A Local Expert's Guide to Philadelphia With Meryl Levitz

Visit Philly President and CEO Meryl Levitz gives her insights on what not to miss around town, and describes her perfect day of breakfast at Federal Donuts, artistic appreciation at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, and dinner at Vetri.

Meryl Levitz has spent more than 30 years working to get Philadelphia recognized as a premier visitor destination.

By focusing on economic development and civic engagement, she is responsible for building the region’s image and growing its tourism industry, worth $10 billion in economic impact.

She’s considered the foremost expert on Philadelphia, and we’re thrilled to have spoken with her about what makes Philly so special.

Meryl Levitz (©J. Graham/Visit Philadelphia)

A Q&A with The Queen of All-Things-Philly

What are some of the upcoming events in Philadelphia that you are most excited about?

Well, of course, "World Meeting of Families" and the visit of Pope Francis. But, October brings the Forbes "Under 30 Summit," Opera on the Mall, Open Source, Alice in Wonderland and the Dalai Lama. We’ll welcome the Logan Hotel and the One Liberty Observation Deck. Rocky Balboa is coming back with CREED, and so is the Army-Navy game.

Philadelphia competes with New York and DC for leisure travelers. Why Philadelphia?

NY and DC? Feeder markets! Years ago, Philly may have been a quick stop between the two. But the average visit time is longer now, and visitors find that Philadelphia holds its own in terms of food, culture, green space and history against any other American city.

If someone came to Philadelphia 10 years ago, what’s different now?

More. More people. More lighting. More developing neighborhoods. More green space. More craft beer choices. More neglected spots turned cool. More museums. More restaurants. More cultural programming options.

Rocky's Footprints in Philadelphia
Rocky's Footprints are one of the attractions that Levitz recommends visiting while in Philly. (©M. Fischetti/Visit Philadelphia)

What are the top attractions to see?

Philadelphia is a place for independent exploring.

The top 10 may include Independence National Historical Park, the Franklin Institute, the National Constitution Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation and PAFA and so on. But mural tours, pop up gardens, biking along the two riverfronts, waiting in line to take a picture with Rocky are also really memorable.

What are some favorite “off the beaten path” spots to send visitors?

Independence Hall before or after hours. You, alone, at the place our nation was founded. Gives you the chills. And Philly neighborhoods.

I’d check the neighborhood section of visitphilly.com to find inspiration for wandering. A midnight cheesesteak run. And don’t forget the ever-­better waterfront paths on both the Schuylkill and the Delaware rivers.

Nicole Miller boutique in Philadelphia
Nicole Miller boutique in Philadelphia is great for a quick browsing session.(©G. Widman/Visit Philadelphia)

You have a great sense of style. Where do you shop in Philly? What are the hidden gems?

First, thanks! Our owner-­operated shops always have interesting styles; Joan Shepp, Knit Wit, Nicole Miller, Kiki Hughes, Vagabond. And under everything in the winter—thin, warm shirts from Uniqlo. Some of my favorite accessories are from museum gift shops. And I’m glad Century 21 and Nordstrom Rack are now in town.

If someone is looking for the perfect Philly souvenir to take home, what would you suggest?

Besides their own pictures?

How about a Philly-­inspired treasure from Philadelphia's Magic Garden on South Street? Locally-­made art from InLiquid, anything from Duke & Winston, a jersey from Mitchell+Ness. There's also a Lagos or Boyd’s for a splurg, and, of course, LOVE jewelry and a little Liberty Bell.

Food has become a reason that people come to Philly. Where do you take visitors and what’s the must-try dish?

The Rouge Burger, the cheese plate at Talula’s Garden, or the dandan noodles at Han Dynasty. Federal Donuts’ fried chicken (chili-garlic or honey-ginger). The Dirt List at Vedge. The toasts at Vernick. The soup dumplings at Dim Sum Garden. A profiterole at Parc. Anything in front of the fireplace at Dandelion. Jose Garces taco or tapas. A Vetri pizza.

If you were to hop on a plane and visit anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

It changes daily. Every time I read about a new building, garden or restaurant, I want to go!

What do you like to do in your down time?

Garden, cook read, and play with my grandchildren. Mostly, spend time with my family and friends.

Meryl Levitz's Perfect Philadelphia Day  

Morning: Coffee and Donuts

A good cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast are essential to having a good day. Not many places do it like Federal Donuts, whose coffee and fresh donuts are miles above the rest. If you stay long enough for lunch, their succulent fried chicken is the best!

Isaiah Zagar, artist and creator of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
Isaiah Zagar, artist and creator of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens sits among his creation. (©R. Kennedy/Visit Philadelphia)

Afternoon: Culture and Shopping

Philadelphia's Magic Garden offers the perfect opportunity to discover something truly unique and off-the-beaten-path in the work of Philly icon, Isaiah Zagar. Take the magic home by picking up a tile at the gift shop. 

Knit Wit is an independent boutique that has become a staple of Philadelphia fashion. Escape the afternoon heat by stopping in for hip, high-end clothing with trendy designer lines and fashion-forward styles, as well as chic shoes, handbags, and accessories.

Pizza, served up hot, from Vetri's in Philadelphia.
Pizza, served up hot, from Vetri's in Philadelphia. (©M. Edlow/Visit Philadelphia)

Evening: The Best Pizza in Town

Arguably some of the best pizza and pasta in town awaits at Vetri—if you can get a table. James Beard Award winner Marc Vetri's genius shines through with Southern-Italian dishes served in an intimate townhouse setting.