America’s birthplace is one cool city, as Abra Dunsby discovers on a trip that samples Philadelphia’s history, eclectic culture – and inimitable cheesesteaks.
I’ve always wanted to follow in Barack Obama’s footsteps. Not that I have any grand delusions of becoming America’s next president – that’s way too much hard work.
My homage to the former White House resident is slightly less highbrow. I’m standing patiently in line clutching a crumpled $10 bill, ready to sample a Philly cheesesteak from Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies and Cheesesteaks, a neon-lit fast-food joint in Philadelphia’s buzzing Reading Terminal Market.
When Obama visited back in 2010 he chose this place for lunch and there’s been a hefty queue ever since.
“Never go for Cheez Whiz with a cheesesteak – that’s the fake stuff,” drawls the suited guy behind me when I ask for his recommendation. “You want it with provolone cheese, every time.”
My Philly cheesesteak arrives on a cardboard tray, atop crinkled greaseproof paper. Fancy it isn’t – but it sure tastes good.
Two wedges of white roll come crammed full of thinly sliced rib eye beef, topped with melted provolone, sweet peppers and onion. It’s gloriously delicious in a juice-down-your-chin, jean-stretching sort of way.
If cheesesteaks are an integral part of Philly’s culture, another bastion is its history, drawing in throngs of visitors each year.
Founded by William Penn in the 17th century, Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation, and it was named America’s first capital until Washington DC was founded in 1790.
Its pretty Old City is dubbed America’s most iconic square mile, and this area and neighbouring Independence National Historical Park are peppered with historically important buildings that have given Philadelphia Unesco World Heritage status.
There’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and of course the giant Liberty Bell, which became a symbol of freedom for abolitionists, the suffragettes and civil rights campaigners.
Then there’s the National Constitution Center, a museum that tells the story of the Constitution from the American Revolution to the present. Tell clients to start their experience with award-winning theatrical performance Freedom Rising, an entertaining introduction to the period.
Also nearby is the excellent Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in April. It’s another impressive, interactive experience that explains how Americans came to eventually revolt against British rule.
Its must-see attraction is Washington’s Tent, a dramatic video that tells the story of George Washington during the Civil War years, culminating in the unveiling of the actual field tent he lived in throughout the period.
Despite being the second largest city on the East Coast, Philly feels compact and walkable – it takes just 45 minutes to stroll from the Schuylkill river in the west of the city to the Delaware river in the east.
With its European-style squares, outdoor cafes and cobbled streets, the Old City is especially charming to wander around. Elfreth’s Alley is a photogenic spot, a pedestrianised row of redbrick colonial houses with painted doors and shutters, making me feel as though I’ve landed in the 18th century.
It’s quaint but the Old City doesn’t lack edge: handsome skyscrapers pop up among the cutesy houses and there are plenty of arty, design-focused shops to keep the hipsters happy.
And it’s not just the Old City that buzzes. The whole city feels cool without being try-hard, which is probably in part due to the large student population that lives here.
The cost of living is cheaper than in nearby New York, attracting creative young residents as well as streetwise city-breakers and travellers on East Coast itineraries.
The food scene has also exploded, and the city is home to 2,500 restaurants serving up an eclectic range of dishes, from Michael Solomonov’s Israeli eateries Zahav and FedNuts, to big-name chef Stephen Starr, who has 19 restaurants in the city.
Like New York and Washington DC, Philly is a city of neighbourhoods, and each has a different personality.
Rittenhouse Square is a chichi part of town made up of alfresco bars and restaurants, craft beer pubs, upscale boutiques and art galleries.
It’s also the location of my hotel, The Warwick, which has a fresh, slick feel with bold artwork in the rooms.
Clients with tighter budgets should consider staying on the other side of the Delaware in the University City district, which is a wise bet in summer when school’s out as it is less packed with tourists compared with central Philadelphia.
The city is also expanding its hotel portfolio by 20% in the next two years to cope with rising demand.
When the sun shines, cool kids flock to Spruce Street Harbor Park, a pop-up green and urban beach dotted with food trucks, hammocks and fairy light-strewn restaurants, in the Society Hill area.
A few blocks away lies the Fairmount district, which is synonymous with fine art thanks to its galleries and museums.
The most iconic has to be the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you’ll spot tourists clenching their fists and grimacing for pictures a la Rocky, or running up the 72 stone steps to the entrance as a tribute to the scene from the first film.
Inside the temple-like museum, the art collection is seriously A-list, containing works by Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso that even the art-averse will recognise.
The Barnes Foundation is another huge name: from the outside it’s a modern, minimalist block, while inside is a Pandora’s box of impressionist and post-impressionist art, displayed exactly as eccentric art collector Dr Albert Barnes wished it.
Philadelphia has one final artistic trick up its sleeve, and it’s one that reveals the city’s cosmopolitan flair.
It is the mural arts capital of the world, and I take a tour to find out more about the city’s pioneering Mural Arts Programme, which was designed to crack down on graffiti and offer troubled youths the chance to get creative rather than serve a sentence.
As a result there are now more than 3,500 murals in the city, and we learn that an artist must ask permission from the local community before they create one, getting to know its local characters so that the artwork can tell their story.
Many of the works we see have social and political messages. One mural depicts people building a statute of Abraham Lincoln.
At the bottom of the statue, black people and white people are separate, then as the levels rise, we see the communities starting to work together. While a woman on the top level is trying to open a glass skylight, a man is climbing through one, symbolising that there’s more work to be done before we reach equality.
The city’s revolutionary history has clearly rubbed off on its residents – Philly, also known as the city of Brotherly Love, has a freethinking and open-minded spirit that’s palpable and magnetic. It looks as though New York might have some friendly competition on its hands…
Book it: Travelpack has a three-night break from £949pp including flights, transfers, a sightseeing bus tour and a two-hour Mural Mile walking tour. Price based on two sharing on an October 13, 2017 departure. travelpack.com
How long do clients stay in Philadelphia?
From historical sights to cultural and artistic treasures and tax-free shopping on shoes and clothes, Philadelphia offers so much for travellers that we recommend planning for at least three days to explore.
How is it performing with UK travellers?
With five daily flights from London, Manchester and Dublin and seasonal summer services from Shannon and Glasgow, the UK and Ireland are among Philadelphia’s largest inbound overseas markets.
How easy is it to get there?
With more visitors travelling as FITs, they appreciate the ease of getting from Philadelphia by Amtrak train to other cities such as New York City and Washington, both less than two hours away, or using Philadelphia as a hub for exploring the surrounding destinations, also known as the Countryside of Philadelphia.