Philadelphia: Thrill-adelphia! Eat your art out out!
Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30
The Philly Cheesesteak. A long crusty bread roll packed full of thinly sliced, sauteed rib eye beef and melted cheese. Hearty, flavoursome and substantial enough to fill you for the whole day long. Not a dish likely to be found gracing the cover of a Michelin guide any time soon, but nonetheless a point of unwavering pride for every single Philadelphian.
This is what I was after when I decided to venture uptown on my first morning in the city. You can buy one on practically any street corner but I wanted the full experience.
The Reading Terminal Market was my venue of choice. It's known as Philly's most beloved food court, but it's certainly not in the business of boasting.
Its entrance is well hidden in the shadow of the train tracks, almost as if locals are conspiring to keep tourists away from one of the best spots in town.
It's only once you get inside that you start to understand what all the fuss is about, as you amble about from stall to stall, drinking in the vibrant atmosphere. Close quarters, large portions, the colourful blinking of neon lit signs above you and the hissing of so many cast iron pots and grills.
Hundreds of different cuisines and corresponding aromas all drifting through the air, competing for your nostrils' attention. Amish bakeries, Mexican taco stands, Singapore noodle bars, Turkish and Italian butchers.
None of them is authentic exactly, but it's better that way. They're authentically inauthentic. Sort of like America itself.
Indeed, 240 years after playing host to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia might just be the quintessential American city.
Two days there and I felt not only as though I'd gotten a taste of nearly everything the great nation had to offer, but, more than that, as if I'd tapped into the American spirit in a way few other places could've possibly allowed me to do.
It's a shame then that the place is so often overlooked by tourists in favour of its more famous east coast neighbours New York and Washington DC. Great as those cities are they have become such institutions by this point that what they offer is no longer really American in the strict sense. They sell themselves on glitz and glamour. As hubs of power and culture. Washington boasts politics. New York sheer immensity.
They are the Michelin restaurants to Philadelphia's Reading Terminal. There's nothing wrong with either but I know which one I prefer. In Philadelphia it's all about modesty and substance, hearty atmosphere and a sense of community and homeliness that is too often absent in state capitals.
Weather permitting, the city centre is small enough to navigate by foot. Like any good Irishman I did so with my mouth agape and my neck craned upwards, gawking at all those big American skyscrapers.
Even in the more built-up areas downtown, they never become overwhelming. Philadelphia is a city where old meets new on every single block.
For each 30-storey commercial behemoth just gone up there are at least two quaint historical buildings offsetting it and helping to maintain a unique and refreshing balance you won't find anywhere else.
This is especially important given what an historically significant city Philly is. Founded by British Quaker William Penn in 1682 on the authority of a land charter granted to him by King Charles II, the city remained the US's biggest until 1830.
It was to here that Benjamin Franklin fled at the age of 17 to build his empire, and he was soon joined by almost all of the other founding fathers in the days before they brought an end to British colonialism.
It was only fitting that I pay my respects to the legacy they left behind by visiting one of their favourite dining spots over at City Tavern Restaurant in the docklands. Today, under chef Walter Staib, a loquacious German force of nature who wouldn't seem out of place in a Dickens novel (he keeps me well past the time I'd allotted for lunch with tales of his days in the Black Forest as a child, in the White House kitchen as Bill Clinton's wing man throughout the 1990s, and, more recently, in the various exotic locations where he films his Emmy-winning PBS food program A Taste Of History) the restaurant continues to serve dishes authentic to the era in which it first thrived. There's an intriguing story and at least one famous name behind every meal on the menu but it's Walter's own history with American food culture that is most curious.
US immigration and the Philadelphian culinary scene go hand in hand, Reading Terminal is testament to that, but how exactly a classically-trained German chef who openly despised the American tradition of large convenient portions as a young man came to spend more than 40 years in charge of just about the most American dining establishment you could ever imagine remains a mystery to me despite his best attempts at explaining it.
Perhaps it's just that I'm too full to think properly after finishing my last forkful of Martha Washington's chocolate mousse cake. Hopefully they'll go over it in a little more detail in the show.
He makes sure I get a DVD before I leave.
If there's one aspect of Philadelphian culture that you cannot help but admire from the second you arrive in the city it's the art. On the drive from airport to hotel alone I counted no less than 15 public murals. It's difficult to walk a block in places without running into one of them. This is due to a mural arts programme enacted by the city in 1984 in response to a graffiti problem at the time.
Where cities such as New York came down hard on such artists, branding them as vandals and erasing their work as quickly as they could produce it, Philadelphia took this novel approach in an attempt to empower the population and bring the community together in a constructive way.
Thirty-two years and more than 3,600 works later mural art has become one of the most important and vibrant aspects of life in Philadelphia, setting it apart as one of the most uniquely decorated cityscapes on the planet.
For more traditional art lovers, Philadelphia offers a number of impressive galleries in which to spend the day.
I had a chance to visit only a couple of them during my stay, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the Philadelphia Museum of Arts which features an unbelievable collection of modernists and impressionists along with any number of influential American realists and an extensive collection of South Asian works to boot.
However, though its officials hate to admit it, the museum is not nearly so famous for any of the displays found inside the building as it is for the one situated just to the left of its rear entrance. There, surrounded 24 hours a day by locals and tourists alike, standing 10ft tall and weighing in at a lean 2,000lb, is the bronze-cast statue of Philadelphia's greatest icon, Rocky Balboa. Awfully Nice Tours' Rocky trip offers an amazing drive through the various locations around Philadelphia that were immortalised by a young Sylvester Stallone some 40 years ago. For Rocky fans like myself, photographs at the top of the art museum steps and in front of the boxer's house are impossible to pass up, but the tour also offered the chance at a more up-close and personal view of some of Philadelphia's top young fighters hard at work inside Front Street Boxing Gym in Kensington, where they shot the interiors for Mickey's gym in the most recent franchise instalment Creed.
Unlike the films, there is no room for pretending in a place like Front Street.
They say you can trace the history of the American poverty line by looking at which communities were producing the world boxing champions at any given time, and Kensington certainly isn't the type of neighbourhood tour guides would have reason to promote under any other circumstances.
Front Street has kept young people in the area out of trouble by turning them into quality boxers for years, and, in so doing, has developed an essential pillar of the community.
Lately, however,its most famous fighting products are not necessarily to be found in the ring, but rather, the cage.
"He started here when he was just a little kid, probably younger than any of the guys we've got in here today," says gym owner and old-school boxing coach Frank Kubach about UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, the man who will defend his title against Dublin's Conor McGregor at the organisation's first-ever event in New York City on Saturday.
Joe stayed at the Warwick Hotel Rittenhouse Square, www.warwickrittenhouse.com. Rooms from $149 a night
Parc Restaurant www.parc-restaurant.com
Reading Terminal Market
City Tavern www.citytavern.com
Bluestone Lane Cafe
Jack’s Firehouse www.jacksfirehouse.com
Two-hour Segway Mural Tour
Constitutional Walking Tour
Four-hour Rocky driving tour for up to six people www.awfullynicetours.co m $295 ($345 from January 1)
The Barnes Foundation www.barnesfoundation.org $25
Eastern State Penitentiary www.easternstate.org $14
‘Rocky’ fan Joe in Philadelphia
Take Three: Top attractions
Take a two-wheel tour
A two-hour mural-themed Segway tour of downtown Philadelphia from Philly Tour Hub gave me a great opportunity to see the city’s public art. The works range from 20ft tall depictions of Philadelphian athletes such as Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Frazier to more politically driven pieces based on the nation’s immigration and racial history. However, the real star was undoubtedly the Segway itself.
The Barnes foundation was the other art gallery I visited during my stay. Here, founder and namesake Albert C Barnes is as much an artist in his cerebral layout of the collection as any of the masters whose works are part of it.
The gallery specialises in post-Impressionist and early modern paintings and includes extensive work by the likes of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir.
Life behind bars
Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmont was once one of the biggest prisons in the US, holding such notorious criminals as Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton.
Today it is recognised as a national historic landmark by the US government and offers public tours seven days a week. The Terror Behind The Walls experience, which runs every Halloween, is unforgettable.
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