Philadelphia is the city of “Brotherly Love”, founded by William Penn upon his dream to create a land of tolerance and religious freedom. Philadelphia, however, has appeared in many different guises over the 300 years of its existence. In its early days, it was a settlement of English Quakers, proper and upright in their ways. A subsequent wave of immigrants from Europe loosened the city up. In the late 18th century, it was a scene of outrage, indignation, and revolutionary spirit, as the city joined other Americans in arms against the “tyranny” of the British. During the 1800s, it was a bustling center of industrialization, manufacturing everything from iron and steel, to textiles, locomotives and steamships. In the 1920s, Philadelphia was known as a city of “Main Line” socialites, elite and well-bred. Not more than 40 years later, Philadelphia became a city of Civil Rights activists and war protesters. By the 1980s, the city turned into an infested haven of gangs, mafia, crime, and drugs. Today, the image of Philadelphia is of a revitalized, up-and-coming city, booming with hotel and condo constructions and touted by some as the “Next Great City” of America.
For tourists, this new energy of Philadelphia, blended with its historic past, has made it one of the more intriguing destinations in the United States. Historic touring is a given in Philly, whether the site of interest is Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, or the Betsy Ross House where the upholstery shop owner sewed America’s first flag. But just as pleasing to the senses are Philadelphia’s more modern offerings: fine restaurants, world-class museums, department stores, boutique shops, sports games, and exciting nightlife, which these days can mean a night out at a classy piano bar, a grungy beer pub, or a thumping dance club.
Certainly, Philly does flaunt its superior embrace of diversity, culture, and the arts, evident in its renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, its much-bragged about Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and its rich mosaic of ethnic neighborhoods – which, by the way, contributes African-American jazz festivals and Italian and Amish open-air markets. But the city also has a blue-collar gritty side to it. Not only has this been depicted in the Rocky movies, which celebrate the rise of an underdog boxer from Philly, but it is also symbolized by the choice of cuisine of its residents – hoagies, cheesesteaks, and pretzels.
Indeed, Philadelphia is a city worthy of a visit, but not just because it is the fifth largest city in the United States or because it is the gateway to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the Poconos, and the Atlantic beaches, but because it projects the very principles upon which America was built – liberty, tolerance, and honest hard work.
The heart of Philadelphia is the Center City, which is a four-quadrant area centered around City Hall at the intersection of Market Street running east to west and Broad Street running north to south. Other districts in Philadelphia include Rittenhouse Square, Parkway Museums, Washington Square, Convention Center, Society Hill, and the Old City.
Independence National Historical Park
The main attraction of Philadelphia is the Independence National Historical Park. No other place in the country grips the hearts and minds of Americans more than this national park. The country’s roots, principled on civil liberties and democracy, originated from this site. The park spreads out over 42 acres encompassing a dozen city blocks and lined with high brick walls and colonial-era buildings.
The main highlight of the park is Independence Hall. This is the redbrick building that was originally built as the Pennsylvania State House in the 1730s. It is an excellent example of Georgian architecture and features a square tower and an octagonal steeple. Independence Hall was where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, declaring the revolt of the 13 colonies. It was also where the delegates of the states assembled in 1787 to charter the Constitution of the United States, establishing the basic tenets of government and the balance of powers of the different branches. Famous names like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin all met here, negotiating over the drafting of one of the country’s most important documents.
Next to Independence Hall is Congress Hall, which was the meeting place of Congress from 1790 to 1800 and the site of George Washington and John Adams’ presidential inaugurations.
The Liberty Bell is also found at the historic park, north of Independence Hall about a block. The bell was originally cast in England in 1752 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Penn’s founding of the colony in Philadelphia. On July 8, 1776, the bell was rung to call the residents of the city to hear the address of the Declaration of Independence.
The Franklin Court is another highlight of the park. It is the site of Benjamin Franklin’s home. The original home no longer exists, but a steel-framed replica has been erected. The house was three stories and in the early years was lived mostly by Franklin’s wife Deborah and his two children. Franklin, on the other hand, spent most of his time in London as the British representative of Pennsylvania. In his late years, Franklin continued to live in the house after his wife died. Today, the building serves as a museum showcasing Franklin’s inventions, which include the music stand, the Franklin stove, and a glass armonica.
Betsy Ross House
Betsy Ross was an upholstery shop owner who was allegedly asked by George Washington to sew the first flag of America. Her house at 239 Arch Street and built in 1740 is a popular attraction. It has been restored. Interestingly, her home is rather modest compared to the fine houses of the local gentry in Philadelphia at the time.
Christ Church was built in the early 1700s in the post-Baroque style and features a 196 foot steep and bells. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin regularly attended church services here. The pews features brass plaques identifying the historic members of the church, which also include Betsy Ross and the spouses of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Christ Church Cemetery
Christ Church Cemetery is the grave site of seven signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin and his son who died at the age of four.
Penn’s Landing is located in Society Hill. It is a 37-acre site where William Penn landed his ship in 1682. The park features spectacular views of the Delaware as well as tourist ships like the Liberty Belle, Spirit of Philadelphia, Holiday, and Captain Lucky.
The City Hall is located in Philadelphia’s Center City district. Until 1987, it was the tallest building in the city, stemming from a gentlemen’s agreement among builders that no structure obstruct the William Penn statute crowning the City Hall’s dome. This 37-foot bronze statue remains the largest sculpture on any building in the world. The building is constructed out of grand granite and white marble decorated with columns, dormers, and sculptures.
The Masonic Temple used to be the meeting place of the Philadelphia Free and Accepted Masons, which was a prestigious and exclusive brotherhood of builders and free masons dating back to the Middle Ages. Its members included George Washington. The Masonic Temple with its half-dozen lodge halls decorated in Gothic, Egyptian, and Asian style is now home to a museum, which features a Masonic apron made for Washington.
Philadelphia Art Museum
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the great art museums in the world, famous for its front steps which Rocky Balboa ran up multiple times in his Rocky movies. The steps symbolize the ability of an underdog through sheer will and determination to rise to the top. Millions of visitors come each year to make the same run up the steps of their Hollywood hero.
The art museum itself has a collection of impressionist works and American and Pennsylvania Dutch art. The highlight of the museum is the section dedicated to Thomas Eakins who was considered one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century.
Attractions – Outside Philadelphia
West of Philadelphia, be sure to visit Valley Forge, which was the site of George Washington and his troops’ winter retreat in 1777. Ailing, they trained and recovered in the bitter cold. The Valley Forge National Historic Park there features memorials honoring the soldiers, including remaining cannons and buildings. Brandwine Valley is south of Philadelphia and is the site of George Washington’s defeat to the British in 1777 in the Battle of Brandywine. Today, the valley is home to a museum tracing the colonial life of valley residents back in the day and a museum and battlefield park with replica farmhouses recreating Washington’s headquarters.