Welcome to the City of Brotherly Love
City Slicker: Philadelphia - Philadelphia is urban America at its most friendly and relaxed. Sarah Donnelly offers ideas for new and returning visitors
Sunday 03 July 2011
Why go now?
If New York is the alluring but aloof acquaintance that you've never really got to know, Philadelphia is the amiable guy on the bus who slaps you on the back, recounts his life story, and offers you half of his cheesesteak sandwich.
Friendly, relaxed and easy to fall for, the City of Brotherly Love is much more than a stopover on the way to the Big Apple.
Philly has always squared up to its East Coast rivals when it comes to culture and the arts, but a recent spate of inaugurations on its already replete museum circuit has raised the city's profile yet again. Not to be outdone, Philadelphia will have the largest collection of Impressionist art on display outside Paris when the Barnes Foundation gallery opens in 2012.
A demographic shift has been the catalyst for further change since, unlike their predecessors, the baby boomers began retiring into the city. Shunning the suburbs in favour of diverse inner-city neighbourhoods, they demanded better services, more entertainment and top-class restaurants, and Philly has responded with enthusiasm.
The Independence National Historical Park.
The most historic square mile in America contains many of Philly's most noteworthy attractions, including the Liberty Bell, the President's House (which includes a new Freedom and Slavery exhibition), and one of the oldest residential streets in America, Elfreth's Alley (nps.gov/inde).
A Segway tour
Getting to grips with a quirky two-wheel transporter puts a novelty spin on an absorbing tour that takes in Boathouse Row, the formidable art museum, and the famous "Rocky steps" immortalised by Sylvester Stallone (iglidetours.com).
A visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary
When Dickens visited America in 1842, he wanted to see two things: Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. A controversial experiment in prison reform, this Gothic fortress is now suspended in an eerie state of semi-decay (easternstate.org).
The Masonic Temple
One of the "great wonders of the Masonic world", the temple is an architectural marvel, inside and out. A guided tour through its labyrinthine corridors will leave you intrigued (pagrandlodge.org).
A trip to the Reading Terminal Market
This 19th-century market hall offers an eclectic profusion of flavours across 12 neon-lit aisles. Take a full wallet and an empty stomach for maximum indulgence (reading terminalmarket.org).
The chance to sample cocktails at the Four Seasons Hotel
End a trip around the Museum District in style in the luxurious Swann Lounge, with its marble table tops and grand piano (fourseasons.com).
Northern Liberties was once Philadelphia's work-hard, play-hard sister city. But, with the Delaware River hemming it in to the east and William Penn's fast-expanding metropolis encroaching from the south, it was inevitably swallowed up to become one of Philly's first suburbs. Now its decaying factories are being revamped, and smart new developments are springing up on its empty plots. Much of it has a "work in progress" vibe, but the boutiques, bars and restaurants around the Piazza at Schmidts – including design shop Millesime (millesime.us), Sonata Restaurant (sonatarestaurant.com), and Bar Ferdinand (barferdinand.com) – provide a glimpse of a promising future.
National Museum of American Jewish History
This is the only museum in the world dedicated solely to Jewish-American history and it's a modern masterpiece right in the heart of the old town. An engaging narrative charts a bittersweet journey from segregation to inclusion, demonstrating how the Jewish population was ultimately instrumental in shaping the cultural landscape of modern America. The exhibition spans four floors and 350 years, housed within an impressive glass and terracotta structure designed by the architect James Stewart Polshek.
The latest creation from Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, an entrepreneurial couple whose six businesses along South 13th Street have transformed the area. Having successfully tackled Indian and Mexican cuisine, their new offering of small Mediterranean plates and pizzas has met rapturous acclaim from the likes of Frommer's travel guides, and has been nominated for Best New Restaurant in the James Beard Foundation Awards (the foodie "Oscars").
The Graffiti Bar at Sampan
What was once a dull, empty courtyard behind Sampan restaurant (itself a relative newcomer) has been transformed into a happening open-air cocktail joint. Local street artists were hired to spray-paint every inch of wall, in a highly appropriate tribute to Philadelphia's reputation as the city of murals. In addition to its cocktail list, the Graffiti Bar serves cask ales and two-dollar Asian snacks at happy hour, created by the owner and celebrity chef Michael Schulson.
This modern, angular construction is the first casino within Philadelphia's city limits. It is open all day, every day and is accessible via a regular, free trolley bus service from the city centre.
Megan Scala, Management Consultant
"Check out the Museum of Art's special events on Friday evenings. I also love the cocktail bar at the Ritz. It is beautiful architecturally, but it's also great for food and wine...and celebrity spotting."
How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) offers return flights to Philadelphia from £420. Rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel (0800 917 8795; fourseasons.com/philadelphia) cost from £160 per night.
Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (0844 880 6852; philadelphiausa.travel ).
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