Do you want to enjoy the delights of shows, shopping and eating out on a US city break but you’ve done NYC? Nearby Philadelphia has all this in spades, as well as history, nightlife and some of the finest artwork once to adorn the walls of European houses.
I drove into Center City Philadelphia with Bruce Springsteen’s lines in my head but I felt anything but alone in this vibrant city.
Philadelphia has the variety of architecture found, in my opinion, in the best cities. It has the glittering skyline you would expect in a mightily modern American city.
Then there’s the house of Betsy Ross who sewed the first American flag (and more importantly ran her own business in what was very much a male preserve). And of course there’s the imposing bulk of City Hall and the gracious 18th century residential streets. Or the art deco of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s suburban station.
The charm of each district in Philadelphia’s supremely walkable Centre City is unique and the combination of old and new world architecture very attractive. But it’s the people who make this house a home. Philadelphians tell it like it is and offer only the warmest welcome.
Ancient arguments won and lost
Philadelphia’s colonial Independence Hall looks like a little doll’s house in the midst of a grassy square surrounded by substantial 19th and 20th century buildings. But it is here that some of the most important debates in US, and perhaps world, history took place in 1776.
And some of those debates are still going on. The modern National Constitutional Centre faces the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall across the greensward. This is where Barack Obama made his famous election campaign race speech and you can see a signed copy on display.
It was here in this square that power was transferred peaceably from one person to another by popular demand for the very first time.
So have your photo taken beside the Liberty Bell, have a peak at Christchurch where Washington attended worship, and leave a penny on Ben Franklin’s grave.
City of arts and culture
When you’re in the US everything is always the biggest and the best, or the oldest or the most famous, or whatever. In Pennsylvania this is particularly true as the city boasts many “firsts”. There’s the first US capital, university, stock exchange and art museum, to name a few.
When it comes to culture the Barnes Foundation contains the largest private collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the world. And the Rodin Museum the biggest collection of sculpture by the French master outside of Paris.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the third-largest art museum in the US and the striking, neoclassical building is an oasis of beauty featuring more than 2,000 years of human creativity.
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts is just one of the major cultural facilities lining the Avenue of the Arts (Broad Street). The curving red tiers of the Verizon concert hall are like a beating heart inside the vast glass arches of the Kimmel. Here, despite ongoing debate over funding and filling the post of artistic director, the great Philadelphia Symphony continues to play to the highest standard under Charles Dutoit.
But apart from all this fabulous art and culture, it’s what you’ll find on the random street corners and walls throughout Center City that had the biggest impact for me.
Wandering the streets of the Old city district on the First Friday of the month, we joined in with urbanites and aficionados visiting contemporary galleries, enjoying the art and design, and spilling out onto the street with our drinks in hand.
Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Programme is still going strong 27 years on – once an anti-graffiti effort and now a true asset. More than 3,000 murals have been created in that time and from scenic views to abstract creations, these neighbourhood art projects are a journey through the spirit of the city.
And then there are the magic gardens. An organisation of artists and community members promote and preserve the legacy of Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, who covered half a vacant South Street block (and a number of other derelict walls in the city) with myriad glittering, colourful mirror mosaic creations.
In Philadelphia art is all about community and from the Kimmel to the sidewalk, from highbrow to fringe, there are hundreds of concerts, outdoor art shows and performances every year.
Eating out in Philadelphia
The Philadelphia restaurant scene has undergone something of a transformation and now you can dine at a different eatery 365 days of the year without ever being bored.
When in Philly you must eat a cheese steak, a soft pretzel, a hoagie sandwich and Basset’s icecream, all washed down with a root beer. The best place to find these local favourites is the Reading Terminal Market, a 110-year-old farmers’ market where you can also find the Amish of Lancaster County selling their homemade foods.
So far, so tasty, and so a ticket to the cardiac ward. But there is oh so much more. In fact there is no excuse not to eat well in this town. A man who is to some extent credited with the regeneration is Stephen Starr.
This guy studied drama at college and is clearly an acolyte of the ‘food as theatre’ school of restauranteurism. Parc does a very good approximation of the French bistro concept on Rittenhouse Square with blotched mirrors and art nouveau decoration. There are also Mexican and Japanese restaurants, and the old style American diner that started it all.
Away from the stylish restaurant scene, for a taste of southside Philadelphia head to the Italian Market on 9th Street. Yes it featured in the film Rocky and yes it’s the oldest outdoor market in the US.
Third and fourth generation Italian purveyors will sell you produce, meats, fish, herbs and great coffee. Crates of pumpkins, bales of straw and tall stacks of corn were all ready for Halloween decorations.
City break in Philadelphia
Departing the city, drowning in the back seat of a Lincoln, I looked back at the famous skyline under a bloated sun distended by an arrow-shaped cloud. The Liberty towers loomed over the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.
I kind of regret that I didn’t run up the Rocky steps, though there always seemed to be someone acting out cinema history in front of the Museum of Fine Art.
But I did fall in love with a city that takes certain things seriously. History, art and architecture, food and drink, shopping, and of course sports. I saw the Liberty Bell and got called “hun” a lot. What’s not to love?
By Natasha von Geldern
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