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  WINDY CITY TIMES

TRAVEL Enchanting, artistic, gay Philadelphia
by Liz Baudler
2016-10-26

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Philadelphia, the nation's fourth largest city, feels vibrant, its walls covered in more than 3,500 murals, its narrow streets buzzing with excitement—and traffic. Streets can be packed with nightlife at two in the morning, but it feels rather like a carnival than an annoyance.

Despite the traffic, bicycles abound. The Indego system—a bike share like Chicago's Divvy—only costs $4 per half-hour ride. As long as you accept that the streets only have numbers sometimes, the grid system is easy to follow, and in the corners of the city you'll find charming squares with sculptures, trees and benches. Staying in a Kimpton Hotel means you get free bike rental, though, as long as you return by sundown. The Hotel Palomar, in the middle of Center City, has a funky rock 'n' roll groove to it and personable, helpful staff who might offer you champagne at check-in.

When thinking about Philadelphia, art is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet within a half-mile of each other exist the Philadelphia Museum of Art, home of the picturesque rocky steps, its smaller offshoot the Rodin Museum, and the Barnes Foundation. The Rodin Museum is a beautiful small repository of the sculptor's works, including The Gates of Hell, one of his masterpieces.

The Barnes Foundation, a treasure trove of impressionism, is notable for staying true to its collector's vision, despite a controversial move from the outskirts of town to the city itself—and for its utter lack of signage. Instead, visitors absorb the art with sly hints Barnes installed by the work, metal objects like keys and ladles indicating fundamental shapes in the painting below. It's an unusual and ultimately incredibly rewarding way to view these priceless works, and is a must-see experience for an art lover.

Other forms of art also gets some Philly love, with fringe theater earning a dedicated building right by the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. There's homegrown talent in the form of celebrated drag queen Martha Graham Cracker, a wit and singer of operatic talent. Her performance traditionally closes out the Fringe Festival, a three-week affair in September. Brian Sanders brings high-quality skill and a mesmerizing combo of dance and acrobatics to his show "Junk." Held in the upper level of a church and soundtracked by anything from disco to Bowie to Patti Smith, "Junk" portrays gay club culture as the AIDS virus began its decimation. The show is personal for Denehy, a dancer who's been HIV-positive for 30 years.

The gayborhood is just part of the downtown area, but same-sex couples are not an unusual sight in other parts of the city, and many straight couples are drawn to the gayborhood's diversity of restaurants. Each bar has a distinct feel to it. Woody's and Tavern are packed central hubs, while U-Bar is smaller but still energetic, and Knock is laid-back and intimate by comparison.

Philadelphia's food and drink will leave you with enduring memories of deliciousness. I am still dreaming about a salty and sweet tequila cocktail, along with a sake Negroni, that I had at Double Knot, an Asian fusion restaurant in the heart of the gayborhood. The food was savory small plates, from roasted Brussel Sprouts to tuna tartare to swordfish meatballs. A block or two away, 1225Raw designs generous sushi rolls with style. French cuisine has a strong foothold in Philadelphia; Parc, on the edge of Rittenhouse Square, is a favorite local brunch spot, and Bistro La Minette delivers traditional French dishes with class.

More casual options include High Street, a farm-to-table bakery close to the historical city with an amazing kale and mushroom breakfast sandwich, and Federal Donuts. The latter somehow manages to do coffee, fried chicken, and doughnuts with equal flair. Count yourself lucky to experience the sought-after gourmet doughnuts, such as strawberry lavender and churro, particularly fresh out of the oven.

The LGBT-rights movement grew up in Philadelphia: Its mother, Barbara Giddings, lived in the heart of town. Unlike the more well-known historical parts of Philadelphia, the gayborhood's history is not easily seen with the naked eye ( except for perhaps the rainbow crosswalk at 13th and Locust streets ) so make sure to find a knowledgeable tour guide to reveal the secrets in the streets. One notable exception is Giovanni's Room, the first LGBT bookstore in the country. Now combined with Philly Aids and Thrift, the store still houses an entire floor of LGBTQ literature both well-known and obscure.

Of course, Philadelphia, the nation's first capital, is awash in U.S. history. The modern city grew up behind the colonial one, so the cobblestones and and buildings feel mostly preserved. The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, in addition to the modern National Constitution Center will be popular and crowded, but worth a look if history is your passion.

And, standing on the corner of 6th and Chestnut, overlooking the Liberty Bell, is a final piece of LGBT history. There's a plaque where Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny stood each Independence Day, dressed in conservative suits and carrying signs proclaiming "Gay is Good," an event they called "The Annual Reminder" that began in 1965 and ceased after Stonewall. It's a reminder that Philadelphia has always been a place of independence and creation, no matter who you are. And it's absolutely worth exploring.


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