As a visitor from the UK long fascinated by American history and culture, if I told you I had fallen hard for a city in the US, you would probably assume that I mean New York, San Francisco or Chicago maybe. But no, the place that really captured my heart on a recent trip was Philadelphia. Until recently I knew very little about it, other than the famous Liberty Bell and what I had glimpsed from that great ‘80s film, Trading Places but happily an excellent new book, Philadelphia Builds, and local recommendations from followers of my popular Instagram account opened my eyes to the richness of its history and all there is to see.
The empty halls of the airport serve as a reminder of the strange and uncertain times we are living through but in under half an hour I found myself in elegant Rittenhouse Square, the loveliest of the five original squares planned by William Penn in the late 17th Century. It also provides the perfect base for any stay with many sights and excellent places to eat nearby. The recent emphasis on outdoor dining also gives the city a continental feel with tables spilling onto the sidewalks.
Many things in Philadelphia remain strangely underrated – in my opinion, the restaurants are equal to those of Manhattan without the eye watering prices (Parc, Oyster House and Rouge were especially good), locals might justifiably complain about the potholes but the flatness and compact size of Center City make it ideal for walkers. Some of its leading architects are not as well known as in other cities but you’ll find an exciting range of buildings with old and new blending more seamlessly than in some other places. The remarkable City Hall is the highest masonry building in the world without a steel frame and was until 1987, the highest structure in the city and deserves to be more widely acclaimed as an architectural masterpiece. I even went to my first ever baseball game at the excellent Citizens Bank Park with superb seats available at a fraction of the price of New York or California.
What surprised me most perhaps was the range of experiences on offer: from the breathtaking elevator ride to and views from the Jean-Georges SkyHigh restaurant at the top of the city’s highest tower in the Comcast Center to the beautifully preserved historic buildings clustered near Independence Square. Turn again and you find Paul Cret’s (another underrated architect) remarkable Logan Square designs, influenced by the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées.
Comparisons with New York are inevitable at times and I have to say that after the disappointment of visiting the gentrified Lower East Side, it’s something incredibly special to wander through the Italian Market on 9th Street (which you can glimpse in Rocky during the famous scenes of his morning run), an authentic and large blue collar district, ten blocks long, where the chains are missing and you can buy a huge range of the freshest produce. At the family run Villa di Roma, the menu changes little but servings are generous and so good.
Lower down on 9th Street, Pat’s and Geno’s compete for the customers and title of King of Philly cheesesteaks, a large and tasty sandwich, which any non-vegetarian visitor has to try. There’s a choice between Provolone or Cheese Wiz and you can simply say “with” or “without” depending on whether you want onions. I went to Pat’s where photos of famous customers over the years hang, making it a fun experience. The sandwich tasted great and authentic too.
The museums are also diverse and remarkable: the Barnes Collection is unlike any other I have visited, preserving the intentions of its founder by presenting the artwork as he had at home while offering a beautifully designed modern and sympathetic space to view it in. The Museum of Art was eerily deserted but it was still a great pleasure to wander through the superb collections of European, Asian and American art. The Mutter museum, devoted to the study of medical history, is at once disturbingly macabre and oddly poignant.
Philadelphia’s role in the vital stages of American history in well known so it’s not surprising that museums devoted to the Revolution and Constitution are especially outstanding, presenting timelines and key events in a fresh and accessible way, even for a non-American like myself. Two things in particular stood out for me: the compelling “We, the people” presentation at the Museum of the Constitution and the incredibly moving “Washington’s Tent” at the Museum of the Revolution. I prefer not to reveal too much about these and let the reader discover the experience for themselves but I urge you to see them if you get the chance.
There is also much to see and explore in the surrounding countryside. I only had time for a short trip to Brandywine Valley in Chester County but after less than an hour’s drive, you feel a million miles from the city, with many lovely places to walk. Stopping on the way back at the Northbrook market, another family run place, country music plays and you can order a range of salads and sandwiches from the deli along with homemade fruit pies or, as I did, a really delicious selection of BBQ with coleslaw. It feels like another world and I cannot recall another city that offered me such an exciting range of experiences on my travels.
Of course my time there was filtered through the lens of a tourist and the city certainly has its problems which I have no wish to gloss over. Yet I also felt incredibly sad when it came to leave, realising how much I would miss the friendly locals and beauty of the place which made an impression on me as few others have. Next time you are on the East Coast, perhaps you’ll take a trip to the City of Brotherly Love, although part of me hopes it’ll remain a closely guarded secret, ready for my next trip in the near future.