Most people know about West Philadelphia from the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The famous theme song intro put West Philly on the map and since 1990, the neighborhood has been enshrouded in a Will Smith mystique. But there's more to West Philadelphia than just that one verse.
Philadelphia is known for being a city comprised of diverse neighborhoods that were once independent towns. Over a few centuries, these towns were engulfed as the city expanded.
Once you cross the Schuylkill River along Center City’s western banks, West Philadelphia is a city on its own filled with Victorian mansions, an intricate network of trollies, an artist scene, and vibrant immigrant communities unlike any other section of Philadelphia.
If you come to Philadelphia and don’t go to West Philly, here’s only the tip of the iceberg of what you’d be missing.
1. Victorian architecture along Baltimore Avenue
Colorful Victorian mansions line Baltimore Avenue — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
Residential development in West Philadelphia began around 1850, after bridges and streetcars allowed the city to expand over the Schuylkill River. Since much of West Philadelphia was rural, and because the city had a growing population of middle and upper-class residents, there was a high demand for real estate – specifically elaborately designed homes.
When they were built, these ornate Victorian homes were among the most expensive homes in America. Over 150 years later, many of the mansions around West Philadelphia’s Baltimore Avenue remain, and many have been repainted in vibrant colors which capture the quirky persona of the neighborhood today.
2. University City
Inside the Egypt Gallery of the Penn Museum — Photo courtesy of Penn Museum
West Philadelphia is also home to University City, an area where the campuses of Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania collide. With two of the nation’s largest educational institutions, University City is a leader in medical research, technological innovation and cultural exploration.
Visitors can spend time at the Penn Museum, one of the world’s best archaeological museums which houses rare artifacts from Egypt, Asia, Mesopotamia and the Americas. For a more modern experience, visitors can explore the Institute of Contemporary Art with galleries that display the most provocative art of the day. In West Philadelphia, you don’t have to be a student to learn something new.
3. Clark Park
Pick up a quick game of Pétanque in Clark Park — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
Just past University City along Baltimore Avenue is Clark Park, a popular meeting and events space for residents and visitors. On weekends, it’s common to find farmers markets, groups practicing circus acts like hula-hooping and fire twirling, and people playing Pétanque, a French game similar to bocce ball.
During the summer in "the Bowl," a natural outdoor amphitheater, you can catch a free Shakespeare play put on every year since 2005 by local theatre company, Shakespeare in Clark Park.
4. Jezabel’s Studio
Learn to make a variety of Argentine empanadas at Jezabel's Studio in West Philadelphia — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
Jezabel’s Studio is a space that’s as creative as its owner, Jezabel Careaga. Her West Philly studio is not just a tea house that serves Argentine delights, but also a classroom where visitors can learn how to make Argentine staples.
Visitors can be taught to make anything from tortilla de patatas and empanadas to torta de ricotta and alfajores. And it’s all set in a space that was renovated and designed by Jezabel herself. She even learned woodworking so she could make furniture for the studio!
5. International cuisine
Kilimandjaro is a West African eatery serving delicious meals with a Senegalese influence — Photo courtesy of M. Fischetti for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
If you’re a foodie on the hunt to experience a wide array of international cuisines, then you will love West Philadelphia. You’ll find not just foods that represent countries, but dishes that express the nuances of specific regions, prepared by individuals that hail from those communities.
If you’re searching for an African restaurant, Kilimandjaro serves Senegalese-style stews with a touch of French flavor. At Dahlak, Ethiopian cuisine is paired with open mic nights and karaoke. If you’re in the mood for Middle Eastern, you can start with a kufta sandwich at Makkah Market and treat yourself to Lebanese flatbreads and baklava at Manakeesh.
Break away from the usual Pad Thai takeout by sampling Laotian specialties like laab and pun paa at Vientiane Café. For the adventurous eaters, if you plan your trip accordingly, Vientiane Café also hosts an "Adventurous Eats" series where you might get a chance to sample steamed fertilized duck eggs, river snails or a silkworm omelet. You don’t have to buy a plane ticket to taste the cuisine of far away places.
10 Philly foods you have to try (and none of them are cheesesteak)
10 Philly foods you have to try (and none of them are cheesesteak)
6. Fairmount Park
Set amongst the forest, the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden gives visitors a serene getaway. — Photo courtesy of Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
West Philadelphia has a lot of green space. It boasts Philadelphia’s largest park, which happens to be one of the largest urban parks in the country: Fairmount Park. There’s over 2,000 acres of fields, forests, hiking trails, lakes, creeks and riverside views.
Fairmount Park is also home to the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, which has a koi pond, tea house, and a tiered waterfall. In addition, you'll find the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center and the historic Boathouse Row, as well as many other centers dedicated to environmental and cultural conservation.
7. Philadelphia Zoo
Big Cat Crossing gives the Zoo's large felines more room to roam — Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Zoo
The Philadelphia Zoo may be America’s first zoo, but it is far from old and outdated. It’s home to around 1,300 animals, many that are rare and endangered, who live in a 42-acre Victorian-style garden. Above the zoo is the Treetop Trail, an elevated mesh-net trail for monkeys and lemurs that connects several habitats.
Big Cat Crossing is another overhead passageway that allows the Zoo’s big cats – lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars and other large felines – to navigate to other areas of the park. Both features are part of the Philadelphia Zoo’s revolutionary Zoo360 program which gives these animals more space to roam than many other zoos.
8. Bartram’s Garden
Discover the secret life of plants at Bartram's Garden — Photo courtesy of Bartram's Garden
Home to an early American botanist, John Bartram, Bartram’s Garden is the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America. Bartram dedicated most of his life to exploring North America and collecting and cataloguing new species of plants he found.
Many of the plants he encountered were brought back to his farm where people still visit to learn about different plant species and to enjoy the serenity of the garden.
9. The Mann Center
Music lovers immerse themselves in the outdoor concert experience at The Mann Center — Photo courtesy of The Mann Center
Located within Fairmount Park is the Mann Center, an outdoor amphitheater that has served as the summertime home of the Philadelphia Orchestra since the 1930s. The venue seats over 4,500 people, but has the capacity to hold nearly 13,000 if you count the lawn seating.
Every summer, the Mann Center hosts a variety of outdoor concerts ranging from symphony orchestras to indie rock bands.
10. The bar scene
Try beers from around the world at Local 44's bottle bar — Photo courtesy of Kae Lani
Every great day of exploring deserves a fresh cold beer. Luckily, there is no shortage of excellent bars in West Philadelphia. Just off the University of Pennsylvania’s campus is Local 44, a neighborhood gastropub that not only has excellent local beers on tap, but also has a bottle bar next door with a wide variety of beers and ciders from around the world.
Further down Baltimore Avenue you’ll find Dock Street Brewery, Philadelphia’s first microbrewery that pairs their fresh brews with wood-fired pizzas. But if you’re in the mood for a cocktail bar that is as eccentric as West Philly itself, head to Fiume. It's a hidden speakeasy located above Abyssinia, an Ethiopian restaurant that will bring your "wat" and "tibs" up to you while you enjoy one of Philadelphia’s best Manhattans.