Getting your fill of Philly

Often regarded as a stopover on the way to more alluring metropolises, Philadelphia is well worth a visit to discover its many treasures.

January 14, 2011 00:11
Horse drawn carriage in Philadelphia

Horse drawn carriage in Philadelphia 521. (photo credit: Dafna Tal)

The late W.C. Fields used to mercilessly pick on his sleepy hometown, most memorably quipping, “I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday.”

Suffice it to say that the comic great would not recognize the vibrant, bustling metropolis that the City of Brotherly Love has slowly transformed into in recent years. While still ensconced in the rich history of being the birthplace of the United States, it also has an eye to the future – rebounding from years of economic and physical decay into a reborn Eastern Seaboard cultural and business center.

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However, even with its unquestionable historic pedigree, Philadelphia has an inferiority complex, being sandwiched between the frenetic New York City and the majestic Washington, DC.

“Tourists will arrive in New York and use that as a base. Then they’ll drive down to Philadelphia, quickly visit the Liberty Bell and head on to Washington, DC, where they’ll spend some more nights,” explained Sarah Reese of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Philadelphia isn’t thought of as a place to stay.”

That image is changing, though, as efforts by Reese’s department and numerous other local institutions to reposition Philly as an ideal location to visit – and not just a way station – are beginning to bear fruit.

There’s never been so much to do in Philadelphia, and for Israelis it’s never been easier to get there. Last year, US Airways inaugurated Flight 796, a daily nonstop flight between Tel Aviv and Philadelphia, on its Airbus A330-200 fleet.

According to Nany Manneh, US Airways’s Tel Aviv sales representative, with Philly being the airline’s hub to dozens of other US destinations, the route has proven to be extremely popular.

And it’s easy to see why. The newly inaugurated Envoy Suite business class, in which I was a guest of US Airways, was virtually a flying hotel.

Featuring fully reclining seats designed to enable each of the 20 travelers to face forward yet angle away from the aisle, Envoy Suite provides ultimate comfort and privacy. I didn’t know whether to take advantage of the inviting bed or to watch some of the dozens of films on demand via the personal entertainment system. I compromised and watched three movies on the way to Philadelphia (Wall Street, Inception and Grownups) while only sleeping a bit, and slumbered peacefully for most the flight back home (not due to any discipline on my part but because the entertainment system was on the fritz, with no explanation given).

Nobody seemed to complain, though, as seven straight hours of sleep cured whatever grumpiness the malfunction may have caused, and made the 11-hour flight, well, fly by.

The food, including kosher and vegetarian options, was served on porcelain plates, with glassware and metal cutlery, and included some of the finest airline food I’ve ever eaten. Endless refills of some award-winning wines like Marlborough’s Giesen Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from New Zealand and Chateau Julien’s Chardonnay 2009 Monterey from California didn’t hurt, either En route to Philadelphia, a pre-landing breakfast of blueberry pancakes appropriately prepared us for arrival at our quintessentially American destination.

In all honesty, I don’t know how the folks back in coach were doing. But I did fly US Airways coach last winter soon after the nonstop Tel Aviv-Philly flights were inaugurated. And even though there were no fully reclining seats back there, the flight and treatment were seamless, and my 10-yearold son deemed the Philadelphia International Airport the nicest airport he’d ever been in.

ONCE YOU land in Philly, however, don’t be so quick to grab a connecting flight. There’s plenty to do, and with more than 11,000 hotel rooms available from more than 30 hotel chains, there are plenty of quality places to stay.

Even if you don’t check in there, it’s worthwhile to pay a visit to the Rittenhouse, its name derived from the city’s most fashionable square where it’s located. The 98- room independently run hotel proves that while the British may have lost the Revolutionary War, there’s still some English hospitality alive in the city.

British-born general manager David Benton – who spent the Six Day War volunteering on a kibbutz in the North – pays close attention to every detail to ensure guests a luxuriously pampered stay. And that’s why celebs like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis make the Rittenhouse their Philadelphia home.

Even if you’re not a celebrity, check out the hotel’s afternoon tea in the glamorous Cassatt Tea Room and Garden. There, you can get freshly baked currant scones with strawberry preserves, lemon curd and Devonshire cream, as well as a selection of tea sandwiches. You may even be lucky enough to get Benton to gossip about hosting a private dinner in the hotel’s presidential suite for former president George H.W. Bush and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

If you’re in the mood for a splurge, book the baker’s table in the hotel’s exclusive Lacroix French restaurant (rated as one of the city’s top five restaurants by Philadelphia Magazine), where you get a ringside seat inside the bustling kitchen and the personal attention of chef Jon Cichon.

While we’re on the subject of food – because what good vacation is not centered around eating? – the dish that Philadelphia is best known for, the Philly cheese steak, is as ubiquitous as felafel and shwarma are in Jerusalem.

One of the best – or the best, according to a survey by the local NBC-TV affiliate – is SOS – Steaks on South. Located in the capital of cheese steaks, South Philadelphia, SOS’s proprietor Patrick Dougherty greets diners with a mixture of Philly attitude and manic enthusiasm as he doles out the traditional favorite, with squeezed cheese from a tube, or the real thing melted on a hoagie roll.

Since cheese on steak is a kosher no-no, and even some Israelis who don’t keep kosher find mixing the two to be unpalatable, SOS has a variety of other options, including a veggie steak, with or without cheese, and eggplant Parmesan.

Another uniquely Philadelphian culinary experience awaits you at the City Tavern, a faithful recreation of the original 18th-century eating and drinking establishment frequented by the country’s founding fathers as they were drafting the Constitution. But it’s not a kitschy tourist trap; it’s a sensory experience, courtesy of proprietor Walter Staib, a colorful German- born chef who hosts his own Emmy Award-winning TV cooking show, A Taste of History.

Try the Martha Washington Style Colonial Turkey Pot Pie, supposedly so delectable that even husband George’s wooden teeth didn’t prevent him from enjoying it. The more adventurous might want to try the Braised Rabbit or the Handmade Beef Sausage with Pennsylvania Dutch style sauerkraut. Whatever you choose, be sure to corner the effusive Staib and get him to talk about his love affair with 18th-century cuisine.

The City Tavern is conveniently located in Philadelphia’s Old City, in the heart of Independence National Historic Park – America’s most historic square mile. There you can explore the origins of the country with visits to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the magnificent National Constitution Center, where families can spend hours of innovative educational time, and the Betsy Ross House, to name a few.

And even if you’ve seen all those attractions, there’s something new right next to the Liberty Bell – The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation. From 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia served as the new nation’s capital, presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and worked in a mansion – the President’s House. At least nine of George Washington’s slaves also lived at the President’s House, which was demolished in the 1830s.

After years of controversy, research and debate about how to balance the stories of the nation’s battle for independence with its history of slavery, the $12 million exhibition was officially launched in December. Visitors to the open-air site can see parts of the house that were excavated in 2007 and artifacts found there. The exhibition also includes video vignettes and biographies of the slaves Washington kept there in an attempt to address the issue of slavery in the early years of the country.

Some critics have slammed the city for not delving into the issue enough, but Mayor Michael Nutter told the audience at the December dedication that “This is where the dialogue begins. This is where the conversation of this contradiction must start.” While complete days can be filled with delving into Philadelphia’s historical institutions, it’s advised to leave some time for its cultural virtues.

The labyrinth-like Philadelphia Museum of Art is a world-class institution boasting much more than the iconic front steps that Sylvester Stallone trained on as Rocky Balboa. And nearby, the more modest Rodin Museum is a must, featuring the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The gift of movie theater magnate Jules Mastbaum to the city, the museum displays Rodin’s extraordinary bronze castings, plaster studies, drawings and prints, as well as his letters and books – the largest collection of his works outside Paris.

But for the ultimate art experience in Philadelphia, think ahead and book a tour of the Barnes Museum. Housed in a mansion in the suburb of Lower Merion but soon to move to a new facility in center city, the museum features one of the finest private collections of French early Modern and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world, including masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse, as well as rare works by Picasso, Modigliani, Monet and Degas.

The museum was founded in 1922 by Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy and eccentric art collector. He fought the art establishment during his lifetime and, upon his death, insisted that his collection stay intact but set specific restrictions on how many people could view it. In recent years, the location of the museum has been the center of controversy, with some neighbors in the upscale neighborhood insisting it be moved. Wherever the paintings are housed, though, it’s worth a special trip to experience the scope of Barnes’s collection. But due to the provision that only 200 people a day may enter the mansion, plan on booking a tour a few weeks in advance.

In Philadelphia, art is not confined to museums. In fact, one of the most interesting and satisfying ways to spend a few hours is to join one of the tours offered by the Mural Arts Program. There are more than 3,000 oversized murals painted on the sides of buildings throughout the city, earning Philadelphia international recognition as the “city of murals.” And some are really impressive works of art, as the youthful Ryan Derfler, the Mural Tour manager, points out on the journey.

Founded in 1984 to create art that transforms public spaces that had been blemished with graffiti and to give inner city youth an artistic outlet, the program has taken on a life of its own, providing neighborhoods with color, art and pride. Going on one of the tours is also the perfect way to enable the casual tourist to visit parts of the city not generally on the map of attractions.

After five days of visiting the city’s nooks and crannies, it’s impossible not to develop an affection and respect for the overlooked gem of the East Coast, which rivals cousins Boston, New York and Washington for vivaciousness, hospitality and range of activities. It possesses the charm and mobility of a small town, but with all the amenities and sites – both historical and cultural – of a metropolis.

W.C. Fields may have intended it as another dig at his hometown, but his proposed epitaph on his tombstone can also be taken sincerely: “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

The writer was a guest of US Air

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