Having lived through two years of graduate school subsisting largely on soft pretzels and hoagies, this writer is no stranger to the concept of Philadelphia on a budget. But visiting the city is a different beast entirely – our relative undersupply of hotel rooms (a decades-old problem which persists even with new hotel construction as the tourist economy grows) has left frugal travelers precious few attractive low-cost hotel options.
The reality is that most Philly visitors should expect the bulk of their vacation dollars to go towards lodging. There are a few ways around this. Apple Hostels of Philadelphia, for example, offers clean, no frills dorm rooms for around $40 per night. The city’s inner ring suburbs (namely lower Bucks County and southern New Jersey) also boast an array of low rise motels of variable quality for $50-$100. And hey, Philly has 1.5 million people – perhaps you know a few of them and maybe one has a spare couch.
If you take lodging off the table, Philadelphia on $50 a day is a breeze. Start with the freebies. Take a guided tour of Independence Hall, where delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated and ratified the U.S. Constitution. Pretty much everyone pays an obligatory visit to the Liberty Bell on the opposite side of Chestnut Street (also free). But while you’re in the Independence Mall neighborhood, do something a little more unconventional and visit the spectacular Dream Garden mosaic in the lobby of the Curtis Center. Then walk east towards 2nd Street and head north to visit Old City’s many art galleries. On the first Friday of the month, galleries stay open after hours (5 to 9) and many serve complimentary wine and snacks.
Philly has great, inexpensive food all around town. Conveniently enough, Reading Terminal Market more than 80 food purveyors dish up everything from locally madeBassett’s ice cream to overstuffed roast pork sandwiches at DiNic’s. A huge lunch can be procured with relative ease for around $10. From a pure value perspective, the Amish and Mennonite vendors offer some of the best deals: try the pot roast sandwich at Smucker’s Quality Meats and Grill or the half chicken special at Dienner’s.
Reading Terminal abuts Philadelphia’s Chinatown, home to some of the city’s best budget eats. Far and away the best is Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House where a huge bowl of scratch-made pulled noodles with meat or fish is less than ten bucks. Like many terrific Philadelphia restaurants, the place is also BYOB. Conveniently enough, there’s a small Wine & Spirits shop right by Reading Terminal at 5 N. 12th Street.
Check out the city from the perennially underrated City Hall observation deck. The trip up to the top ($6) offers a unique window into the inner workings of a 125 year old building. And the panoramic views from 500 feet up are terrific, particularly on a clear day.
Museums can cost big bucks in Philadelphia. Admission to the Barnes Foundation is $22-$25 and $20 for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But the Barnes is free on the first Sunday of every month (they tend not to shout this from the rooftops) and the Museum of Art is pay-what-you-wish the first Sunday of every month and every Wednesday after 5 p.m. I particularly like the latter option. The museum stays open until 8:45 and the crowds are generally thinner than what you’ll encounter on weekends. There’s also the excellent Rodin Museum, paying tribute to the famed French sculptor. The Rodin is always pay-what-you-wish, with a suggested admission of $10.
Close out an inexpensive day with a couple nightcaps at Ortlieb’s Lounge in Northern Liberties. Crink prices aren’t off-the-charts low, but the dark and strangely intimate venue often features live music with a minimal ($5-$10) or nonexistent cover.