When you talk to Philadelphians about hot neighborhoods, two names will be on their lips. One is Fishtown. The other is East Passyunk. Since they might be confusing to a non-local, let’s get some semantics out of the way. First, pronunciation: No matter what anyone tells you, you say Passyunk “pash-unk.” Second, this swatch of South Philly actually comprises two adjacent wards, Passyunk Square and East Passyunk Crossing. East Passyunk Avenue, the street from which they take their names, cuts a diagonal path through them. But locals make no distinction between the two. Got it? Great.
Back in the day, East Passyunk was a stronghold of Italian immigrants, and while many of their descendants moved to suburban pastures in ‘80s and ‘90s, the neighborhood bears an indelible mark, from the fig trees towering over concrete backyards to an Italian Immigrant Museum to red gravy cook-offs at the local Catholic high school.
Over the last decade, like many urban neighborhoods, East Passyunk has experienced a dramatic revitalization, to the credit of real estate eagle eyes, the vibrant LGBTQ community, young families, makers, and millennials. What makes Passyunk different from many other urban neighborhoods is that this transition happened organically, so there’s still a comfortable mix of newcomers and people who’ve lived here all their lives. Walk down the Avenue (as locals call East Passyunk Avenue) on any given night, you’ll probably hear English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Malay, Khmer, and about six different Italian dialects. The diversity makes for great ambiance—and great eating.
WHERE TO EAT
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In 2013, Food & Wine named East Passyunk Avenue one of the top “foodiest” streets in the country, and the strip has only continued to improve since then. The diversity of options in both cuisine and price is deep. South Philly Barbacoa (1703 S. 11th St.) specializes in slow-cooked lamb tacos, Stargazy (1838 E. Passyunk Ave.) in English meat pies, and Saté Kampar (1837 E. Passyunk Ave.) in Malaysian satay over coconut-shell charcoal; look out for salmon head curry on special, and possibly America’s best beef rendang. Nearly a century old, Marra’s hearkens back to the hood’s Italian American roots with huge veal parms and garlicky clams and linguine, while more modern Italian cooking is on offer at Paradiso, Le Virtu, and Brigantessa. You can also check out upscale restaurants like Townsend, Will, Fond, and Laurel from Top Chef victor Nick Elmi, whose adjacent wine bar, ITV, just opened.
WHAT TO DO
East Passyunk draws most tourists to the intersection some in Philadelphia wryly refer to as “Cheesesteak Vegas,” the neon-illuminated triangle of East Passyunk Avenue, Wharton, and 9th Streets, where sandwich heavyweights Pat’s and Geno’s face off. But the neighborhood offers a lot more to see than this always-mobbed rivalry. For example, visit the Singing Fountain on Passyunk and Tasker, a petite plaza where old men play chess, tykes splash around and neighborhood pooches get to know one another. On Wednesdays, there’s a small farmers’ market with live music. A short walk away, Columbus Square is East Passyunk’s main park; there’s a dog run and playground if you’re traveling with kids of the four- or two-legged variety. Over the years, neighborhood botanists have turned the square’s perimeter footpath into a jungle of fig trees, yellow-tipped fennel, roses, and honeysuckle. It’s a great place for a morning walk in summer with a cup of cold-brew from any of the nearby cafés. Just across the street, Theatre Exile puts on compelling independent shows in a taxi garage-turned-playhouse. For drinks after, choose from any number of local hangouts: Garage, Fountain Porter (famed for its $5 cheeseburger), the P.O.P.E., Lucky 13, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, or Bonnie’s Capistrano (1503 S. 13th St.).
WHAT TO BUY
Independent shops have always lined the Avenue. Where once there were stores specializing in custom bustiers and religious paraphernalia, now you’ll find letterpressed stationery at Ocassionette, limited edition comics at South Philly Comics, vintage vinyl at Beautiful World Syndicate (1619 E. Passyunk Ave.), upscale menswear at Metro, and local prints at Nice Things Hand-Made (1731 E. Passyunk Ave.).
East Passyunk’s borders are 8th Street to Broad Street (Philly’s main north–south artery), and Snyder Avenue to Washington Avenue. From Center City, hop on the Broad Street line subway, get off at the Tasker/Morris station, and walk a few blocks west. By taxi or Uber, you’re looking at 10 minutes or less, depending where you are in Center City. You can also walk. The route straight down 12th is particularly nice, while walking down 9th will bring you through Philly’s famed Italian Market.
WHERE TO STAY
The closest hotel to East Passyunk is actually in Bella Vista, the next neighborhood north. Bella Vista Bed & Breakfast occupies a row of stately townhouses with wrought-iron railings and overflowing flower boxes; inside rooms are decorated with sculpture, paintings and vintage furniture. Heading south, there’s a crisp new LEED-certified Courtyard Marriott (rooms from $195) in the bucolic Navy Yard, walking distance to the sports complex (home to July’s DNC) and the Olmsted Brothers–designed FDR Park.
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