Philadelphia here I come

Historic landmarks and cultural creativity form a rich tapestry of art, music, food and nightlife, writes Paul Hopkins

Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, is the only city in North America declared a World Heritage site. It’s well-deserved, and not surprising, as this city of 1.5 million souls is steeped in the history of America’s forefathers.

Philly is a city of charming neighbourhoods and myriad world-class museums. There has been a slew of openings in the last decade of chic boutiques, great watering holes, and an ever-expanding realm of restaurants and stylish hotels.

I decamp at The Sonesta Hotel, downtown in the heart of the city, just eight miles from the airport and half a mile from the local Amtrak station. Sonesta proves a welcoming and stylish, yet functional, respite.

On Market Street, it is a straight run down to City Hall — in which a tiny elevator will take you to the top with wonderful views of the city — and straight on again to Independence Square and the historic quarters.

The Sonesta is an ideal place from which to explore this very walkable (and compact) city on foot, though local transport is good, frequent and cheap.

Philly is like one large gallery of art and cultural artifacts.The Barnes Foundation brings together one of the world’s great collections of works by Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani among others.There’s also the Rodin Museum and the African American Museum and on the streets you can discover some of the 3,500 murals scattered around the ‘mural capital of the world’.

Join the Rocky fans imitating Sylvester Stallone by running up the 72 steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or, like me, climb at a more leisurely pace. Punching the air and shouting “Adrian” is entirely optional!

My most memorable museum visit is to the American Museum of Jewish History — the only one in the US — featuring more than 1,000 artifacts, films and interactive technology. My three hours there are not enough to explore this fascinating conservatory, but I do get to tinkle the ivories of Irving Berlin’s piano, on which he composed so many memorable songs.

A stroll through Independence National Historical Park is a must. It is in this very area that America’s first administration was planned and dwelt before the White House became home to their presidents.

And here, too, is the original Liberty Bell, that iconic symbol of American independence, and also the home of Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Philadelphia is a foodie’s fantasy come to fruition. For breakfast and lunch I sample the specialty foods and fresh farm produce at the historic (and always bustling) Reading Terminal Market, with its strong Dutch overtones, and where more than 100 merchants sell their goods.

Dinner at Opa on Sansom Street is a mouth-watering

experience of Greek fare — all for under $25. El Vez on 13th Street has me salivating with what must be the best guacamole (laced with goat’s cheese) north of the Mexican border. And margaritas to die for. Russet in the city’s Rittenhouse Square is an intimate affair offering a French and Italian inspired menu that changes regularly with the seasons.

Nearby, Vesper, which looks like an upmarket Irish bar, is, in fact, a modern twist on a speakeasy. The entrance is through a large fake bookcase and you need a secret word to gain access to a very special experience, in this terrific throwback to the days of Prohibition.

Philadelphia and its people move at a more leisurely pace than their frenetic neighbours in New York, but that is such a blessing when exploring a city where historic landmarks and cultural creativity come together to make for a vibrant tapestry of art, history, nightlife, food and music.

Staying there: Sonesta Downtown, from $189 (low season) to $209 (high season) per room.

Getting there: American Airlines daily year-round from Dublin — from around €680 return in high season, but in winter can be as little as €270 return on special offers midweek. See www.americanairlines.ie

More information: Visit www.discoverPHL.com