Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love. The US's first and only world heritage city. The city founded by British Quaker William Penn in 1682. The city that was home to the Fresh Prince – aka Will Smith – before he got in one little fight, his mom got scared and he was moved to his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air. California was good to him; it's where he claimed his Prince title, but he wasn't keen on leaving his hometown and for good reason.
Philadelphia is the sixth-largest city in the US but is often overshadowed by its big brothers New York and Washington DC, both less than a two-hour train away. Both, of course, have their many draws but overlooking Philly, well it’s just a missed opportunity.
Philadelphia was so named – philos meaning friend or love; adelphi meaning brother – by British Quaker William Penn when he landed in 1682 armed with a land charter from King Charles II in settlement of a debt. That was the founding of one of the oldest cities in the States, the place where the US Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1788. American history buffs throng to Independence Hall to see where it all began, as well as to the Liberty Bell.
Today William Penn overlooks the city of 1.5 million people from City Hall, an impressive building in City Square on Broad Street. For years a "gentleman's agreement" stated that no building that would rise above Penn's hat would be approved. This ended in 1987 when One Liberty Place, a steel and glass skyscraper, opened three blocks away. It also marked the start of the curse of Billy Penn, a curse used to explain the failure of the major Philadelphia pro sports teams to win a championship from the same year. The curse ended in 2008 when the Philadeplphia Phillies won the World Series, which must have been some relief for a city of passionate sports fans.
A less controversial skyscraper affords some of the best views of downtown. The landmark Loews Philadelphia Hotel is reputedly the first modern skyscraper built in the US. It was originally the nation's first savings bank and the neon PSFS (Philadelphia Savings Fund Society) letters on the roof are a protected feature . . . and a handy way to find your way home (loewshotels.com; doubles from $330). Head to the 33rd floor to experience what was one of the most powerful business settings in the country.
According to hotel myth, the elevator operators would get out of the car on the 32nd, leaving elite passengers go higher alone. As the elevator door closed the operator would call out, “You’re on your way, gentlemen!” It was, of course, only gentleman who reached those lofty heights and there were no ladies’ toilets on the top floor in those days. Given the number of wedding parties it now welcomes, this has changed. But the ornate touches remain.
In the elevator on the way back to downtown heights, conversation moves from banking to the more serious business of sport, namely the Super Bowl. Curse or no curse, these sports supporters have remained passionate through the decades. Baseball, basketball, boxing, football – they love it all.
This St Patrick's weekend welcomes Katie Taylor to the city and though Taylor's WBO world lightweight title bout is sure to attract the passion of the locals, if you really want to get "in" with sports fans here, just mention the Super Bowl. Yes, the 2018 Super Bowl. If you didn't know, the Eagles ended a 51-year drought by beating the Patriots last February. It was a big deal. And it's still the easiest conversation starter.
For boxing fans who don't have tickets to the St Patrick's weekend action, the city has a wealth of sports bars. Founding Fathers Sports Bar and Grill (foundingfathersbar.com) has an expansive list of craft beers and, due to the bank of TVs lining the walls, there isn't a bad seat in the house. Cavanaugh's bar (cavsrittenhouse.com), with numerous locations in the city, has more than 20 TVs, while in another Irish bar, Fadó (fadoirishpub.com), soccer is usually the sport of choice, but they are sure to get in on the ringside action given the weekend it is.
It might come as a surprise to travelling fans that they’ll have missed the annual parade if they arrive just in time to see the fight – tradition means the St Patrick’s Day parade hits the streets the weekend before March 17th. It’s difficult to get an answer to why this is the case but if you are seeking a parade after the fight, simply book the 90-minute train to New York.
Food and the arts
Despite the focus on sports, Philly is not just a sports fans' haven. It has one of the most interesting food scenes on the east coast and an arts scene that stretches from the Museum of Modern Art (philamuseum.org; €16) atop Rocky's 72 steps to the Barnes Foundation (barnesfoundation.org; €39), which houses a 3,000-strong collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings.
There is also a mural arts programme billed as the largest outdoor gallery in the world. The programme was set up in 1984 in an effort to curb rogue graffiti and the city now boasts 4,000 murals. Fifty were created by street artist Steve ESPO Powers when he collaborated with the West Philadelphia community in 2010. Each mural is an open-ended love letter and you can hear the stories on a guided tour on the Market-Frankford elevated train line (muralarts.org; €21 including train ticket).
Another art project shimmers on South Street. The Magic Garden is a richly layered art installation, built over many years, by Isaiah Zagar. Pieces of mirror and coloured bottles glint in the sun and broken crockery surrounds giant portraits that tell stories about artists and residents.
Zagar's work also features across more than 220 public mosaics largely concentrated in south Philly. Keep your eyes open for them if you a walk east of Broad Street, an area often overlooked by tourists but teeming with vintage stores, eclectic boutiques and BYOB restaurants. This is also the neighbourhood of the cheesesteak and Jim's South Street (jimssouthstreet.com) have been making them for almost 80 years. You'll spot it by the line snaking down Fourth Street. Order your cheesesteak "wit whiz" (cheese whiz) or an Italian hoagie.
Another neighbourhood with a thriving food scene is Fishtown. Lively chatter in English and Arabic spills out of Café La Maude (cafelamaude.com), a Lebanese-French cafe run by chef Nathalie Richan and her husband, Gabi. Try the medamas with scrambled eggs and hummus, gypsy eggs with breaded eggplant and avocado. What makes the space extra special is lively conversation that doesn't shy away from the recent untouchable topics of politics and immigration.
Like many cities, Philadelphia is having a vegan moment and Vedge (vedgerestaurant.com) is considered one of the best. Sample its "fancy radishes", which are served sashimi style with various accompaniments including yuzu avocado, pickled tofu, shishito and shredded zucchini and smoked tamari, as well as dishes from its "raw" and "dirt" menus. The same owners have V Street (vstreetfood.com) around Rittenhouse Square, which serves great cocktails to accompany small bites.
An old locals' favourite at Rittenhouse Square is Seafood Unlimited (seafoodunlimited.com). It opened in 1971 as a neighbourhood fresh fish market and was taken over by David Einhorn in 1989. Since then, he and his wife, Judi, have evolved the business into a fresh fish restaurant and bar. The menu reflects what's fresh that day and though the bar menu is impressive, patrons are welcome to BYOB.
It would be an oversight not to mention breakfast. Go no further than Reading Terminal Market, which has been around for more than a century. Alongside the array of food options – from DiNic’s roast pork sandwich to fresh oysters – browse the wares of the Amish stall holders from nearby Lancaster county.
In this city that celebrates the history, it seems apt that the Amish values on which the US was founded are evident in the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market.
- Fly direct to Philadelphia from Dublin with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). Fares start from €179 each-way including taxes and charges. For more information about Philadelphia, visit discoverphl.com.
- Useful note: Philadelphia's bike-share programme (rideindigo.com) has more than 70 stations around the city and is a great way to explore the city. Bike tracks aren't consistent in the city but the Delaware River Trail along the water is worth a spin.