The original capital of the nation, Philadelphia was laid out by William Penn Jr in 1682, on a grid system that was to provide the pattern for most American cities. It was envisaged as a "greene countrie towne," traces of which are still discernable. Just a few blocks away from the noise and crowds of downtown, shady cobbled alleys stand lined with red-brick colonial houses, while the peace and quiet of huge Fairmount Park make it easy to forget you're in a major metropolis. Settled by Quakers, Philadelphia prospered swiftly on the back of trade and commerce, and by the 1750s had become the second largest city in the British Empire. Economic power fueled strong revolutionary feeling, and the city was the capital for most of the War of Independence. The Declaration of Independence was written, signed, and first publicly read here in 1776, as was the US Constitution ten years later. Philadelphia was also a hotbed of new ideas in the arts and sciences, as epitomized by the scientist, philosopher, statesman, inventor, and printer Benjamin Franklin.
Philadelphia, which means "City of Brotherly Love" in Greek, is one of the most ethnically mixed US cities, with substantial communities of Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Asians living side-by-side among the large African-American population. Many of the city's black residents are descendants of the migrants who flocked here after the Civil War when Philadelphia was seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism. A century later it voted in the nation's first black mayor, and erected the country's best museum of African-American history and culture. On the downside, Philadelphia is also the place where in 1985, as part of a huge police effort to dislodge the black separatist group MOVE, a bomb dropped from a helicopter set fire to entire city blocks, killing men, women, and children, and leaving many hundreds homeless. Once known as "Filthydelphia," the city underwent a remarkable resurgence preparing for the nation's bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and its strength today is its great energy – fueled by history, strong cultural institutions, and grounded in its many staunchly traditional neighbourhoods.
The first thing visitors discover about Philadelphia is that it's a walking town. You'll find most places are within a mile of City Hall . Stroll on pleasant, tree-lined streets that display a rich mix of architecture ranging from Colonial to Victorian to Bauhaus, sometimes all presented within the same block. Each street connects to smaller and smaller streets and alleyways that hide small groups of houses, clever gardens, footnotes to American history and good coffee spots to take a rest. Downtown Philadelphia is referred to as Center City, but within this area there are even more neighborhoods.
Start your visit with the neighborhood around Independence Hall . This is where the Liberty Bell rang out and where the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written and signed. Sit under a tree in the gardens. Mail postcards home from Benjamin Franklin's Post Office (besides everything else, he was the first Postmaster General). This area is Society Hill, where you can tour Independence National Park, then do some shopping and have a cocktail at an intimate bar; then head up the block to a play, concert, or movie; then discuss the show over a late dinner and head out again to hear live music, all within a few blocks.
North of Market Street is Old City, which is Philadelphia's version of New York's Soho, with wonderful restaurants like Chlöe and Cuba Libre , small art galleries like Gallery Joe and a growing number of theaters and performance spaces like Painted Bride ; this is the fashionable young hip scene in all its shades.
East of Old City, along the Delaware River, Penn's Landing is a backdrop for outdoor festivals and free summer concerts, as well as fireworks on holidays. Or you can take a ferry across the river to the aquarium. In the summer, open-air clubs north of the Ben Franklin Bridge (such as Dave and Busters or the River Deck ) take advantage of the breathtaking view.
West of Old City, between 8th and 13th Streets, is Chinatown. These days Chinatown is about half Chinese and half a combination of Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Burmese and Pan-Asian, and rivals any Chinatown in the country. It's also home to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Reading Terminal Market .
On the west end of Center City is the fashionable Rittenhouse Square district, where you can buy great clothing and then wear it to dinner at the place next door (possibly Monk's Cafe or Alma De Cuba ). Lovers of the offbeat might venture into the Mütter Museum , a veritable cavalcade of creepy medical mysteries.
Avenue of the Arts
Broad Street, south of City Hall, is the Avenue of the Arts. The orchestra, the ballet and the Wilma , Gershman , and Prince theaters all reside here, interspersed with great restaurants and jazz clubs. Modeled on Parisian boulevards, the Ben Franklin Parkway presents a wonderful, tree-lined walk past Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, several expensive hotels, the main Library and several museums. At the end of the Parkway, atop a hill, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art .
This is where rich Italian history and new communities of Vietnamese and Thai are just the tips of the iceberg when it comes to great dining. Cantina El Caballito brings the spice, Horizons caters to forward-thinking vegans, and the old Italian Market has got a little something for everyone.
Across the Schuykill River in West Philly, the University of Pennsylvania and six other major schools are the centerpiece of a deep blend of students, immigrants and old neighborhoods. Take in some art at the Institute of Contemporary Art and then take in some grub at White Dog Cafe .
And north of Old City, this is the "new frontier" of the hip scene. The Standard Tap will take care of your eating-and-drinking needs, and Johnny Brenda's will keep you entertained into the wee hours with its packed concert calendar. For dancing, head for Transit or the Barbary . After that, Silk City Diner at 5th and Spring Garden is the place to go for a grilled cheese sandwich at 4am Sunday morning or the best huevos rancheros for breakfast.
If every museum, business, historic site and theater in town burned down overnight, you could still have a terrific trip to Philadelphia simply by eating.
Many of the high-end restaurants are grouped along Walnut Street between Broad Street and Rittenhouse Square and are located in the Old City district around 2nd and Market. Everything is available here, starting with an extraordinary number of Italian and Asian restaurants. Philadelphia was also an early center for American nouvelle cuisine and this has developed into a heritage the locals take for granted. One good option for the more exotic cuisines is Amara Cafe , a small, modest Thai restaurant that is a neighborhood favorite. The Saffron Cafe is a homey, internationally influenced cafe that is sure to please everyone. For a little taste of the islands, Roy Yamaguchi's Roy's cooks up all the flavors of Hawaii. For a real, down home Philly joint, try the delightfully gritty Little Pete's . Finally, if you're more in the mood for something a bit more European, the Brasserie Perrier is the place for you.
For a classic Philly Cheesesteak, two different places in the Italian Market stay open all night to supply the crowds. For some more casual food, the family owned Cosmo's Deli is a crowd pleaser for all kinds of Italian deli items. For something a bit more upscale, but that won't break the bank, stop in to Gayle Restaurant . Moving south of the border, Cantina El Caballito is sure to please with all your favorite Mexican specialties.
Chinatown is a haven for those visitors who are in the mood for a taste of Asian cuisines. The grand and elegant Ocean Harbor serves specialties from all over China, while vegetarians can delight in the meat-free fare at Harmony Vegetarian Restaurant . Although called “Chinatown,” there is more than just Chinese food on offer here; the Palace at the Ben offers spicy and rich Indian cuisine, Penang serves up in-demand Malaysian cuisine. Leaving the Asian continent altogether, Johnny Brenda's offers Mediterranean food in a lively, bar-like atmosphere.
The charming Society Hill neighborhood features many quality restaurants, ranging from fancy to cozy and casual. Bistro Romano is an elegant restaurant featuring delectable European specialties. For a more casual option, the South Street Diner is a late night favorite featuring everything you would expect from a traditional diner, as well as a variety of Greek specialties, while another late night eatery, Hello Cafe serves up satisfying Chinese dishes. Italian food is not lacking in this neighborhood with Sfizzio and the Monte Carlo Living Room , one of the area's most popular restaurants.
Like most cities, Philadelphia has invisible layers of history running through the streets. Decide what you're looking for on a particular day and then everywhere you look it will seem there are examples of it to see.
Tour Independence Hall , the place where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were signed. You'll find the Liberty Bell just steps away. Dine at Brasil's . Nearby are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Old City Hall are also in this area.
The National Museum of American Jewish History is located on Society Hill, close to the Franklin Court , which chronicles Ben Franklin's achievements. Indulge in authentic Italian at Sfizzio . The Liberty Museum focuses on exploring America's beginnings, while the Graff House preserves the room in which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
The historic George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate and the Shoe Museum can both be found in Chinatown, but the real draw to this district is the dining. Get tasty dim sum at the nearby Joy Tsin Lau or try the Vietnam Palace , which is just steps from the Pennsylvania Convention Center .
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a collection of 19th and 20th-century masterpieces by Renoir, Picasso and more. The Rodin Museum down the road has more of the same. Grab a bite at the nearby London Grill , then stroll along Kelly Drive and admire the ships on Boathouse Row .
The nearly 9,000-acre Fairmount Park is also close to the Philadelphia Zoo . Dine at the Adobe Cafe , then stop into the nearby Please Touch Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences , where interaction with the displays is encouraged.
Poor Richard's Walking Tours (+1 215 206 1682/ http://www.phillywalks.com )
Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia (+1 215 525 1776/ http://www.theconstitutional.com/ )
Philadelphia Tours ( +1 888 478 1479/ http://www.phillytours.us/ )
Connective Tours (+1 215 925 8687/ http://www.phillytour.com/service.asp?ID=27 )
Philadelphia Tours ( +1 888 478 1479/ http://www.phillytours.us/ )
Sterling Helicopter (+1 866 783 7435/ http://www.sterlinghelicopter.com/ )
Spirit of Philadelphia (+1 866 455 3866/ http://www.spiritcruises.com/ )
Liberty Belle Cruises (+1 215 757 0800/ http://www.libertybelle.com/ )
Chef's Tour of the Italian Market (+1 215 772 0739 )
Wok and Walk Tour (+1 215 500 9774/ http://www.josephpoon.com/toursWokWalk.htm )
76 Carriage Company (+1 215 923 8516/ http://www.phillytour.com )
Philadelphia Trolley Works (+1 215 389 8687/ http://www.phillytour.com/ )
Big League Tours (+1 866 619 1748/ http://www.bigleaguetours.com )
Ghost Tour of Philadelphia (+1 215 413 1997/ http://www.ghosttour.com/