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The city of revolution, Rocky and Renoir: A long weekend in Philadelphia reveals a city fanatical about art, sport and its role in the birth of modern America

Frank Sinatra sang about New York and Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. But Philadelphia? Despite attempts by Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, no one has ever come up with a hit song that captures the city’s soul.

It’s a shame, because there is plenty to sing about – not least if you love sport. It’s home to the Flyers (ice hockey), the Phillies (baseball), the 76ers (basketball) and the Eagles (American football), last season’s Superbowl runners-up.

And who could forget its role in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movie? As part of his training regime, the would-be champion runs up the 72 stone stairs leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now known as the Rocky Steps, they are just one of the city’s many landmarks.

Philadelphia has history, art and beauty in abundance. Lying on the eastern seaboard, it’s the biggest city in Pennsylvania and the sixth largest in the US.

Meeting up with friends for a long weekend, I was captivated by its easy-going charm. Its citizens, who call it Philly, tell everyone how great their city is. One woman I met had moved here from Washington DC two years ago, and is never going back: ‘DC was buzzing during the week with politicos but dead on a Saturday night,’ she said. ‘Here in Philly, we all live, work and play in the same place.’

Deidre Fernand spent a long weekend in Philadelphia, the biggest city in Pennsylvania. ‘I was captivated by its easy-going charm,’ she writes

New York, Washington and Boston hog the headlines, she explained, but underrated Philadelphia is full of treasures to be discovered.

It’s also super-friendly. No sooner had I reached for my guidebook than passers-by stopped to help. I was heading for the Old City, a grid of 18th Century streets where the American revolution took shape. As every child in the US learns, Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation. It was in Independence Hall – an elegant Georgian-era building – that the founding fathers severed links with the English crown in 1776. Not brought up in the US, I needed some help understanding the history, so I joined a walking tour led by Melissa, who drip-fed our group the basics over an absorbing hour.

She led us to Benjamin Franklin’s grave and we queued to see the Liberty Bell, cast as a symbol of liberation from Britain. ‘Do you want a belfie?’ asked the man ahead of me – a reference to a selfie taken in front of the bell. I did, as a matter of fact.

In the movie Rocky, Sylvester Stallone famously runs up the 72 stone stairs leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (above). They’re now known as the Rocky Steps, Deirdre explains

Deidre notes that the Philadelphia Museum of Art (above) has a ‘notable’ 20th Century American collection, including works by Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol 

Knockout: The Rocky statue outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Washington, Adams, Jefferson… my head was soon reeling. But at the Museum of the American Revolution, with its battleplans and bayonets, it all began to fall into place.

As I headed for supper, I realised how familiar the cityscape seemed. Of course, I knew it from Hollywood. Rocky apart, Philadelphia is a top film location: Trading Places and Witness are just two of the blockbusters shot here.

My destination was McGillin’s Olde Ale House, dating from 1860 and the oldest pub in the city. It’s known for the city’s signature dish, the horribly calorific Philly cheesesteak: ribeye steak topped with melting provolone cheese in a bun called a hoagie. Bad news for your arteries, good news for your spirits.

I had the perfect excuse for indulging, as the next day I was taking on the Rocky Steps. Stallone managed them in about 11 seconds – I was chuffed with two minutes.

For art lovers, Philadelphia is picture paradise – there’s so much that you need the stamina of a prize fighter to appreciate it all.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a notable 20th Century American collection, including works by Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, while the Barnes Foundation draws visitors from afar.

‘To eat well, visit the Reading Food Terminal (above), a farmers’ market housed in a former railway station where you will find Amish home cooking alongside Asian flavours,’ writes Deirdre  

Dr Albert Barnes was a chemist and art lover who amassed the largest impressionist and post-impressionist private collection in the world. The result is a riot of colour: walls crazily hung with Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne and Modigliani. No wonder a recent marketing slogan for it read: ‘Come for Rocky, stay for Renoir.’

Whatever your reason for visiting this city, Rocky or Renoir, you’re bound to have a good time. 

To eat well, visit the Reading Food Terminal, a farmers’ market housed in a former railway station where you will find Amish home cooking alongside Asian flavours.

Philadelphia isn’t an attention-seeking, shouty city that proclaims its greatness.

It’s just quietly brilliant. Now all it needs is a song…


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