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Philadelphia Cheers Its Artsy, Authentic Creative Culture

For Kyle Harris, the spirit of giving isn’t limited to December. Her store, Paper Moon, is dedicated to providing a space for artists and artisans from Philadelphia who previously struggled for recognition. After purchasing the gift shop in 2021, Harris replaced the old inventory during a seven-day overhaul that changed both the personality of Paper Moon as well as its mandate.

Located in the South Street business zone since 1975, Paper Moon has spun into an incubator for the city’s diverse talents. What’s resulted is a shop with eclectic finds you can’t get anywhere else — all with good helpings of heart and soul too.


Philadelphia has a significant holiday showcase that includes a 55-foot white fir tree decorated with 4,000 lights. It was lit at City Hall during a celebrity-filled ceremony on December 1. At top, Steve Jamison, owner of Blue Sole Shoes, is one of the retailers on the new Philly Phlash Shopping Loop, a bus route that runs to four neighborhoods to promote minority-owned businesses during the holiday season. (Adrian Brijbassi photos for VacayNetwork.com)

“I wanted to do something that was mission-based,” Harris says of her decision to leave the financial industry to become a retail owner. “This is about giving back in some way, giving people a shot because the truth is we can all get caught up in the popularity of whatever’s in fashion or current at the moment. When that happens you forget there is a lot of cool things happening that are often completely under the radar.”

In that sense, Paper Moon is a lot like the Cradle of Liberty that it calls home. For travelers outside of the country, Philadelphia is an unknown, even if its significance to U.S. history gives it an identity that many destinations lack. Its sports teams — including the 2022 World Series runner-up Phillies — are recognized for their competitiveness while their fans embrace their own boorish reputation. The Roots are among the leaders of a rich musical legacy that includes Chubby Checker and Will Smith when he broke into show business as the Fresh Prince. Led by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), the creative culture of the city is celebrated and easy to access.


Entrepreneur Kyle Harris curates a rotating inventory that showcases the work of local and predominantly Black artists. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

As Paper Moon shows, Philly is deep with talent too. Harris curates about a dozen local brands roughly every quarter, calling for submissions that fit a particular theme. Not surprisingly, “Home for the Holidays” is the featured subject as 2022 winds down. For a town that embraces its grittiness, Philly can show a softness, particularly for its entrepreneurs and home-grown talents.

“Small businesses are what makes the heart of the city thrive,” says Steve Jamison, owner of Blue Sole Shoes, home to an exquisite collection of carefully curated footwear from around the world. “We’re a hard-core town and you’ve got to understand that to understand this place. Philly vets everything, we vet everyone — we vet all of our sports teams, the players on them. The fans here will embrace you if you’re true and authentic or they’ll boo you and boot you out.”

philadelphia museum of art ext statue

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, located on beautiful Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is the main attraction in the city. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Stay clear of potentially contentious sports talk and you will likely start to understand the heart to which Jamison refers. And, despite the winter temperatures, the holiday season is a time to feel the city’s joyful, welcoming spirit. Its popular Christmas Market, which runs until December 24, features local and international vendors selling holiday crafts and treats out of Nordic-looking wooden huts. The festive attraction is held in Love Park, which neighbors Dilworth Park and City Hall where more seasonal excitement awaits. Along with the towering Christmas tree, there’s a skating rink that runs until February 26 and a large cabin inspired by après-ski culture, with boozy pours as the main draw.

For the first time, the city is promoting the Philly Phlash Shopping Loop, featuring Black- and brown-owned businesses, such as Paper Moon and Blue Sole Shoes. A bus route takes visitors to four neighborhoods on Friday evenings to explore the retail shops and get a sense of how the downtown area is changing with fresh ideas. Of course, travelers also have the revered cultural icons to witness when they’re not looking for gifts.

The Liberty Bell — a free attraction in the historic district — and the world-acclaimed PMA are the headliners in a city that has legends, legacy and (sometimes tough) love to share.



The Philly Cheesesteak sandwich — served with a Pennsylvania craft beer — at Molly Malloy’s is one of the reasons to visit the Reading Terminal Market. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for VacayNetwork.com)

Where to Stay: The Logan is beautifully decorated and centrally located, with a 10-minute walk to Love Park and City Hall, and a 15-minute walk along Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Room rates at the Hilton property start at $149 per night in December.

Where to Dine: The Reading Terminal Market is a cavernous hall full of delicious finds and famous Philly foods, including cheesesteaks and pretzels. Carmen’s is the big name for cheesesteaks but the lineups are typically as long as a Bryce Harper line drive, so you might want to opt for one of the few sit-down establishments in the market: Molly Malloy’s. Two keys to its cheesesteak ($12), I’m told by wait staff and patrons, are the seed-topped bun, sourced from reputable Sarcone’s Bakery in South Philly, and the sharp cheddar cheese (instead of the Cheez Whiz used by many other vendors) that’s melted and mixed with the thinly sliced beef. For me, the most impressive ingredient was the seasoning, which had a balanced blend of spices that gave the sandwich an endless burst of flavor.

Assembly Rooftop Lounge at The Logan has a cozy feature for winter: Firepits and warm blankets for those who want to embrace the cold. There are also warmer seating options at the bar or indoor tables. Wherever you choose to settle in, order one of the flatbreads ($15-$16) and creative cocktails. Venerable Parc is a Parisian-style bistro — right down to the rounded wicker back chairs that are common at patio restaurants in the Left Bank. The restaurant’s joie de vivre is in its hearty plates and vibe that encourages cheer and conviviality. The menu is immense; the highlight is the luscious vanilla crème brûlée ($12).

Shopping Finds: How unique are the gifts at Paper Moon? It took coming to Philadelphia for me to find a gem of an item to feed my passion as a Dallas Cowboys fan. A set of four coasters made of leather, each with the drawing of a glorious play call in Cowboys’ history depicted. The Xs and Os lines that show momentous scoring triumphs from Super Bowls past are a fan’s treasure, and goes to show the uniqueness and quality of Kyle Harris’s curation.

Getting Around: SEPTA is the name of Philadelphia’s public transit system, which has bus and rail options that provide comprehensive coverage, making it inexpensive to explore.

Adrian is the founder of VacayNetwork.com and Vacay.ca, and the co-founder of the travel-trivia app, Trippzy. A former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing and fiction. He has worked with leading destination marketing organizations, developing digital and social media strategies, and providing them with content marketing solutions. He has visited more than 40 countries and spearheaded the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada annual list that debuted in 2012.