Samantha Brown Says This Is One Of The Most Underrated Cities In America

When Emmy-winning travel host Samantha Brown visited Philadelphia in 2009, she called it "one of the most underrated, fabulous cities we have in the United States." She was counting down the top five things she did in "Philly on a Budget" for her Travel Channel show, "Samantha Brown's Great Weekends." Number three on the list was "food trucks." In 2018, when her current PBS show, "Samantha Brown's Places to Love," debuted, Brown told the Houston Chronicle that Philadelphia was still her favorite U.S. food city. "I love to eat in Philadelphia," she said.

Despite receiving such high praise from a well-known globetrotter with no shortage of travels to compare, the City of Brotherly Love hasn't lived up to its name for everyone. Whether it be a survey rating it America's rudest city, or an analysis ranking it among the 15 most dangerous U.S. cities, Philadelphia has gotten a bad rap in recent years. If you're willing to give it a chance, however, you can still experience some of the things that made it such an underrated city in Brown's view.

Lest we forget, this is the same city where Sylvester Stallone's character went bounding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Oscar-winning movie "Rocky." It's what prompted Brown herself to hit the boxing gym while she was visiting. Rocky's theme song is "Gonna Fly Now," and if you're ready to do the same with Philly, here are some budget-friendly, Brown-inspired things you can do there.

Start with Eastern State Penitentiary

One of the top things Samantha Brown recommended doing in Philadelphia is taking a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary. This was the world's first penitentiary, a different kind of prison with a silent atmosphere, meant to give inmates like the famous gangster, Al Capone, space to think and become penitent, or sorry for what they did.

Visiting an abandoned prison may sound like a weird way to kick off your vacation, but Brown called Eastern State Penitentiary "an absolute must when you visit" Philadelphia. It's also TripAdvisor's top Philadelphia attraction based on traveler favorites, and when you think about it, its popularity is no weirder than Alcatraz once ranking as America's top tourist destination. That prison offers an eerie look into San Francisco's past, and the same could be said for Eastern State Penitentiary with Philadelphia.

In the daytime, a self-guided audio tour of the 10-acre penitentiary runs $21. It will let you wander at your own pace through the dilapidated cellblocks, or you can join a guide-led tour for the same price. In the summer, there are also night tours of the penitentiary. During its annual Halloween Nights event, it turns into a haunted house destination, like something you would see at Universal Studios. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is just over half a mile from Eastern State Penitentiary, so once you escape prison, you could also head there. Its permanent collections hold paintings like Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Pablo Picasso's "Three Musicians."

Mummers, murals, and magic gardens

For a lighter bit of seasonal fun in Philadelphia, consider the Mummer's Parade on New Year's Day. Billed as America's oldest continuous folk parade, this is where groups like Fralinger String Band perform the mummer's strut in colorful, Mardi Gras-esque costumes, as seen on "Samantha Brown's Great Weekends." It's free to watch the parade as it works its way 1.5 miles down Broad Street, but you can also reserve bleacher seats by City Hall for $25.

Beyond the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which costs $30 for a two-day ticket), Brown recommended exploring "the open-air gallery that is this city." That's something you can do at no cost with Mural Arts Philadelphia's public art map. It includes over 1,000 murals, which have helped Philly earn its "Mural Capital of the World" nickname. You can find murals around the Philadelphia Convention Center and all over the city. Some of them take up the side of entire buildings. There are portraits of local legends like jazz musician John Coltrane, NBA stars and Philadelphia 76ers Dr. J and Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team winning the World Series, and more.

Now in its 20th year, the Magic Gardens is the maze of mosaics where Brown met local artist Isaiah Zagar and saw junk repurposed in vibrant art installations. Admission for adults is $15. To split the difference and keep the creativity flowing, visit the Comcast Center (like Brown) and take in a free movie at the Universal Sphere.

Cheap eats in Philadelphia

When one thinks of food in Philadelphia, a certain sandwich might be the first thing that comes to mind, and indeed, there are plenty of spots in Philly for a cheesesteak. That said, the food trucks of the University City district (where the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are located) have much more on the menu than that. Unfortunately, you can't do as Samantha Brown did and order kung pao chicken from the Yue Kee Chinese food truck anymore, since it retired in 2020. There's still a wealth of options besides that, though, and with street food prices aimed at broke college students, you shouldn't have to worry about burning through too much of your travel budget.

As its name suggests, the Tacos Don Memo food truck serves Mexican and Tex-Mex, while Tyson Bees serves Korean and Thai. Along Spruce Street, Lyn's and Bui's can both set you up with breakfast sandwiches. Penn Halal Gyro comes with the added benefit of a picnic area nearby. These are just a few possible choices to whet your appetite.

If it's thirst that drives you more, check out Yards Brewing Co., where Brown sampled historical recreations of two presidential beers. Alas, Thomas Jefferson's Tavern Ale and General Washington's Tavern Porter are no longer on the Philly-brewed beer menu, but it still offers classics like Philadelphia Pale Ale. There's also a new line of 8-bit-video-game-inspired beers and a taproom with a food menu that includes a chicken cheesesteak and Philadelphia-style cheesecake.

More food, sports fun, and Quizzo games

One other option for food and drink on a Samantha Brown tour of Philadelphia is the Black Sheep Pub. This is where Brown played Quizzo, the popular bar trivia game. Quizzo is said to have originated in Ireland before Philly imported it and helped spread it throughout the U.S. On weekends at Black Sheep Pub, you can have a traditional Irish breakfast. The eclectic main menu offers everything from bangers and mash to octopus tostadas.

Back in University City, New Deck Tavern lays claim to being where Quizzo first emerged in Philly back in 1993. Located at 3408 Sansom Street, this pub is part of a row of stately buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the dishes on its shamrock-decorated menu are $15 or under.

If you'd rather watch sports in person than on a bar TV, you could also head to a Philadelphia Flyers game during NHL season. At the now-demolished Spectrum arena, Brown hit the ice in hockey gear and practiced with an AHL team, the Phantoms, which she called "the little brothers of the Philadelphia Flyers." They've since moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, and rebranded as the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. For its part, Brown's boxing gym of choice, Tenth Round, moved to Virginia in 2019. Still, if you want to pay tribute to Rocky Balboa, it doesn't have to be Wrestlemania Week for his statue to be a main event destination to visit in Philadelphia.

Hotels and transportation in Philadelphia

Samantha Brown mentioned that she found a good deal on the Sofitel hotel in Philadelphia for just $164 a night. Thanks to a decade and a half of inflation, prices like this are somewhat outdated now. On the Sofitel's website, we plugged in the date of May 9, 2024 — 15 years to the day after Brown's "Philly on a Budget" episode aired. After taxes and fees, the cheapest deal we could find for that day was $279.31 a night. This is just an example, but it came out to that amount even with a 20% "Spring Into Savings" discount applied.

To find a cheaper hotel deal in Philadelphia, you may want to shop around. A historic boutique hotel like The Notary, for instance, runs about $36 cheaper a night for the same sample date given above. Wherever you stay, just make sure you don't fall for the dirty trick hotel booking websites use to get us to make reservations. This is especially important if you're about to commit to prepaying for a nonrefundable room.

On the plus side, one thing that hasn't changed much in Philadelphia is the low cost of public transportation. Brown praised both the city's walkability and the affordability of its public transportation system as two other qualities that make Philadelphia underrated. She noted how you could get an all-day pass for SEPTA, Philly's bus and metro system, for only $4. The price of a one-day convenience pass is still just $6.