The original capital of the nation, PHILADELPHIA was laid out by William Penn Jr in 1682, on a grid system that was to provide the pattern for most American cities. Just a few blocks away from the noise and crowds of downtown, shady cobbled alleys stand lined with red-brick colonial houses, while the peace and quiet of huge Fairmount Park make it easy to forget you’re in a major metropolis. Settled by Quakers, Philadelphia prospered swiftly on the back of trade and commerce, becoming the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1750s. Economic power fuelled strong revolutionary feeling, and the city was the hub for most of the War of Independence and the US capital until 1800, while Washington DC was being built. The Declaration of Independence was written, signed, and first publicly read here in 1776, as was the US Constitution ten years later. Philadelphia was also a hotbed of new ideas in the arts and sciences, as epitomized by the scientist, philosopher, statesman, inventor and printer Benjamin Franklin.

Philadelphia, which means “City of Brotherly Love” in Greek, is in fact one of the most ethnically mixed US cities, with substantial communities of Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans and Asians living side-by-side among the large African American population. Many of the city’s black residents are descendants of the migrants who flocked here after the Civil War when Philadelphia was seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism. Philly also retains its Quaker heritage, with large “meetings” or congregations of The Society of Friends. Having ditched its erstwhile tag of “Filthydelphia”, Philadelphia’s strength today is its great energy in the face of economic adversity.

Central Philadelphia stretches for about two miles from the Schuylkill (pronounced “school-kill”) River on the west to the Delaware River on the east; the metropolitan area extends for many miles in all directions, but everything you’re likely to want to see is right in the central swath. The city’s central districts are compact, walkable and readily accessible from each other; Penn’s sensibly planned grid system makes for easy sightseeing.

Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners

USA features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

King of the road: on the Civil Rights Trail through America’s south

King of the road: on the Civil Rights Trail through America’s south

Next year marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and also the launch of a new Civil Rights Trail through the USA's south. On a road …

16 Nov 2017 • Ella Buchan local_activity Special feature
Video: a brief history of the American road trip

Video: a brief history of the American road trip

We dug into the visual archives of yore to bring you a brief history of the American road trip. From the first coast-to-coast car voyage in the USA to today…

10 Nov 2017 • Colt St. George videocam Video
7 seriously spooky places in America

7 seriously spooky places in America

From urban legends passed down for centuries to real-life harrowing tales, America’s closet is filled with skeletons. These cities will put a chill down your …

24 Oct 2017 • Jess Chun insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Weekly newsletter

Sign up now for travel inspiration, discounts and competitions

Sign up now and get 20% off any ebook