What to do in: Philadelphia on a Budget

For the holiday weekend, I traveled to Philadelphia this past weekend and planned a 3-day trip for two that hit all of the major hotspots, main attractions, and culinary delights the city had to offer.

Philadelphia was chosen in part due to its proximity to New York City – only two hours by bus, and its affordability. There are plenty of fun and low-cost things to do with just a little planning, and especially if you like history!

With the advice of a few friends who grew up near and/or lived in the area, I put together an itinerary that would be both delicious and fun – but not too overwhelming. This is always key when planning a trip to another city. I’ve found it’s important to leave a little wiggle room, especially when travelling with someone else, in case either of you get burnt out from walking around and need time to relax and refresh.

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Independence Hall

While I wasn’t travelling alone, I will record the budget here, for my own daily expenditures. Each trip planner will have to decide where they will stay and what the budget for hotels and transportation will be. We had decided to budget less for accommodations and spend more on cabs, in order to save time. For a solo traveler, I’d recommend staying in Center City and walking  or taking public transportation.

Day 1: Chinatown and South Street

The basic travel logistics of the trip were covered by Wanderu, which helped me find the cheapest bus fares. For just $9 a ticket, I booked a one-way journey on Megabus and was on the road at 9am. Upon arrival at 11am, I made my way to Chinatown for lunch where I had shrimp fried rice at Ting Wong. Meal: $10

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Shrimp Fried Rice at Ting Wong

I looked through some of the other shops and decided to save my pennies for NYC’s Chinatown, but for those who like to shop and buy souvenirs, Chinatown is probably the place to do it.

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Philadelphia’s Chinatown Arch

After a quick rest stop at the apartment I had found through AirBnB, it was off to South Street. From Broad Street, a quick pitstop at Big Gay Ice Cream was in order. Then it was eastward bound towards Penn Landing, with stops in and out of the little shops. Ice cream: $7

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Treat at Big Gay Ice Cream on South Street

We made our way to Penn’s Landing, a lookout point on the Delaware River where we saw the water and some boats that were docked.

For dinner, we went to Ishkabibble’s II for cheesesteaks. I’m vegetarian so I had eggplant parmesan, which was passable. The all-star of the evening was the woman who was busing tables, she made sure everyone in the restaurant had everything they needed and made our visit to what would have been an an otherwise non-memorable dining experience enjoyable. Eggplant parm: $10

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Philadelphia Cheesesteak

Afterwards we walked back, and continued on past Broad Street where we wandered in some more shops and saw an assortment of more upscale restaurants. We also stopped by Washington Square Park and rested our weary feet.

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Washington Square Park monument

Day 1 total: $36

Day 2: Arts, Eats, and Culture

We started off the morning early at Cosmic Cafe, a little hideaway just north of the Art Museum for overpriced, but tasty and huge, eggs on bagels. We then walked towards the museum and took in the sights of the Waterworks and some of the sculpture along the river. Breakfast: $10 for egg on a bagel and tea

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Rocky Statue outside the Philadelphia Art Museum

At the Philadelphia Art Museum we stopped to watch other tourists posing by the Rocky Statue and then run up the steps. We ambled towards the entrance and then got inside with just enough time to take a tour (free with admission). If we had more time, or knew what was to come, we would have taken advantage of the museum entrance fee which included admission to a number of other nearby sites, and the museum also had a free shuttle bus between some of the buildings.

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Philadelphia Art Museum

Notable exhibits included the Japanese Tea House, the period-style rooms, and some Monets and Van Goghs I had not seen before. Museum entrance: $20 (students: bring your IDs for $13 admission)

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The Japanese Tea House at the Philadelphia Art Museum

We walked to Center City for Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Both of these are free; however the line for the Liberty Bell was 45 minutes, and we didn’t feel like waiting around. After scoping out a few photographs online, it didn’t seem like worth the wait. On the other hand, to my dismay, Independence Hall tickets were no longer available, so we hung out on the lawn and did some people watching. Next time I will reserve tickets online in advance!

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Fresh produce at Reading Terminal Market

Afterwards, we went to Reading Terminal Market. My goal was to eat lunch (mostly a pretzel) $3. It was very crowded so we went back to Chinatown and had a very late lunch which also doubled as our dinner at another restaurant. $10

Lunch was followed with a Japanese Crepe at T-Swirl Crepe – it was so delicious! We added a scoop of vanilla gelato on top. $8

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T-Swirl Gelato

Afterwards we bought a few snacks and treats at a Chinese bakery to serve as breakfast and snacks for our bus ride the following day back to New York. $4

Day 2 total: $52

Day 3: A Day in Japan

Following my disappointment at Independence Hall, I decided not to pursue other historical sites but to find unique Philadelphia experiences. After sampling the Chinese bakery treats for breakfast, I did some searching online of where to spend the final day.

In West Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park we found a true gem – the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. Originally installed in MoMA’s courtyard, this house was relocated to Philadelphia in a suitable and well-kept garden. The staff there gave an amazing tour, complete with demonstrations on how the rooms would have been used and the meanings behind the furnishings and materials. We were told that from time to time they have tea ceremonies and classes for the public. It felt like we were in Japan, especially with the trees blossoming. Admission: $8 for adults, $5 for students

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The Hill and Pond Garden at Shofuso
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The kitchen at Shofuso

Afterwards we walked around the park. There was also a Horticulture Center which we didn’t have time for but I would recommend if you have an extra hour or two.

We followed this visit with lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Center City – Aki. I had salmon teriyaki, $20, and of course to finish it off we stopped at Capogiro’s Gelato and had a cone. $6

Then it was off to Greyhound for our return trip at $16 each.

Day 3 total: $50

Not including transportation and our accommodations we managed to keep spending under $50 a day per person, while still eating our fill and seeing the major sights.

Overall it was a memorable trip and I have a list now for the next time I visit!

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