Sunday 17 December 2017

Philadelphia, here we come...

IT'S A COSMOPOLITAN city bounded by two great rivers. It's got a soaring skyline with a buzzing centre and old winding streets filled with American history.

Its baseball team won the World Series two years ago. Its shopping is up there with the best in the world. It's a great Eastern seaboard city with a massive central park.

You could be forgiven for thinking I've just been to New York. But you'd be wrong (but just a mere 100 miles out).

It's puzzling why Philly isn't on most Irish people's radar. It's more historic than Boston, as Irish as Chicago, 30pc cheaper to live in than New York and has a food culture to match San Francisco.

A first timer to the city, I stayed in the new Le Meridien, a plush hotel slap-bang in the heart of the action -- opposite the gargantuan historic City Hall. The hotel is a gorgeous European-style boutique offering, housed in an historic building and only a few minutes' walk from many of the main attractions.

The city centre proper, (known as Center City) is thriving, unlike many US urban areas. Sections of 15th Street are hubs of restaurants and nightlife, while the area's aptly titled Avenue of the Arts is the local equivalent of London's West End or New York's Broadway theatre districts. The best bit? It feels perfectly safe to walk around, by day or night (don't try this at home, kids).

Despite the grid system (numbered streets run north-south, while usually tree-named streets run West-East), it's easy to get disorientated, so why not buy a ticket for the handy hop-on-and-off tour bus (www.phillytour.com) which will give you a taster of all that's in town.

Your first must-stop is Independence National Historical Park (www.nps.gov), home of Independence Hall.

In the hall (which featured in Nicolas Cage's National Treasure II movie), the resolution of independence was ratified, and a nation was born. The date? July 2, 1776. So Americans have been celebrating on July 4 in error, for more than two centuries. And you thought we were bad here . . .

Across the road is the city's pride and joy, the Liberty Bell. It's, well, a bell but it's a symbol of freedom as it was rung (maybe) at the first reading of the Declaration of Independence -- on July 8, 1776 (Okay, enough of the confusing dates).

Two blocks away, history goes all multimedia at the fun National Constitution Center. Not that I'd recommend it, but ever wanted to burn the Stars and Stripes? Find out why it's legal. (Answer: the US Supreme Court says so). There's a bit of chest thumping with the We, the People show outlining why the colonists wanted the British out (the rebellion proved a hit with the Irish visitors when I attended, but maybe it was just the anti-taxation bit). But the spacious museum-like complex, it's not jingoistic at all, as it explores the good, the bad and the grey areas of American history since independence. There's plenty of hands-on fun too -- you can be sworn in as a president of the United States, or rule on Supreme Court cases. (www.nationalconstitutioncenter.org)

Get off your butt at the Old City stops, too. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and it's got more historic attractions per square mile than anywhere else in the States. It's quirky, too, featuring America's only post office that doesn't fly the US flag. It's simple really: the post office existed before the United States was even dreamt of.

You've also got the cutesy Betsy Ross house, the home of the woman believed to have made the first American flag; and the beautiful Christ Church, where George Washington and Benjamin Franklin worshipped (the latter is buried in its graveyard) and which still functions today.

Ben Franklin, William Penn, WC Fields, Grace Kelly -- all giants either born, or who made their home, in Philadelphia. The greatest Philadelphian of all? Step forward Rocky Balboa, two-times Heavyweight Champion of the World, 44 wins and 38 knockouts.

And you can recreate Sly Stallone's piece of cinematic history and run up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to get a fantastic vista of the city. There's even a statue of Rocky at the bottom of the steps. Ironically, the museum suits didn't want it anywhere near their cultured temple of art, but soon relented and it's not surprising as it's the second-most visited site in the whole city. Benjamin Franklin, eat your heart out.

But it's kind of apt, too. While Philadelphia prides itself on its blue-collar background, even the working-stiffs here appreciates the finer things in life. The Art Museum hosts a Friday night drinks and jazz session, and it's packed with all and sundry. Even high-end restaurants are booked months in advance, and every Joe Six-Pack has opinions on the best cuisine in town.

Locals packing out the food hall of former railway station Reading Terminal (www.readingterminalmarket.com), a kaleidoscope of colours and smells. Want pretzels handmade by Amish women? You're in the right place -- bar Sundays, when they worship. Want a burger and beer? Moussaka and latte? Don't go any further. I even got in line for the symbol of the city -- a Philly Cheesesteak -- and obviously set a trend as no less a man than President Barack Obama did just the same thing a day later.

Still hungry? Just look to the Northern Liberties, where an old brewery neighbourhood has been transformed into a Barcelona-style oasis of urban living (here, the locals all sit out in the central square and watch the football or baseball on a giant screen). Why not munch your way around the area with a behind-the-scenes walk from Northern Liberties City Food Tour (www.cityfoodtours.com/philadelphia)? Our brilliant guide took us to various eateries where we ate soul food, fresh Italian fare and cheesecakes, washed down a few local beers and even learned some history. My kind of tour.

If you have a day to spare, get out to the nearby Valley Forge National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/vafo).

The friendly guides will fill you in on this tranquil and historic area where Washington's weary rebel army (one-in-four of them Irish) reassembled and went on to final victory. Take time to visit George Washington's house, preserved in time and offering a glimpse of the past. Recommended for all ages.

A short drive away, you can follow the colonist's lead and rebel against taxation. The area charges no taxes on clothing, so it's a bargain-hunter's paradise. The King of Prussia mall is the largest retail centre in the US (more than 300 stores in all) while close by is Philadelphia Premium Outlets which is, frankly, dirt cheap by Irish standards for designer and everyday wear.

All that shopping will work up an appetite, and those in the know head to brilliant steak-and-seafood restaurant, Creed's (www.creedskop.com), with its great bar and al fresco area.

Great, good value food, good beer (see panel) and a hell of a lot of fun.

Washington, Franklin and Jefferson wrote about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They'd be pleased with how far Philly has come.

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