Philadelphia is one amazing city. We spent some of our best years living there and while we live in Denmark today, Philly will always be home. When people ask what we miss most about living there it’s usually defined by three F’s: family, friends and FOOD. There are so many great Philly foods and each one defines the city and its unique culture.
A lot of places around the world attempt to replicate the cheesesteak (in Philly we don’t call it a “Philadelphia cheesesteak”) but many shouldn’t. For a good one you need to go to Philadelphia. Besides the most famous Philly foods, there are plenty of hidden culinary gems that you won’t find elsewhere in the States.
That’s why we wanted to come up with the ultimate list of Philly foods you need to try in Philadelphia. We frequently have friends and colleagues travel to the city who ask us what to try – but we never put it in a post. Well here it is, please let us know what you think of our ultimate guide to Philadelphia foods.
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The Classics: Local Philly Foods
The first things you need to try in Philadelphia are some local classics. Some of these you may have heard of before and others will be completely new. A few are found in other cities around the world but none are as good as the ones you can find in Philly. We’ll even let you know where to find some of the city’s best (and a few places to avoid).
The cheesesteak is probably Philadelphia’s most famous food item. It’s said to date back to 1930 when two brothers in South Philadelphia devised the sandwich – chopped beef on an Italian long roll. It wasn’t long before the concept took off and someone added sharp provolone cheese to the meat before putting it in the roll. Today you can also order the cheesesteak around Philly with cheese whizz, american or swiss. Toppings can be added like onions, mushrooms, peppers, sauces and more.
People visiting Philadelphia always ask us where to go for the best cheesesteak. We tell them two things. First, avoid the tourist traps of Pat’s and Geno’s (no one from Philly eats there). Secondly, our favorite place, D’Alessandro’s Steaks & Hoagies is just outside of center city in the Roxborough neighborhood. We go there every time we’re home – even on Christmas Eve! Some trips we even stop there on our way to the airport so it’s the last thing we eat before flying back to Europe.
If you’re not willing to make the trip out of the downtown area, ask any local their favorite place for a cheesesteak. Philadelphians are generally friendly and they love talking about where to eat in the city!
Pretzels are, of course, not a new food item. In fact, they were reportedly created by Italian monks in the year 610 CE and spread to neighboring Austria and Germany. They were called pretiolas, meaning “little rewards”. They became known as bretzels in Germany and the Pennsylvania Dutch and other German communities that migrated to Pennsylvania brought them to America.
Due to New World ingredients and some happy accidents, the pretzels in Philadelphia came out softer and more doughy (like me in the winter) but people loved them. Philadelphia soft pretzels are also unique in shape. They resemble a tight figure eight shape, different than a normal pretzel.
Today you’ll find tasty soft pretzels baked all over the city in stores like Philly Pretzel Factory and the old standby Center City Pretzel Company.
Tomato pie is a classic Philly food served all around the region. It looks like a Sicilian pizza, but is far from any pizza you’ve ever had because it’s served cold and has no cheese. Tomato pie has a focaccia-like crust that’s covered in tomato sauce, oven-baked, allowed to cool and refrigerated. When tomato pie is served, it’s never heated up or topped with cheese. Occasionally it’s sprinkled with oregano or parmesan cheese and I know it may still sound odd, but it’s delicious!
The dish arrived in Philadelphia via immigrants from Sicily in the early 1900s. It’s based on a Palermo street food called sfincione. The first bakers to attempt the dish in Philly had to improvise with local ingredients and the result is tomato pie. The best tomato pie in Philadelphia is found in the original Italian neighborhood, East Passyunk. Sarcone’s Italian Bakery has been serving tomato pie for five generations and is one of the best places to try the dish. Arrive early because they only make a set amount each day and when they’re out, they’re out!
Italian water ice (pronounced “wooter ice” in Philly) is a refreshing summer treat. It’s one of the most classic Philly foods even through there are similar versions elsewhere in the country. Water ice is a little bit like frozen sherbert except it contains no eggs or daily. It’s made from water, sugar, ice and flavored with fruit.
There are plenty of places to try Italian water ice in Philadelphia and one of the biggest chains is Rita’s Water Ice based in Bensalem, a suburb. You’ll find multiple locations around the city or you can try a local stand like John’s Water Ice at 7th and Christian or Pop’s Water Ice on Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia.
Your Favorite Foods Done Philly Style
Philadelphia is one of the most underrated foodie destinations. The innovation and creativity of Philly’s best food scene presents a delicious landscape to eat your way through. Here are a few spots where you can find a Philadelphia twist on foods you already know well.
Chickie's & Pete's Crab Fries And More
Chickie’s & Pete’s is a Philadelphia institution and they serve up one of the best Philly foods – crab fries. On the surface Chickie’s & Pete’s is a normal pub and American sports bar. They serve seafood, classic sandwiches (including a pretty good cheesesteak) and a range of craft beers, but their famous crab fries set them apart. They’re a crinkle cut french fry tossed in Old Bay seasoning and served with a melted cheese sauce. No matter what you order for your main course, you need to start by sharing an order of crab fries with the table!
At the time of publishing, there are six Federal Donuts locations in Philadelphia. It doesn’t matter which one you go to, you’re in for an incredible experience. The venture was started by five culinary professionals who decided to perfect the donut and Korean fried chicken experience in Philadelphia. Yes, they may not seem like the perfect pair but Federal Donuts does them both better than any place in Philly.
Each shop draws a crowd most hours of the day because you can get hot, fresh donuts right out of the fryer. They toppings include a perfect house blend of sugars as well as daily special toppings that are imaginative and delicious.
Come for the donuts, but stay for the best chicken sandwich in Philly. It’s a double-fried chicken breast seasoned with ranch dressing, a hot sauce and American cheese on a Martin’s potato bun. It sounds like a simple creation but the flavors are so complex for a food of comfort.
South Philadelphia Barbacoa
1140 S. 9th Street
Another Philadelphia food destination that has been featured on television is South Philly Barbacoa. It was featured on the Netflix show, Chef’s Table, but it was already super popular before the airing. This is because of national acclaim for the slow-cooked barbacoa-style tacos served here and that the owner and her husband were also featured on a second Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. Some days you will find the line stretches down the block at this walk-up taco counter.
The tacos are the reason to visit the unassuming taco shop in South Philly’s Italian Market, not the Netflix fandom. Still, it’s a pretty good sign that South Philadelphia Barbacoa has garnered so much attention with every culinary venture the owners have taken on in the city.
DiNic's Roast Pork Sandwich
Reading Terminal Market
Tommy DiNic’s is a fourth-generation staple of the Philly foods scene. It’s located in one of the culinary epicenter of the city, Reading Terminal Market (more on RTM later). Their famous roast pork sandwich really is famous because it’s been featured on multiple shows on the Travel Channel.
Besides the cable networks loving it, the sandwich is delicious. It’s thinly sliced roasted pork pieces piled into a Sarcone’s Italian roll with sharp provolone cheese and broccoli rabe. You may have to stand in line and fights crowds in Reading Terminal Market to get yours, but it’s worth all the hype!
Nick's Roast Beef Sandwich
2149 S. 20th Street
Located in West Passayunk, Old Original Nick’s Roast Beef is a staple and must-visit destination for a roast beef sandwich. The family owned establishment serves a menu of sandwiches and guilt pleasures but, like their name suggests, you need a roast beef sandwich. They slow-roast the meat and it’s served dripping-wet. I personally like it topped with provolone cheese and a side of gravy fries.
Nick’s is the perfect no-frills place to experience “real Philadelphia” foods. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhods and getting to visit different off-beat areas of the city is the best part of visiting.
Franklin Fountain Ice Cream
112 Market Street
Ice cream may not be original to Philadelphia, but Franklin Fountain is one Philly food establishment you cannot pass up. It’s an old-fashioned ice cream shop down to the bow-tie clad staff. The old time charm of the soda fountain and ice cream parlor makes it a must-visit stop in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. They also sell vegan-friendly ice cream and dessert in this family owned artisanal ice cream shop.
Where To Plan The Perfect Philly Food Experience
Besides local classics and reimagined favorites, Philly foods can also make an entire meal. Dining out in Philadelphia can mean all kinds of experiences. Like most cities Philadelphia has incredible high-end dining experiences and some more unique must-visit foodie destinations. Here are our suggestions for the most unique and delicious food experiences and destinations in Philadelphia.
Reading Terminal Market
12th and Arch Streets
Philadelphia has always been a city of open-air markets. As the city grew, a stretch of market ran from the Delaware Riverfront six blocks west. This even prompted the city to rename the thoroughfare “Market Street” from “High Street”.
In 1893, the city moved the market at 12th Street indoors. This was done for sanitation and safety reasons as the market was operating underneath the elevated train shed of the Reading Railroad. Reading Terminal Market has existed there ever since. It’s home to over 100 vendors including two original occupants of the market.
Vendor stalls are arranged in a grid with an open air seating area in the center. The market is open seven days a week but not all vendors maintain that schedule. For example, the Pennsylvania Dutch vendors are only open Wednesday through Saturday.
It’s one of the best places to visit for all sorts of food experiences from cheesesteaks to fresh produce. Make sure to try some fresh meats and cheese at Downtown Cheese Shop and grab a baguette at Metropolitan Bakery. Then get lost in the rows of vendors and eat your way through.
13th Street Corridor
As mentioned, Philadelphia is home to some of the country’s best restaurants. The growth of Philadelphia’s fine dining reputation coincides with the rebirth of the city in the last 20 years. As the city has grown, it’s still a much cheaper place to open a restaurant than the super-saturated culinary landscape of New York City. This is what’s attracted so many of the country’s best chefs and restauranteurs to Philadelphia.
Many have set up shop along the city’s 13th Street corridor. A section of the Gayborhood neighborhood between Chestnut Street and Locust. Among the our favorite restaurants are Sampan, Jamonera and the popular El Vez.
Philadelphia's Italian Market
South 9th Street from Fitzwater to Wharton Street
Philadelphia’s Italian Market is one of the oldest and continuously operating open-air markets in the United States. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the area outside of the original city limits were reserved for newly arriving immigrants. Italian immigrants first opened the markets in the markets on South 9th Street along with a handful of Jewish vendors.
Today the Italian Market is just as busy and popular and exploring the Italian Market is a great way to taste the city. It’s full of grocers, cafes, restaurants, cheese shops, butcher shops and awning covered curb-side food produce stands. Much of the current market is still Italian, like Termini Brothers Bakery, but a growing portion reflects the city’s newest generation of immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Some of the best Philly foods are waiting to be discovered in the Italian Market.
Bring Your Own Beverage: BYOB Dining
In 1933, after prohibition was repealed, the governor of Pennsylvania enacted a strict liquor licensing system. It allowed for only one license to sell liquor per 3,000 county residents. This finite number of liquor licenses has made it expensive to open a bar, pub or even a restaurant that sells alcohol.
To operate under this difficult system, many budding restaurant owners and chefs have found a way around the laws. They offer customers BYOB dining, or “Bring Your Own Bottle” service. It not only makes a cheaper night out in Philadelphia, but it’s given a chance for some extremely talented chefs to open a restaurant. These places are often among the city’s best restaurants because the sole focus is on the food.
The Philadelphia region is home to over 300 BYOB restaurants. Two of our favorites are Melegrano (Italian) and Bibou (French). It’s another way to dine out and a great way to taste some of the best foods in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Food Tours
If you only have one day in Philadelphia or just a weekend, a good way to taste all the best Philly foods is with a food tour. Here are a few ways to eat your way through Philadelphia with just one tour. The majority of them include options from all of our suggestions and they’ll all fill your stomach with deliciousness.
We’ve included links to book directly with free cancelation up to 24 hours before your chosen tour.
The Flavors of Philly Food Tour
This tour is a two and a half hour journey through the best of Philadelphia’s classic foods. Soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, tomato pie and more await at five different stops. The tour largely focuses on Reading Terminal Market and the surrounding areas but you will walk away with tips and stories to fill your food itinerary for the rest of your stay.
Philadelphia Gourmet Food Tour
Also two and a half hours long, this tour begins in Reading Terminal Market with three tastings: a gourmet grilled cheese, Middle Eastern fare, an Amish doughnut and more. The tour ends with a walk to DiBruno Brothers, a famous Philadelphia meat and cheese purveyor.
The Philly Cheesesteak Tour
There’s nothing more Philadelphia than trying five different cheesesteaks in two and a half hours. The Philly Cheesesteak Tour involves riding a segway all over the city from the Italian Market to Society Hill and beyond. The five stops include some of the best and most popular cheesesteak shops.
The tour does make a stop at Pat’s and Geno’s (not our favorite) but does include Jim’s, Campo’s and Ishkabible’s – three that we do recommend. See for yourself where the best cheesesteak in Philly is found and enjoy covering a lot of ground on a fun to ride segway.
Now You're Ready to Eat Your Way Through Philadelphia
There it is! From fine dining to food fours, water ice to tomato pie – this is our guide for what to eat in Philadelphia. You’ll discover more than just how good a real Philly cheesesteak is when you visit the city of Philadelphia.
You’ll get to learn how immigrants shaped the way Philly eats when you visit the Italian Market and how they’re still shaping the same historical neighborhood with foodie spots like South Philly Barbacoa. You’ll get to taste it all from breakfast doughnuts to dinner and dessert. Maybe you’ll even bring your own bottle of wine to a delicious French restaurant with a passionate owner that overcame barriers to pursue his passion.
Philadelphia is an amazing city made up by incredible people who have a long history with food. It’s part of the culture of the city and it extends well beyond the cheesesteak (but eat all of those too).
We love our hometown SO much and while miss our friends and family, the special food in Philadelphia is truly hard to be away from for long. Bon Apepétit!
Ask for more advice or let us know what you think of Philly and all the delicious foods there in the comments.
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