When Philadelphia was designed by William Penn (Putting the “Penn” in Penn-sylvania) way back in the 1600s, he set it up as a grid with one green square –basically, a mini-park– smack dab in the middle, with other green squares in each corner.
Those squares still exist today, and that grid, set between the Delaware River to the east and the Schuylkill River to the west, still makes up Philadelphia’s downtown, aka “Center City.”
But as more and more people have made their home in Center City, we’ve had to gently shove some of them past the traditional boundaries, which means even the once-dicey “fringe neighborhoods” just beyond the grid are now perfectly livable.
The farther you go from Center City, the lower the rent, thanks to the No. 1 real estate rule: location, location, location.
Center City is generally more expensive because that’s where we keep the shiny, high-rise towers, doormen, fitness centers and parking garages. Mixed in between are the low-rise apartment buildings and rowhomes/brownstones/townhouses-turned apartments. While these building names are essentially interchangeable, it should be noted that Philadelphians usually think of “rowhomes” as the ones in the inexpensive ’hoods, whereas “brownstones” or “townhouses” reside in the ritzier areas. As per usual, the rates for townhomes and brownstones drop the further you get away from the city’s center.
By contrast, smaller buildings and street parking dominate the surrounding neighborhoods. So if you’re coming with a car in tow, you might want to consider the benefits of convenient parking.
Of course, since we love our neighborhoods, even Center City is broken up into smaller chunks:
Rittenhouse Square: Hey there, moneybags. A Rittenhouse address is the most coveted around. Here’s where you’ll rub elbows with the city’s elite as they browse high-end shops and grab lunch at outdoor cafés overlooking Rittenhouse Square, one of the five original parks. Don’t expect to find a decent studio for less than $1,000, or a tolerable one-bedroom for under $1,300. And with those prices, you can forget about included amenities, like central air or free laundry facilities. But, if your job has you raking in the dough and price is no factor, then consider giving this area a chance.
Washington Square West: Using another square as a landmark, “Wash West” is a step in the younger and less expensive direction. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants here, many of them catering to the gay crowd and clustered in a section called the “Gayborhood”. You can’t miss it: just look for the iconic rainbow flags on the street signs.
Old City/Society Hill: Touted as “America’s most historic square mile,” Old City is where you’ll find the Liberty Bell; Independence Hall, where the Constitution was written; the Betsy Ross House; Ben Franklin’s grave; Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited street in the country; and, especially in the summer, way too many tourists. The neighborhood also has a dense concentration of restaurants, bars, and inebriated 20-somethings (a plus or a minus? You decide). Society Hill is Old City’s more-residential sister, filled with Colonial-style brick townhouses, quaint courtyards and cobblestone streets. Rents around here rival Rittenhouse, but you’ll get more space for the money.
Northern Liberties/Fishtown: Consider yourself a hipster? Ride a fixie to your job at a coffee shop/dive bar/tattoo parlor? Create sculptures out of trash in your spare time? You’ve found your ’hood. Northern Liberties is the area immediately north of Old City; Fishtown is the next stop over. Northern Liberties, especially, is slowly being gentrified, with new homes and apartments sprouting up. That means there’s now a huge range of rents, depending on if you’re looking for a small space in an older rowhome, or a swanky, artist-style loft. Just remember that if one place doesn’t suit your budget, another a few blocks down probably will.
Art Museum: At the northwestern edge of Center City is the Art Museum neighborhood, where the appropriately located Philadelphia Museum of Art resides. Set on the other side of the wide boulevard known as Benjamin Franklin Parkway, this area feels slightly removed from downtown. Quieter, narrower streets and lower rents are typical fare around here, perfect for someone looking for someplace a bit quieter. People do, however, tend to use the word “funky” when describing this neighborhood, so keep that in mind if you shy away from the Bohemian-type.
Graduate Hospital: Also known as “South of South,” “Southwest Center City,” or sometimes -- don’t worry, we’re trying to put a stop to this -- “G-Ho,” Grad Hospital is what the polite folk call an “up-and-coming neighborhood.” There’s an optimistic blend of brand-spanking-new townhouses; slightly larger properties, each being converted into two or three upscale apartments; and run-down fixer-uppers being bought by young professionals who want to be near their jobs in Center City. Add an abundance of students living in the places that haven’t been rehabbed yet to that mix, and you’ve got a pretty good image of what to expect when moving out here.
Bella Vista/Queen Village: These classy next-door neighborhoods just east of Grad Hospital are pretty hard to tell apart, with one exception: Queen Village gentrified a little earlier, so it’s a bit more expensive. Both have a settled in feel, especially compared to the other neighborhoods. A lot of the homes here, whether for one family (more common) or broken up into apartments, are old. Like, 18th-century old.
University City: Just west of the Schuylkill River, Center City’s western boundary, is West Philly. The section of West Philly closest to Center City is called University City. If you haven’t figured out the elaborate naming system yet, it’s where the universities are. Surprising, right? Here, you’ll find a mix of students, professors, hippies and, of course, hipsters. Normally, you’ll find them all heading to the park to check out the farmers market and play Frisbee, so consider joining in if that’s your scene. The properties catering to students/closest to the colleges are typically pricy, but you’ll be able to find plenty of affordable options carved out of rambling old Victorian homes. In fact, the low-cost apartments here are among the most inexpensive in the city: One-bedrooms start as low as $600.
It’s a good thing Philly is a very walkable city, because parking is a pain and the public transit system is spotty at best. It’s not as if you can’t get anywhere using SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), it’s just that it’s not always convenient. If you’re someone who plans your day out to the minute, you might want to give yourself a pretty big window, just in case. There are two fast subway lines, one north-south and the other east-west, and many, many slow buses and trolleys. It’s always good to make sure you have available transportation options before signing a lease, but we recommend you double check. And don’t even bother planning to catch a free ride for just a stop or two on one of the suburban trains that pass through the city. The conductors are on to that trick, and they’ll embarrass you in front of the whole car. Um, not that we’d know.
Now that you've gotten a taste, go out and find yourself that perfect pad. This historic city is just waiting for you to make your mark, so go out and do it already! Happy hunting!