It used to be that Philadelphia was a very conservative city, and not so much a visiting one – but that has changed. There is now so much on offer: great food, designer hotels, farmers’ markets. And of course there’s so much rich history too; the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, The Franklin Institute Science Museum and the Barnes Foundation are all here. Basically the city is the birthplace of our democracy, so regardless of a person’s political views, after last year’s presidential election it’s more relevant, and I’d say interesting, than ever.
I encourage friends to visit even just for the day, since Philadelphia is only a little over an hour by train from New York. But there are great hotels to choose from, many with unexpected, nice design or tech touches. The Rittenhouse overlooks Rittenhouse Square and has an always-elegant ambience, with large suites refurbished by Alexandra Champalimaud – the palette of bright colours against rich, dark walls is so chic, and there’s a lovely leafy central courtyard. Another boutique offering is the Roost Apartment Hotel, designed by Morris Adjmi – he also did the very cool Wythe Hotel, in Brooklyn – which has contemporary furnishings by Patricia Urquiola and Roll & Hill, among others. Rittenhouse 1715 is smaller and more traditional, in a Georgian-style carriage house from the early 1900s, and its rooms are airy and stylish. It’s just a three-storey building set on a very quiet residential street, so it feels like a nice escape.
So many neighbourhoods have come up over the past few years. One of the best to explore is Fairmount, where the Barnes Foundation is located. The Barnes is very near to my heart; the collections of post-impressionist and modern paintings, as well as Native American ceramics, textiles and jewellery, are among the finest in the world. The new building was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and it respects the history of founder Albert Barnes’ original museum vision, but puts the art centre stage in light-filled gallery spaces. And the Barnes Foundation Arboretum, in suburban Merion, is well worth a visit for the beautiful gardens full of rare plants and trees. The monkey puzzle tree in particular is extraordinary – all twisted limbs and thorny leaves.
Fairmount is home to other world-class museums as well. There’s the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Rodin Museum – the latter has one of the largest collections of the artist’s work outside Paris. But a lesser‑known gem is the Fabric Workshop and Museum, with incredible contemporary art by Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor and Carrie Mae Weems, among so many others, and it offers a programme of performance art and workshops for all ages.
The Fishtown neighbourhood is another must; this formerly dodgy area is now the Williamsburg of Philly, and it’s perfect for wandering. You can pick up a coffee from La Colombe, one of the city’s best roasters, before visiting the indie, old-school Philadelphia Record Exchange for any kind of music you can possibly think of. Pizzeria Beddia is a real Fishtown highlight; it has been deemed the best pizza in America by Bon Appétit magazine. Joe Beddia makes just 40 “pies” a day, and there’s no place to sit, so you have to get there very early to get served. The pizza arrabbiata is unbelievable. Once you’re fed, Jinxed Philadelphia is an incredible variety store where almost all the pieces are unique – everything from shiny metal housewares to vintage cameras to antique maps.Another Fishtown draw is Kensington Quarters, an industrial warehouse with a popular great meat-centric restaurant and butchery classes, and Little Baby’s Ice Cream, where the weird but interesting flavours – Cucumber Dill, Chocolate Salt Malt – are all delicious.
No trip to Philly is complete without one of the city’s famous cheese steaks. This local delicacy is the subject of debate; some people like Jim’s Steaks, some like Pat’s King of Steaks. I’ll take either, but the whole cheese steak thing is an experience, so load up with hot peppers and just enjoy. At the sprawling Reading Terminal Market, a historic farmers’ market that opened in 1892, you can find everything from traditional pretzels, made by the Amish, to beautiful, freshly cut flowers.
Philadelphia is, of course, known for its place in US history, and Independence Hall, which was where the Declaration of Independence was signed, is a must. The Liberty Bell – cast in London and brought to the US, where it immediately cracked – is another. Benjamin Franklin is buried at Christ Church, and people throw pennies at his grave – a symbol of good luck and a nod to his “a penny saved is a penny earned” saying – though this ritual has caused some damage over time, so it’s a little bit frowned upon now.
Sporting life is a big part of Philadelphia, and Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River is a beautiful place to watch the rowers passing by, while there are all sorts of seasonal events on offer – the Radnor Hunt, the Dad Vail Regatta and the Philadelphia Marathon – that draw crowds from all over the world. As a child, I often went to watch the Phillies baseball and Eagles football games with my brothers, and at these events you’re always assured of an enthusiastic crowd.
The Old City area is full of quaint Federal and Georgian-style buildings, so a stroll here is well worth it for the architecture alone. But shoppers won’t be disappointed with the excellent vintage shops and indie boutiques along North Third Street, where Vagabond is one of the best for clothing by emerging designers – look out for Ajaie Alaie and UZINC, from Brooklyn – and also unique decorative things for the home. There is also Antique Row on Pine Street for a mix of old and new stores, galleries and cafés.
There are all sorts of treasures outside the city as well, not least some world-class gardens. I’d highly recommend a trip to Longwood Gardens, which are beautiful year round, but especially during the holidays. One of the largest parks in Philadelphia, Fairmount, is on the outskirts of town; it has hiking and biking trails, as well as a Japanese house and garden, called Shofusu, that is spectacularly lovely. If you go here, plan for a Sunday brunch at the Valley Green Inn, where the French toast is legendary.
Philadelphia’s Main Line – the western suburbs that were built along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad – is no longer a series of sleepy communities; some of the most exciting restaurants and shops are here. B2 Bluefin Sushi, in Bala Cynwyd, is one of the best sushi restaurants I’ve eaten at anywhere; and the very chic boutique Kirna Zabête is a great addition to Bryn Mawr. This offshoot of the popular New York store of the same name is fantastic for fashion finds, from Loewe to Proenza Schouler.
There is no bad time of year to visit Philadelphia, though I prefer the city in the spring and autumn when the gardens are in bloom, and it isn’t so hot and humid. The Fringe Festival in September is an annual highlight – a citywide celebration of art, dance and theatre. For visitors in July, the fireworks over the Philadelphia Museum of Art offer a real dose of Americana. Regardless of the season, there is really something for everyone. I love that Philadelphia has become more accessible and more diverse, and that the food scene is world-class – but that it still feels like home.