By Ben Harvey
Originally published on Advocate.com April 06 2009 12:00 AM ET
Four years before the legendary demonstrations outside New York City's Stonewall Inn in 1969, one of the earliest gay rights protests took place in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall after a local eatery refused to serve gay patrons or any other diners wearing "nonconformist" attire. So it's no surprise that the City of Brotherly Love takes its place in gay American history very seriously -- almost as seriously as it takes its gay nightlife.
The tourism board's "Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay" campaign has brought droves of curious visitors to the city over the past few years-and now some of the work hard, play hard set are getting in on the action: The Pennsylvania Convention Center is currently in the midst of a dramatic renovation project that will increase its size by 62%, and while many other cities are seeing recession-related dips in tourism, Philadelphia officials report that interest in the city is stronger than ever.
Extended Stay With more than 13,000 hotel rooms and competitive group rates, Philadelphia gives you plenty of options and more bang for the buck than other traditional East Coast convention towns. If work brings you downtown, Loews Philadelphia (1200 Market St.; 215-231-7333) is a 581-room amenity-laden hotel near the Convention Center and just five minutes from Amtrak's 30th Street Station. The spacious guest rooms are designed with a wood-and-glass aesthetic, lofty 10-foot ceilings, and desks with ergonomic work chairs. The hotel offers 42,000 square feet of function space, including two ample event rooms on the top floor with views of Philadelphia's ever-expanding skyline. In your downtime, take a swim in the roomy 20-meter heated lap pool or pamper yourself with a spa treatment at the "wellness center."
For something considerably more quaint, check in to the Independent (1234 Locust St.; 215-772-1440), a 24-room boutique hotel in a historic Georgian Revival building. The rooms fuse cathedral ceilings, original hardwood floors, and New Zealand wool area rugs with tech, including iPod docking stations and 32-inch LCD HD TVs. Take advantage of the complimentary morning pastries, sip your way through the weekday evening wine and cheese hour, and then head downstairs for a "Gorgeous Geisha" lychee martini at Bump Lounge (215-732-1800), located in the same building.
Guests of the Independent get free passes to the 12th Street Gym (204 S. 12th St.; 215-985-4092), an eight-level, 60,000-square-foot sweaty labyrinth packed with Philly-brand muscle boys.
If you're unfortunate enough to be out of the center of the action and stuck near the airport, book the new Aloft Hotel (4301 Island Ave.; 267-298-1700), only minutes from your departure gate. A more affordable cousin to Starwood's W Hotels, Aloft shines with quirky features like a lobby pool table and front desk staff who greet you with a fervent "Aloha!" Ask for a top-floor room to avoid noise from the parking lot.
Convention Exit Strategy Whether you're in town for labor or leisure, exploring the city's cultural sites is essential. Your must-see list should include the interactive National Constitution Center (525 Arch St.; 215-409-6600), where you can mingle with life-size figures of the Founding Fathers, as well as the exhibit "Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy," which is at the Franklin Institute (222 N. 20th St.; 215-448-1200) through September 7. Philadelphia is the only stop on the globe for this exhibit, an eye-opening look into the contributions of the luminaries of the astronomy world.
Part ways with the buttoned-up set for some hip clothing shopping at Matthew Izzo (151 N. Third St.; 215-829-0668) in Old City. Izzo's relocated hybrid fashion and design boutique opened in February and carries a surplus of small sizes to please the tight-waist crowd. Before hopping back uptown, sneak a peak at the MTV Real World house, which you can easily pretend you just stumbled upon since it's adjacent to the historic home of American flag-maker Betsy Ross (239 Arch St.; 215-686-1252).
Seventy-two rainbow-colored street signs, all within spitting distance of the Convention Center, mark the "Gayborhood," the nine-block ground zero for gay nightlife, shopping, and restaurants. Striking a different chord on the bar circuit, Knock (225 S. 12th St.; 215-925-1166) pipes in tunes from the likes of Manilow and Sinatra, offering an upscale alternative to the thumpety-thump meat market of iconic gay bar Woody's (202 S. 13th St.; 215-545-1893).
The more daring should check out Philly's "roving" gay and lesbian parties and other insider tips from Philly natives listed on Uwishunu.com .
Meal Plan Notorious for its Cheez Whiz-infused steak sandwiches, Philadelphia is also home to plenty of finicky foodies and, as a result, some of the nation's finest restaurants. Le Bec-Fin (1523 Walnut St.; 215-567-1000) remains a perennial favorite among discriminating diners. Be sure to sample every item on the all-you-can-eat dessert cart if you opt for the famed five-course $145 prix fixe dinner. Not expensing dinner? Skip the luxe and head to Caribou Café (1126 Walnut St.; 215-625-9535), which features light French cuisine and, unlike Le Bec-Fin, doesn't frown on casual attire.
The incredibly chic Table 31 (1701 JFK Blvd.; 215-567-7111) is a massive power lunch spot inside the new 58-story Comcast Center office building, the reigning king of the Philly skyline. For a group luncheon, inquire about the exclusive private dining room, complete with boardroom table and flat-screen TV. After lunch, step out into the building's lobby, which flaunts a breathtaking IMAX-inspired 10 million-pixel video wall.
For more raucous gastronomics, spend a full night out at Lolita (106 S. 13th St.; 215-546-7100) for nouveau Mexican cuisine in trendier-by-the-day Midtown Village. Owned by lesbian couple Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, Lolita is wildly popular with the BYOB set, specifically the BYOTs, because if you bring the tequila, the staff will provide home-brewed margarita mix (the blood-orange variety is a big hit). Heed the wake-up call the next morning and snag an outdoor seat at Valanni (1229 Spruce St.; 215-790-9494) for a not-too-super-schmancy Mediterranean-influenced brunch.