Philadelphia is not likely on your list of gay travel destinations. Its summers are too muggy, it's winters too frigid and its waterfront has yet to be developed. But Philly is as charming as a small town and seductive as a large city. And, best of all, Philly's LGBT scene, as historic as the city itself, is experiencing a revitalization like no other.
I recently got to know gay Philly as a guest of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation on a press trip with other writers. And while luck was not always on my side ( losing $4 at Philly's new casino ) , I did manage to defeat an entire cheesesteak and run in the footsteps of Rocky.
After landing in Philly, I checked into The Independent ( 1234 Locust; 215-772-1440; www.theindependenthotel.com ) , a relatively new boutique hotel in the heart of Philly's "Gayborhood." The classic-meets-modern hotel brings continental breakfast to your own door and happy hour to its lobby with complimentary refreshments. The best part of this LGBT-friendly hotel is that it sits just above Q Lounge + Kitchen ( known simply as "Q" to locals ) , a glittery red lounge bar with a sweet-tooth happy-hour martini menu ( $4 ) . I ordered a pomegranate martini before heading off to dinner at Lolita ( 106 S. 13th; 215-546-7100; www.lolitabyob.com/lolita ) .
Locals joke that Lolita owners Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney have taken over the entire block. ( This lesbian duo owns five restaurants and a grocery store. ) Eat at Lolita once, and you'll wish they would take over your own block. This B.Y.O.T. ( Bring Your Own Tequila ) eatery delivers a classic Mexican-American menu full of risky and delightful twists, like the melted Oaxaca and Chihuahua cheese appetizer ( $10 ) with hints of rosemary and smoky bits of brandied chorizo. The must-try dish here is a carne asada, but don't fret that you're missing out on trying something new; Turney, a chef, has managed to liven the classic dish with plantain crema, avocado salsa and fried yucca ( $24 ) . A dark noisy atmosphere and $13 margarita pitchers ( don't forget to B.Y.O.T. ) make Lolita the perfect place for a large group or a casual date. If you can only dine out in one place in Philly, go here.
After dinner, Denise Cohen walked us over to her nightclub, Sisters ( 1320 Chancellor; 215-735-0735; www.sistersnightclub.com ) . The only predominantly lesbian bar in Philly, Sisters is a tri-level club, split between a mirrored dance floor, a bar/restaurant and a basement pool room. The drinks at Sisters are strong enough to knock out a linebacker, and the crowd ( which is racially and generationally diverse ) is all fun and no pretension. Billiards fans, beware: The top of this pool table has to be replaced frequentlyand not because Philadelphians love pool...
History lessonsand jail time
Despite a lethal last drink from Sisters the night before, I rose early enough the next day to catch a tour with LGBT historian Bob Skiba. Skiba showed us some of the must-see historic Philly sites: Benjamin Franklin's tombstone, the Liberty Bell and, of course, the Rocky statue below to the Philadelphia Museum of Art Steps. ( Yes, I ran the steps. ) Skiba also took us to the William Way Community Center, Philly's largest LGBT center. The center houses an impressive archive collection, documenting the history of gay Philly and beyond ( even possessing old copies of Windy City Times! ) . We also visited Independence Hall, where the historical marker celebrates Philly's first gay-rights protests ( 1965-1969 ) .
The best part of historic Philadelphia is that it's 100-percent free. In fact, most historical sites don't even require advance tickets.
In September, Philadelphia became the largest U.S. city to house a casino. SugarHouse Casino ( 1001 N. Delaware; 877-477-3715; www.sugarhousecasino.com ) , which opened this fall along the Delaware River, ate four of my five dollars in under a minute. I decided to stop while ahead, and saved a $1 voucher as a souvenir.
Of course, no trip to Philly would be complete with a gut-busting cheesesteak, so we went down to South Philly to check out Geno's Steaks ( 1219 S. 9th; 215-389-0659; www.genosteaks.com ) . Geno's bears the name of owner Joey Vento's openly gay son, who was named after the businessnot the other way around, as some might suspect. The father/son duo has served every celebrity from Oprah to Vanna White to Ray Romano. But ordering a cheesesteak in Philly is not for the faint of heart, and I'm not just talking about the calories. Customers in line repeatedly referenced Seinfeld's famous "Soup Nazi" episode, and I learned fast they were serious. Our guide insistently prepped us on how to order. In the end, I ordered an "American without" ( translation: a cheesesteak with American cheese and without onions ) , and got my cheesesteak without incident.
Chic, laid-back and warm, dinner at Tweed ( 114 S. 12th; 215-923-3300; www.tweedrestaurant.com ) later was a welcome contrast. Chef David Cunningham served up a dazzling array of local organic American appetizers and hearty fare. The butternut-squash ravioli was the favorite among other writers, while I preferred a pan-seared chicken. A Victory Storm King Stout ( local to Penn. ) topped off my meal and also loosened me up for our next ( terrifying ) stop… Eastern State Penitentiary ( 2124 Fairmount; 215-236-5111; www.easternstate.org ) .
Eastern State Penitentiary ( ESP ) is probably the last place most people want to be. For us, it's a historical wonder and a ghost-hunter's dream. The towering prison opened in 1829 as part of a Quaker experiment in "penitence" and prison reform. Al Capone spent eight months at the solitary confinement prison, as did Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber. Disallowed from talking, reading or communicating, many inmates suffered from mental breakdowns, and the prison closed in 1971. Today, ESP is open for historic tours daily ( $12 adult ) . During the Halloween season, ESP holds one of the largest Haunted House attractions in the country, "Terror Behind the Walls." Program Director Sean Kelley led us behind the scenes of the haunted house and into the old building. This place is seriously creepycomplete with crumbling walls, rusting gates and paint chips littering the floor. Kelley told us that "Terror Behind the Walls" relies mostly on the building itself to scare thrill-seekers. I can see why. When I reached the top of the guard tower, my brand-new flashlight died. I was spooked, but all of the writers agreedESP is at the top of the must-see list in Philadelphia.
( New ) Hope springs eternal
Just 45 minutes northeast of Philly, New Hope proclaims itself a village welcoming of "diversity." In fact, New Hope is a bit of an odditya revived small town that's actively gay-friendly. New Hope has its gay bars and an annual Pride weekend, but locals say LGBT people really are part of the fabric of the whole town. Indeed, I saw a lot of visibly queer folks strolling happily down Main Street. ( Yep, it's really called Main Street. )
In my experience, every small East Coast town has a great chocolate shop, and my search ended at Country Fair Chocolates ( 93 S. Main; 215-862-5359 ) . The sweet shop is famous for its chocolate-covered strawberries and while mine was frankly, perfect, I mostly enjoyed a chat with "Barb," who refused to give me her full name for fear that she'd steal spotlight from the shop's owner ( whose name is Phyllis Foster ) .
Back in Philly, I found my way to "Intertwined," a gallery opening at the Leeway Foundation ( 1315 Walnut, Suite 832; 215-545-4078; www.leeway.org ) where an old college friend and other queer artists were showing textile work. The artists told me that Philly's arts community and queer communities are incredibly active, especially in West Philly.
The evening was spent at the restaurant Meritage ( 500 S. 20th; 215-985-1922; www.meritagephiladelphia.com ) , where we enjoyed a quiet meal outside, under trees lit by twinkle lights. While the grilled herb crust lamb chops ( $24 ) were excellent, portions all around were so small that most of our table expressed disappointment.
I had been told that Woody's Bar ( 261 S. 13th; 215-545-1893; www.woodysbar.com ) is the "Cheers" of Philly, so I decided to spend my last night in Philly among "friends." Indeed, the mostly male crowd was welcoming and talkative. Another writer and I easily befriended two guys who invited us to Philly's oldest gay bar, Tavern on Camac ( 243 S. Camac; 215-545-0900; www.tavernoncamac.com ) .
Tavern is nestled in one of the Gayborhood's many cobblestone alleys, with brick buildings as old as the city itself. Given its location, I expected to find a dark musty bar, with large mugs of beer and sticky wooden tables. On the contrary, Tavern has all the makings of a modern gay club: a spacious dance floor upstairs and a white shiny bar downstairs. Still, Tavern stays true to Philly historythe whole downstairs is a piano bar.
Before heading home to Chicago, I had the chance to visit Outfest, Philly's celebration of National Coming out Day ( NCOD ) . With 40,000 people roaming through the Gayborhood, Outfest is the world's largest NCOD celebration. The festival takes over the entire Gayborhood, and vendors and community organizations take over the streets.
Of course, I couldn't leave Philly without checking out our nation's oldest LGBT bookstore, so I walked over to 12th and Pine to check out Giovanni's Room ( 345 S. 12th; 215-923-2960; www.giovannisroom.com ) . This old-fashioned book shop is a great place to lose an afternoon, with every LGBT title you could want, and a sizeable stack of discounted books for your plane ride home. But on my own flight back I could do only thingfinally, sleep.
For travel information, check out www.visitphilly.com .