Welcome to the most American of all states

If you had to choose a selection of typically American characteristics and boil them down into one state, that state might look pretty much like Pennsylvania. Named after William Penn, an English Quaker who settled here in the late 17th Century, Pennsylvania has witnessed some of the most important moments in US history. Philadelphia, founded by Penn in 1682, has the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the colonists adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776.

If you had to choose a selection of typically American characteristics and boil them down into one state, that state might look pretty much like Pennsylvania. Named after William Penn, an English Quaker who settled here in the late 17th Century, Pennsylvania has witnessed some of the most important moments in US history. Philadelphia, founded by Penn in 1682, has the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the colonists adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776.

There is Civil War history, too, and monuments to the spirit of enterprise: an entire town in the case of Milton Hershey, the man who made America's most famous chocolate bar, while the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (another Brit) is commemorated with the fanfare of concert halls and museums in Pittsburgh. Art meets the countryside at Fallingwater in the Laurel Highlands, near Pittsburgh, where a sensational house designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright stands in idyllic woodlands. As you travel across the state, with its rolling hills and green fields, you'll see Amish farms and horsedrawn buggies in Lancaster country, or canoeists and whitewater rafting in the Pocono Mountains.


The best place to start is Philadelphia. At one point, it was the second largest English-speaking city in the world after London and served as the capital for the fledgling US from 1790 to 1800. The important historical sites are the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall (both are open 9am-5pm daily, admission free; 001 215 597 8974; www.nps.gov/inde) and the Betsy Ross House (opens 10am-5pm, daily April-Sept and Tues-Sun Oct-March, admission $3/£1.60; 001 215 686 1252; www.betsyrosshouse.org) - which commemorates the woman who sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag. These are within one square mile, so if you're interested in American history, it's easy to take it all in.


Don't worry, Philly is much more cool than school. It has a distinctly European feel to it, partly because of the historic architecture in neighbourhoods such as Old City, and partly because of the mix of people. The Italian Market in South Philadelphia has been going for more than 100 years and a visit here feels like stepping into a Scorsese or a Coppola movie (without the bloodshed, of course). There are big Hispanic and African-American communities, as one would expect, but somehow the blend of all these things, seasoned with a bit of Amish culture, results in a sort of human delicatessen-style ambience.


Then head straight for the Reading Terminal Market (open 8am-6pm, Mon-Sat, but many of the market's restaurants close after 3pm; 001 215 922 2317; www.readingterminalmarket.org). At this farmers' market in the centre of town you can try local delicacies such as a Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich or Amish ice cream.

Like all cities with an eclectic ethnic mix, this is a great place for eating out. Choose from upscale establishments around Rittenhouse Row and Walnut Street, funky New American bistros among the bars and restaurants of Market Street in Old City, and traditional ethnic restaurants in Chinatown, Germantown and the Italian Market.


If you don't want a three-course meal, wander down Market Street where you'll find Martini bars and high-end burger joints. The Penn's View Hotel (001 215 922 7600; www.pennsviewhotel.com), on Front and Market Streets, has an amazing bar where they serve "flights" of wine - six glasses from one "family" of wine, such as Chardonnay, or Zinfandel. Double starts at $120 (£63) per night, including breakfast. For lunch, head for South Street, Philadelphia's answer to Notting Hill, which has coffee shops and eateries scattered among the eclectic mix of boho boutiques.


Sorry, but this is a city where you'll want to spend a bit of time. Before we go, let me just say that if you want to get your bearings quickly, take the trolley, which leaves from the Bourse on 5th Street. You can buy a ticket that lets you jump on and off. Stop at the Rocky steps, famous for the scene in the movie where Sylvester Stallone trains by running up the steps that lead to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (001 215 763 8100; www.philamuseum.org).

The museum is one of America's finest, with no fewer than 200 galleries (open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm and until 8.45pm on Fridays, admission $10 (£5.30)/Sundays pay as you wish).


The King of Prussia Mall, 15 miles west of Philadelphia, bills itself as the largest retail complex in the US, and includes eight major department stores: Bloomingdales, Macy's, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Sears and JC Penney. As well as Gap and other American stalwarts, you'll also find Hermes, Louis Vuitton, DKNY, Versace and Tiffany & Co.


Well, you're on the right spot for Washington if you're at the King of Prussia Mall. It's practically next door to the Valley Forge National Historical Park (001 610 783 1077; www.nps.gov/vafo; opens daily 9am-5pm; admission to historic buildings $3/£1.60), where General George Washington spent the winter of 1777-1778 turning his Continental Army into a credible fighting force. It's not a battlefield site, but 2,000 soldiers died here, of hunger, disease and hypothermia. Washington's original HQ has been restored and the costumed guides will let you see what cramped quarters they must have been for the general, his aides and their servants. Around the park, which is a stunning expanse of rolling hills and woodland, you can see the wooden huts where the soldiers lived, as well as rows of cannon and earthworks.


Yes, let's head for Hershey, home of chocolate, and the Hotel Hershey (001 717 533 2171; www.hersheyspa.com; doubles from $219/£115, including breakfast), with its amazing spa. (It's about a two-hour drive, heading west on Interstate 78.)

The spa treatments are based on chocolate, so you can choose from a Whipped Cocoa Bath, a Milk and Honey Soak, a Chocolate Bean Polish (I can vouch for this: it left my skin feeling as smooth as a Hershey Kiss) or a Chocolate Fondue Wrap. Milton Hershey built the hotel in the 1930s and was apparently urged by his wife Catherine to base the design "on the great Heliopolis Hotel in Cairo". It looks to British eyes as if it owes more to the great Trusthouse Forte hotel in Swindon, but perhaps I'm being snobbish. Can't fault the spa, though.

There was a strongly philanthropic streak in Milton Hershey, which you have to bear in mind every time someone in Hershey wants to relieve you of yet more cash or stuff you with yet another chocolate. He was a 24-carat edition of the American rags to riches story, and he spent much of his fortune on a school for orphaned boys, which still exists today in the form of a series of houses for disadvantaged children.

It's all paid for with the profits from products such as Hershey bars and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and these are celebrated at Hershey's Chocolate World (001 800 468 1714; www.hersheyschocolateworld.com), which offers a chocolate-making tour, a trolley tour of the town and numerous gift shops. Hershey grew up in a Pennsylvania Dutch family in Lancaster County and his mother was a Mennonite, so he was only too familiar with the agricultural traditions of the area and the fact that he had access to vast supplies of milk and cream on his doorstep.


To be honest, the Amish don't come across as being as standoffish as the film Witness makes out. You can stay in Amish bed and breakfasts these days and when you encounter them, perhaps buying their produce at farm shops or restaurants, they're as cheerful and friendly as any other Americans. But the women do still wear white caps and the men still wear straw hats and blue shirts and you'll still see plenty of horse-drawn buggies with queues of cars behind them.


It seems a shame to go straight to Pittsburgh without taking a detour to Gettysburg, so head south-west on 15 and try to spend a few hours at one of the spectacular Civil War battle sites. Head straight for the visitor centre (001 717 334 2100; www.gettysburg.com) - Gettysburg is well sign-posted - and hire a National Park Service Licensed Battlefield Guide, who for the next two hours will fill your head with images of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank as they faced each other across the bloodstained fields. Even if you're not especially into in American history, the story will come alive as you walk where they fell.


Yes, let's pick up I-70/76 and stop off at Laurel Highlands. This national park provides a mountain playground for Pittsburgh, and although it can boast a hefty share of history and outdoor activities, it is also home to one of the most famous designs by America's most famous architect. Fallingwater, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufman family, was built between 1934 and 1937.

It seems to grow out of the mountainside as an inextricable part of the waterfall to which it owes its name. Daily tours run from mid-March to November (Tues-Sun); to visit you need to book in advance on 001 724 329 8501. It also offers fantastic views of the surrounding landscape.


Today, Pittsburgh likes to brand itself as the "renaissance city", but its claim to be a cultural hub, awash with museums, galleries, concerts and festivals, is built directly on the steel girders of its industrial past. It is impossible to talk about Pittsburgh without mentioning Andrew Carnegie, another poor boy who grew up to make millions and plough his money back into the community. Carnegie, from Dunfermline, Fife, emigrated to the US with his family in search of work and by the time the Civil War broke out, had a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He saw the potential for the iron industry and changed tack, first supplying iron bridges to the railroad companies, then moving into the nascent steel industry. By 1900, Carnegie Steel's output exceeded that of the entire British steel industry. But Carnegie never lost his thirst for learning, and after selling his business to JP Morgan for $480m, devoted his time to spending his profits on public libraries and museums, not only in Pittsburgh, but elsewhere.

Today, the four Carnegie museums are cornerstones of Pittsburgh's arts scene. Of these, don't miss The Warhol (001 412 237 8300; www.warhol.org) featuring an extensive permanent collection of one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century (open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm and later on Fridays; admission $10 (£5.30)/half price Fridays 5-10pm).


Pennsylvania's climate is pretty similar to the UK's, so you can expect fairly good weather from April to October. If you want to go right out of season, head for Punxsutawney in north-west Pennsylvania on 2 February, when the town celebrates Groundhog Day. According to local lore, if the groundhog comes out of his burrow and sees his shadow, there'll be six more weeks of winter weather. If not, there'll be an early spring. It's about two hours' drive from Pittsburgh.


Contact Pennsylvania Tourism on 020 8994 0978 or visit www.visitpa.com. For a free visitor's guide and map, call 0870 903 1001.