Travel: Fun in Philadelphia

Looking down Broad Street at City Hall in Philadelphia. Picture: Sean Pavone
Looking down Broad Street at City Hall in Philadelphia. Picture: Sean Pavone
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With a wealth of history, fabulous food and a thriving cultural scene, it’s easy to fall for the City of Brotherly Love, finds Emma Newlands

Within easy reach of both Washington DC and New York City, Philadelphia combines the former’s many significant sites in American political history with the latter’s East Coast cool, and grid layout dotted with skyscrapers and yellow taxis.

A new addition to the City of Brotherly Love is the Museum of the American Revolution, which has the Declaration of Independence embedded in its external brickwork and sits at the heart of Philadelphia’s historic landmarks.

Evidently no expense has been spared in creating a vast and highly engaging experience, lifting the story of the nation’s founding out of the history books and into vivid reality.

Billed the ‘crown jewel’ of the attraction is George Washington’s Headquarters Tent, nicknamed the ‘first Oval Office’ by some historians for being the site of key decisions affecting the outcome of the American Revolution. We get a first-hand glimpse as it gradually reveals itself from behind the screen in a dedicated cinema during a short film detailing its history, while the museum’s other immersive experiences include a simulation of being on the frontline of battle and hearing members of the Oneida Indian Nation discuss whether or not to support the American cause.

Our visit to the museum came after a walking tour of the city’s historic district by affable guide Jason, from Philly Tour Hub, who said he wants people to see the city through the eyes of a local.

Stop-offs include Elfreth’s Alley, famous for being the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the country, and Independence Hall, site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

We also see the iconic Liberty Bell, which we’re told is actually a symbol of abolishing slavery but has become synonymous with American independence.

We then head to Valley Forge National Historical Park, location of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army, which includes a monument signalling where Washington’s Headquarters Tent was located. There is also the National Memorial Arch, commemorating the 12,000 soldiers’ perseverance, and our guide says there was a “tremendous amount of suffering” at the site, which was engulfed by disease.

The area’s history continues with a stop to eat at City Tavern, the site of America’s first Fourth of July celebration, also hosting a banquet for George Washington as he passed through Philadelphia in 1789 on his way to New York for his inauguration.

Dishes are inspired by 18th century Colonial America and staff wear traditional dress from the era. I have the crab cakes ‘Chesapeake-style’, and the calorific intake steps up a pace the next day with a visit to Reading Terminal Market.

Like City Tavern, its history dates back centuries, originally stretching back to 1680 but officially opening for business in 1892. It’s a hive of activity each time I visit – there are in fact more than 100,000 visitors a week – and it’s not hard to see the attraction. It’s packed with such an embarrassment of riches that I wander round several times trying to decide what to choose.

There’s an Amish bakery, Jewish deli, Cajun cafe and plenty more besides, as well as a traditional American diner where I have an amazing waffle with berries and maple syrup.

I’m also told DiNic’s – a fourth-generation Italian sandwich shop – is a must-visit. The next day I feel I have to try what was voted the best sandwich in America – layers of wafer-thin roast pork in a crisp baguette, to which I add greens and mustard sauce.

The market also offers several chances to try the famous Philly Cheesesteak – a long roll filled with slices of beef and melted cheese – with locals apparently holding very strong opinions about what’s an acceptable garnish and what’s messing with a classic.

There’s then some time to explore the centre of the city, the second-most populous in the east of the US. Its grid street system was conceived by city founder William Penn, whose commanding 37ft statue overlooks the city and which we see from above, despite the fog closing in, during a visit to the One Liberty Observation Deck, giving 360-degree views.

There’s also a huge branch of Macy’s in the city centre, in the historic Wanamaker building, and said to be one of the most architecturally significant retail spaces in the States.

Should you want a stronger shopping fix, there’s also a Macy’s – along with a Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s – at the truly enormous King of Prussia mall 25 miles outside the city.

The second-largest shopping centre in the States, which recently expanded, there are thankfully more budget-friendly options as well as the department and designer stores.

A dazzling experience of a different kind is available in Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a spellbinding art museum and gallery space created by Isaiah Zagar.

It’s an intriguing prospect – an outdoor art installation and indoor galleries made up of mosaics created using everything from folk art statues to bike wheels, colourful glass bottles, tiles and thousands of mirrors.

But it’s almost impossible to convey the collective effect of these everyday, mundane objects being turned into something extraordinary.

Also, much as it’s pleasing to look at, having a guide shone much more light onto the history and significance of what she describes as a 14-year diary by Zagar. As one inscribed piece of tile at the site says, “More than meets the eye”.

His mosaics extend far beyond the site, while street art is found throughout Philadelphia, which is known as the City of Murals.

There are, in fact, about 4,000, and we see a handful on a walking tour that looks at their varied history, uniting communities such as one literally woven from homeless people’s own written stories.

“I’m just in awe of what they did,” our guide says.

There are plenty more works to admire at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, famous in film history for being where Rocky runs up the steps. It opened in 1928, the year before the Wall Street Crash, and proved something of an escape for visitors who could “come here and walk through time and continents”, we’re told.

Among its highlights are Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and works by Manet and Monet, while in the red corner, Rocky-style, the nearby Barnes Foundation highlights that it has the largest single group of Renoir’s paintings, totalling 181.

Its focus is on being educational as opposed to a museum, and its staggering collection is laid out as per the vision of its assembler, Dr Albert C Barnes. His scientific side, having studied medicine, is clearly evident in each work’s precise positioning.

A short walk away is our hotel, The Logan, which also has local art on display, celebrating famous Philadelphians including Grace Kelly, Walt Whitman and Joe Frazier.

My favourite thing about it has to be the salt-water pool which I try out one morning, and pleasingly have to myself as I try to make use of my jet lag-induced early rise.

Time to leave comes around all too quickly, but the statue of William Penn looks over my taxi reassuringly as I leave the city, which is compact enough to walk around, and brings history to life, puts art and culture 
centre-stage, and perhaps most crucially and admirably of all, prides itself on the presentation of a particular sandwich.

Fact box: For more information on discovering Philadelphia, see discoverPHL.com; The Museum of The American Revolution (amrevmuseum.org) is open every day from 9:30am-5pm except major holidays, and rooms at The Logan Philadelphia Hotel (theloganhotel.com) typically start at about £130.