Philly gets its groove back

If ever a city could justifiably holding a grudge over another, Philadelphia could be excused for rolling its eyes at the mention of New York. If centuries of attention­grabbing, “only-in-New-York” arrogance from the other end of the Pennsylvania Railroad weren’t enough, the city has become mockingly known as New York’s “Sixth Borough”.

Philadelphians don’t quite see it that way. Despite being the only two cities in the world with million-plus populations within 160km of each other, an independent streak endures in the city that invented the concept of the United States.
In Philadelphia, New York is still the cocky new kid on the block.

If you want to make friends when in town, express a lifelong loathing for the New York Mets baseball team, along with your enthusiasm for local heroes the Phillies, who won the World Series last week. Hot dogs are eschewed in favour of the city’s greatest culinary achievement, the cheesesteak—sliced beef, slathered in onions and liquid cheese and slapped into a white roll. Forget posey Manhattan cocktail bars. Here beer is brewed with dedication and variety. You’ll find brews created by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin at the City Tavern on South 2nd Street.

In some ways, though, you can understand the connection. Philadelphia is, as Brooklyn was 10 years ago, bursting with energy and ideas. But visitors who have found Brooklyn a thrilling alternative to Manhattan would do well to turn their backs on New York altogether and take the direct route to Philadelphia. Edgy areas such as the Northern Liberties and, unusually, the historic Old City, jump with just the right combination of independent coffee shops, microbrew pubs and boutique stores to maintain a hipster population. Property is cheaper than in New York, and many artists and musicians are moving out of the Big Apple and coming here instead.

Despite the lack of hype, Philadelphia has some big-hitting sights, especially historical ones. The Liberty Bell (cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London in 1752) and Independence Hall are both in what is known as Independence National Historic Park. Benjamin Franklin, 18th-century polymath, statesman and scientist, was born and is buried here. But if you’re looking for his home, the only remaining house he lived in can be found at 38 Craven Street, London. That’s about all Philadelphia lacks in history, though. The city William Penn founded was the first capital of the infant US, and it was here that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted.

Philly celebrates its history, but the impression is that the present is a more pressing concern. Even Christ Church, known as the “Nation’s Church” and dating from 1695, has AKA Records, the city’s best music shop, opposite, so crowds of vinyl junkies rub shoulders with churchgoers. The quiet ancient lanes off Washington and Rittenhouse squares, some of the oldest continuously inhabited streets in North America, are home to a seemingly endless succession of independent coffee shops, galleries and bookstores.

Beyond the city centre I find more clues to why no one in Philadelphia blushes at the term “world-class”. When the Pennsylvania Railroad’s original terminus, the graceful Broad Street Station, closed in 1952 it allowed the area to the north-west of the centre to shine. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is home to an astonishing repository of cultural stand-outs. On the mile-long stroll expect to be distracted by the Franklin Institute and the Rodin Museum, complete with a version of The Thinker.

The highlight, though, comes at the end of the Parkway: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose steps Rocky famously charged up during training sessions.

Beyond the Parkway lies Fairmount Park, cause for some gentle one-upmanship because it is much, much bigger than Central Park. If the 14,5km running loop along the placid Schuylkill River is a bit daunting, I Glide tours on Segways (those two-wheeled electric transporters) take in some edited highlights (iglidetours.com). Riding a Segway is a little like driving a vertical Sinclair C5. A morning gliding along is the perfect way to work up an appetite, and visitors to Philly need one.

Google “Philadelphia is better than New York” and a city map marked with restaurants pops up. Stephen Starr is the leading light, with 12 eateries across the city. His latest offering, Parc, recreates a French brasserie by importing a zinc bar, doors and decor from France. The gents there is one of the most remarkable toilets in the US, with fittings and naughty pictures straight from a Parisian burlesque theatre.

Starr is an innovator, but not a pioneer—great food is in the city’s blood. Sarah Palin departed Philly with a cheesesteak in hand served “wiz wit”—with onions and Cheez Whiz liquid cheese. By doing so she avoided the chagrin heaped on John Kerry when he asked for his with Swiss cheese. Reading Terminal Market offers opportunities for more budget-conscious grazing, selling locally farmed produce. Pennsylvania Dutch families serving home-grown, home-cooked breakfasts rub shoulders with Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern delicatessens.

The perfect way to round off your visit is to take in a ballgame at Citizens Bank Park, home of the high-flying Phillies. I spent a few hours in the bleachers, sweating over the win that would clinch them the National League East title. They got it, with local hero Jimmy Rollins pulling off a remarkable display of fielding right at the death. But as strangers hugged me—no self-conscious high-fives in this town—and fireworks exploded I felt right at home in Philly. I even got my celebratory cheesesteak order right.

Getting there

  • Emirates flies to New York from Johannesburg via Dubai. Business class costs R52 291, including taxes. There’s a special fare on economy class tickets until December 7 of R10 801, including taxes. Visit www.emirates.com/za.

  • SAA flies direct from OR Tambo to JFK in New York. Specials can be found on SAA’s website, averaging about R12 143 (including taxes) for a return economy ticket. Visit //ww2.flysaa.com.

  • From New York to Philadelphia: Acela Express and Amtrak rail services make the 150km journey hourly on weekdays, with fares starting at $45 each way. Fares on budget coach lines such as Megabus (megabus.com) and Boltbus (boltbus.com) can be as low as $1 but are usually $15 to $25.

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