Kathy Arnold, The Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2014
From atop City Hall, the bronze likeness of William Penn surveys the “greene countrie towne” that he laid out in 1682. His grid system, with its avenues and parks, remains, but in the past decade the “City of Brotherly Love” has seen significant changes for the better. Once pigeonholed under “history”, Philadelphia now offers much more than the Liberty Bell. “There are new museums, a great food scene and the revitalisation of downtown,” says my cousin, who moved here from Manhattan. “You liked it before; you’ll love it now,” she tells me. So here I am, ready to rediscover one of America’s oldest cities.
Two years ago, art critics headed to Philly for the opening of the Barnes Foundation’s new downtown home. This is a genuinely oh-wow collection: no other museum has more works by Renoir and Cézanne, but there are also masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and more. Instead of being grouped by date or artist, the idea is to compare and contrast the nudes, landscapes and portraits. Looking at two groups of women bathing, Cézanne’s angular bodies seem to shiver in the chill forest. I would rather join Renoir’s plump, pink-fleshed ladies in the hot sunshine.
Visiting the museum in its original location out in the suburbs, I was frustrated by the jam-packed, poorly lit rooms. The new modern galleries, with improved natural lighting, transform my experience. Picasso’s Blue Period paintings resonate, the hot colours of Matisse’s Joy of Life sing out and the intense concentration of Cézanne’s Card Players stops me in my tracks. I could spend all day here; but there is more art just steps away at the Rodin Museum.
In the formal garden, with its pool and fountain, is one of the world’s most familiar sculptures: The Thinker. Phones and cameras click as youngsters mimic the pose: “Actually, it’s not very comfortable,” one admits ruefully. Again, a recent facelift has rearranged and upgraded the museum’s collection of 140 of Rodin’s bronze, marble and plaster works. I get right up close to the head of Balzac and envy the flexibility of The Crouching Woman. For me, even after years of yoga classes, hers is a contortion too far. Rodin’s aim, to “unfreeze the sculpture”, is epitomised by The Gates of Hell. On these colossal bronze doors, men climb, women weep, couples embrace and mothers protect their babies. The longer I look, the more I see.
Add in the nearby treasure chest that is the Museum of Art and the main cultural attractions are conveniently clustered together on the north-west side of Philly. Some two miles to the east, across Center City, as the downtown is called, is the history. Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States, so for Americans like me it is a must-see. On previous visits, I have peered at the Liberty Bell and toured Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. I have spent hours in the National Constitution Center, examining the hows and whys of American government, from 1787 to right now.
But today, I am off for a stroll, with no itinerary and no list of sights to see. Brick pavements lead me down tree-shaded streets, such as Lombard and Walnut, 300-year-old Elfreth’s Alley and funky North 3rd. I pass cafés and boutiques, design offices and start-up tech businesses. More and more young professionals and empty nesters are doing up historic terraced houses. “We have more 18th and 19th-century architecture than any other American city,” one local boasts. And more public art, especially murals. There are 3,600 of them in all: large and small, serious and fun. Some tell a story, others honour local dignitaries. What started 30 years ago as a way to curb graffiti developed into an enormous folk art project. Brightening a car park, for example, is a scene of lunch al fresco in the Italian countryside.
And that brings me to food. Not so long ago, the taste treat was Philly cheesesteak, a beef and melted cheese sandwich. The usual chains, formal dining and themed restaurants were all available. Now, the foodie buzz is all about small places, where the mantra is fresh and local, the quality is top notch and prices are reasonable. At The Farm and Fisherman, chef/owner Joshua Lawler conjures up modern American dishes, such as my bloody beet “steak” starter and wild striped bass with green garlic and pickled mushrooms. At Vedge, the gourmet vegetarian cooking comes with intense flavours and savvy spicing. A supper of roasted maitake mushrooms, with celery root fritters, followed by apple cider doughnuts with cranberry marmalade, satisfies even my carnivore taste buds.
Perhaps the biggest change is confidence. “We no longer see ourselves as the underdog, compared with New York or DC,” one Philadelphian says. “This city has come into its own.” All the urban pleasures are here, but with the casual, low-key feel of a much smaller city. The final word goes to my cousin, the transplanted New Yorker. “I’ve fallen in love with Philly. It’s gritty in some parts, fancy in others. There are problems, of course, but it has a lot of life. I can’t imagine leaving.”
Philadephia has "urban pleasures... with the casual, low-key feel of a much smaller city"
On July 1, British Airways ( ba.com ) introduces its Boeing 787 Dreamliners for daily flights from London Heathrow to Philadelphia.
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com ) offers three-night breaks from £975 per person, based on two sharing, including flights from London Heathrow, three nights at the Radisson Blu Warwick (room only) and Philadelphia City Passes.
Where to stay
La Reserve B & B £
Two 19th-century town houses on a residential street offer 12 comfy rooms. Good location; no lifts ( lareservebandb.com ; doubles from $120/£73).
Radisson Blu Warwick ££
Behind the 1926 façade, the 301 rooms have been upgraded. Near attractions, shopping, restaurants ( radissonblu.com/hotel-philadelphia ; doubles from $219/£132; breakfast extra).
Hotel Palomar Philadelphia £££
This Art Deco building with 230 luxurious rooms is in the heart of town ( hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com ; doubles from $389/£235, breakfast extra).
Where to eat
Audrey Claire £
Long popular, this small restaurant scores with its Mediterranean menu and relaxed setting. Dinner only; cash only; take your own wine (276 South 20th Street; 001 215 731 1222; audreyclaire.com ).
Rated as one of the most innovative restaurants in North America (1221 Locust Street; 215 320 7500; vedgerestaurant.com ).
The Farm and Fisherman ££
Book ahead to eat in this farm-to-table dining room; take your own wine (1120 Pine Street; 267 687 1555; thefarmandfishermanbyob.com ).
Square 1682 £££
This stylish restaurant serves gourmet dishes with a contemporary edge (121 South 17th Street; 215 563 5008; square1682.com ).
The inside track
Free attractions include the Liberty Bell and First Sundays at The Barnes Foundation. The free tours of Independence Hall are always packed, so book a timed visit ($1.50/£1 per ticket; recreation.gov ).
The PHLASH trolley service links downtown attractions ($2 a ride; May-December; phillyphlash.com ).
See the best of the Mural Arts Program on two-hour guided walking tours ($20; muralarts.org/tour ).
Spring and autumn are sunny and warm; high summer is hot and humid.
Clothes purchases are tax-free; find more deals at discoverphl.com/deals .
From the airport, taxis in to town cost $28.50/£17 (plus tip); the 25-minute rail ride costs $7/£4 ( septa.org ).
Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau in Britain, 0115 922 9255; discoverphl.com .
Official information on visiting the USA: Discoveramerica.com
Expert guides to the United States
This article was written by Kathy Arnold from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.