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A short stay in... Philadelphia

The home of American democracy is generous with its gifts - lashings of classy cuisine, ornamental gardens and even Russian tsars. By Fiona Sturges
  • @FionaSturges
Why go there?

With a glorious revolutionary history, sweeping boulevards, lanky skyscrapers, classy cuisine, a vast national art gallery and relentlessly cool clubs, Philadelphia has a little bit of everything. Gone are the days when the fifth largest city in the US could only pray for crumbs after the tourists had finished with New York, Washington and Boston. It has spent the last 20 years dusting itself down. Now it is ready to show off.

When to go

Philadelphia has a fairly moderate climate in spring and autumn, though temperatures can reach the mid-90s in the summer, and winters can be harsh. The city hosts many events all year round, from jazz festivals and writers' weekends to cinema days and craft shows. The Sunoco Welcome America festival, lasting for 10 days in July, is the biggest Independence Day knees-up in the world, featuring parades, fireworks and musical events. But more enticing is the 10-day food festival in March, with its gourmet food sampling, book-signings and feisty debates with local chefs. For the best local cuisine, make sure you get your chops around a lard-smothered Philly cheese-steak. After one of these, you won't have to eat for a week. Hotels and airlines offer special deals for both festivals. Information can be obtained from the Visitors' Bureau (see Information).

Getting there

Philadelphia International Airport is con- veniently located eight miles from the city centre. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) and US Airways (tel: 0171-484 2100) operate daily services to Philadelphia from Heathrow and Gatwick. August flights start at pounds 621 midweek, pounds 651 weekends. Until December, BA has World Offer fares to Philadelphia which can dip well below pounds 300, depending on dates. For $5 (pounds 3) the airport rail line goes to and from the city centre every half-hour, while Amtrak's 30th Street Rail Station operates along the Northeast Corridor, stretching from Boston to Washington and from New Haven to Springfield. The Intercity bus service (SEPTA) is easily negotiated, with daily arrivals from all over the country. Call for rail and bus enquiries (tel: 001 215 580 7800).

Where to stay

Philadelphia hospitality doesn't stop with giant food portions. Punctuating the skyline are luxury hotels where impeccably behaved staff clamour to roll out the red carpets - if you are ready to roll out the cash. To stay in the middle of town, you will have to shell out, but there are plenty of friendly hotels further out of town to accommodate more modest bank balances.

Four Seasons Hotel, One Logan Square (tel: 001 215 963 1500). It cost $44m to create this deluxe hotel and costs almost as much to stay in it. Overlooking the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, it has a marble interior, heated pools, saunas, massage parlours, a top-class restaurant and huge rooms. Rooms start from $330 per night.

Embassy Suites, 1776 Ben Franklin Parkway (tel: 001 215 561 1776). Just off Logan Square, this hotel offers stomach-churning views of everywhere you want to be. But you might want to try out the restaurant chain TGI Fridays before you book, as they do the catering. Rooms start from $159 per night, including breakfast.

Holiday Inn, 1800 Market Street (tel: 001 215 561 7500). Don't be put off by the name - American Holiday Inns are a long way from the unintentionally retro 1970s abom- inations of the UK. This one is beautifully renovated, superbly located and rooms are priced at around $129 per night.

Whitewing Farm (tel: 001 610 388 2664). Situated 45 minutes out of town at West Chester, this cosy billet is more like a well-to-do friend's house than a hotel. There are only seven rooms as well as a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, so book well in advance. Adjacent to Longwood Gardens. Rooms $115-$145 per night, including breakfast.

Getting around

For sightseeing, several local tour companies offer private excursions, although, dependent on the weather, everything is within walking distance. The city's layout is a grid and easy to negotiate. If you prefer to view the city in comfort, for $14 a ride on a trolley-bus provides the most comprehensive tour of the city. Call for bookings and enquiries (tel: 001 215 333 2119). There is also a good bus service (tel: 001 215 580 7800), $1.50 a ride or $16 weekly.

What to see and do

As the bedrock of US democracy, most Philadelphian landmarks revolve around Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. But more surprising is the city's wealth of museums and art galleries - a result of an antiquated ordinance that stipulated that one per cent of the cost of all new buildings must be devoted to fine art. As well as providing an edifying inventory of American artistic endeavours from the1800s to the present, the city's art galleries boast remarkable works from all over the world.

Independence National Historical Park. Containing the oldest residential street in America and the Liberty Bell (see below), this square mile in the middle of town heaves with symbols of independence that has the locals frothing at the mouth.

The Liberty Bell, National Historical Park. The world-famous (cracked) gong of democracy is housed in the disappointingly dull pavilion by the Chinese-American architect, IM Pei. Not least for its bulk, the bell is certainly worth a look.

Lights of Liberty Show, National Historical Park. What you might call a walking tour with knobs on, this theatrical and patriotic show begins at Franklin Court and culminates in an ear-piercing finale at Independence Hall. Prices start from around $15.

#Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street & Benjamin Parkway. As well as housing a breathtaking collection of art, this museum boasts one of the finest views of the city from the museum steps. The museum features extensive collections, with an magnificent range of French Impressionists and mid-20th Century art.

#The Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 36th St, at Sansom (tel: 215 898 7108). Bursting with confrontational art forms and a breeding ground for classy names, this was the launchpad for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol.

#Rodin Museum, 22nd St (tel: 215 787 5476) The most comprehensive collection of picture-postcard work by the French sculptor outside Paris, though completely identical to the museum in Paris.

#Franklin Institute Science Museum (222 North 20th Street (tel: 215 448 1176) An interactive museum full of kiddie-pleasing gadgetry. It offers an idiot-proof guide to basic geology, biology, mechanics, transport, aviation, technology and electronics. The museum is proud of its brand new IMAX films dome - a four-storey, wrap-around theatre with 50,000-watt speakers that rattle every nerve in your body.

First Friday. By far the best weekly event in Philadelphia is "First Friday". Situated in Old City, this is one of the more off-the-wall events in which the contemporary art world draws in beautiful youths from all over town. More than 40 galleries open their doors on the first Friday of every month. You can see anything from technicolour ceramics, funky furniture, figurative and abstract painting to more controversial installations and sculpture a la Sensation. Although most of the work is for sale, you are welcome to wander in and browse.

Food and drink

The Reading Terminal Market has foodstands which sell Philly's unique food, such as the cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and Amish goods. Stroll along Rittenhouse Row on Walnut Street and you will find traditional American restaurants with regional cuisine such as Cajun, Southwestern and Californian. You will find you can eat fairly modestly in many of the smart eateries if you ask for the bar menu.

Opus, 251 South 18th Street, (tel: 215 735 6787). Situated in the opulent Rittenhouse Square, this is the place to treat yourself. It has an elegant though not over-fussy garden where the chef claims he sketches the food before cooking it. Refreshingly reasonably sized and handsomely arranged food. Entrees for $15-$25

Fork, 306 Market St (tel: 215 625 9425). A slinky, new bistro in the Old City popular for its health-conscious menu, though the portions are gigantic. Dinners are pricey but lunch is more reasonable at $6-$8.

#White Dog Cafe, 3420 Sanson St (tel: 215 386 9224). This cosy bar, decked out with checked tablecloths and antique furniture, is frequented by students and staff from the university next door. Reasonably priced for both lunch and dinner at $6-$10.

#Famous 4th Street Delicatessen. Adorned with pictures of washed-up actors, bewigged gameshow hosts and aged entertainers, this lively cafe offers fresh American cuisine, including knishes, blintzes and corned beef. Don't miss this gem. Lunch $3.


The Court Plaza (tel: 001 610 265 5727) at the King of Prussia is the largest shopping complex on the east coast, with 450 different stores selling designer goods as well as the more basic necessities. For shopping in the city centre, head for Rittenhouse Row for its antique furniture shops and designer outlets.

Out of town

Winterthur (tel: 001 302 888 4600). The former stomping ground of the late Henry Francis du Pont, this elegant estate is situated in the Brandywine Valley, six miles north-west of Wilmington. Winterthur's museum is home to an absurdly interesting collection of soup tureens as well as furniture, textiles, glass, ceramics, silver and paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries. The present exhibition, Deceit, Deception and Discovery, runs until early 1999 and features fake furniture.

Longwood Gardens (tel: 001 610 388 1000). Longwood isn't your average prissily over-manicured lawn. Also home to the ubiquitous Du Pont's in the 19th century, this gardener's paradise, 30 miles out of town, encompasses 1,050 acres, with 20 outdoor and 20 indoor gardens and more than 11,000 plants.

Valley Forge National Historical Park (tel: 001 610 834 1550). Half-an- hour's drive from Philadelphia, this park is steeped in the history of the American Revolution. Washington's army camped for six months before they thrashed the British army at the Battle of Monmouth. For a guided tour take the skillfully titled Revolutionary War Driving Tour.

Wharton Esherick's House and Museum (tel: 001 610 644 5822). This native Philadelphia artist is best known for his organic wooden furniture designs which are wonderfully lodged, if a little crammed, into the artist's own house, an idiosyncratic building in its own right.

#Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia (tel: 001 302 888 4907). Despite the tautological title, this is a fascinating exhibition about Nicholas and Alexandra. Best of all is the audio tape which has the mellifluous Donald Sutherland saying things like: "Don't go away, I'll be back in a minute."

Deals and packages

Destination USA (tel: 0171 253 2000) offers a three-night break to Philadelphia for pounds 399 per person, based on two sharing, with return flights and three- star accommodation. Travelpack (tel: 0990 747101) offers a three-night break in Philadelphia for pounds 388 per person, based on two sharing, with return flights and three-star accommodation.

Further information

For a visitors guide to the state and more information, call the Visitors Bureau (tel: 001 215 636 1666) or visit the website on www.libertynet.org/phila- visitor.

Fiona Sturges travelled as a guest of Pennsylvania Tourism.