Generally speaking, you can break down Philly's central nightlife hubs into four distinct areas.
Traditionally, South Street is “where all the hippies meet,” according to the 1963 hit by Philly’s own The Orlons. The area has become a little less artsy in recent years, with tourist-friendly attraction taking over for some independent businesses, but there’s still so much to see and do, particularly along the eastern half of the river-to-river street—packed bars and restaurants, tattoo parlors, sneaker stores, cafés, erotica shops, and more.
Home to the majority of Philadelphia’s historical attractions, Old City is equally popular with party people come nightfall. Like South Street, it can get packed on the weekends, with various clubs, bars, and restaurants serving as draws. The crowd is a mix of tourists and locals, with the latter group heavy on “bridge-and-tunnel” types visiting from New Jersey and nearby suburbs. Columbus Boulevard, in particular, features a high concentration of club destinations.
North of Old City lie Northern Liberties and Fishtown. Both neighborhoods have long been associated with Philly’s bohemian crowd, a target for edgy artists, chefs, and musicians. More recently, however, both enclaves and the areas surrounding them have come into their own as legitimate cultural contenders citywide with great bars and breweries.
Finally, Rittenhouse Square, in the heart of Center City, is the premier hangout for Philly’s moneyed crowd, with a slew of high-profile bars, restaurants, and clubs joining a scattering of under-the-radar gems both old-school and new-school.
Other neighborhoods of interest are University City, with all the standard (and not-so-standard) college-age bars and clubs, plus unique international options in greater West Philly; East Passyunk, a hot strip featuring hip bars and restaurants commingling with South Philly’s old-school Italian population; and Manayunk, a nightlife-heavy area to the northwest particularly popular with college kids and recent grads.
Bars and clubs can sometimes close, change hands, or turn over with very short notice, so stay abreast of the latest by following the entertainment pages and respective websites of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News (philly.com); the Philadelphia Weekly (phillyweekly.com); the Philadelphia Gay News (epgn.com); and Philadelphia magazine (phillymag.com).
In Philadelphia, last call for bars and clubs is 2 am, though there are a handful of places with special licenses that allow for legal after-hours service. Cover charges can range from free to about $12. While Philly tends toward the casual in many of its nightlife venues, there are dress codes enforced in some clubs. Best to check online to make certain if you're venturing into new territory.
People from outside the city might be surprised to see just how popular dancing is here. The persuasive DJ culture has permeated the city, especially in Old City, Northern Liberties/Fishtown, and on South Street.
Philadelphia has a rich jazz and blues heritage that includes such greats as the late, legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and current players like Grover Washington Jr. That legacy continues today in clubs around town.
Though a number of Philly rock/pop venues are owned by Live Nation, a good variety of touring bands is still represented on a nightly basis. And with the advent of the Fishtown live-music scene at venues such as Johnny Brenda's and Kung Fu Necktie, as well as the popular Union Transfer on Spring Garden, there is a greater variety of live music available than ever before.