Philadelphia / Photo by Katie Burkholder

Queer Art, History, and Nightlife Collide in Philadelphia

When you think of Philadelphia, the boring straight white men you learned about in history class may come to mind. In truth, Philly is so much more. Boasting a vibrant LGBTQ community, an eclectic arts scene, and history that isn’t boring, straight, and white, Philadelphia is the perfect backdrop for your travels this summer.

 

LGBTQ Philly

Philadelphia is known as the epicenter of American history, and walking through the streets, that will be apparent. Cobblestone paths, stunning architecture, and historical markers around the city will transport you to the early days of American life (without the more regrettable aspects).

 

But did you know that queer people had an integral role in American history? Take a tour of Philly’s Gayborhood with Beyond the Bell Tours. BTB is committed to putting the people back in people’s history with inclusive tours highlighting marginalized communities often erased from retellings of America’s history. During my time in Philly, I went on their LGBTQ History Tour, but they also offer the Badass Women’s History Tour and the Beyond the [Liberty] Bell Tour, which hits all the main tourist sites in the historic Old City and Independence Park, but told from perspectives often minimized by mainstream tourism.

 

If you opt for the LGBTQ tour, you’ll get the lowdown on the evolution of Pride in the city and the controversies of racism in the Gayborhood; visit America’s longest continuously operating LGBTQ and feminist bookstore, Giovanni’s Room; learn about influential LGBTQ figures like Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Barbara Gittings, and Gloria Casarez. It is a walking tour, so wear comfortable shoes and bring water!

 

Even if you don’t take the tour, make a stop on your own to Giovanni’s Room. The historic bookstore is an eclectic spot to pick up some queer literature, take a load off after a day full of walking, and absorb Philly’s LGBTQ culture past and present. And while out and about, pick up a copy of Philadelphia Gay News at one of its countless drop boxes across the city. Find a location at epgn.com/find-a-copy-of-pgn.

 

Head over to South Street, one of Philly’s coolest neighborhoods, to visit Philly AIDS Thrift, Philadelphia’s version of Atlanta’s Lost N Found Youth Thrift Store. They sell secondhand items and distribute profits to local organizations fighting against HIV/AIDS. While I didn’t find the selection amazing, the atmosphere is very fun to walk around in and browse — and there are several other secondhand stores in the area, so if you’re a thrift connoisseur, you can definitely make an afternoon of it.

 

While in South Street, grab a cocktail (or mocktail) and some delicious bar food at Tattooed Mom, a gay-owned pub that’s sure to impress. The atmosphere is cool, the drinks are inventive, and almost the entire menu can be made vegan — which, if you’re vegan, you know is hard to come by. Try the vegan wings; you won’t be disappointed. After dinner, head to the punk bar upstairs. The walls are constantly changing with graffiti, art, and stickers added by patrons, a testament to how integral the community is to the owners, and seating options include vintage bumper cars!

 

The city boasts some other great gay-owned restaurants, including Winkel for brunch (try the Eggs Benedict; it’s my favorite breakfast meal and Winkel had the best version I’ve ever tasted!), Mission Taqueria for tacos and margaritas, and Darling Jack’s Tavern for a night out that is a bit more upscale without being stuffy or inaccessible.

 

In the early 2000s, Visit Philadelphia launched a tourism campaign touting Philadelphia as the place where you can “get your history straight and your nightlife gay,” and the city still lives up to the promise more than two decades later. While there is an epidemic of gay and lesbian bar closures across the country, Philly is still home to several gay bars within a two-block radius (three on a one-block strip of S. Camac Street alone!). While I didn’t partake in the nightlife during my trip, some of the city’s favorites include Woody’s, Philly’s oldest gay bar; Tavern on Camac, known for its sleek piano lounge and show tune sing-alongs; U Bar, a great spot for no-frills people watching with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street; Tabu, Philly’s first gay sports bar; and Voyeur Nightclub, the only after-hours club in the Gayborhood. Unfortunately, there is currently no lesbian bar in the city, but couple Julia Harris and Clover Gilfor are raising funds to open Val’s Lesbian Bar soon.

 

Consider making the trek to Philly in September to catch the Bearded Ladies Cabaret during the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, a three-week extravaganza dedicated to all things weird, inventive, and outside the box. I was able to see the unconventional drag cabaret at The Closet and it was well worth planning your entire trip around. This year’s festival lasts from September 5 to 29; learn more at phillyfringe.org.

 

Other Philly Highlights

Beyond the LGBTQ-specific sights to see, some other recommendations include visiting Reading Terminal Market, a massive food hall where you can eat anything your heart desires (I suggest the Korean-style corn dog at Fox & Son, a classic Philly cheesesteak at Spataro’s Cheesesteaks, wonton noodle soup at Sang Kee Peking Duck, and dessert at 4th Street Cookie Company); taking a walk by the water or lounging in a hammock at Spruce Street Harbor Park; strolling through the magical world of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens; admiring the breathtaking works of Renoir, Picasso, and Matisse at the Barnes Foundation museum; and immersing yourself in the huge, interactive, and one-of-a-kind art exhibits at Wonderspaces.

 

To learn more about Philadelphia and start planning your trip, head to visitphilly.com.