Philadelphia has a diverse and thriving food scene. There are still lots options and arguments around the best Philly cheesesteaks and many long beloved classics like Snapping Turtle Soup (more of that to come) but they are now served up alongside the latest from Israel and Asia.
Some serious food history plus some fantastic new players mean Philly can be a little daunting for foodies with a time limit. So when I recently visited I focused on finding all the Philadelphia Food Tours to help you plan a delicious visit to the first capital of the United States!
Philadelphia Food Tours – What are the Options?
The number one Philly foodie place has got to be Reading Terminal Market. If you like food do not leave Philadelphia without visiting Reading Terminal Market. Chinatown is located near Reading Terminal Market – indeed many Chinatown restaurants buy their produce at the market! The second most well-known foodie stop is the Italian Market – this is an area rather than a covered market.
The majority of the food tours will include 1-3 of these areas as they are the cornerstones of the Philly food scene. Several city food tours Philadelphia then add themes eg hot and spicy and they may or may not include these areas. There are then several niche city food tours on offer like a cooking class or a Sunday night Italian dinner.
In my personal opinion, if you only have time to do one Philadelphia food tour thing make it Reading Terminal Market. It is a slice of Philadelphia history and very unique.
⇒ And if you like taking photos don’t miss my post on the 20 Most Instagrammable Places in Philadelphia.
Is it worth taking a Food Tour Philadelphia?
Of course, you can explore the Philadelphia foodie areas on your own. But in complete honesty, I do feel you would miss out doing this relative to taking one of the Philadelphia tours which focus on food. So much of what is so interesting in these areas is the history of the stalls or shops of Philadelphia – many have been in the same families for generations. There really is no way to find out the history of food in Philadephia whilst walking around on your own.
City food tours Philadelphia also offer terrific tastings. As you are in a group the food can be served in smaller sizes – thus allowing you to try more things! I also like trying what is unique and different about an area and a tour guide is best placed to provide this information.
Most of the market stalls and stores don’t have sample sizes so the options are to either spend quite a bit of money and try a few bites of several things and throw them out or just try one thing.
I now pretty much always take a tour when it comes to things like food markets – whether I am covering the cost or not. The foodie experiences are far more memorable and I feel like I have gained so much more. It also generally means better photos – and no waiting in lines!
What do I take with me on a Philly Food Tour?
Let’s start with flat shoes – you will be doing quite a bit of walking on the majority of Philadelphia food tours – and if you stop will most likely be standing. It is almost impossible to go on these tours without buying something in addition to what you’re tasting so do have some type of bag that is easy to carry. Most of the food tours have some type of outside component or are in a market so a weatherproof jacket won’t go astray.
Do bring some water with you to help wash down your tastings. Of course, there are generally places to buy water but it never seems to be just when you need it and it is so much friendlier to the environment to have a water bottle. If possible travel light due to the walking and standing. A backpack is perfect as you will most likely want both hands free for some of the tastings.
How much does it cost to go on a Philadelphia Food Tour?
Costs vary from the “free”/pay based on how good you thought the food tour was option to private tours and dining at up to $USD150 per person. As a general ballpark if you join a standard group tour expect to pay somewhere around USD$40 plus tip.
Do people in Philadelphia really eat Cheesesteaks?
They do! Quite a bit by the looks of things. There are a lot of people selling cheesesteaks! As you may expect, there are many views on what constitutes and who produces the best Philadelphia cheese steak. It seems to me that the answer to this question is all about your personal taste.
A key difference between Philadelphia cheesesteaks is whether the meat is sliced or chopped. Personally, I preferred the sliced version. The best are made from ribeye!
The second key variable in a Philadelphia cheesesteak is cheese. It has been said that the classic Philadelphia cheesesteak is served with good old Cheez Wiz but I was told this was not mandatory. Provolone is the key cheese used apart from the Wiz due to its milder taste profile.
Critical variable three is bread. Ideally, it is fresh and crusty on the outside, soft and fluffy inside.
Philadelphia cream cheese does not appear in the cheesesteak. Indeed the only link between the city and the cream cheese is the name!
Having said all of that the roast pork sandwich is just as popular with locals as the cheesesteak – but I am sure they can live together in peace!
Check out my video on 36 Foodie Hours in Philadelphia
Where is the best Cheesesteak in Philadelphia?
The classic cheesesteak battle takes place in the Italian Market area, where the cheesesteak started. In the 1930s Pat Olivieri had made steak sandwiches and sold them from his hot dog cart. The first sandwich was apparently for Pat’s lunch but smelt so good a passing cab driver asked if he could have one – and suddenly it was an item on the menu!
Pat’s is still running in the Philadelphia Italian Market area. However, diagonally opposite Pat’s is Geno’s – which also claims to have the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. Joe Vento cleverly opened his store Geno’s in 1966 directly opposite Pat’s. He figured he would not have to spend any money on advertising to create a successful business.
It turns out he was right! Pat and Geno’s continue to enjoy a well marketed “rivalry”. The key difference between the two is that a cheesesteak at Pat’s will have chopped beef whilst Geno’s has sliced beef.
For a slightly different cheesesteak experience check out Carmen’s at Reading Terminal Market. Carmen serves his cheesesteaks with Philadelphia cream cheese rather than provolone for a delicious and unique cheesesteak experience.
And when it comes to roast pork sandwiches check out Tommy DiNic’s version at Reading Terminal Market. It was the winner of the Travel Channel’s Adam Richman’s best sandwich in America!
Reading Terminal Market
The Reading Terminal Market is the foodie place to go in Philadelphia. The market opened in 1893. There was an actual station on this spot – which is now a conference centre. The combination of the train station and the Delaware River, 12 blocks away, made this the perfect spot for a market.
Reading Terminal Market has also been immortalized on the Monopoly Board in the US as Reading Station!
Most of the traders are local food institutions that have been at the market for generations. It is not easy to get a spot at Reading Terminal Market and they are highly contested! If there is an overlap the market holds a “taste-off” where several traders who are keen to get a spot for a particular cuisine eg Israeli all cook and the best food get the spot!
As you might expect, the market has a strict local policy and no chains (unless its a local institution). Also, no more than 40% of the food on offer is ready to eat. The idea is that this ensures that locals will also use the market. The ready to eat food stallholders pay higher rent to offset the lower prices for the take-home traders.
The oldest stand in the market is Bassett Ice Cream. This is the only stand that has been, well, standing since the market opened. Their ice cream is unique as they only use cream and sugar, no eggs. This apparently delivers a much creamier taste. Having visited and eaten their ice cream I would agree! It was -7 degrees when I visited and I still ate it – that good!
Next up was Pearl’s Oyster Bar for some snapping turtle soup! This was the first time that I have eaten turtle. I can best compare it to a beef stew – very tasty. Don’t forget to add the sherry.
Next up were some Philadelphia classics – Scrapple and Sticky Buns! These are served separately. Scrapple – which is a great name! – is kind of like haggis but with none of the icky sourcing. It tends to be leftovers of sausage meat and bacon bits etc. It is often fried and eaten with eggs for breakfast. An insider tip is to eat it with either ketchup or maple syrup – maple syrup is my recommendation!
Sticky buns are, well, buns that are sticky and are quite like cinnamon rolls and rather delicious. Speaking of delicious my absolute favourite item at Reading Terminal Market were the soft pretzels! Where have they been all my life???? Salty but buttery but soft but chewy – amazing! There are also quite a few classic “hard” pretzel offers – many of which are coated in icing and sweet items.
On the sweet theme, the market has several stands which are owned by members of the Amish community – and boy they are good with sugar!!!! The highlight for me was the amazing Beiler’s Donuts. Another Philadelphia classic to try is Butter cake. This is like a slice and it is very, very sweet.
Philadelphia Tours – Reading Terminal Market
For Reading Terminal Market I went on the Taste of Philly Food Tour which was brilliant. This is a truly great Philly Food Tour. The owner and guide Carolyn Wyman is the author of several books on Philadelphia food, is a food writer, food historian, appears in the media talking about Philly food – it is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to show the best of Reading Terminal Market! The tour runs for 75 minutes and is a bargain at only $16.95.
Free tours by Foot offer a “free” walking tour of Reading Terminal Market.
Top Tip – don’t miss getting your photo taken with Philbert the Pig! He is a local landmark. “Feed” Philbert some cash and to the delight of small children (and well most grown-ups) the money comes out the other end! Philbert has been known to dress up and is currently romancing his equivalent at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
A touch of Hollywood – a scene from the movie National Treasure was shot in Reading Terminal Market.
The Philadelphia Italian Market
The Italian market is an area in South Philadelphia that covers 9th street between Christian Street and Washington Avenue. It is filled with delis, butchers, bakeries, cheese shops and all things foodie. The area took on the Italian Market name in the 1970s as supermarkets grew. Not only as the area prospered there are now Mexican, Vietnamese, Korean and other ethnicity food shops and markets popping up.
My Philadelphia food tours Italian Market kicked off with some fresh bread at Sarcone’s bakery. One highlight was Cannuli’s. This high-quality butcher has been a landmark of the Italian Market area for some time. It is best known and loved for its pigs. It is only on a Philadelphia Italian market tour that you will get to see their amazing ovens and freezers.
I enjoyed a fantastic cheese tasting and some extraordinary balsamic vinegar at Di Bruno Bros. The Tortilleria makes delicious fresh from-scratch tortilla chips.
Cardenas is a newer addition to the Italian Market area – only 3 years old. It serves a range of oils and vinegar that are absolutely outstanding – I left having purchased 4 bottles! Since getting home I have been enjoying the amazing combination of their virgin olive oil with blood orange and Lambrusco red wine vinegar as a salad dressing.
Strangely my favourite store in the Philadelphia Italian market didn’t sell any actual food! Fante’s claims to be the oldest kitchenwares store in America. The store is huge and stocked top to toe with every type of kitchen gadget you could possibly imagine. It is family owned and run and a fantastic place to visit.
Philadelphia Food Tours Italian Market
I went on my Italian Market tour with Urban Adventures. I highly recommend their Italian Market Immersion tour – my guide Chuck seemed to know everyone in the area and it was a great way to find out the stories behind the area. They also run other Philly Food Adventures.
There is also an Italian Market Free Food Tour.
Combine the Italian Market with the stunning Magic Garden in a half-day tour. Or go on a 2 hour dedicated walking tour of the Italian Market.
A touch of Hollywood – the Italian Market featured in scenes in both Rocky I and II.
Some other Philly Food Tours
⇒ There is a Free Chinatown Food Tour Philadelphia.
⇒ Combine trying 5 different cheesesteaks with a Segway in this Philadelphia Segway Cheesesteak Tour.
⇒ Combine food with beer and key sights in this full-day Eat Drink and Experience Philly Tour.
⇒ Go high end with the Chestnut Hill Culinary Experience.
⇒ Or try out Philadelphia’s first-ever Donut Tour!
Boutique Hotels in Philadelphia – The Kimpton Hotel Monaco
I stayed in the stunning Kimpton Hotel Monaco and just loved it! My kind of boutique hotel! There is an eclectic and colourful design theme throughout the Kimpton. Guests are greeted in the lobby with an amazing chandelier in the shape of a ship.
The Kimpton Hotel Monaco has a number of fun concepts like a free happy hour each night as well as free coffee in the morning. It is a nice personal touch that encourages guests to meet each other.
There was also a gym but in complete honesty, I didn’t visit!
Let’s get to the best bit – my room! I had a stunning corner room at the Kimpton Monaco on the 10th floor. The views of the city were fantastic. Best of all there was a stunning view from the bathroom and in particular the bathtub. Not something that is seen often!
Cupcakes awaited me in my room at the Kimpton to say hello – so much better than cookies! A really nice touch was a handwritten note on my notepad with contact details in case of any problems.
The room at the Philadelphia Kimpton was beautifully designed with eye-catching wallpaper, interesting lamps, individual pieces which all gave it character and made it feel like a bedroom rather than a hotel room. Great wifi and a big tv with all the channels I could ever need. I also really liked the Kimpton Monaco’s cross between a bathrobe and a hoodie – very comfortable!
My very large bed at the Kimpton Monaco was insanely comfortable with such lovely soft sheets and duvet. There were great toiletries and signs in the bathroom asking if you had forgotten anything and listing all the available items – so useful! I couldn’t believe I was only staying one night in such a fabulous room!
The location of the Kimpton couldn’t be better. It is right on Independence Square – it is virtually possible to see the Liberty Bell from the Restaurant! The Bourse food exchange is also literally next door.
For eating and drinking at the Kimpton Monaco there is the Red Owl Tavern on the ground floor. I like that the hotel restaurant is a “real” restaurant! There is also a rooftop bar/lounge but it wasn’t open when I was there as it was -7 degrees!
Every room at the Kimpton Monaco has a yoga mat, pets are welcome, there is a “soaks” menu for different bathing options, hotel bikes – there were so many fun and charming things on offer that I wish I had of been able to try! I will definitely be staying at Kimpton hotels again!
Speaking of which, in case you don’t or can’t stay at Monaco, Kimpton has another hotel in Philadelphia – Kimpton Hotel Palomar.
Or try Airbnb – check out this post before you do so you get $35 off Airbnb.
How to get to Philadelphia
Philadelphia International Airport is only 11km from the centre of Philadelphia.
Another option is to take the train to Philadelphia from New York which is what I did. Trains for Philadelphia run out of Penn Station frequently and this was a really easy and comfortable option. The fast train is not far over one hour each way. Both stations have loads of good places to get snacks, meals and reading material for the journey.
What are the best Philly foods to try?
For the best Philly foods to try you must, of course, start with the Cheesesteak! Then a roast pork sandwich. Try pretzels both soft and hard. Perhaps some scrapple with your breakfast.
I would also highly recommend enjoying the sweet side of Philadelphia. I think Reading Terminal Market is the best place for this – head to the Amish bakeries! The Amish are well renowned for their delicious sweet products – especially doughnuts at Beigel’s.
What are some of the best restaurants in Philadelphia?
Stephen Starr is a well known American restaurateur who owns the aptly named Starr Restaurants Group. He was born and is based in Philadelphia. The group owns over 30 restaurants. One of the most well known is the fantastic Buddakan. This modern Asian fusion restaurant, of course, has a 10-foot gold Buddha – and a waterfall!
The food at Buddakan is outstanding! We enjoyed edamame dumplings, crispy calamari salad, curried cauliflower and some rather delicious chargrilled aged beef. 20 of Stephen Starr’s restaurants are in Philadelphia. I think you would have a high probability of a good meal at any and all of them!
Michael Schulshon is another entrepreneurial Philadelphia based restaurateur. He is known for his dual-level restaurants where the top level tends to be a bar and/or more casual restaurant and downstairs a more upmarket restaurant. His latest is the Italian themed Giuseppe and Sons.
For High-end sushi and Asian fusion food head to Sampan.
Bank and Bourbon is classic American contemporary cuisine with a fantastic reputation located in the lovely Loews hotel. If you’re heading there for dinner don’t miss heading up in the elevator to see some stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline.
The Bourse is the old stock exchange building located on Independence Square. It is now home to a whole host of different food and retail stores – from tacos to poke to ramen to Filipino. The building itself is beautiful. There is a large seating area in the middle of The Bourse and a bar. The Bourse is a good option for eating all times of the day.
If you happen to visit Philadelphia in January check out Restaurant Week. Many of the best restaurants in the city offer bargain set price lunches and dinners. They also run a second week towards the end of the year.
Good Coffee & Hot Chocolate in Philadelphia
Bluestone Lane is an Australian small scale coffee chain that has excellent coffee. La Colombe is well known in Philadelphia for its coffee. They also have a few cafes – I went to La Colombe in Independence Square a couple of times and liked it a lot.
The hot new coffee place is Greg Vernick’s coffee bar in the new Four Seasons. This is more than a coffee bar – it serves up a mix of contemporary and delicious looking meals. The newest and tallest building in Philadelphia is the Comcast Technology Centre.
The Comcast Technology Centre is the home to a new Four Seasons hotel which opens in 2019. Greg Vernick will also have a restaurant here as will Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (the restaurant will be on the 59th and 60th floors and have the views to match).
Norman Foster designed the Comcast building and it will also have a five-story Winter Garden and a 120 foot illuminated lantern on the top of the building.
For hot chocolate, there are two fantastic places. I discovered Shanes on my Philadelphia History tour. Shane’s claims to be America’s oldest candy shop and serve hot chocolate made from chocolate and milk in the back area. Then there is the RIM cafe in the Italian Market. The hot chocolate will set up back $9 but apparently, it is worth it (closed the day I went).
Who Paid for What in this Post
A big thank you to the fantastic team at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. They sponsored my trip (eg paid for things) and were fabulous. My costs were covered but the views in this post, as always, are all my own.
And while we’re on that track – some of the links in this post will take you to websites with whom I have a commercial agreement. If you make a purchase on those sites I will receive a small commission. I wanted to make sure you knew this.
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