The birthplace of the American Revolution is a friendly, vibrant city
Despite our eagerness to visit the major cities of America’s east coast – Boston, New York and Washington DC – there’s a tendency to overlook Philadelphia.
Most Brits’ familiarity with America’s fifth largest city may only extend as far as the 1976 movie Rocky, when Sylvester Stallone’s transformation from washed-up boxer to champion prize-fighter was symbolised by the vigour with which he ascended the steps of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art. His statue is there now, and the steps are invariably full of people waving their arms in the air in a Rocky-style tribute.
But there is so much more to Philadelphia than that. Philly, as it’s called locally, is the birthplace of the American Revolution and therefore arguably the country’s most important historical city.
It’s also a bustling university city, with 22 four-year educational establishments within its city limits, including the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, plus a vibrant arts and foodie culture. Not to mention all the shopping on offer.
And its compact centre is easy to navigate on foot. On my visit, during a crisp autumn weekend, I started my exploration by heading for the 55-acre Independence National Historical Park to check out Independence Hall.
A park ranger was our knowledgeable guide as we took in the Assembly Room, where both the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution were drafted and signed in the late 18th Century. At the nearby Liberty Bell Center, I got a glimpse of the cracked bell that used to reside in Independence Hall’s steeple and was thought to have been rung to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776.
I wanted to sample Philadelphia’s arts culture, too, so I headed to the Museum of Art with my all-inclusive Philadelphia Pass, which got me a ride on a hop-on Big Bus and free admission to over 40 attractions. After stopping to admire the ancient Greek-style ‘Parthenon on the Parkway’ (the museum’s nickname), I spent several hours soaking up its offerings.
America’s third largest art museum, its stellar collection includes paintings by Dutch masters, an extensive array of impressionist work, a good sampling of surrealist paintings and an entire gallery devoted to Marcel Duchamp.
Next door is the small Rodin Museum, containing the largest collection of the sculptor’s work outside of Paris, including the very impressive bronze Gates Of Hell.
The Thinker at The Rodin Museum
The next day I got a taste for the city’s less formal arts scene by taking a walking tour of its murals. Over two hours we wandered through the streets to view the world’s largest outdoor art gallery. Mural-painting in Philly is a well-established popular art form used to highlight social issues and also just for fun – there was a stunning mural protesting prison overpopulation, for example, as well as one featuring famous men called Frank.
In the afternoon I decided to take a self-directed walking tour to the Society Hill section of Philly. It’s a colonial-era residential neighbourhood of tree-lined, cobblestone streets full of old red brick houses with shutters, now beautifully restored.
The streets, dotted with cafés and shops, open into lovely squares, including Headhouse Square, where there’s a Sunday farmers’ market. It’s perfect for a morning stroll; if you’re feeling energetic you could combine it with a scenic jaunt along the nearby Schuylkill (pronounced ‘Skoo-kul’) River, which has a 26-mile path along its banks.
I headed towards Chestnut Street and The Shops at Liberty Place for a spot of retail therapy. Pennsylvania is one of very few states in which clothes are exempt from sales tax, making it a very attractive destination in which to stock up your wardrobe. Liberty Place features 55 shops in a chic indoor mall, with a great observation deck at the top.
Afterwards, my credit card already smoking, I found a few more must-have items in the shops down on Walnut Street.
Refuel at Reading Terminal Market, a giant indoor bazaar with a host of food stalls, where you can grab a famous Philly cheese steak (thinly sliced beef and melted cheese in a roll).
If you’re a history buff, make a special trip to City Tavern, set in a colonial-style building where there was once a tavern frequented by the founding fathers. Its owner, Emmy-winning TV chef and food historian Walter Staib, has created a menu based on colonial-era food, including beers made from recipes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, served by staff dressed in garb of the era.
I combined lunch with a little history lesson – who knew that Benjamin Franklin devised a recipe for tofu in 1770?! It was another morsel of knowledge to take on board, one of many I’d gleaned during a fruitful few days in Philly.
Way to go
Book a room at Sheraton Philadelphia University City Hotel (philadelphiasheraton.com), where double rooms start from $139 per night. British Airways (BA.com) offers return direct flights from Heathrow to Philadelphia from £542pp. For affordable parking at Britain’s airports and car rental at Philadelphia International Airport, see holidayextras.com. For more on Philadelphia, see discoverphl.com.
Ten things you must do in Philadelphia
1 Enjoy top-notch pan-Asian cuisine in the shadow of a giant statue of Buddha at the sleek Buddakan restaurant. See buddakan.com.
2 Walk through a giant model of a heart, one of hundreds of memorable exhibits at science and technology museum The Franklin Institute. See fi.edu.
3 See the buildings and items related to America’s bid for independence at Independence National Historical Park. Visit nps.gov.
4 See the peacocks and 1,300 other animals at The Philadelphia Zoo. See philadelphiazoo.org.
5 Taste food made from recipes of the founding fathers at the atmospheric City Tavern, a real historical eating experience. Visit citytavern.com.
6 Have lunch – we recommend the turkey club sandwich – with the rowdy crowds cheering on their football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, at McGillin’s Olde Ale House. See mcgillins.com.
7 Take a selfie on the Rocky Steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and while away the hours looking at the museum’s stellar collections. Visit philamuseum.org.
8 Enjoy the cool bars, cafés and shops in University City, an easily walkable area where U Penn’s campus and others are concentrated.
9 Ride the restored 1908 carousel and enjoy the other kid-friendly exhibits at the hands-on Please Touch Museum for youngsters. See pleasetouchmuseum.org.
10 View the city’s vibrant mural scene on foot or by train. The Love Letter Tour, by train, takes in some rooftop murals. See muralarts.org/tours.