It’s the most wonderful time of the year, folks. The holiday season in Philly can be a magical experience, especially when you’re taking it all in with your friends, family or loved ones.
With all the lights and decorations, December is a great time to show off the city, whether it’s to visitors from out of town or your local friend who rarely leaves their house. Either way, the goal is the same: have as much seasonal fun as possible without breaking the bank.
Right smack in the center of town are two easy destinations to accomplish this. But should you lead your tour through the Dilworth Park Wintergarden at City Hall or the Christmas Village at Love Park?
Well, depends what you’re looking for. Here’s the info you need to choose wisely.
Best food and drink
A big tent bearing the signs “Philly Drinks” and “Philly Snacks” is located right by the Rothman Institute Ice Rink on City Hall’s west apron. The items on the menu are reasonably priced if you’re searching for a quick bite or drink. Hot chocolate goes for $2.50, or get it flavored with vanilla, cinnamon or caramel for 50 cents more. There’s booze — spike your cocoa or opt for a beer from Victory Brewing. If you’re hungry you can get a bowl of chili for $5.
It’s not officially part of the Wintergarden, but the Philly Holiday Festival is also at City Hall right now. The big feature is the Craft Hall Pop-Up Restaurant on the north apron. It’s a preview of the multi-concept food and drink destination taking over the former Yards Brewing facility on Delaware Avenue in Northern Liberties. That launch isn’t slated until summer 2018, but you can preview all the BBQ meats, Lost Baking Co. breads and a selection of craft beers, seasonal cocktails and wines. Bonus: The tent is heated, with rows of rustic-looking picnic tables to sit down.
Know that Baked Cheese Haus is the food stand worth the wait. If you’ve never had raclette before, you’re in for a treat. A baguette is placed in a contraption over the Alpine cheese, which is melted to order by a burner, and then oozed onto the toasted bread. Spring onion, baby gherkins and dijon are sprinkled over the top, ending up with a decadent $10 sandwich that’s perfect to eat while you’re walking around.
On the liquid side, Chaddsford Winery sells mulled wine for $15 a bottle or $40 for three. You can also get a mug of the warm, spicy booze for $9 and then refill it all day for $6. If it’s during happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.) on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s $5 mugs and $3 refills.
Top winter wear
Bella U is a boutique offering handmade fashion accessories and winter clothes, and it’s so popular that there are people buzzing around the booth nonstop. Prices hover around $20 for one piece and $36 for two pieces. It’s located to the left of Philly Drinks and Snacks.
Janette’s Designs specializes in wool products, and it shouldn’t be too hard to find what you’re looking for among the large selection. The lowest priced accessories (hats and scarves) are $15 and the highest priced (sweaters) are $45. Most of the products are imported from South America.
Most original gifts
Chalk Me Up offers t-shirts with a design you can draw on. A pattern on the front will accept regular chalk or chalk markers. Shirts go for $20 on a hanger or $25 already packaged, and each comes with a pack of regular chalk. The tent is located two doors down from Bella U near America’s Garden Capital Maze.
To cater to those friends who love avocados or animals, check out Bunkerfish. Artists Jessie and Jared Temple take Jessie’s watercolor paintings (there are several of avocados) and print them onto t-shirts ($25 to $30) and tanks ($18 to $20). The fun doesn’t end there: You can send Jessie a photo of your pet for her to paint onto custom ornaments and mugs.
Yolkstar Ornaments and Gifts specializes in Ukrainian-made ornaments, and also offers a selection of jewelry boxes, Ukrainian Easter eggs, candle holders and more. There’s plenty to choose from and prices range from $5 to $300.
Best edible presents
Crisp & Co sells artisan pickles by the jar. You can get one jar for $10, three jars for $25, or five jars for $40. With a display that elicits observations like, “Oh wow, look at all these pickles,” if you’re picking a gift for someone who loves all things fermented, this is a must. The tent is located by the SEPTA City Hall station steps and America’s Garden Capital Maze.
Or if they’re more into sweets, your stop is Macarons and Cookies by Woops!, near the northwest entrance of Dilworth Park. For $2.70 you can try one for yourself — cookies and cream flavor is a winner — and then pick up a box of six for $15, a dozen for $28 or three dozen for $85.
Pretzelphoria is appropriately named for its profusion of packaged pretzels, candies and combo gift packs ranging from $6 to $9.50. Plus, you can try a sample before you make a purchase.
And remember that raclette? Go back to Baked Cheese Haus and you can snag a gift-able pack of baked cheese for $8, or two for $15. The cheese comes from Wisconsin, so that should impress someone you know.
The Rothman Institute Ice Rink is definitely a hot spot at Dilworth. People usually enjoy some time on the ice — that, or stand on the outskirts watching people fall. Admission costs $3 for kids 10 and under and $5 for adults, plus $10 skate rental if you need it. (Tip: There’s also a few places in the city where you can skate for free).
Then there’s the Deck The Hall Light Show on the western facade of City Hall. Be forewarned that this is a nighttime activity; during the day, the display is kind of a let-down and he lights aren’t very vibrant. Also there isn’t a grand finale, so you might not realize the show is over until people start walking away.
Buying a tree counts as an activity, right? The Christmas Tree Stand has a variety of firs selling for $18 to $350. You can opt to have yours delivered with a stand, or just take it home as-is. (Did you know you can Uber it home, as long as your driver agrees?) The booth also sells ornaments ($7 to $10) made from the stumps of previous years’ trees with hand-painted designs. You can even design one yourself.
Plot twist in the showdown: Even though the carousel is located in the City Hall courtyard, it’s actually a part of the Christmas Village at LOVE Park. Either way, one ride is only $3. If you want to really enjoy it, it helps to be either a little kid or a slightly intoxicated adult.
Dealing with crowds (and noise)
The Wintergarden is at City Hall, so there’s a lot of foot traffic. It can get pretty crowded around rush hour during the weekdays and at night during the weekends. And that’s just on foot. The ice rink turns into a big glob of skaters once peak hours hit.
The Christmas Village, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is definitely at a disadvantage because of the ongoing construction to create the new LOVE Park. Sounds of workers shouting directions, tractors revving and materials being moved on site aren’t blocked by the green fence that buffets a small area of the village by 16th and Arch streets. The pathway along the green fencing gets tricky to walk through with everyone roaming around.
Top photo ops
The center of the America’s Garden Capital Maze is perfect for pics. The garden maze, funded by the William Penn Foundation, includes homages to more than 30 gardens, arboreta and historic landscapes within a 30-mile radius of Philly.
The Christmas tree located at the north apron of City Hall is looking a bit slim compared to the one last year. And surprise, it’s also officially a part of the Philly Holiday Festival, not the Wintergarden. Still, its right there, so feel free to take some photos in front of it.
You could take a photo by one of the vendor boothes, which are built of wood with slanted rooftops. But without the LOVE sculpture on site right now, there really isn’t an iconic place to snap a photo for your Instagram. Unless you snap a selfie on the carousel.
It’s safe to say that whichever place you choose, the holiday cheer will be plentiful. If you have to pick just one place to take out-of-towners, probably do the Dilworth Park Wintergarden, since it’s located at City Hall — what’s more Philly than that?
However, since you can literally see the Christmas Village from Dilworth Park, it’s easy to just visit both.