What is there to see and do in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Liz Gill looks at cultural, historical, culinary and nature attractions in Philadelphia, PA
By Liz Gill on 10 May 2012 in Travel Articles
You don't need to have actually seen Rocky to know that it contains one of cinema's most famous scenes: Sylvester Stallone as the would-be boxing champ running up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching the air in triumph with the city's skyline behind him. It's a great movie moment and, I have to confess, naff as it sounds, great fun to recreate in real life.
These days it feels as if every visitor has a go. Not just fit young men rocket-fuelled by testosterone but little tots, groups of giggling girls, three generations of families, the portly, the sedate, the middle-aged and older. And when they've done it - with varying degrees of self-consciousness – they then queue up to have their picture taken in front of the statue of Rocky.
The slightly larger-than-life statue which stands at the foot of and to the side of the famous steps was apparently the subject of some controversy when it was first suggested. For Philadelphia prides itself on its culture. The Museum itself with its 225,000 works of art is one of the finest in the world. Moreover it crowns the mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway with its Rodin and Henry Moore statues, its Academy of Natural Sciences, its College of Art and Design and its Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.
The doubters need not have worried: this is a place where the highbrow and the popular can happily co-exist. If you wanted to put it in culinary terms it's where you can dine at Le Bec Fin which could hold its own with French restaurants anywhere but stop off later at the 24-hour Pat's King of Steaks for the city's unique speciality the Philly Cheesesteak: sliced beef in a roll dripping with Cheese-Whiz. You can also take the 75-minute Taste of Philly Food Tour in which a food writer takes you to the vibrant Reading Terminal Market to learn all about Philadelphia food favorites like cheesesteaks, hoagies and pretzels.
The City of Brotherly Love was established by an English Quaker William Penn in 1682 on land granted to him by King Charles II between the rivers Delaware and Schuylkill and founded on the principles of tolerance and religious freedom. Less than a hundred years later it was to be the place where the new country of America was born.
In Independence Hall on the Fourth of July 1776 a group of dissatisfied colonists adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and broke away from the mother country.
In Philadelphia you can sense quite powerfully the kind of heart-felt patriotism which we're often not so comfortable with these days in our own country.
It's in the faces of the children and teenagers agog at the dramatic exposition by the guides in Independence Hall and in the enthusiasm of the people waiting in line to have their photo taken by the Liberty Bell.
The Independence Visitor Center (sic) opposite the Hall offers a good grounding in the story of 'We, the people' and the exhibition hall in which the Bell is housed also provides an informative illustrated build-up to the icon itself. Cast at the Whitechapel Foundry in London and later suffering its famous crack, the Bell became the symbol, not just of the original Revolution but of subsequent freedom movements including women's suffrage and black civil rights.
You can stand remarkably close to such a national treasure with only a cordon between you and it but you cannot touch it. So keen were people to do this that a touchable replica has been cast of its history changing inscription from Leviticus: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
Penn envisaged his settlement, not just as a place of high principles, but also as a physical contrast to the unhealthy, overcrowded cities of Europe. He wanted a 'Green Country Towne' with a central square and four others linked by a grid system of streets.
These still exist today and mean that the central areas are compact and easily walkable. If you want to get a general overview first then catch one of the hop-on, hop-off guided bus tours which take 90 minutes to cover all the major sights and get a Philadelphia Pass ($49/$80/$100/$120 for 1/2/3/5 day pass), which gives you FREE entry to top Philadelphia attractions (and helps you avoid queues), including National Constitution Center, The Franklin Institute Science Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Zoo, Ride the Ducks (travel on land and water in one amazing vehicle) and Franklin’s Grave – Christ Church Burial Ground.
The green tradition also flourishes in the 9,200 acres of Fairmount Park, the U.S.'s largest; in the dazzling Longwood Gardens a 45 minute drive away which were created by industrialist Pierre DuPont from the fortune he'd made in antiseptics; and in the splendid Philadelphia Flower Show which draws 250,000 visitors for its week in March and which is almost worth crossing the Atlantic for in itself.
The million dollars the show raises every year are ploughed back into urban regeneration schemes including grow-your-own fruit and veg projects in deprived neighbourhoods.
For beyond its historic gems and flourishing cultural life, Philadelphia with its greater metropolitan population of 5.8 million has had to deal with the same crime, poverty and vandalism as large conurbations elsewhere. But, perhaps in the spirit of its founding father, it has managed to transform certainly one problem into a success story. Less than 30 years ago the city was plagued by graffiti artists until someone suggested trying to channel their destructiveness into creativity. The result is over 3,000 murals adorning not just the sides of buildings but the oil storage tanks on the way from the airport and the roof tops alongside a railway line.
The murals have become not just an attraction in themselves – there are differently themed tours, one of which includes a hands-on painting session and a talk from an artist – but they are also the means by which prisoners and young offenders are taught new skills and given the opportunity to make reparation to their communities.
Everyone has their favourite of course. Mine had to be the one on the side of an animal rescue shelter where cats and dogs and all kinds of pets – all owned by the winners of a lottery fund-raiser for the charity – cavorted joyously across the wall.
Tourists often over-look Philadelphia in favour of its flashier neighbour New York but I would say it's no need to feel over-shadowed. It's certainly worth a visit either in a two city combination – Manhattan would be just over an hour away by fast train - or in its own right. After all, its favourite son Rocky Balboa punched above his weight.
With the recent expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, hotel developments and renovations continue throughout the city, including the addition of an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 hotel rooms by 2013. Find hotels in Philadelphia.
Located eight miles from Center City, the Philadelphia International Airport is served by all major domestic carriers, with flights to more than 100 cities in the United States. The International Terminal is an East Coast gateway for flights to and from Europe, Canada and the Caribbean, with connections to Asia. SEPTA Regional Rail Airport Line connects the airport with Center City. The one-way cash only fare is $7.00. One-way cab fare from the airport to Center City is $29.
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