Philadelphia's tourism gains independence

A new museum is about to boost the city's credentials as a holiday destination


By Andy Mossack, March 18, 2010
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Philadelphia’s skyscrapers make the city a kind of New York in miniature

Philadelphia’s skyscrapers make the city a kind of New York in miniature

Right now it is a building site, a block away from the birthplace of American freedom and opposite the Liberty Bell. Not much to look at yet, but by November it will have been transformed into the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Stretching over five floors and 100,000 square feet, it will showcase more than 350 years of American Jewry and will become the definitive centre for all things Jewish in the USA. Located beside the iconic landmarks of America's birth, it is both a tribute to the US community and a reminder of the role Jews played in shaping America.

Philadelphia's got lots of history. Quite aside from its origins as the concept of an English gent, and the location of America's first White House, it's where the American War of Independence began and where it ended with the creation and signing of the Constitution. And there is much to commemorate in this regard. But a much less known fact is that Philly's Jewish community played a very significant role not only in the city's development but in the whole Independence movement. And believe it or not, it all started in a shul. The Michveh Israel Sephardic Synagogue community dates back to 1740 when Haym Solomon, a founder member, was chief financier of the Revolution.

In fact, so many of America's Jews came here from other British-occupied cities to sign up and fight, it became known as the Synagogue of the Revolution. Still going strong today, it is next to the new museum site and contains fascinating documents and artefacts as well as a preview gallery.

With such an illustrious history, it's a surprise that Philly has been off the tourist radar. An hour from New York, and a short ride from the airport, it has tax-free shopping on clothes and shoes, excellent dining, great music and plenty of sights.

Getting there

British Airways (www.britishairways.com) flights from £394 return. Kimpton Palomar Hotel (www.hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com) double rooms from $209 (£140) with breakfast. National Museum of American Jewish History (www.nmajh.org) opens November. Temporary exhibition at Michveh Israel Synagogue (www.mikvehisrael.org). Kosher restaurants include: Mama’s Vegetarian(www.mamasvegetarian.com); Singa-pore Vegetarian Kosher (www.singaporevegetarian.com); Glatt Delight. Information http://philadelphia.citysearch.com; www.jewishphilly.org

Nestling between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, Philadelphia is a walking city (although there are buses, trams and subways) thanks to the vision of founder William Penn who in 1682 set out to create a "green country town" built around five squares. The city is laid out on a grid, with tree names running east-west and numbers north-south.

To get a sense of how Penn's vision translated into this pleasant city, start a visit with the hop on-hop off Big Bus Company tour at $27 (£18).

The city is divided into distinct districts, each one clearly marked as you walk through, so you'll always know where you are. The Historic District, for example, is not only America's most historic square mile, but it's also now one of the trendiest, with bistros, boutiques and contemporary art galleries. In one day you could visit the Liberty Bell (originally used to signal the start of Congress but since the Civil war and abolition of slavery has come to represent freedom for all); the National Constitution Centre where there's an excellent live show on how the Constitution was formed and adopted, and the grave of Benjamin Franklin. And there's still time for eating and tax free shopping, without changing districts.

Talking of Philly food, visit the Convention Centre District and try out the Reading Terminal Market at lunchtime. This huge, covered farmers market has been there since the 1800s and contains every type of produce, brought fresh every day. Row upon row of vendors from local families to the Amish are there, so take your pick and grab a table right to enjoy the food and some live music.

Actually, food is an essential part of what makes this city tick. You must try fresh, hot, soft pretzels (get them in Philly Pretzel Factory branches and dip them in mustard sauce). The famous - and irredeemably non-kosher -Philly cheesesteak (it's a Panini with chopped beef, onions and cheese, normally provolone cheese) is, of course, the local delicacy with Pat's and Geno's, on opposite sides of 9th street in south Philly each claiming to be the oldest and best purveyors.

For a more upscale experience, Stephen Starr dominates the Philly restaurant scene with 13 top class restaurants from steakhouses to tapas and Asian fusion. Whatever your tastes the city offers a vast choice including a smart Israeli restaurant called Zahav in the fashionable Society Hill.

Art is big business in this city and in the Washington Square District, there are excellent examples of the giant murals that adorn the city. Philly bills itself as the mural capital of the world, (the programme began 25 years ago to discourage random graffiti) and there now 3,000 of them, many adorning the entire sides of buildings and many truly spectacular. If you don't fancy walking around all 3,000, there is a daily tour highlighting the best. While in the district, do some treasure hunting along Antique Row on Pine Street or Jewellers Row on Sansom.

The Parkway/Museum District on the other side of City Hall contains the city's biggest attraction - a statue. Not a priceless piece of art, but Rocky Balboa. The statue was originally a prop from Rocky 3 (all the Rocky movies were shot here, and many other big Hollywood films), and in the movie, the City honours Rocky with this statue at the Museum of Art, whose steps he famously ran up while training. After shooting, Stallone left it as a gift, to the horror of museum officials who did not consider it real art. Thousands of tourists disagreed and after countless rows and moves all over the city (with crowds following it wherever it went) it is now back at the Museum of Art. Perhaps the museum officials finally realised that the thousands who visit each week to get a picture next to Rocky, might just visit the museum, too.

There is, however, plenty of real art and culture here, such as the huge Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute Science Museum where you can walk through a giant heart, the Rodin
Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences. Bigger than New York's Central Park, there is also Fairmount Park, with fabulous river views, leafy walks and glorious colonial summer mansions from Philly's well-to-do past.

Center City, in the heart of Philly, is the best area to stay. The Kimpton Palomar, a new luxury boutique property, is Philly's first completely green hotel. The refurbished 80-year-old art deco building combines recycled and green materials with elements of original architecture to create clever and innovative art all over the property. Its restaurant, Square 1682, is an excellent and good value venue for breakfast, lunch or dinner with plenty of vegetarian options. Executive chef Cruz worked for Stephen Starr for many years.

Just around the corner from here on Broad Street is probably the second most famous record label in the World after Motown. Philadelphia International Records, whose owners and songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, churned out hit after hit for Harold Melvin, the
O Jays, the Stylistics, the Three Degrees and Michael Jackson. You can visit the original "Philly Sound" studios by appointment, but there is a shop and museum which must be visited for a real 70's experience. Philly also has plenty of live music venues with the emphasis on jazz and blues. Try Chris's Jazz Club or World Café Live, and the Museum of Art has good live music and wine after 5pm every Friday.

Philly has so much to offer - even compared to culture and food-rich New York - that a visit will last long in the memory. You'll get the humour, the characters and the buzz, but you'll also get better value for money. As the T-Rex song goes, "Come and join the children of the revolution".

    Last updated: 2:30pm, March 18 2010