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Philadelphia: cradle of a nation

Roger St. Pierre

Home of the Liberty Bell, Liberty Hall and the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia is the cradle of the American nation.

Steeped in history, ‘The City of Brotherly Love’ is at the same time cutting edge modern. It even boasts a skyscraper shaped to resemble a computer memory stick.

Reflecting its status as one of the USA’s most influential metropolitan centres, the city’s many fine museums and galleries include the Rodin Museum, which proudly showcases the world’s largest display of the great French sculptor's works; the new and richly endowed Barnes Foundation with its collection of famed paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso and other masters; the African American Museum and, at the end of the grandiose arrow-straight tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the massive Philadelphia Museum of Arts, whose iconic monumental steps not only furnish a wonderful overview of the city skyline but will instantly be recognised by anyone who has seen the ‘Rocky’ movie. Who can resist a quick jog up them?

Take a tour

Also hard to resist and a good starting point for an overview of the city is a cruise aboard the luxuriously appointed Spirit of Philadelphia dining boat. You can also take a fully narrated trolleybus tour, a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride or trace the route of the so-called Underground Railroad – a trail that led escaping slaves north to freedom.

Music is woven into Philadelphia’s fabric. Soul, blues, jazz, spirituals, rock and classical music too, all have a proud tradition here and still thrive, You can take soul line dancing classes and learn the moves of the ‘Ballroom B’, ‘The Groove’, and that local classic, ‘The Bop’ and here great live music at clubs and bars across town.

The magic of the Philly music scene’s most fertile era is evoked at the head office and recording studio of Philadelphia International Records, which has a memorabilia-laden souvenir shop on its ground floor. This is the Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell owned company that dominated the 70’s disco scene with such artists as Teddy Pendergrass, Jerry Butler, the O’Jays and MFSB.

Declaration of Independence

Going back further into history, the classically proportioned red brick Independence Hall is where the proclamation of America’s breach with British rule was read out to assembled colonists on July 4, 1776 and where the Liberty Bell rang out the news.

Vividly re-telling the story today is the inventively interactive National Constitution Center museum. To get a feel for what the city was like in those far-off turbulent times, take a stroll down atmospheric Elfreth’s Alley, said to be the oldest street in the USA, then walk down cobbled colonial era streets to admire the historic ships moored at the Independence Seaport Museum and peer across the broad Delaware River at the USS Jersey battleship at anchor, appropriately on the Jersey side.

Other Philadelphia attractions include world-class shopping and the one-time Eastern State Penitentiary where the big tourist draw is the cell in which the notorious gangster Al Capone served his prison sentence, thanks to the work of Elliott Ness and his ‘Untouchables’, not for murder but for tax evasion.

How to get there

Set in the middle of the country’s populous Northeast Corridor, Philadelphia is within a day’s drive of 40 per cent of the US population. Significantly, the city’s conveniently located airport means it is just seven or eight hours away from the UK and Ireland.

28 airlines, of which three are low-fare, currently operate 600 daily non-stop flights to Philadelphia International from 120 cities. This includes 60 daily and seasonal flights from 36 international destinations. Usefully, the airport is just a 30-minute cab ride from downtown while the Regional High Speed Airport Line trains will get you there in 20. Philly is also just a 90-minute drive on I-95 from New York, with Washington DC located within two and a half hours.

How to get around

Philadelphia has lots of taxis, bus routes and commuter train services. The SEPTA Rail Lines network services the entire Philadelphia region and has convenient downtown stations.

Where to stay

My accommodation in Philly was at the 139-guestroom modern boutique Latham Hotel, set at the heart of things on the corner of 17 and Walnut Street, next to Rittenhouse Square. This friendly address provides a seamless blend of old and new world charm.

Both an architectural and a historic landmark, The Latham was first erected as a 14-story apartment house in 1907, on the original site of the home of William Bucknell, a globally recognized philanthropist as well as founder of Bucknell University.

The building continued to successfully serve as multi-tenant rental housing for locals of the area for the next several decades before being converted into a hotel in 1970 and being modernised very recently.

What and where to eat

Philly is today renowned for sophisticated gourmet cuisine but no culinary visit is complete without tackling the infamous fully-loaded, gut-busting Philly cheesesteak sandwich, with its great slabs of rare beef swathed in melted cheese.

There’s all manner of ethnic food on offer, including Senegalese at Fatau and Fama in West Philadelphia, Ethiopa and Eritrean at Dahlak and West Indian at Caribbean Delight. Philadelphia’s renowned Italian trattorias still flourish across the city and Chinatown bustles.

During my stay, I enjoyed a breakfast feast – eggs Benedict, anyone? – at the classy Chez Colette restaurant, within the centrally located Sofitel Hotel, a delight that was matched by an equally lavish spread at the close-by Hotel Palomar next morning, whose bar is a favoured meeting place for the local movers and shakers.

Lunches were taken at the popular Milk & Honey Café and on the hoof at the atmospheric old Reading Terminal Market, where I managed to resist the notorious Philly steak sandwich belly-buster and opted instead for Chinese noodles, straight from the wok and eaten at one of the myriad counters in this culinary melting pot – where you can sample the ethnic foods of a couple of dozen or more nations.

Of an evening, I sampled Michelin quality food in the stylishly chic restaurant of the recently opened Monaco boutique hotel and thoroughly enjoyed the creativity of Garces Trading Company, a combination of upmarket deli and classy restaurant using only the freshest of produce to create a menu redolent with Italian, Spanish and South American influences. Artisanal breads, cheeses and charcuterie all star here. There are superb set menus and for simpler fayre the pizzas and tapas' style presentations are sensational.

What to speak

Philadelphians have a fairly strong but easy to understand accent. This is a truly international city with Italian, Irish, Jewish and other ethnic enclaves where English becomes almost a second language

What to spend (and tip)

The US dollar is the world’s most widely used currency – you’ll need some coins and small bills for small change transactions but a credit or debit card will serve most of your needs.

America is a country with a strong tipping culture. Restaurant wait staff rely on tips for the bulk of their income and will expect 20 per cent, as will taxi drivers. Expect angry hassle if you leave substantially less. By the time you add that tip and state taxes the bill doesn’t seem quite as inexpensive as you thought it would be. A dollar per bag is the tipping norm for hotel porters.

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