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.
Hotels anywhere downtown or near the historic area tend to be prohibitively expensive, though at weekends there’s a chance of getting a reduced rate. Parking is always expensive. The Independence Visitor Center is a great resource for accommodation discounts; B&Bs are a good option here, but usually need to be booked in advance.
The most popular areas for bar-hopping are South Street and around 2nd street in the Old City, although the Northern Liberties and Fishtown areas, a little further north, beyond the flyovers, have established reputations for trendy bars and clubs. Local brews are popular and inexpensive; try any ale by yards, or Yuengling if you prefer lager.
Eating out in Philadelphia is a real treat: the ubiquitous street stands sell soft pretzels with mustard for 50¢, chinatown and the italian market are good for ethnic food, while reading Terminal market offers bargain lunches of various cuisines. south street has plenty of good, if rather touristic, places, while pricier, trendier restaurants cluster along s 2nd street in the old city. The South Philly cheesesteak, a hot sandwich of wafer-thin roast beef topped with melted cheese (aka cheez Whiz), varies from place to place around town.
The mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway, known as Museum Row, sweeps northwest from City Hall to the colossal Museum of Art in Fairmount Park, an area of countryside annexed by the city in the nineteenth century. Spanning nine hundred scenic acres on both sides of the Schuylkill River, this is one of the world’s largest landscaped city parks, with jogging, biking and hiking trails, early-American homes, an all-wars memorial to the state’s black soldiers, and the country’s first zoo at 3400 W Girard Ave (phillyzoo.org). In the late 1960s, local resident Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali all but brought the city to a standstill with the announcement one afternoon that they were heading to Fairmount for an informal slug-out.
Any tour of Philadelphia should start with Independence National Historic Park, or INHP, “America’s most historic square mile”. Though the park covers a mere four blocks just west of the Delaware River, between Walnut and Arch streets, it can take more than a day to explore in full. The solid red-brick buildings here, not all of which are open to the public, epitomize the Georgian (and after the Revolution, Federalist) obsession with balance and symmetry.
Free tours set off from the rear of the east wing of Independence Hall, the single most important site. Throughout the day, costumed actors perform patchy but informative skits in various locations –The Gazette free newsletter has listings and a useful map.
The steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art were immortalized by Sylvester Stallone in the film Rocky, an event commemorated by the Rocky statue. Inside are some of the finest treasures in the US, with a twelfth-century French cloister, Renaissance art, a complete Robert Adam interior from a 1765 house in London’s Berkeley Square, Rubens tapestries, Pennsylvania Dutch crafts and Shaker furniture, a strong Impressionist collection and the world’s most extensive Marcel Duchamp collection.
Society Hill, an elegant residential area west of the Delaware and directly south of INHP, spreads between Walnut and Lombard streets. Though it is indeed Philadelphia’s high society that lives here now, the area was named after its first inhabitants, the Free Society of Traders. After falling into disrepair, the Hill itself was flattened in the early 1970s to provide a building site for I.M. Pei’s twin skyscrapers, Society Hill Towers. Luckily, the rest of the neighbourhood has been restored to form one of the city’s most picturesque districts: cobbled gas-lit streets are lined with immaculately kept colonial, Federal and Georgian homes, often featuring the state’s namesake keystones on their window frames.
Staunchly blue-collar South Philadelphia, centre of Philadelphia’s black community since the Civil War, is also home to many of the city’s Italians; opera singer Mario Lanza and pop stars Fabian and Chubby Checker grew up here. It’s also where to come for an authentic – and very messy – Philly cheesesteak, and to rummage through the wonderful Italian Market (another Rocky location), which runs along 9th Street south from Christian Street. One of the last surviving urban markets in the USA, it features wooden market stalls packed to overflowing with bric-a-brac and various produce – most famously, mozzarella. South Street, the original boundary of the city, is now one of Philadelphia’s main nightlife districts, with dozens of cafés, bars, restaurants and nightclubs lined up along the few blocks west from Front Street; there are also many good book, record and clothing shops for browsing by day or evening.