Exploring Philly's Multicultural Side

Museums, shopping centers and neighborhoods add to the city's international roots.

There are few (if any) places that can claim a history as all-American as Philly’s. After all, this is the home of the Liberty Bell and two Continental Congresses. But a big part of the city’s background comes with a foreign accent, or at least multicultural air, thanks to its immigrants both past and present. “We’re a city of 100 neighborhoods, with roots ranging from Puerto Rican to Italian,” says Deirdre Hopkins, spokeswoman for Visit Philadelphia. “They’ve got such distinctive ethnic histories and festivities.” Summer’s warm temps and many outdoor celebrations make it easy to traipse around the world without leaving the City of Brotherly Love.

Celebrating in the Streets

Many of summer’s liveliest fêtes are part of the free, PECO Multicultural Series at the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing, with the Delaware River as backdrop. Now in its 12th year, the ACANAFest August 4 stars African music and dance groups plus food vendors selling chow like piquant jollof rice (a spicy meat stew). Other snack- and entertainment-rich events in the series include the Festival of India August 17 and a Caribbean Festival August 18. The latter boasts a popular crafts market hawking goods like Haitian oil-drum art and Jamaican knitted rasta hats. “Most importantly, these festivals provide an opportunity for us to learn from each other, to laugh, and to dance,” says Almaz Crowe from the Delaware Waterfront Corporation, which sponsors the series.

Then, on August 25 in North Wales, the Ukrainian Folk Festival salutes the Eastern European nation’s independence with brightly costumed folk dancers and musicians, plus a public polka session. Philadelphia has the country’s second-largest Ukrainian population, due mainly to immigrants who came to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Festival of India

Chew on This

Multiple food tours also let you feast on Philly’s international culture. And they often go beyond the iconic, must-visit, downtown zones like the Italian Market (with its rightfully famed pork sandwiches, cheesesteaks and cannoli) and Reading Terminal Market (Amish cheeses, Thai spices and more).

Take Chew Philly’s jaunt through the mom-and-pop restaurants and hip cafes of Manayunk, a historic, diverse neighborhood in Northwest Philly. “It was a mining and milling area, so many immigrants settled here, including Italians and Poles,” says company founder Elyse Castillo. Her snack-and-stroll tours dig into Sicilian-American tomato pie, Eastern European pretzels and desserts by up-and-coming chefs.

And cheek-by-dumpling with the city’s historic core, Jamie Shanker-Passero’s Chinatown Tours hopscotch through multiple cuisines—Cantonese, Sichuan, Xi’anese. “There’s a mix of restaurants that have been there for a while, plus some modern and trendy places,” says Shanker-Passero. “They play off of each other.” Bites might include pork buns, spicy noodles or soup dumplings (there’s something of a local rivalry here about which joint’s are the best). As you slurp and walk, guides point out landmarks like the 40-foot-tall, dragon-decked Friendship Gate and street murals.

Reading Terminal Market

Insider Secrets

A smattering of museums and galleries also delve into the arts
and roots of the city’s multicultural community. The Taller Puertorriqueño, a museum and cultural center in North Philadelphia’s El Centro de Oro neighborhood, features a rotating schedule of local and international Hispanic artists. It’s a hub for the city’s vibrant Latinx community. “It’s great because it’s
a teaching facility, and it has exhibitions and there are a lot of events held there,” says Javier Suárez, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Other places to explore include the American Swedish Historical Museum in South Philly, with exhibits on acclaimed mid-century fabric designer Josef Frank and a re-creation of a 19th-century Nordic farmhouse. The Romanian Folk Art Museum shows off richly embroidered garments, colorful Easter eggs
and, by appointment, rooms replicating a village house in the homeland. Plus, there’s an onsite gift shop selling painted plates, primitive masks and dolls decked out in traditional dress. And in the heart
 of Independence Square, the Polish American Cultural Center Museum delves into immigration history, customs and more.

American Swedish Historical Museum

Eating La Dolce Vida

The Italian Market might be Philly’s best-known, most-loved immigrant neighborhood. Here are some must-stops in the multi-block zone that’s been selling pasta, porchetta and charm since the 1880s.

Dante & Luigi’s

Located just off 9th St., a retro, all-white spot for red sauce meals including mammoth servings of lasagna and garlicky stuffed calamari. 762 S. 10th St., 215.922.9501

Di Bruno Bros.

Come for the free meat and formaggio samples (salty Prima Donna cheese, please!), and then grab a loaded hoagie to go. 930 S. 9th St., 215.922.2876

Sarcone’s Bakery

Since 1918, a family-run bakery known for savory tomato pie, chocolate chip cannoli and addictive sausage bread. 758 S. 9th St., 215.922.0445

Italian Market

Jennifer Barger
About the author

 

Jennifer Barger is a Washington, D.C.-based travel and design writer who spe...