Monday 23 April 2018

Philadelphia: To the centre of the city where Eagles dare

American city breaks

Philadelphia City Hall by night
Philadelphia City Hall by night
John fists the air at the 'Rocky' statue
The Liberty Bell

John Masterson

Want the recipe for a city? Here it is. Take a small piece of Manhattan. Add a tincture of Washington, DC, a sprinkling of Paris, Barcelona down by the water, maybe a dash of London. Mix it all up with some cocktails, a tequila or two, Sancerre, coffee, cheese steaks, and a good pair of walking shoes.

And the result? Philadelphia, a city of one-and-a-half million people who like their art, enjoy their food, are not averse to a drink, and adore their Eagles who won the Super Bowl in February after a 51-year drought.

Philadelphia is a massively historic city that has stayed proud of its past while changing with the times.

Everyone you meet is quick to tell you why they love living there and there are a lot of good reasons. Next they mention the Eagles winning the Super Bowl and you pretend you stayed up late to watch it.

Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It is the cradle of modern America, the place where the Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1788, and was the capital of the young United States until the action moved to DC in 1800.

I flew there on the inaugural Aer Lingus flight to the city and, as tradition dictates, our plane was sprayed by fire trucks on arrival.

John fists the air at the 'Rocky' statue
John fists the air at the 'Rocky' statue

Philly is sometimes referred to as New York's sixth Borough. Locals do not see this as a compliment.

Loews Hotel, where I stayed, is a block from the magnificent City Hall topped off with a statue of William Penn overseeing things. Loews was originally the nation's first savings bank and the neon PSFS on the roof are a feature of the night skyline. It is also reputedly the first skyscraper built in the US.

There are a lot of firsts in Philadelphia as it got in early on the ground floor of the United States. However, my 20th-floor room feels very up-to-the-minute and has the best hotel dressing gowns ever.

But first it was time to eat, drink and be merry.

The Sampan Asian restaurant was a five-minute walk away. The tasting menu is the way to go. I tried everything and then sampled their Eastern Rebellion Cocktail made with bourbon, ginger, honey and rosemary.

I continued to live a bit on the wild side, slipping out a side door into the Graffiti Bar which is otherwise approached by a tiny alley. Amy Winehouse blared out. The interior design was either the work of a grunge genius or else they left it just the way they found it. I sat at a metal table and had a beer to get me ready to walk home via the alley. All went well.

After a restful night I decided to start as I probably wouldn't continue and visited the hotel's 15,000-square foot gym and worked off some of my cubic inches before heading for breakfast in the Loews Bank & Bourbon. Let me just say, in Philadelphia they take breakfasts seriously.

During my stay I also had breakfast in the Urban Farmer where they make their sausages in-house. I had a blue crab omelette with one of their fennel sausages on the side which was a bit greedy - but I needed the energy for the Rocky Steps.

In Philadelphia there is as much opportunity to expand the mind as the waistline. An absolute treasure is The Barnes Foundation which, to my shame, I had not heard of before.

For anyone who likes their art it is worth the flight to Philadelphia for this place alone. This is the most staggering collection of art assembled by one person. Albert C Barnes was a relatively ordinary man who made a Silicon Valley-type fortune back in the early 1900s having co-developed Argyrol which was used to treat gonorrhoea.

He wasn't just rich. He was Steve Jobs rich. He sold his company in 1929 some six months before the Crash. Timing, they say, is everything.

He bought art just because he liked it and supported many painters with growing reputations. None of this was an investment. This was just him buying pictures that he wanted to put on the walls. Today there are 1,100 paintings in 23 rooms on display including many by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Modigliani, Renoir, Henri Rousseau, 181 works by Cezanne including The Card Players, and a handful by Van Gogh.

The paintings are displayed in this new building exactly as they were in his house. I spent two hours there - which is about a week too little.

Then off to art of a very different kind and for the second time in one day I experienced something that I had never imagined existed.

The Philadelphia Magic Gardens in South Street is a pile of junk turned into an amazing piece of mosaic. "Art is the Centre of the Real World," it proclaims. You walk around with your mouth open with everything from bottles, mirrors, tiles, to bicycle wheels and South American art in the walls, floors and ceilings.

This is mosaic without boundaries, begun in 1968, and is the life's work of Isaiah Zagar, just turned 79, and his wife Julia. Michelle Obama turned up there a while back with her daughters.

I enjoyed a meander back through the pleasant streets and the multitude of coffee shops and the Betsy Ross houses. (Reputedly she designed the American flag here.)

I walked Elfreth's Alley, the oldest inhabited street in the US. Had a look at the Liberty Bell and at Benjamin Franklin's house. But I took a little break from my sightseeing as I had to drop in to Macy's. I always look at the '70pc off' rail - because I am cheap. There is a reason things are reduced that much. People did not buy them. I am not people. To my shame again.

Foodies will not be disappointed in Philadelphia. The locals do a lot of eating out. Restaurants are full and full of atmosphere.

I particularly liked the Mission Taqueria, which is a bit Mexican. The owner has a great personality and an even more impressive memory. I watched him take drink orders for 10 people, engage in conversation, and never take a note. We were seated and ate a range of tacos and slurped wine from lemonade glasses before heading into the dark for the short walk home which was briefly interrupted by a great fun jazz bar called Time.

The following night we went to Parc, a fabulous restaurant and the sort of place you could start a romance. It is too posh to have wi-fi so you can concentrate on the food and conversation without checking your Facebook feed. It has a very French menu and I loved their steak tartare which I followed with mussels, all washed down by Sancerre. Our waitress was a genuine Parisian. When you went to the bathroom you "tirez" the door.

Later on, another attempt to walk directly back to the hotel was interrupted by spotting a bar called 'One Tippling'. How could one resist just the one?

Philadelphia has 400 miles of city bike lanes but it is also a great city to walk because there is so much to look at. There are public sculptures everywhere.

I must mention their Mural Arts programme, which was set up in 1984 to combat graffiti by getting artists involved. It worked. There are now 4,000 enormous murals - and hardly any random graffiti. They have succeeded, as they say, in "turning walls into windows." One example is 27 storeys high. Another has one-million small mosaic pieces.

There is a social angle to this project. They work with the prison system employing a hundred ex-convicts annually and this results in a substantially lower recidivism.

With time running out I had to almost run around the Museum of the American Revolution which is just a year old and brings the 1760s to life. The museum features George Washington's actual tent which is housed in a vacuum. There is a multi-media display going on, telling the story of the country's birth - and, at first, you try to place the voice... only to realise that it is Liam Neeson.

Likewise I had too little time in the Museum of Art where many of the exhibits are entire rooms from Asia. They have a Rodin collection, and all the major 19th Century artists including a Sunflowers. They are currently spending half a billion expanding their display space.

I could not leave Philadelphia without a chat with Rocky and then a race up the steps with the soundtrack blaring from my phone. I made it to the top, sparred with the air, felt foolish, and headed to the airport - for Aer Lingus to deliver me back to Dublin after four magic days in a very special city.

But listen, give yourself a week.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Take One Liberty

The One Liberty Observation Deck on Floor 57 offers the best views of Philadelphia. Since 1901 no building was allowed to be taller than “the brim of Billy Penn’s hat”. ‘One Liberty’, built in 1987, broke the rule.

Penn... sylvania

William Penn, an English Quaker, founded the Province of Penn Sylvania (Latin for forest) in 1680 to facilitate religious tolerance. I enjoyed a cappuccino in the Quaker City Coffee Company.

Getting there

2018-04-08_lif_39836198_I1.JPG
The Liberty Bell
 

Aer Lingus flies direct to Philadelphia. Flying from Dublin four times weekly but increasing to a daily service in May, fares to Philadelphia start from €179 each-way including taxes and charges. Check out aerlingus.com for further information.

Enjoy US Immigration Pre-clearance at Dublin airport and avoid any queues stateside.

Aer Lingus Business class boasts fully lie-flat seats and the very best in Irish cuisine, hospitality and fine dining. All Aer Lingus guests enjoy endless hours of the very best in-flight entertainment including the latest blockbusters, box sets, games and much more.

Overnight accommodation in a Deluxe Room at Loews Philadelphia Hotel costs from approx. £126 / €145 ($179). For further details, visit www.loewshotels.com/philadelphia-hotel.

For further details on Philadelphia, visit www.discoverPHL.com.

Sunday Indo Living

Travel Insider Newsletter

Get the best travel tips, deals and insights straight to your inbox.

Editors Choice

Also in Life