Overview

Old City, a hip neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is today much as it was when Benjamin Franklin walked its streets. One of the most progressive citizens of his time, city-father Franklin would surely approve of the many art galleries, trendy shops and vibrant restaurants that dot the downtown Philadelphia landscape.

Philadelphia's rich history is still visible today in the superb Historic District: That is where you'll find Independence Hall, where the nation's Constitution was hotly debated, and the Liberty Bell, which became a symbol of the new government. The city's museums—more than a dozen, including the excellent Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—are world-class institutions that mix old and new in surprising ways.

Geography

Among the largest cities in the U.S., Philadelphia lies 100 mi/160 km south of New York City and 55 mi/90 km inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Its eastern boundary, the Delaware River, separates Pennsylvania from New Jersey and provides access to the Atlantic, making Philadelphia one of the most important commercial ports in the country. The city's western boundary is the Schuylkill (pronounced SCHOOL-kill) River. Compact and easy to navigate, Center City (downtown) is surrounded by the Avenue of the Arts, Old City, the Parkway and Museum area, Fairmount Park, University City, the Convention Center and Chinatown.

Thanks to William Penn's decision to plan Philadelphia as a grid, it's one of the easiest cities to navigate in the eastern U.S. You do have to understand the numbering and naming system, though. In Center City, all numbered streets are one-way. East of Broad Street (also known as "14th Street" and the "Avenue of the Arts"), odd-numbered streets run south to north, even-numbered streets north to south. West of Broad Street, odd-numbered streets run north to south, even-numbered streets south to north. Market Street is the dividing line between north and south addresses.

In the downtown area, most major streets running east to west are named after trees (for example, Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce). They, too, alternate directions as one-way streets. (Locating an address is simple: 1918 Locust, for instance, would be between 19th and 20th streets.)

History

William Penn established Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, in 1682—his "holy experiment," demonstrating the Quaker ideal of religious tolerance, creating a city without walls or neighborhood borders. Because of its excellent location near the Atlantic coast and accessible port facilities, Philadelphia grew rapidly in the 1700s until it was the second-largest English-speaking city in the world. It was called the "Athens of the Americas" and the cultural center of the New World.

The U.S.'s heritage began in Philadelphia with a concentration of key events in the area that is now Independence National Historical Park. The U.S. Constitution was written there, and the Declaration of Independence was signed and presented to the citizenry on that historic plaza. Following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, the city served as the nation's capital from 1790 until 1800, while Washington D.C. was under construction, and the infant U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court all met on that block.

During the 19th century, the city grew, annexing parts of the countryside, including Fairmount Park—where wealthy Philadelphians built beautiful mansions to escape yellow fever.

The city also became an industrial force in the early 1900s, but its industrial growth began to decline after World War II. Philadelphia experienced a cultural resurgence in the 1970s, spurred in part by the country's 1976 bicentennial celebration. The city still pursues its renewal programs in neighborhoods such as Old City, which booms with burgeoning residential property, shops and cultural venues.

Philadelphia's historical legacy continues to attract tourists even as it benefits from an infusion of new business and economic energy, thanks to the high-tech and pharmaceutical industries. The local economy holds its own among the nation's major cities.

Sightseeing

Independence National Historical Park is probably the most popular reason to visit Philadelphia. The park includes not only the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and Declaration House, but also the National Constitution Center and Franklin Court, where the exhibits offer a view of Benjamin Franklin's life. Philadelphia and its suburbs are infused with history: historic homes, churches, museums, graveyards and gardens.

It comes as no surprise that Philadelphia, with its proud history, has a number of beautifully restored neighborhoods, including Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square, Old City, Northern Liberties, University City and Society Hill. Be sure to stroll through at least one of these picturesque sections of town. But the city's history is only one reason to visit. Philadelphia has a wealth of cultural attractions, including a wonderful assortment of museums, with specialties ranging from art to insects to medical artifacts. The city also has Fairmount Park, one of the country's largest urban landscaped parks.

Using CityPass, visitors can get half-price admission to some of the area's most popular cultural and entertainment attractions: The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia Trolley Works, Adventure Aquarium, your choice of either the Philadelphia Zoo or the National Constitution Center, and your choice of either the Eastern State Penitentiary or the Please Touch Museum. Purchase CityPass at the first attraction you visit or online. It's valid for nine days after the first use. US$62 adults, US$39 children. Toll-free 888-330-5008. http://www.citypass.com/philadelphia.

Nightlife

Philadelphia's restaurant renaissance, which started around the time of the 1976 bicentennial celebration, also ushered in the idea that the city should not close up its sidewalks at 9 pm. New nightclubs and other nightspots continue to proliferate, especially on the waterfront, in Northern Liberties and Old City, and on South Street. Some of the slickest spots in town are the city's hotel bars.

Most clubs remain open until 2 am, but call ahead for specific hours.

Dining

Since Philadelphia's widely publicized "restaurant renaissance" of the 1970s, this culturally and ethnically diverse city has offered restaurants for every taste and pocketbook. The most recent area of restaurant development is in the neighborhoods of Northern Liberties and a stretch of South Philly known as East Passyunk.

One of Philly's happy mainstays is the now-ubiquitous BYOB restaurant, prompted by the scarcity of available liquor licenses in the neighborhoods, and the cost of buying a license (which can exceed US$300,000).

The Rittenhouse Square District is blessed with an abundance of fine restaurants. South Philadelphia, where most of the city's substantial Italian population resides, offers many great Italian, Asian and Latino restaurants, and is the source of the original Philadelphia cheesesteak.

Chinatown is a hive of restaurants—Thai and Vietnamese as well as Chinese. The neighborhood around the Italian Market has also given rise to a crop of Asian restaurants, between Ninth and 11th on Washington Avenue. Near the University of Pennsylvania, there's another cluster of ethnic establishments, including Indian, Thai, Mexican and Japanese.

Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

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