A tale of two Phillies

In Philadelphia, you can judge a visitor by the way they ascend the 99 steps to the Museum of Art.

If it’s a gentle stroll and a swift push through the revolving door, art is obviously their prime concern. If it’s a bracing run followed by a triumphant arms-aloft gesture, then they may be more interested in the city’s popular culture.

Philadelphia, the state of Pennsylvania’s largest city, is not just home to Benjamin Franklin, America’s independence struggle, and countless works by Rodin, Renoir, Matisse and Modigliani. It is also the home of everyone’s favourite Italian stallion, Rocky Balboa.

The steps up to PhiladelphiaPhilidelphians love Sylvester Stallone’s prizefighter as much as they love the high art and culture that sits right on their doorstep. Thousands don grey sweatpants for the annual Rocky Run that sweeps along West River Drive and up the steps of the Museum of Art, following Stallone’s tracks in the movie.

In Philadelphia, highbrow and popular culture sit side by side. Visitors can spend their time spotting the locations from the new Rocky Balboa movie, revelling in kitsch at a Masonic temple, shopping for vintage clothes, and eating cereal for dinner.

Then again, they could spend their time soaking up history in America’s oldest city, taking in the Independence quarter and the Liberty Bell before ticking off some of the greatest works of art of the past 200 years.


Highbrow highlights

Located in a 12-acre arboretum south of the city centre, the Barnes Foundation has one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings.

It includes work by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne and Modigliani, as well as a display of African masks. Advanced reservations are required, but the collection and the building are well worth the effort.

Back in Center City, on the broad Parkway that links City Hall – topped by the statue of William Penn, for whom Pennsylaniva (‘Penn’s Woods’) is named – to the Museum of Art, is the Rodin Museum. The collection of work in bronze and marble here is second only to the Musée Rodin in Paris. Across the Parkway, an outdoor area features statues and mobiles by Alex Calder, who was a Philadelphia native.

PhiladelphiaThe Old City, close to the banks of the Delaware River, is one of the most historic districts in the US. One of its highlights is Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4 1776. Across the road is the Liberty Bell Center, which tells the story of this great American icon — and, of course, displays the bell itself.

Back on the Parkway, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is worth a full day’s visit. The museum’s permanent collection is strong in 19th and 20th century Western Art – with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, Picasso’s Three Musicians – and the world’s most extensive collection of Marcel DuChamp. The upper galleries contain structures from across the globe.

High culture done, head to the Rittenhouse Row district for some upscale shopping. Here, on Walnut and Chestnut Streets, between Broad Street and 20th, are the likes of Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, as well as the handsome Rittenhouse Square.

Dining in Philly is a delight, thanks largely to the efforts of one man – Steven Starr. Since the early 1990s, he’s opened a variety of upmarket restaurants in the centre of town. Choose from traditional steaks at Washington Square, modish seafood at Striped Bass, Latin American fusion at Alma de Cuba, and more. Browse the full list on the Starr Restaurant Organization website.


Populist pleasures

The Mutter Museum on South 22nd is an unmissable curiosity. Founded to educate future doctors, it is devoted to anatomy and medical anomalies, and exhibits include conjoined twins, the tallest skeleton in North America, and a collection of objects extracted from people’s throats.

Since the Mutter is best visited before lunch, follow it up with a Philly cheesesteak, a steak sandwich with melted cheese, the proper preparation of which is a matter of endless debate. Locals are divided as to whether Pat’s or Geno’s (both on the intersection of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue) serves the best in the city.

Alternatively, two of the best places to eat are at Reading Terminal Market, with outlets selling everything from Thai to Amish snacks, and the wonderful Italian Market on South 9th Street, the oldest outdoor working market in the US.

The Masonic Temple at One North Broad Street has a wonderful cathedral-like facade, but the real surprises are inside. Free tours on the hour reveal chamber after chamber of elaborate kitsch, with halls decorated in Moorish, Gothic, Egyptian, Norman and Ionic styles.

Philadelphia’s narrow streets and grid pattern make it a great place to explore on foot. While wandering, keep an eye out for the city’s famous murals. On South Street, between 3rd and 11th, are examples of the work of Isaiah Zagar, a local artist who specialises in mosaic tiles and is dedicated to turning Philadelphia into a ‘labyrinthine mosaic museum’.

South Street itself is Philly’s Greenwich Village, especially between 2nd and 5th where there’s a concentration of vintage clothes and record shops.

When it comes to dinner, Rocky-lovers should look no further than Victor Cafe at 1303 Dickinson Street in South Philadelphia.

This is the restaurant owned by Rocky Balboa in the new film, in which it’s called ‘Adrian’s’. The food is Italian and delicious, but the surprise is that the waiters and waitresses are aspiring opera singers, and are prone to bursting into song.

For an alternative snack, there’s Cereality at 3631 Walnut near the University of Pennsylvania. As the name suggests, Cereality puts a new twist on the all-day breakfast with a cereal-only menu that ranges from Cheerios to Panda Puffs by way of house granola.


Sample product

North America Travel Service, which has a dedicated Pennsylvania brochure, offers four nights at the Rittenhouse Hotel from £699 per person, including direct flights from Manchester.

Kuoni offers seven nights at the Sheraton Society Hill (close to the Delaware River waterfront and Old City), from £578 per person, including flights.

Gold Medal Travel offers five nights at the five-star Sofitel Philadelphia near Rittenhouse Square from £669 per person, including flights. The Gold Medal America 2007 Brochure is available online.


Related training

You can learn more about Philadelphia in Travel Weekly’s Pennsylvania training academy, created in association with the Pennsylvania Tourist Office. (You must register for a free MyTW account to use training courses.)