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Philadelphia: Birthplace of the USA

Philadelphia is rich in history, art, food and nightlife

Philadelphia: Birthplace of the USA

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As our train pulls into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, I feel as if we have been transported back in time as well as across state. Arriving as we have, late at night, the cavernous concourse that greets us is anything but the busy intercity railroad hub we’d read about earlier that day. Instead we find a deserted art deco hall, framed by neo-classical pillars and adorned with vast pendant chandeliers. Daytime in Philadelphia is in stark contrast with the night.

One of the first cities in North America to use a grid system, the city is easy to negotiate and relatively compact. But the streets bustle with tourists, shadowed by skyscrapers as they navigate their way from the uptown hotel district down to the city’s main sightseeing attractions in the Independence National Historical Park. Philadelphia is, after all, the cornerstone of early US history as the birthplace of American independence.

Following their lead, we visit the Liberty Bell and Pennsylvania State House, later renamed Independence Hall. We take a bus to other key historic sites — to the home of Betsy Ross, maker of the first American flag, to Elfreth’s Alley and to the Victorian buildings in Boathouse Row.

But we’re keen to find out more about Philadelphia, to discover if its moniker of The City of Brotherly Love is fairly deserved. A lunchtime excursion to Reading Terminal Market reveals this is the case as affable locals guide us to the best stalls at which to sample the regional delicacy — the artery-clogging cheesesteak.

There’s so much more we want to see, so much under construction. Currently hidden away in suburban Merion, the Barnes Foundation — the world’s most comprehensive collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art — will be relocated to the city centre in 2012.

A city of contrasts – of art, culture, history and modernity – I know this will not be the first and last time I visit Philadelphia.

Did you know? When Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, it was the world’s most expensive and hi-tech prison, so renowned that it attracted prominent visitors from across the globe, among them author Charles Dickens, who later castigated its regime of solitary confinement as ‘cruel and wrong’.

See & do

Nation’s birthplace: When Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, more than a year into the American Revolutionary War, it secured the US colonies’ release from the British Empire. You can visit Independence Hall, the site of the signing, free of charge. www.nps.gov/inde

Freedom symbol: The iconic Liberty Bell, which tolled to muster the citizens of Philadelphia for the first reading of the Declaration of Independence, is located in its own purpose-built museum a stone’s throw from Independence Hall. Entry is free. www.nps.gov/inde/liberty-bell-center.htm

Making history: Philadelphia’s newest attraction, The President’s House Commemorative Site, tells the story of nine enslaved Africans who lived and worked in the nation’s first White House — when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse

Celluloid moment: The 72 steps just outside the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art appeared in no fewer than five Rocky films and are great for photos if you fancy recreating the fictional boxer’s energetic run to the top. The museum houses one of the US’ biggest art collections.www.philamuseum.org

Behind bars: Designed to stimulate penitence and remorse in the convicts who served time there, Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous prison in the world. For $12 (£7.60), you can visit its crumbling remains and learn a little about some of its legendary inmates, including bank robber ‘Slick Willie’ Sutton and mobster Al Capone. www.easternstate.org

Road trip: The oldest surviving residential street in the US, Elfreth’s Alley was built in 1702. Of the 32 houses in this charming old city street, two have been converted into a museum and gift-shop. www.elfrethsalley.org

Like a local

Cut the cost: Save money on combined travel and entry fees by purchasing a Philadelphia Pass or Philadelphia City Pass. The former provides access to over 30 of the city’s attractions for one, two, three or five days; the latter offers a 47% saving on six key visitor sites and is valid for nine days from activation. Both passes provide day-long bus or trolley-car transportation as part of the fee. www.philadelphiapass.comwww.citypass.com/philadelphia

Sporting chance: Book advance tickets to see major league baseball team Philadelphia Phillies play at Citizens Bank Park during your stay.http://philadelphia.phillies.mlb.com

Family affair: Reduce the cost of family travel by buying a one-day Independence Pass, which gives unlimited access to SEPTA public transport for $28 (£18). Tickets cover a family of up to five travelling together. www.septa.org

Buy

■ Country crops: Head for Reading Terminal Market to buy handicrafts and sample home-baked goods, meats and ethnic foods. Stop by at Amish speciality stalls such as Beiler’s Bakery. www.readingterminalmarket.org

■ Style and substance: For designer clothes brands and chic stores, try Rittenhouse Row between the Avenue of the Arts and 22nd Street.www.rittenhouserow.org

Alternative view: Bohemian types won’t be disappointed by the eclectic assortment of boutiques and vintage shops in the Old City district, an area so cool that it has trademarked the phrase ‘hipstoric’ as a way of describing itself. www.oldcitydistrict.org/shop

Bargain hunt: A Bieber Tourways or SEPTA bus will take you 35 miles to Premium Outlets for designer bargains. www.premiumoutlets.com/philadelphia

Eat

Philadelphia is becoming one of the key US gastronomic destinations, with restaurants specialising in Mediterranean, South American, pan-Asian and European cuisine alongside traditional North American fare. No meat-eating tourist should leave without sampling one of the city’s legendary cheesesteaks.

£ Leo’s Steak Shop
Pat’s and Geno’s are popular city centre cheesesteak restaurants, but locals often rate Leo’s as the best of the bunch. T: 00 1 610 586 1199.

££ Kokopelli
Open for only a matter of months, south-western tapas restaurant Kokopelli is already proving a hit. www.kokopelliphilly.com

£££ Morimoto
TV chef Masaharu Morimoto offers the culinary direction for this downtown Japanese restaurant. www.morimotorestaurant.com

Sleep

There are more than 8,500 hotel rooms in the city of Philadelphia, from wallet-friendly inns and lodges to luxurious five-diamond establishments.

£ Alexander Inn
With 48 rooms spread over seven stories, this popular non-smoking hotel offers fresh fruit and snacks 24 hours a day. It also has a fitness centre.www.alexanderinn.com

££ Hotel Palomar Philadelphia
This chic property, located near Philadelphia’s historic Rittenhouse Square, features 19 spa rooms, 17 suites and 194 rooms, and is one of the city’s most eco-friendly hotels. www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com

£££ Four Seasons Philadelphia
One of Philadelphia’s top five-diamond properties, the Four Seasons is home to one of the city’s most celebrated eateries, the five-star Fountain Restaurant. www.fourseasons.com/philadelphia

After hours and Nightlife

As the sixth most populated city in the US, it’s little surprise that Philadelphia has a vibrant nightlife. A regular fixture on musicians’ tour circuits, it also has a pulsating club scene, plus a host of comedy venues, opera houses, jazz clubs and cocktail bars to sample.

Traditional tavern: Monk’s Belgian Cafe boasts one of the biggest selections of draught Belgian beers in the US. www.monkscafe.com

All that jazz: Behind an unassuming doorway in the Rittenhouse Square district is Chris’ Jazz Cafe, famous for its menu. www.chrisjazzcafe.com

Lounge lizard: Thanks to its position on the 19th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel, the aptly-named XIX provides a fantastic vista over Philadelphia’s sweeping skyline. www.parkphiladelphia.hyatt.com

 

ESSENTIALS

Philadelphia

Getting there
US Airways has direct daily flights year-round from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester. It also offers a seasonal daily service from Glasgow.www.usairways.com
British Airways operates twice-daily flights direct from Heathrow. www.ba.com

 

Getting around
Philly is easy to navigate on foot or using the SEPTA public transport system, which features subways, overground trains, trolley-cars and buses. Alternatively, buy a single or multiple day ticket for one of the private hop-on, hop-off buses and trolleys that visit the main tourist sights.

 

When to go

Although Philadelphia is a year-round destination, it is worth visiting on 4 July, when it hosts the Wawa Welcome America! Festival. In 2011, this Independence Day event will include a giant parade and a concert featuring several Grammy award-winning artists, plus fireworks.

 

Need to know
Visas: Travellers need either a visa or a US electronic system travel authorisation (ESTA) to visit Philadelphia. https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov
Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.55.
International dial code: 001 267.

 

How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers five nights in the city at the four-star Crowne Plaza Hotel. Prices are from £599 per person, based on a November 2011 departure, and include transfers and direct flights from Heathrow with US Airways. www.virginholidays.co.uk

 

More info
Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. T: 0844 880 6853. www.philadelphiausa.travel
Philadelphia Insight City Guide (Insight, £11.69) and Frommer’s Philadelphia Day by Day (Frommer’s, £8.99).
Visit www.philadelphiausa.travel to see Revolution Evolution, a three-minute video about the city.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)