History Explorer: Philadelphia, USA

For the latest in our historical holiday series, George Goodwin introduces the delights of a US city steeped in history – Philadelphia...

Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest residential street in the United States. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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Philadelphia prides itself on being the United States’ number one historic visitor destination. It does so with every justification, because this is where the new nation began. It is where the Declaration of Independence was made and the war for it was fought (with Philadelphia itself being lost and won on several occasions). Philadelphia was also the new country’s capital before Washington took over in 1800.

It is a place of great history and it knows how to celebrate it, without having to try too hard. Philadelphia has charming 18th-century areas near the Independence National Historical Park (INHP), set on a grid system planned by William Penn, the Quaker who founded the city in 1682 and gave it the ancient Greek name of ‘brotherly love’.

The historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Dreamstime)

For around a century, this was a British city and a thriving mercantile centre that was to outstrip Boston and become the largest in the American colonies. So for me, a Briton interested in 18th-century British life with a twist, Philadelphia is a treasure trove, with a whole street of merchants’ houses such as Elfreth’s Alley or individual gems such as the glorious Physick House and its near neighbour the Powel House. Samuel Powel was the last British and first independent American mayor of Philadelphia and here, with his formidable wife, Elizabeth, he entertained their friends and neighbours George and Martha Washington, together with other great luminaries of the American Revolution such as Lafayette, John Adams and, of course, Benjamin Franklin.

This is very much Benjamin Franklin’s city. He may have spent the first 17 of his 84 years in Boston, and the best part of two decades in London and one in France, but it was in Philadelphia where he achieved his initial fame and fortune and where he returned to spend the last five years of his life.

Franklin founded some of America’s great institutions, including the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company and the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, and each one has its own museum in the city. One can visit his grave and I know readers can be trusted not to follow the strange practice of throwing coins onto it. After all, as the quote commonly attributed to Franklin goes:

“A penny saved is a penny got.” None of Franklin’s Philadelphia houses has survived; in fact his only surviving home is London’s Benjamin Franklin House, itself a museum and education centre. But Franklin Court, where his last house stood, has its own Benjamin Franklin Museum which explores Franklin’s life and character through personal possessions, animations and hands-on interactive displays.

It is not far away from the brand new multi-million dollar Museum of the American Revolution, which mixes original artefacts with modern hi-tech displays that put you on the front line of battle.

Another short walk brings you to INHP, which includes Independence Hall (where the declaration and the US constitution were signed) and the Liberty Bell Center. As to the latter, it is possible that there could be a discouragingly long queue, as Americans do give the bell an iconic status.

To complete the revolutionary-era experience, you could visit the City Tavern, the founding fathers’ own haunt.

If you fancy something a little later, then there is the Reading Terminal Market, purpose built in the late 19th century, where you will be able to order the famous Philly Cheesesteak – if you must! – and a vast choice of other foods, though personally I think their roast beef on rye is pretty hard to beat.

This is a good stop-off between the 18th-century city and the long Parisian-style boulevard named Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which has the Franklin Institute Science Museum near one end and the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the other. The latter is the greatest of the city’s many art collections. It is like London’s National Gallery and V&A rolled into one, with an enviable collection of European and American paintings and many rooms (often created mise en scène) of near and far-eastern art and artefacts. Two collections that stunned me were the 15th-century arms and armour and the 18th-century English and Scottish portraits.

Look out too for people still trying to imitate Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky’ by running up the museum’s front steps (where the iconic scene from the film was shot).

One final thing: Philadelphia is roughly half-way between New York and Washington. It is easily combined with the other two and is, in itself, a great gateway to America.

George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father. You can hear him at BBC History Magazine’s History Weekend in York this November.

Advice for travellers

Best time to go

Spring and autumn. Weather is variable, but when it gets really hot in the summer months the heat bounces around the red brickwork in the Old City – though there is summer relief in some really impressive thunder storms.

Getting there

If arriving in the daytime, there is a good rail connection from Philadelphia International Airport to Center City. There you can choose between walking, public transport and cabs.

What to pack

George Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia is exactly that. To bring 18th-century Philadelphia to life, I also recommend Zara Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk. Both authors live in Philadelphia.

What to bring back

To find a gift that’s artistically interesting and handcrafted, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts – the oldest art museum and art school in America – is worth a look.

Readers’ views

USS Olympia, a protected cruiser from the pre-Dreadnought age, is not to be missed @Basement_Games

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The Mütter Museum [of the College of Physicians] is outstanding, but requires a strong stomach @petermstokes