Irene Levy Baker, the author of the new book, 100 Things To Do In Philadelphia Before You Die, is not a Philadelphian by birth, she’s a Philadelphian by choice. Levy Baker is originally from Ohio, but has spent the last 25 years exploring Philadelphia’s nooks and crannies.
Levy Baker landed in Philadelphia in 1991 when she started working at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For nearly a decade, my job was to give tours of Philadelphia to travel writers. They’re so jaded—every city in the world wines and dines them,” Levy Baker said. “I spent a lot of time with them and paid attention to what impressed them.”
When Levy Baker was contacted by Reedy Press in St. Louis, MO to write the Philadelphia edition of the part of the 100 Things To Do Before You Die book series, she hesitated.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure that I was going to undertake this. I thought, ‘would people use this book?’” Levy Baker said. “Then I remembered all my years working at the [Visitors] Bureau, and all my friends would call me all the time and ask, ‘Where should I take my mother-in-law, my niece, my college roommate…what restaurant should I go to on Saturday night? Where should I go for my anniversary?’ I realized that through this book I could give out these tips and share my love for Philadelphia.”
The book was released in August and by mid-September, the night before Levy Baker’s book launch party, she got a call from the publisher notifying her that they were going to reprint because they were almost sold out.
“It was a record for them,” Levy Baker said. “They have never had to do a reprint before the book even launched!”
By September, 100 Things To Do Before You Die already reached No.1 on Amazon, No.2 in the midatlantic, No.5 in the northeast, and No. 30 in the U.S. in the travel books category. It can be purchased on amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at independent bookstores in the city, or on the book’s website, 100thingstodoinphiladelphia.com.
As a special bonus for Philly Happening readers, Levy Baker said that readers who purchase the book from the 100thingstodoinphiladelphia.com website and leave a note at the checkout specifying that they heard about the book through Philly Happening will get an autographed copy.
Philly Happening recently caught up with Levy Baker to discuss her new book, what things you should put on your immediate “to-do” list for this weekend, best date spots, and naked acrobats. (Yes, you read that correctly!)
P.H.: There are so many tourism books written about Philadelphia. What makes your book unique?
I.B.: My daughter asked me essentially the same question. She said, “why would anyone buy your book and not just google what to do in Philadelphia?” The answer is that googling it is like going down a rabbit hole– the same with tourism books. This book is not an exhaustive list, it’s the 100 best things. It’s a well-curated list.
You know how when you visit a city, you always ask someone you know who lives there what you should do there? Well, in Philadelphia, I’m the one you know! Someone wrote on my Facebook page, “I feel like you’re a friend giving me hints.” It’s exactly like that.
P.H.: How is the book structured?
I.B.: It’s broken into five sections. The sections are: food and drink, music and entertainment, sports and recreation, culture and history, and shopping and fashion. Culture and history and food and drink are the largest sections.
P.H.: Can you give us some tips of places to go that are listed in your book?
- The Please Touch Museum [editor’s note: The Please Touch Museum just celebrated its 40th anniversary at the start of this month). There are so many wonderful things inside the Please Touch Museum. There’s a miniature grocery store in there. I find that kids seem to gravitate toward things that are miniatures of things that they see adults doing. I could hardly get my son out of the miniature grocery store and off the miniature septa bus!
- The One Liberty Observation Deck. Go a little before sunset so you can see the city during the day. Stay for sunset, because then you get to see all the lights go on in the city. I bet there will be marriage proposals there!
- Go to the top of City Hall! You can take an elevator all the way up to William Penn’s feet!
P.H.: How long did it take you to write the book?
I.B.: It’s taken me 25 years! Without those 25 years of research, I could never have started writing this.
But in reality, the book took me about nine months. I made myself write a certain number of entries every day. I spent a lot of time revisiting places to make sure I was on track. When I finished, I called every single place in the book to fact check it. It was very intense, but very enjoyable. I talked to a lot of different experts in different areas. One area that I didn’t know much about was bars. I had to research them firsthand for the book. Every night when my husband got home from work, he’d ask, “so where are we going tonight?”
P.H.: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
I.B.: Writing about only 100 things! I have to say that writing 1,000 things would have been easier!
P.H.: Tell us about some of the bars featured in the book.
I.B.: Hop Sing Laundromat. There’s no sign on the door. There’s a doorbell that you have to ring to get in. The bouncer checks you over and if you’re wearing tennis shoes, shorts, or a baseball cap, they won’t let you in. If you get in, before you can enter the bar, the bouncer tells you the rules. One rule is you can’t take photos, so there are no pictures of Hop Sing Laundromat posted online. It’s this warm, cozy, secret, speakeasy atmosphere and the drinks are incredible! They are hand-squeezed with high-end liquor. You feel like you’re in a really special place. And McGillin’s Olde Ale House. It’s the oldest operating bar in Philadelphia. There is also a whole section in the book for bars to go to hear live music and Jazz.
P.H.: Tell us about the places to hear live music and Jazz.
I.B.: I heard wonderful Jazz music at Warmdaddy’s, Time, and Paris Wine Bar. Also, Bob and Barbara’s on South Street. Bob and Barbara’s is home to the city-wide special, which is a shot of whiskey and a PBR.
I went to more bars researching this book than I’ve been to in the last two decades! I had so much fun!
P.H.: What places would you recommend for dates?
I.B.: In the back of the book, you can find itineraries. There is an itinerary for dating. Some places I suggest are:
- Victor Cafe—a “red gravy” restaurant in South Philly. The servers are professional opera singers or opera students. Every 25 minutes they break into song. The food is good and it’s a comfortable, fun, unique romantic environment.
- Ice skating at either the Blue Cross RiverRink or Dilworth Park in the shadow of City Hall. To avoid the crowds, go later on in the evening or on a week day.
- Spruce Street Harbor Park.
- This isn’t on the date itinerary, but Franklin Square is another good place to go. There’s a carousel and a Philadelphia putt-putt golf where you putt around Philadelphia icons. You putt down a mini Elfreth’s Alley and around the Art Museum. There’s also a mini Love statue!
P.H.: What should I put on my list of things to do this weekend?
I.B.: The Magic Gardens! First of all, it’s not a garden. There’s this mosaic artist named Isaiah Zagar, who created this world on half a block on South Street. Imagine what J.K. Rowling did with Hogwarts, what Lewis Carroll did with Alice in Wonderland, and what L. Frank Baum did with The Wizard of Oz. But instead of creating a world with words, Zagar created a world with art! He mosaicked the walls, walkways and the ceilings of his world with tiles, bicycle parts, mirrors, and other found objects.
The other thing you should do is the Mural Arts Tour. The thing I love about it is that you’re not only seeing these beautiful works of art, but the tour gives you context for how these murals bring together communities. It’s heartwarming. You’ll get background on what the mural represents and why it’s important to the neighbors.
Put those two things on your immediate to-do list for the weekend!
P.H.: You’ve been exploring Philadelphia’s “nooks and crannies” for 25 years through your professional life, but you only recently moved from the outskirts of the city (Elkins Park) to living in Rittenhouse Square. What is it like living in Rittenhouse?
I.B.: Rittenhouse Square is like a human zoo! You’ll see fashionably dressed people, a juggler, an artist painting on an easel, and people taking their wedding photos. On a weekend, you’ll see three different wedding parties and if you like dogs, it’s a dog party! I’ve seen naked acrobats, no lie!
P.H.: What promotional events do you have coming up for your book?
I.B.: I’ll be at the Di Bruno Bros. Annual Cheese Crawl at the Rittenhouse Square location (1730 Chestnut Street) on Saturday, October 15 from 12:30 pm-6 pm. On Saturday, December 10 at 1 p.m., I’ll be giving a book talk and doing a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square (1805 Walnut St.).
There are many more events to come!
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