Philadelphia is very much a city made up of many, many smaller neighborhoods — the boundaries of which can be a bit nebulous depending on who's explaining them — within larger, general neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive feel and attractions. We've described a few to start you off, but you'll just have to go out and start exploring the rest for yourself.
Taking its name from the three universities located in the triangle between Market Street, the Schuylkill River, and Grays Ferry and Woodland Avenues, University City generally encompasses the area around Drexel, Penn, and University of the Sciences and thus has a very high student population. In addition to food trucks and student hot spots, there are a number of Indian restaurants, some with lunch and dinner buffets.
Originally built as the suburbs of Philadelphia connected to Center City through trolleys, you'll see lots of trees and large stone duplexes (as compared to the brick row homes popular in the rest of the city). Despite the large hills in West Philly, it's popular among bike messengers, as well as vegans, straight-edge and punk cultures, community-living houses, university faculty members, and hippies. There is also an African population in the area and several terrific Ethiopian restaurants.
Center City is Philly's downtown business center, but unlike some cities, it doesn't close down at night or on the weekends. While being full of skyscrapers and business, Center City is also a hot spot for gourmet dining, designer shopping, and nightlife. Philadelphia loves burgers, and you'll find many bistros and gastropubs downtown that serve fantastic burgers and fries.
One of Philly's defining parks located in Center City, Rittenhouse Square also encompasses the upscale shops and restaurants around the perimeter of the park as well as the condo high-rise residences overlooking the park. It's a great area for people watching, too.
The Parkway-Museum District extends from Center City to the Philadelphia Museum of Art along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Along the Parkway you'll find the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Franklin Institute, the Barnes Foundation, the Rodin Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (run up the steps like Rocky; no one can resist).
Chinatown is a few square blocks just north of Center City (between 9th and 11th Streets and Arch and Vine Streets). It's full of authentic Chinese restaurants, shops, and the Friendship Gate. Located at 10th and Arch, the Friendship Gate was constructed in 1984 by Philadelphia and its Chinese sister city, Tianjin. Some of the most authentic Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants are located in Chinatown, as well as restaurants that serve entirely vegetarian Chinese fare.
South Street has had several incarnations over the years and remains an iconic destination for Philadelphia tourists. Stretching along South Street from Broad Street to the Delaware River, there are shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and venues that line the street and make it a popular spot for nightlife, giant slices of pizza (Lorenzo's), and cheesesteaks (Jim's). There are also several highly rated American-style restaurants along South Street for a finer dining experience.
The general name "South Philly" encompasses a large area made up of many neighborhoods from the Italian Market (not technically in South Philly) to the stadiums. Historically it's a very traditionally Italian area with lots of Italian restaurants, cheesesteaks (Pat's and Geno's), water ice, and generations of Italian families. There are also fairly large Asian and Latino populations in South Philly as well, and along Washington Avenue east of Broad Street you'll find specialty Asian markets and restaurants and Mexican tacquerias.
Old City — the original downtown area of Philadelphia — is the location of many of the city's historic sites. In addition to being a major area for art galleries, artisan boutiques, and First Friday events, it is also a popular area for weekend nightlife and independent movie theaters. Penn's Landing runs along the Delaware Riverfront, providing areas for outdoor gatherings such as concerts and festivals, as well as hosting free outdoor movies in the summer. There are many pubs and restaurants in the neighborhood, including Franklin Fountain, which serves homemade ice cream made from local ingredients.
North of Old City, Northern Liberties is a popular area for young professionals. 2nd and 3rd Streets between Spring Garden Street and Girard Avenue are lined with restaurants of every flavor, bars, shops, and parks. Here, Philly's typical row houses are interspersed among condominium complexes. The Piazza is a European-style plaza surrounded by shops and restaurants where people gather for festivals, farmers' markets, and to watch movies and sporting events on the giant outdoor TV screen.
Fishtown, just north of Northern Liberties, is traditionally an Irish working-class neighborhood located near the Delaware River. Yes, they used to actually fish (you still can, but don't eat it). Recently it's become a popular neighborhood for students, artists, musicians, and hipsters. The Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor supports galleries and an active First Friday scene. The area enjoys many gastropubs, coffeeshops, and a couple of terrific Indian restaurants.