A queer woman’s guide to Philadelphia: A city with LGBT history and modern fun

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The City of Sisterly Affection is one hell of a mecca for queer women. From the site of the first queer sit-in in America in 1965 to the home of the oldest gay bookstore in America, Philly is arguably the only city in America where the center of the city (a.k.a. “Center City”) is also the Gayborhood. And, unlike other cities where the gayborhoods are dominated by gay men, in Philly’s Gayborhood you’ll find a ton of queer women of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, and gender expressions. Although the lesbian bar Sisters closed over two years ago, queer women are very welcome at bars like Woody’s and ICandy, and, for the kinky queens and kings into the leather scene, The Bike Stop. For the requisite bump-and-grind, check out Stimulus, one of the largest and most diverse queer women’s dance parties in the country, held monthly at various locations in the city.

 

With its crosswalks painted in rainbow colors, the Gayborhood also is a visual testament to its commitment to queer women. A block away from the #DeepLez intersection of Barbara Gittings Way (Gittings is considered the “mother of the LGBT civil rights movement”) and Gloria Casarez Way, you’ll see the mural dedication to Gloria Casarez, who was Philly’s first official LGBT Director and active member in the lesbian community. The mural adorns the side wall of the 12th Street Gym (i.e., the Gym for Gays). Within a walkable block or so of the intersection, in the heart of the Gayborhood, you’ll also find a Planned Parenthood, the Missoni Center for LGBT health, the Community Women’s Center, and the William Way Center, the city’s LGBT center, which has an incredible archive for LGBT history buffs.

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Philly is a great place to catch up not only on your American history but your LGBT history. And if you find yourself traveling into the city during the winter months, there is plenty to do both in and around the Gayborhood. In fact, the gay-radius (what some may label “early-onset gentrification”), now extends beyond the Gayborhood, east to East Passyunk (where gay men are now buying homes) and north to the already-gentrified Northern Liberties, and beyond—to the aptly-named Fishtown (YES, THIS IS WHERE THE LESBIANS ARE!). It is in these two neighborhoods where you’ll find cute galleries boutiques, dive bars and bowling alleys, and incredible up-and-coming restaurants. Also, for lesbians especially: the Random Tea Room and Curiosity Shop, where you can sip on one of over 40 artisanal and house-brewed teas while perusing the shop’s vintage wares and crafts. 

Year-round and not just during Pride Month, Philly is SUPER GAY and celebrates the LGBT community. Annual events include the Equality Forum and the Trans-Health Conference, which usually take place in late spring. OutFest is earmarked annually for October. If you plan to visit Philly in 2016, remember the Democratic Convention will be held there the last weekend in July, which may, depending on your politics, entice or frighten you.

WHERE TO STAY

As the city’s epicenter, there’s no better place to stay than in the Gayborhood—first, because it’s the Gayborhood, and, second, because it offers easy access to all other destinations within the city. And Philly, inclement weather aside, because of its size, is a walkable city. There are quite a few gay-owned and managed B&Bs and accommodations in the Gayborhood. I recommend staying at the Independent Hotel, a modestly-priced 24-room boutique hotel with charming rooms that feature fireplaces and French doors. The hotel includes a complimentary light breakfast with your stay, so you can enjoy a croissant and coffee in the morning before venturing out into the city for the day.

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WHERE TO EAT

Incredibly unique to Philly—and a #DeepLez dream—is the fact that a number of the city’s best eateries are owned and operated by lesbian couple Chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. They basically own all of 13th Street in the Gayborhood. For example, Jamonera is their Spanish tapas bar; Barbuzzo features Turney’s interpretation of Mediterranean fare; and Lolita offers modern Mexican food with tremendous margaritas. (Also, for margarita lovers: hit El Vez at night for people watching.)

My wife and I dined at Turney and Safran’s latest restaurant, Bud & Marilyn’s, just around the corner from the Independent Hotel. Decorated as a 1950s throwback, Bud & Marilyn’s is Turney’s creative reimagining of mid-twentieth-century classic American cuisine, including a banging meatloaf and a life-changing coconut cream pie (with a curried sesame graham crust!). But you must—YOU MUST—try the fried chicken with homemade biscuits. The crunchy crust (to note: on the thicker side) has a hint of coriander to it and the meat is miraculously super sweet and juicy inside. The biscuits are about two-inches thick with a similar composition of crisp crust on the outside and flaky buttery goodness inside. Eat it all—the great thing about staying at the Independent Hotel is that you have free access to the 12th Street Gym, so you can literally roll out of Bud & Marilyn’s straight into the gym and onto the treadmill.

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Philly is emerging as a culinary hotspot with an inventive food scene made with locally farmed food. Explore beyond 13th Street to hit other recently-opened restaurants like Heritage in the Northern Liberties—a jazz bar and restaurant with a perfect pheasant dish (with drool-worthy pheasant scrapple!) and an incredibly-priced champagne and oyster special. For steak lovers, try Urban Farmer in Logan Square, which is located en route on the way to the art museums. If steak isn’t your thing, there I personally recommend the shrimp and grits, with poached egg on top, as well as the side dish of roasted foraged mushrooms, which is so hearty that it could actually serve as an entrée unto itself.

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With approximately 150 restaurants set to open in Philly this year, the attraction of The New Thing may lead you to overlook some incredible dining. Oldie-but-goodies, where the entire LGBT community is not only welcome but visible in the staff and service, include the White Dog Cafe in West Philly; vegetarian fine-dining hotspot Vedge in the Gayborhood; and Vetri for Italian in Midtown Village. Sabrina’s Cafe in the Italian Market is the best brunch spot but is nearly impossible to get a table (they do not accept reservations for brunch). Green Eggs Cafe is also a yummy brunch spot right in the Gayborhood.

Of course, if you’re in a hurry or not in the mood for a sit-down meal, there’s the Reading Terminal Market, which is like a super-food-court that is both terrific and terrible for indecisive and constantly hangry people like myself, and where you can find speciality Pennsylvania Dutch foods and deli sandwiches and plenty of shops peddling cookies and donuts and pastries. My Italian lesbrethren, there are Italian pastries at the Reading Terminal Market, yes, but you should definitely spend an afternoon wandering though the Italian Market. If you don’t, I don’t know what’s-a-matter-for-you.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Philly is not only a great place for food lovers; it is also a great place for people who love art and history. Yes, you can visit Betsey Ross’s House and see the Liberty Bell and go inside Independence Hall (where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed). But there’s a lot more to see and do outside of the elementary-school history experience. Out of the dozens and dozens of museums you can visit during your stay, there are a handful that are a must. The Barnes Foundation is home to the eclectic 3,000+ collection of the late Dr. Albert Barnes. The collection focuses on French impressionism and post-impressionism, and is notable because it is not arranged by period or style, but distinctively by light, line, color, and space. The Rodin Museum is home to the largest collection of Rodin sculptures and drawings outside of Paris. (Yes, The Thinker is there!) The Mütter Museum is a must-see for anyone interested in oddities and human body parts and other species preserved in vats of formaldehyde (or adipocere, which has preserved the body of the “Soap Lady”). The Eastern State Penitentiary is located outside of center city, but definitely worth a visit for people wanting a “Ghost Hunter” experience. The One Liberty Observation Deck provides a perfect perch 57-stories high for visitors who want a memorable Instagram pic of the Philly skyline. And, if you find yourself wanting to join the flock of drunken sports-folk on South Street, Philly’s Magic Gardens is an eye-catching wonderland for anyone interested in the artistry of architecture. A creation of legendary local artist Isaiah Zagar, you can walk through the “gardens” decorated with recycled glass and colorful ceramic.   

If you travel to Philly in winter, like I did, you should definitely spend one evening at Winterfest, located on Penn’s Landing. With an open-air Olympic-size rink, there you can snuggle up with your girl on one of the “winter cabanas,” and enjoy the fire with the warm beverage of your choice.

Oh, and lesbians: please visit and patronize Giovanni’s Room, the oldest LGBT new and used bookstore in America. There you can buy lesbian magazines and pulp fiction and queer theory and essentially any other #DeepLez literary item you are looking for (and, if they don’t have it, of course, they’ll order it for you). 

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Look what I found: a vinyl album of Lily Tomlin!

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HOW TO GET THERE

Philly is accessible by car, bus, train, and plane. If you’re located on the east coast, Amtrak offers quick, express service to 30th Street Station, a towering art deco building on the west side of the city. From 30th Street Station you can head west to explore UPenn’s college campus or hang out with the crusty queers, granola hippies, and hipster lesbians in their collective-living-style row houses in West Philly. Or you can head east from the station into Center City.

Word of advice: Do not use local taxis, which are prohibitively expensive. Instead, if you are unable to walk or simply don’t want to, take UBER in Philly—yes, UBER, which I wouldn’t recommend in cities like New York but highly recommend for getting around Philly, especially in the winter. For example, my UBER trip from Washington Park, just east of the Gayborhood, to 30th Street Station costs only $7. 

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