If the world hasn’t already heard about Philadelphia, it will soon. Thanks to the global attention brought by #PopeInPhilly and the DNC (not to mention the Dalai Lama’s visit, the Craft Brewers Conference and a host of other top-level events happening within the next year and a half), the City of Brotherly Love is in the international spotlight.
In 2013 alone, the city welcomed 39 million visitors who had a $10 billion impact on the local economy. That year saw the city’s hotel occupancy reach its highest level since 1949, with 75.5 percent of rooms being booked. Most of these people came here for pleasure, not for business — leisure accounted for 88 percent of the visits (that’s 10 points higher than the national average).
So what do all these vacationing out-of-towners see and do when they come? For many, it’ll be guided by information provided by the hotel where they stay — and the experts employed specifically to hand out that advice. Billy Penn caught up with concierges at six top Philadelphia hotels to find out what scoops they’re giving visitors.
We asked about things like:
- Restaurants — other than the restaurant in the hotel itself (some of which are pretty good, these days), what spots do they suggest most often?
- Cheesesteaks — do they send tourists to the classic trap, or give the skinny on insider gems?
- Other activities — outside of food, is it all Liberty Bell and Rocky steps, or are there alternate sights on the recommended list?
- Transportation — Philly is walkable, but is that something non-natives will want to take advantage of? And what if the destination is a couple miles away?
- Street smarts — do Philly’s streets and people merit a warning for visitors coming from non-urban environments?
- Best story — what’s the most memorable guest request or interaction they’ve had during their tenure?
Andrew Terranova, Hotel Monaco (433 Chestnut Street)
Born in Buffalo, NY, Terranova split his childhood between there and Lancaster, PA, and chose to move to Philadelphia back in 2002. He held a marketing job at the Walnut Street Theatre for several years before joining the Monaco as concierge in 2013.
Restaurants: “Dante & Luigi’s in South Philly is my favorite place, personally, and I recommend it all the time. The food is great and it’s also a wonderful Philadelphia experience — it’s been around over 100 years and there was a mob hit there one time, you can’t get more authentic than that.”
Cheesesteaks: “I get asked about cheesesteaks at least once an hour — I could make it into a drinking game. I usually say go to Campo’s or Jim’s on South Street. I have friends who recommend Ishkabibble’s, but trying to spell it is a pain; Jim’s much easier.”
Activities: “The Constitutional Walking Tour or the Spirit of ‘76 Ghost Tour. On the first one, the tour guides are actually knowledgeable, but it’s more fun than textbook history. For the second, it’s worth going on just for the gorgeous evening walk through Society Hill.”
Transportation: “The Phlash is an invaluable resource. It goes to all the top spots and it’s cheap. If there are events at the stadiums, I send people on the subway — I have printed directions ready to hand them to make it really easy.”
Environs: “I tell people to remember that Philly is on a grid, and that the address numbers on the named streets match up with the numbered streets. Also that as long as they’re in Center City, they’ll be pretty safe.”
Story: “A Make a Wish kid named Gabe stayed here while he was undergoing treatment at CHOP, and he wanted to be a park ranger when he grew up. I put him in a room with a balcony and told him if he was lucky, he might set the red tailed hawk. Sure enough, it landed right on his balcony. It was perfect.”
William Klein, Sofitel (120 S. 17th Street)
Klein has lived in Philadelphia since 1980 and been in the hospitality industry for decades (“I’m the wise old owl around here”). For 15 years he was a coordinator for film festivals around the country, booking travel and accommodations and troubleshooting for celebrities. He returned to Philadelphia and was a sales rep for visitor publications for three years before settling into the concierge position at the Sofitel six years ago.
Restaurants: “There’s an embarrassment of riches as far as restaurants go right now. More often than not, guests want to be able to walk there, so I send them to Vernick. From the day it opened three years ago, it’s been stellar — I’ve never had a dissenting opinion from anyone I’ve sent there. They just get ‘hospitality,’ and the food is sophisticated but simple.”
Cheesesteaks: “I let guests know that yes, there’s an ‘experience’ to be had at Ninth and Passyunk, but if they want an actually good cheesesteak, there are any number of other places they can go. There’s a place right around the corner — Steve’s — or I send them to Jim’s at Fourth and South, because it’s one of the only places to get a beer with your sandwich.”
Activities: “The Barnes is at the top of the list for so many of our guests. The first two years it was open, we got many people who came to Philadelphia just for that.”
Transportation: “I try to explain that walking is really the best — downtown is only two miles, river to river. Also that taxis are plentiful around here, and that we’re now an Uber town (I used to have to explain to people what Uber was, but that’s getting rarer and rarer). And the Phlash, which runs almost year-round now.”
Story: Although Klein was about to go into a story, he instead was called away to help a guest, and in the process provided one: A limousine company hired to pick up hotel guests outside the Please Touch Museum somehow could not find them, and the family of four had been standing out in the rain for nearly an hour. After arguing with the limo dispatch, Klein gave up and went to Uber. He launched his personal account and requested a driver at the museum location, then called the driver and explained the situation. A few minutes later, the family was safe and dry, on their way back to the hotel.
Daniel Murnane, Loews (1200 Market Street)
His parents’ jobs in hospitality meant that Murane moved around a lot during his childhood, living in Vermont, New Mexico and Texas, among other places. After a stint working as an “experiential coordinator” for inner city kids in New York and North Jersey, he returned to Philadelphia three years ago and has adopted the city as his home. He’s only 26, and has only been concierge for a little over a year, but he gets Philly through and through.
Restaurants: “My main spot is Pennsylvania 6. It’s only two blocks from the hotel, and it’s a fun spot — contemporary American food, everyone likes it. Ryan Fenton, the manager, is just great (plus he’s got an amazing mustache), and he does the beverage menu. Excellent cocktails.
Cheesesteaks: “Usually people want to know where they can get a good one within walking distance — I have to tell them, ‘You can get an OK cheesesteak within walking distance, but for a great one, you might have to travel a bit.’ My personal favorite is Jim’s on South Street.”
Transportation: “I guide people toward walking as much as possible; all the little side alleys are so beautiful, and there’s so much to see while you’re walking around. Also the Phlash has a stop right in front of our hotel, so it’s extremely convenient.”
Enivrons: “People ask, ‘Are the streets safe?’ I say, ‘As long as you look both ways before crossing.’ If anyone does raise concerns, I just remind them to be aware of their surroundings, and to keep their eyes off their phone as much as possible.”
Germaine Matthews, Radisson Blu (220 S. 17th Street)
Though she was born in Georgia, Matthews has lived in Philly since she was 4 years old. She’s been in the hospitality industry nearly 23 years, and has worked at several hotels around the city, She’s held her position at the Radisson for the past five years — her official title is “Front Office Manager,” but her duties are basically the same as concierge.
Restaurants: “It might sound funny, but Schlesinger’s Jewish deli is probably the one I recommend most often. They have the absolute best French toast out there, plus great corned beef and other sandwiches. Also the BYOB down the block, La Fontana Della Citta. It’s very underrated.”
Cheesesteaks: “There is a not a day that goes by that I don’t get asked about cheesesteaks. I send people to Steve’s Prince of Steaks — their sandwiches are fresh and they use really great meat. Also, the workers there will talk to people and tell them more about Philly. As for Pat’s and Geno’s, I tell people it’s fun to see, if they do choose to go, but don’t necessarily eat there.”
Activities: “People do always want to see the Liberty Bell, so for me it’s about choosing what street to recommend they walk down on their way there. And I try to convince them to stop at Reading Terminal Market on their way back. Also, when they ask about the Rocky steps I always tell them, ‘Don’t miss what’s behind it — it’s a great art museum and there’s an incredible view of Boathouse Row!’”
Transportation: “I’m a walker, I tell people walking is the best way, really. It’s 22 minutes or less from our hotel to Old City. If not, the Big Bus tour or the Phlash. For some of the older folks I recommend taxis. I don’t really tell people about Uber, because sometimes they confuse it with UberX, and I’m not ready to recommend that service yet.”
Enivrons: “My son is at Temple, and I’ve seen that area start to improve. If visitors are going to an area like that, I tell them to understand this is a city undergoing rapid change. Also, that most Philadelphians are good at heart, and will offer help if you ask them for it.”
James Portner, Ritz-Carlton (10 Avenue of the Arts)
Portner originally intended to use the concierge position as a jumping off point, but he’s had so much fun doing it that he’s stayed in the job for 13 years and counting. Originally from Cheltenham, he moved to Boston for college, but returned to make Philadelphia his permanent home.
Restaurants: “There are so many. Stephen Starr and Jose Garces spots are always popular (favorites are Il Pittore, Talula’s Garden, Tinto), but then Vernick and Vedge and Zahav are also great. Plus, there are a lot of great BYOBs, and sometimes I can get them in even if the tables are fully booked.”
Cheesesteaks: “Everyone wants to go to Pat’s and Geno’s because they see it on TV, but I tell them there are definitely other, better places: Jim’s on South Street or Steve’s on 16th. But if they’re really hunting for a great one, I send them out to Dalessandro’s.”
Activities: “The most common question I get, aside from cheesesteaks, is how to find the Rocky steps. Third most common is the Liberty Bell. But I try to guide them to other spots, too, like Eastern State or Boathouse Row. Or set up a private tour.”
Transportation: “I stress that this is a very walkable city — they won’t need a car unless they’re headed to the suburbs. Then there’s the Phlash bus and other tour buses, which are useful.”
Enivrons: “Some people say they’ve heard it’s dangerous, but I just tell them to be smart and use their common sense. It is the nation’s fifth largest city, so of course there are some bad areas, but if they stay aware of their surroundings, they should be fine.”
Story: “There was an older guy who was checking off his bucket list, and his favorite movie was Rocky. I organized a whole Rocky tour for him: the day started by him getting up early and drinking six raw eggs, and then he ran up the steps. In the middle of the day, we presented him with a shirt I had made that had Rocky on the front and his name on the back. He loved it.”
Chris Matlack, Hilton Penn’s Landing (201 S. Columbus Boulevard)
A Philly native, Matlack has worked at the Penn’s Landing hotel since 2002. He started with a Drexel internship in the restaurant, then ran the coffee shop, then moved to the front desk and then was promoted to concierge 10 years ago.
Restaurants: “These days, I most often send people to the Chart House. It’s right here on the water and they always give our guests an awesome window seat. I know it’s a chain, but it’s not McDonald’s — I wouldn’t recommend it if it wasn’t great.”
Cheesesteaks: “I usually tell people to go to either Sonny’s or Campo’s — they’re both only four blocks from our hotel.”
Activities: “We’re in the most historic mile in the entire United States. I have a special map printed out that has details on places like the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary Soldier in Washington Square, the Christ Church burial ground, the Betsy Ross House, Elfreth’s Alley and more.”
Transportation: “If people need to get to the other side of town, the Phlash bus is a great help.”
Story: “One year, there was so much snow that I-76 was closed and all the bridges were closed, and a guest asked me to try to find him cross-country skies. He said, ‘I bet you’ve never heard this one before…’ Usually I’ve heard them all, but he was right. Unfortunately the roads to NJ were closed, and no sports stores in Philly carry them — they’re just too big.”