So you’re in New York on a business trip or an extended family vacation. If you’re looking for a change of scene from the frenetic pace of the Big Apple, consider Philadelphia. It’s just two hours away and yet a world away. This is the birthplace of America, where the declaration of American Independence was signed. It’s also where Hollywood fans relive their Rocky moment and gourmands explore one of America’s oldest food markets. Suddenly that weekend becomes busier than you planned. That’s the thing with Philly and the sheer breadth of its experiences:
10 am / Walk back to 1776: nobody leaves Philly without seeing the Liberty Bell up close, even though this might entail waiting your turn in line. But there’s more to Philly’s historical quarter than the iconic Bell that was believed to have rung to mark the reading of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776. The bell’s now famous crack developed in the 1830s. I did a walking tour through the city’s historic district that took me to some of the most historic spots like the Independence Hall and Christ Church (dates back to 1695) in a city that holds a special place for most Americans.
12 pm / An art experience like no other: Albert Barnes’ vision to democratise art was slain by art critics in the 1920s but today the Barnes Foundation has earned its due credit, as an Art Venue that changed the way visitors appreciate art. Albert Barnes took an ensemble route arranging his collection in an unconventional manner mixing paintings, decorative art and utilitarian objects. The foundation’s collection has grown beyond 4000 including over 900 paintings valued at $25 billion with a roster of artists that includes Picasso, Renoir and Matisse. I made time to dine at the Foundation’s Garden Restaurant with its French-influenced New American menu that features seasonal ingredients.
3 pm / America’s finest botanical garden: the Barnes Foundation is not the only public attraction in Philadelphia that benefited from the singular focus of a visionary philanthropist. There’s Longwood Gardens, an hour away from downtown Philadelphia, among America’s most visited botanical gardens. What was once scenic farmland was transformed into a scenic public garden spread over 1,000 acres by Pierre S Du Pont. You could spend a whole day here admiring a wide array of flowers – their tulip collection is stunning.
5 pm / Shop till you drop: retail therapy is always in the mix when you’re in America. Philly gives you two choices of large format malls, but you have to drive out of town. There’s King of Prussia, America’s largest mall – over 26 lakh sq. ft. and 400 plus stores and the Philadelphia Premium outlets with great deals on upscale brands like Coach Men and Cole Haan.
8 am / Breakfast for champions: no fast food, no restaurant chains. Welcome to a food market that dates back to the 1890s where locals drop by for fresh produce and gourmands savour local flavours at their very best. Reading Terminal Market is among America’s oldest closed markets and the one spot you need to bring your big appetite. There’s everything from creamy Philadelphia cheesecake to sinful cheesesteak in the mix.
10 am / Philly from up above: a clear morning is a great time to take in the views from the One Liberty Observation deck. Located on the 57th floor, this is the highest viewing deck in the city and offers sweeping views of the city and its landmarks including the emblematic 1920s Benjamin Franklin bridge that connects with New Jersey.
11 am / Ivy league connection: Philadelphia’s reputation as a centre for innovation and learning owes heavily to UPenn and some of its fine institutions like the Wharton Business School. Do make time for a campus tour that makes stops at some of the university’s architecturally significant buildings including its imposing library and also the famous Love sign – after all, Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love! I ended my walk around the fascinating campus with lunch at Goldie, an Israeli diner within Franklin’s Table a popular campus hangout where falafel sandwiches and tahina milkshakes rule the roost. The University Museum is another must do; their Egypt section alone is home to 40,000 plus objects.
3 pm / do time with Al Capone: it was once home of America’s most notorious history-sheeters. The Eastern State Penitentiary pioneered modern prisons as we know them, anywhere in the world. It opened in 1829, at a time solitary confinement was unheard of. It ceased to become a prison in 1971 and opened to the public for tours. You can check out the cell where Al Capone did time and also marvel at the architecture of one of the world’s first modern prisons.
5 pm/good for the ‘gram’: until the 1970s these steps used to be referred to as the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now they’re the Rocky Steps. This is where Sylvester Stallone does his famous Rocky Run in the first Rocky film that has become a symbol of the underdog triumph. This has been reprised by fans and visitors who do the 72-step run for their spot of Instagram fame. I managed the up and down run without a pause, before ending up with another photo opp next to the bronze Rocky statue near the steps.
8 pm / Beer up. More than one for the road: almost every American city claims to serve the nation’s best craft beer. Philly is not far behind. I’d certainly recommend Yards, a small craft brewery that is now popular with beer nerds from all over for their spin on British and European beers. They even have a special line of Founding father beers named after the likes of Washington and Jefferson (no kidding). Their large industrial style pub located within the brewery also serves the hottest chicken wings in town. Yes, Philadelphia never stops throwing up surprises.