoo is open daily, all days of the year.

Transportation Modes in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is very traveler friendly, and one can easily travel within the city using the efficient public transportation, and sometimes even by foot. The city has been rated one of the finest in terms walking areas and accessibility. With a simple layout and fun filled streets lined with parks, restaurants, and other diverse stores, most people prefer walking around the city.

Alternatively, you can utilize the Phlash, a touring bus service with purple colored buses running everyday from 10 to 6. Other modes of transportation include the bus, subway system and the commuter rails.

Rittenhouse Square
Philly’s hautest neighborhood by far, this area offers an intriguing range of retail, restaurant and cultural spaces throughout. For an all-compassing tour, be sure to spend time in this neighborhood’s eponymous park (a beauty on fair days) as well as its many cultural gems, including but not limited to free concerts at The Curtis Institute and monthly exhibitions at The Art Alliance.

Square Peg Artery Salvage: With an eclectic mix of handmade crafts and artist limiteds, this cozy boutique finds space on every spare surface (ceiling included) to showcase their wares. Enjoy shopping the jewelry, ceramics, bags and other odds/ends with an unobtrusive– but wholly knowledgeable– staff who can fill you in on every detail of eye candy throughout.
108 S. 20th Street

ORT Thrift: A little hideaway on the edge of Philly’s often tourist-less business district, ORT Thrift features garments, dishware, blankets and assorted tchotckes priced “just right” for the aged 80-something volunteers. Selection can be minimal, but oh what finds I’ve found then and again.
29 S. 19th Street

Premium Steap: Alongside a global selection of loose teas and sampler sets, find the appropriately associated cups, pots, saucers and similar tabletop goods. Look for traditional Kobuki as well as modern pieces from Eva Solo in this ever-aromatic space that champions “a lifestyle of tea” for you and yours.
118 S. 18th Street

Petulia’s Folly: Upscale offerings of clothing, jewelry and modern housewares round out the merch in this decidedly hip, bisected boutique. Always a pleasure to browse and to buy, signature selections include Doo Ri, Kikatsu, Rachel Comey, Anna Corinna and John Derian too.
1710 Sansom Street

Kellijane: Take a perfectly pleasant stroll amongst beautiful brownstones to the tree-lined street where this walkup shop resides. Bedding, bath towels and table linens from Missoni, Sonia Rykiel, Oyuna Cashmere, Cir Paris and Garnier Thiebaut are all there for a lush-ous experience like no other.
1721 Spruce Street

Egan Day: “Jewelry and beautiful things” showcased in a lovely little parlor just off the square… Ted Muehling, Darcy Miro and Nicole Landaw are just a few artists presented, their work urbane and sophisticated, with a healthy helping of organic flair.
260 S. 16th Street

Spool: A favorite of fabric aficionados near and far, this center city studio features textiles, tools, patterns and kits designed to inspire and support a dedicated clientele. Be sure to browse their blog for up-to-the-minute info on upcoming classes, workshops, lectures and the like.
1912 South Street

Chain stores: Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, DWR, Bo Concept, Marketplace Design Center

Tria: a trio of wines, cheeses and beers, with salads and sandwiches too
Miel Patisserie: ultra delicate confections, with the simply the best macaroons
Parc: save up your cash to see and be seen in this French bistro on the park
La Colombe: expect the best coffee in town and characters aplenty, sans Wi-Fi
Good Dog: great bar food and a jukebox too, a no-nonsense space but often overflowing


Washington Square West / Midtown Village 
Tracing a path across Broad Street, you’ll get a great photo op of our very own City Hall and move into this neighborhood known to most locals as The Gayborhood. Not all rainbow flags and clubs– though they’re present for sure– you’ll also find the past times such bon vivants love most: a variety of theaters, bars, restaurants and of course, shopping. Antique Row is a definite must, though be forewarned that many of the “true” antique stores have somewhat scattered hours.

Shag: Mid-century modern at its finest with furniture, lighting, accessories and more. Great stuff for vintage enthusiasts and a refreshing collection for the area too.
1118 Pine Street

Hello Home: Found furniture alongside contemporary accessories with selections nodding to Danish designs especially. Certainly not a one-note wonder, the shop’s decorative fares also include current indie styles from Soft Goods, SCAD and Company C.
1201 Pine Street

Uhuru: With funds between dumpster dive and Ikea-flat-pack, you can always find superior interior style at this, my perennial fave. Shopping the attics and estate sales of old money, this not-for-profit resale shop offers locally found furnishings to help strengthen the community.
1220 Spruce Street

Paper on Pine: Somewhat a misnomer with its updated address, this otherwise straightforward space offers all kinds of wraps, ribbons, cards and the like. Stationary services tendered too.
115 S. 13th Street

Duross & Langel: Fresh and fragrant natural soaps made with only raw materials and employing a fair trade policy as well. For him or for her, with blends like Moroccan Cedar, Rhassoul Clay and a particularly playful variety called Get Happy… You really can’t go wrong here, now can you?
117 S. 13th Street

Chain stores: West Elm, Luxe

Capogiro: sample an impressive selection of gelato, my absolute fave a bitter chocolate ‘n pistachio combo
Naked Chocolate Cafe: where chocolate rules with all the accoutrements you’d assume and then some
Garces Trading Co.: upscale gastrofare with a bakery, butcher, bistro and the state’s first in situ wine store
Varga: small plates aplenty, an impressive beer list and the favorite of nearby students for sure
Leila Cafe: affordable and flavorful Middle Eastern fare, with hookah smoking ok’d but booze disallowed


Northern Liberties / Fishtown 
This former industrial enclave dotted with empty lots went through a major development phase in the last ten years. Over this time, a whole new population of 20- and 30-somethings managed to acquire some of Philly’s most innovative, modern architecture now found throughout. Though keen to entertain their options in the shops, bars and bistros that seem to be constantly emerging, there are still some definite favorites they return to again and again.

Art Star: With cutting-edge apparel, jewelry, prints and more, this one-stop shop for a handmade gifts supports a eclectic network of burgeoning artists. Gallery exhibitions are often chock-full of thoughtful graphics with a refreshing twist on otherwise traditional techniques.
623 N. 2nd Street

Vintage Modern: The ever-changing selection of mod furnishings makes this space a must for mid-century lovers especially. Think Saarinen, Nelson and Eames and many otherwise unknown decorative designers besides.
906 N. 2nd Street

The Piazza & Liberties Walk: A mixed-use cacophony of galleries, boutiques, cafés and bars with a deciedly hip, urban edge. Events aplenty with live music, outdoor marketsand even televised local sports on a 26’ screen, for those so inclined… Me? I’ll just stick to browsing at Pressed 55Millesime and Bambi, thankyouverymuch.
North Second Street and Germantown Avenue

North Third: a champion gastropub with meals at nearly every hour of every day
Honey’s: all-round amazing, where Jewish staples and Southern comfort marry beautifully
Arbol Café: tasty, traditional food and snacks from an other-where place called Paraguay
Johnny Brenda’s: sister space to NoLib’s Standard Tap, with live music often upstairs
Random Tea Room: homegrown and quaint, with a serious selection and thoughtful approach


Old City / Society Hill 
Altogether peaceful and pleasant during the day, this area explodes with an influx of people in the evenings. North of Market Street you’ll cruise through vintage fashion stores and established art galleries in addition to the chic, design-oriented spaces accounted for below. A more southern route will reveal bars, clubs and other such venues that definitely cater to a rowdier crowd. What’s more, as a designated historical district, you’re sure to find significant landmarks and architecture to observe at every turn.

Art in the Age: Turn-of-the-century trendsetters set in an industrial sleek, sustainable space. Replete with offerings from artist-print apparel and letterpress cards to found quilts and get this: their very own brand of authentic root liqueur too. Now how about that.
116 N. 3rd Street

Minima: Über clean and contemporary, this bleached-out showroom elevates modern furnishings as unique objets d’art. European designs by Marcel Wanders, Jaime Hayon and Poltrana Frau are offered while a rotating gallery throughout sets the scene just right.
118 N. 3rd Street

Biello Martin: A salon-like studio/boutique with inspired works the likes of which you’ll not see again. Creators of art, music and light, their signature chandeliers andFamily Jewels are especially enchanting.
148 N. 3rd Street

Artist & Craftsman Supply: This employee-run, cooperative store has inventory aplenty for the DIY and artsy crews plus competitive costs and great service too. Always a pleasure and ever so fun to explore.
307 Market Street

Chain stores: Artemide, Roche Bobois

Amada: save up some cash for delightful and delicious Spanish-style tapas in this nuevo-rustic space
Fork Etc: a bistro moderne featuring upscale gourmet selections for their mostly lunchtime jetset
Old City Coffee: eponymous purveyors of some of Philly’s finest grounds, super friendly too
Frankin Fountain: ice cream, candy, fudge and more. as authentic as the hand-cranked fans overhead


Broad Street / Chinatown 
Lured by cheaper rents and space enough in former factories, emergent artists have shifted their studios to this once-fringe neighborhood. A variety of Asian cultures remain omnipresent here and of course there’s no substitute in experiencing the frenetic streetscape they’ve created. Amongst the many discoverable groceries and souvenir shops are some pretty spectacular restaurants too.

AIA Bookstore & Design Center: A destination for art-arch-design aficionados and shopaholics alike, this store offers an endless variety of giftware that includes books, magazines, stationary, small-scale décor and especially, children’s toys.
1218 Arch Street (in the Center for Architecture)

The Fabric Workshop and Museum: Anything but soft and fuzzy, this nonprofit organization has featured the jaw-dropping work of national artists working in textile, multimedia, mechanics, magnets, acoustics and get this- even fire too. Expect the unexpected here with two (2!) studio shops to browse as well.
1214 Arch Street

Portfolio at PAFA: Housed in the modern counterpart of the Academy’s wondrous Victorian Gothic landmark, this museum store carries an eclectic mix of gifts, prints, books and apparel from both PAFA students an national brands like Roost, Kikkerland, Mudlark and Michael Michaud.
128 N. Broad Street

Chinatown: not-to-miss quick hits: Joy Tsin Lau, Pho 75, Nanzhou Hand Drawn Noodle, Vietnam, David’s
Reading Terminal Market: a plethora of Philly’s best foods everywhere with Amish specialties too


Art Museum / Fairmount 
While this neighborhood isn’t yet lush with retail for the design jet set, the bucolic nature of brownstones and tree-lined streets offers a serene retreat from the frenzied citizenry below. Atop the hill you’ll find a range of great dining (we are a foodie town after all) in addition to a rather unusual museum in Eastern State Penitentiary. A lovely, lazy, wandering day awaits.

Collab: Surely there’s no better reason to visit the area than this space, Philly’s very own design museum. The total collection includes more than 1,000 objects ranging from appliances and furniture to ceramics, glass, posters, wallpapers and lighting all housed in an Art Deco-turned-modernist masterpiece. A better-than-average museum shops awaits inside (and be sure to visit that other museum across the street too).
Fairmount & Pennsylvania Avenues

Provenance: One of Philly’s best sources for unique architectural salvage items with a glut of absolute eye candy throughout. Stand your ground when bartering with the curious host, as he’s keen to make room for new inventory and rightly willing to discount you for multiples too.
1610 Fairmount Avenue

Ali’s Wagon: A standalone design boutique with a serendipitous mix of home décor, bath & body products and a multitude of items for the modern baby. Classes for expecting and new mothers are quite popular.
2017 Fairmount Avenue

The Belgian Café: mussels done many ways and an obscure beer list unparalleled elsewhere
L’oca: bring your own booze to this Italian space, pappardelle with goose ragu anyone?
Umai Umai: although a bit pricey, the BYO factor helps and you can’t beat their cozy atmosphere
Mugshots: plenty of specials and events at this fair-trade, organic and utterly comfortable coffeehouse/café


Bella Vista / Queen Village 
While this neighborhood’s largest draw is the edgy and eclectic South Street corridor, just south of South are some altogether lovely finds as well. Browse along Bainbridge for coffeeshops, antiques and even art galleries too, all with the slight bohemian vibe for which this area’s traditionally known.

Antiquarian’s Delight: Appropriately named, this repurposed temple turned flea market is made up of various booths with housewares, furniture, jewelry, clothing, spectacles, postcards and an assortment of other (seemingly-hoarded) vintage goods. Often overwhelmed by the maze of displays, I nonetheless recommend a look-see for those keen on discovering a choice find at the right price.
615 S. 6th Street

Philadelphia AIDS Thrift: Equal parts thrift shop and curio cabinet, this campy space overfloweth with an ever-changing inventory of figurines, souvenirs, books, lamps, dishware, toys, apparel and so much more. Take a jaunt across the street for larger items like furniture, chandeliers and the quite possibly the most comprehensive collection of gaudy Christmas fare I never want to see again.
514 Bainbridge Street

The Shops of Fabric Row: A veritable cornucopia of discount-vintage-discontinued (and even new!) textiles and trimmings await. Fashion, upholstery and drapery weights are signatures in several shops while designer boutiques like Wilbur and Bus Stopround out the mix.
S. 4th Street between South and Catherine Streets

Beau Monde & L’Etage: brunch, lunch, dinner or dancing, this chic retreat hosts Cabaret Thursdays too
Chapterhouse: local fave with a comfortably-industrial flair, surprisingly great art on display throughout
South Street Souvlaki: gyros here are a practically perfect alternate to Philly’s toothsome cheesesteaks


Italian Market / Passyunk Avenue 
Fondly known to locals as Soufilly and Passhunk, this area has a small-scale, friendly vibe that’s attracted younger residents in recent years. In so doing, international influences now dot the historical, open-air Italian Market and hipper, trendier boutiques and BYO’s seem to popping up on the ‘Ave everyday.

Fante’s Kitchen: Just about every culinary accoutrement and then some line the walls of this no-frills space. Service is well above par however, so feel free to ask for help in finding that funnel cake pitcher you just can’t live without. (Psst: Their website’s worth a visit too! Histories, tips and how-to’s aplenty.)
1006 S. Ninth Street

Nice Things Handmade: What’s in a name?? As refreshing a space as their simply stated moniker, this boutique showcases artists both near/far with all the usualcraftfare and some interesting surprises too.
1731 E. Passyunk Avenue

Jimmy Style: Offering an eclectic mix of funky, functional and fashionable products for your life and home, this altogether-sunny space hosts monthly designer meet-n-greets as well.
1820 E. Passyunk Avenue

Black and Brew: a brunch-like bistro with friendly staff and an unassuming crowd
Green Aisle Grocery: a complete inventory only of organic and/or regional foodie fare, locavores rejoice
Cantina Los Caballitos: a mouthwatering Mexi-Cali menu with margaritas you’ll thirst for days afterward
Fond: this New American BYO has locals in a tizzy with all star service and cuisine to match


University City / West Philadelphia 
Certainly the hub of Philly’s academic elite, this neighborhood’s two largest campuses– Drexel and Penn– contribute greatly to the character of the area. Beyond the requisite stores, bars and restaurants that cater to the college crowd are a variety of cultures represented farther out as well. While there’s never nothing to do on this side of town, you may want to check out the International HouseInstitute of Contemporary Art and WXPN’s World Cafe Live for a great start.

Avril 50: A treasure trove of art-arch-design mags, foreign press and absolutely, undoubtedly the most comprehensive collection of other such publications anywhere at all in Philly. The bouquet of coffee and tobacco products are altogether intoxicating and the owner’s a charmer, for sure.
3406 Sansom Street

Clark Park Flea Market: Always a spectacle with plenty of characters and assemblage of miscellany, this fair-weather flea offers a little something for everyone. Accompanied by an organic farmer’s market and food trucks that alternately ply fruit, falafel and cupcakes too.
S. 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue

Vix Emporium: Comfy and cozy with an assortment of mostly-local, handmade goods. Nostalgia is palpable in this vintage-themed boutique, though their collections of jewelry, dolls, quilts and hats are altogether modern and oh so hip.
5009 Baltimore Avenue

Chain stores: Urban Outfitters

Food Trucks: quick, easy, cheap and tasty with a international variety that’ll keep your head spinning
Greenline Cafe: a cultural hub with thought-provoking events enjoyed by students, activists and locals too
Vientiane: a Thai-Laotian BYO with adorable décor and a variety of curries unrivaled elsewhere
White Dog Cafe: American cuisine with a decades-old, sustainable mission and live music often

Otherwise About Town
Uwishunu: A wholly prolific, insider’s account of Philly’s many happenings about which you wish you knew (get it?) Always relevant with cultural coverage, restaurant roundups and store sales not even this homegrown boy can continuously track.