Historic landmarks and cultural creativity form a rich tapestry of art, music, food and night life in the City of Brotherly Love. Paul Hopkins recalls the city, now National Heritage site, he will return to when the corridor reopens for the fully vacinated
I ARRIVE in the City of Brotherly Love on foot of good news. Philadelphia has not long since been honoured as the first city in North America to be declared a World Heritage Site.
It’s well-deserved, I am to learn in my sojourn in the Pennsylvanian city — not, as I erroneously thought, the state capital as Pennsylvania bizarrely has no capital city — and not surprising as this city of 1.5 million souls is steeped in the history of America’s forefathers.
Less than two hours by Greyhound bus from New York, Philly is a city of charming neighbourhoods and myriad world-class museums. There has been a slew of openings in the last decade of chic boutiques, great watering holes, and an ever-expanding realm of restaurants and stylish hotels.
I decamp at The Sonesta Hotel, downtown in the heart of the city, just eight miles from the airport and half a mile from the local Amtrak station. Sonesta proves a welcoming and stylish, yet functional, respite, offering 439 newly redesigned rooms and 23 suites.
On Market Street, it is a straight run down to City Hall — in which a tiny elevator will take you to the top with wonderful views of the city — and straight on again to Independence Square and the historic quarters.
The Sonesta is an ideal place from which to explore this very walkable (and compact) city on foot, though local transport is good, frequent and cheap.
The hotel’s Art Bar hosts (obviously) an art gallery, but then the whole city is like one large gallery of art and cultural artifacts. The Barnes Foundation brings together one of the world’s great collections of works by Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani among others.
There’s also the Rodin Museum and the African American Museum and on the streets you can discover some of the 3,500 murals scattered around the ‘mural capital of the world’. Walk or take the two-hour bus tour of graffiti at its most inspiring.
Whether you join the Rocky fans imitating Sylvester Stallone by running up the 72 steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or, like me, climb at a more leisurely pace, you too can be rewarded with a great view of the city. Punching the air and shouting “Adrian” is entirely optional!
My most memorable museum visit was to the American Museum of Jewish History — the only one in the US — featuring more than 1,000 artifacts, films and interactive technology. My three hours there are not enough to explore this fascinating museum, but I do get to tinkle the ivories of Irving Berlin’s piano, on which he composed so many memorable songs.
A stroll through Independence National Historical Park is a must to get a sense of the history and politics of America. After all, it was in this very area that America’s first administration was planned and dwelt before the White House became home to their presidents. And here, too, is the original Liberty Bell, that iconic symbol of American independence, and the home of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
Philadelphia is a foodie’s fantasy come to fruition. For breakfast and lunch I sample the specialty foods and fresh farm produce at the historic (and always bustling) Reading Terminal Market, with its strong Dutch overtones, and where more than 100 merchants sell their goods.
My first evening takes me for dinner to Opa on Sansom Street for a mouth-watering experience of Greek fare — all for under $25.
El Vez on 13th Street has me salivating with what must be the best guacamole (laced with goat’s cheese) north of the Mexican border. And margaritas to die for.
My final night has me fine dining at Russet in the city’s Rittenhouse Square, an intimate restaurant offering a French and Italian inspired menu that changes regularly and with the seasons. I have eaten in some of the finest places on four continents, but this brick townhouse is way up there.
Nearby I visit Vesper, which looks like an upmarket Irish bar but is, in fact, a modern twist on a speakeasy. The entrance is through a large fake book case and you need a secret word, which changes nightly, to gain access to a very special experience, in this terrific throwback to those days of Prohibition.
Philadelphia and its people move at a more leisurely pace than their frenetic neighbours in New York, but that is such a blessing when exploring a city where historic landmarks and cultural creativity come together to make for a vibrant tapestry of art, history, nightlife, food and music.
My three days is simply not enough to take it all in. I shall return.