They call it ‘the City of Brotherly Love’, and as a city I found it very easy to love Philadelphia. Having just arrived on the Greyhound from New York the contrast couldn’t have been more different. Despite Philadelphia’s size its centre was compact and walkable. There was a free-spirited and rather idiosyncratic approach to the use of public spaces that I found appealing. And the locals were friendliness personified. I was shocked the first time a passer-by spoke to us out of the blue; by the third time it happened I was no longer surprised. The natives here are friendly!
All this came as a bit of a surprise for me. I hadn’t known what to expect from Philly. This was the first time I had ever been to America and Philadelphia was a late addition to an itinerary which was originally just to be in New York for my girlfriend’s 30th birthday. It was me who insisted that if we were paying so much for transatlantic flights we might as well upgrade our stay from four nights in NYC to a full fortnight taking in more of the country. Philadelphia made it on to our whistle-stop tour purely because, in Independence Hall
, it housed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That was the main attraction and reason enough – in my eyes at least – to include two nights in the city. But when I left I thought that I would happily have spent longer here.
The city is heaven for politics nerds or students of American history. Philadelphia played a large part in the USA becoming the nation it is today. By the late 18th century Philadelphia was the largest city in Britain’s American colonies. The debates that took place while the Continental Congress met here led to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence; once freedom had been won more discussions occurred to draft a constitution for the new nation. Philadelphia served as capital for a decade while Washington was under construction. The City of Brotherly Love, with its long tradition of tolerance, was the birthplace of America.
Understandably then, the area around Independence Mall is the must-see location in Philadelphia. This has been designated the Independence National Historical Park. Its sights, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center are free to enter. For die-hard politics nerds the National Constitution Center sits nearby. You can stroll down through the atmospheric Old City and check out Benjamin Franklin’s grave at Christ Church. We continued down to the waterfront walk along the Delaware River – enjoyable more for the breeze off the river and a couple of sombre Korean and Vietnam War memorials than for the much-hyped ‘Penn’s Landing’. Heading back through the modern city centre a stop for Philly delicacies at Reading Terminal Market is a must before gazing at the green-and-white needle-tipped City Hall. Pop culture buffs may want to head up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to recreate Rocky’s famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Our trip took place in July. We had missed the Independence Day celebrations but the city gleamed. Bunting hung along the streets. Fountains sparkled in the sunlight. Representations of the city’s baseball mascot, the ‘Philly Phanatic’, were scattered throughout the city. Rebecca posed kissing one for my camera in ‘Love Park’ (otherwise known as JFK Plaza, and a great example of Philadelphia’s public spaces). As she did so an overjoyed local sprang from the bushes with a cry of "You kissed the Phwanatic!" There was a sense of pride in their city that was palpably evident from everyone we encountered.
Bizarrely, the streets emptied out in the evening. Thronged with families and tourists during the day, after 5pm the city seemed to empty. It looked like all those visitors we had seen were daytrippers. So to get the best out of Philadelphia stay over. We had no trouble finding places to eat, the summer evenings were balmy, it was safe to walk about, and Independence Hall looked stunning floodlit at night.