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Okay, name five good reasons for visiting Philadelphia:
1. the Liberty Bell
2. Independence Hall
Yep, most people get stuck at #3. The City of Brotherly Love has many riches, it's just that word hasn't gotten out.
William Penn ("Billy Penn" to the locals) got things started in Philadelphia with his arrival in 1682. His vision of a "Green Country Towne" is still fairly accurate today, with a series of open squares in close proximity to City Hall, at the center of town. Ben Franklin arrived in 1723 and was still around when the first Continental Congress was held in 1774, in what is today Independence Hall. During the years 1790-1800, Philadelphia was actually the capital of the United States. This riverfront city continued to grow over the years, as did the rest of the country around it.
Today's Philadelphia is a charming mix of old and new. Independence National Historical Park, possibly the most historic square mile in the U.S., is certainly worth a visit. However, this city of nearly two million people also boasts world-class restaurants, museums both large and small, theatre, nightlife, recreation and an easygoing pace which is reflective of its citizens. How should you spend a few days in Philly? Read on...
Where to stay
Rittenhouse Square is one of Penn's original five squares, an oasis of green filled with leafy trees and more wooden benches than you can count. You'll find the Rittenhouse Hotel on the western side of the square, a 98-room gem which also includes posh condominium residences inside a modern steel-and-glass tower. The lobby is traditional elegance, soft tan couches and wing chairs under deco-inspired light fixtures. Behind the lobby is the Cassatt Lounge, a lovely spot for afternoon tea or gazing onto the pretty courtyard just beyond. Check-in with the gracious, friendly staff and ask a question or two of concierge Charles O'Donald, who will be your new best friend while you're in town. A white-gloved staff member will whisk you up to your room, done in dark woods and elegant fabrics. TV's are hidden behind the ample armoires, and the hotel has an extensive selection of videos for rent. However, you might just want to lounge on your sofa or take a quick nap on the king-sized bed. Your bathroom is another fine lounging spot, replete with marble counters, a soaking tub and a power shower. Pull on a plump, terrycloth robe, pretty up in the dressing area and get ready for a fun-filled tour of the town. The Adolf Biecker Salon and Spa is the place for a refreshing massage or quick sauna and steam upon your return, and if you don't want to head out for dinner, a drink at the Boathouse Bar and dinner at Treetops make for an easy evening. The Rittenhouse is blessed with the best location in Philadelphia, making your treks to Center City, Old City or most anywhere else effortless (there's even a courtesy town car available for quick hops). The staff will quickly make you feel at home, since manager David Benton sees to it that his crew is one big, happy family eager to share their home with you. The Rittenhouse Hotel, 210 W. Rittenhouse Square (215) 546-9000. Rates start at $230 single, $255 double.
Where to eat
Coffee is a good way to start your day in Philadelphia. Pay a visit to XandO (pronounced "Zando") on Locust, a theatrical and fun space where the java is as inventive as the decor. Curvy couches in harlequin prints are juxtaposed against walls painted in vibrant shades of orange, purple and lime. Order a hunky scone or a fruit-filled muffin and sip on a tasty cafe au lait or a punchier caramel mocha. Since XandO has a full liquor license, the pleasure of a mocha martini can be yours later in the day. A more traditional coffeehouse can be found at La Colombe, where customers can sip the Corsica blend or the Monte Carlo decaf from elegant red and blue china imported from Italy. Sit at one of the small wood tables, or belly up to the L-shaped bar if you'd rather talk coffee with the knowledgeable barista.
Enjoy your midday meal at Brasserie Perrier, a sexy swath of a room where air kisses are de rigeuer. Highly-acclaimed chef Georges Perrier, who mans the stoves at Le Bec-Fin, has sunk $3 million into his version of the bistro of the future. Mauve and warm orange tones dress the walls and work well with the silky fabrics and play of suede. Young chef Francesco Martorella will play with your palate: his potato-goat cheese terrine is an excellent starter, while the crisped arctic char with lobster mashed potatoes and a Thai curry essence showcases his love of Asian flavors.
Tea-time is the right time to visit the Swann Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel, which gets its name from the fountain on view through the tall glass windows. Back inside, it's all Main Line manners, so don't be surprised if the lady next to you is wearing a hat and gloves. Plump couches provide cozy comfort in this flower-filled room, but feel free to ask for an extra pillow or two if your back deems it necessary. Your server will describe the assortment of tea treats on the pretty, tri-level tray and suggest that you sample them from top to bottom, the better to complement a cup of soothing Earl Grey or passion fruit tea.
Dinner in Center City means mingling with the power crowd at Striped Bass, and who among us doesn't really enjoy putting on that glam look and being noticed? The good looks start with owner Neil Stein, a smooth presence in this beautiful dining room designed by Meg Rodgers. Thick marble columns envelop white-napped tables paired with bistro chairs, while tall palms sway as the attentive waitstaff whirs about the room. Chef Allyson Thurber left LA's Water Grill to play with fish, the only dish on the menu and, it so happens, her specialty. Start your meal with the smoked trout salad with roaster peppers, corn and a silky tarragon vinaigrette. The grilled swordfish with crab, prawns, mussels and clams in a cioppino sauce is more fish than you'd ever want, but worth every bite. Looking good never felt, or tasted, so good.
What to do
A trip to The Barnes Foundation will make you realize what a lucky man Dr. Albert Barnes was, and how lucky we all are that we can share his wealth. Barnes' legacy is the museum which bears his name, housed in his former home and filled to the brim with his collection of Old Masters and Impressionist works. The sheer number of Renoir, Matisse and Cezanne canvasses (more Cezannes here than anywhere else in the world) is overwhelming. Barnes' eclectic style of display (ornate ironwork is intermingled with the paintings in every room), as well as his penchant for pairing an El Greco or a Rubens with a Van Gogh or Renoir, will make you look at art a bit differently, which is exactly what the collector wanted. Old American antiques -- tables, chairs and chests topped with vases, candlesticks and ornate handwork -- also fill the rooms. Once you've taken it all in, visit the gardens out back, Barnes' other passion.
The Reading Terminal Market has been selling an assortment of foodstuffs to hungry Philadelphians since the turn of the century. What will you find here? Cookies, ice cream, fresh oysters, meats, fruit, Peking duck -- most anything you'd want to eat, as long as it's fresh and unpackaged. The Amish come to the market Wednesday through Saturday and line their stalls with everything from scrapple to fresh eggs and fine pies. Bring an appetite and peruse the many rows of food stalls and eat-in/take out shops. If you're not hungry when you get here, you will be soon. Must stops include Beiler's Bakery for pillow-soft rolls and a peach pie you won't believe; Delilah's for Southern cooking (candied yams, cornbread and fried chicken to die for); and Bassett's for ice cream done the old-fashioned way (sit at an ice-blue stool along the white marble counter and have "two dips" in a dish). Salumeria is the place for hoagies and delectable Italian salads, while Pearl's Oyster Bar is a true bar-gain (indulge in a heaping platter of fried silver trout with fries, slaw, roll and butter for a mere $7.95). Le Bus Bakery is a bit more upscale (trendy muffins the size of your fist) and should be followed by a visit to Old City Coffee for jammin' java roasted right on site. The freshest cheeses can be found at the Amish-owned Hatville Farms stall, and if you'd like to have an Amish-prepared meal, head over to The Dutch Eating Place, where the "real" mashed potatoes are as good as advertised.
The liberty bell may be the most famous member of Independence National Historical Park, but there's a lot more to see in this corner of the cradle of liberty. Start your pilgrimage at Washington Square, another one of Penn's five original squares. This square is a delightful medley of trees and benches, and you'll even find benches arranged in a cozy cluster of four, the better for chatting with friends. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution is at the center of the square, and all around are charming brick buildings steeped in history. Independence Hall has been beautifully restored (take a tour from an informative National Park Service ranger), while Franklin Court is a window on the life and passions of this statesman, scholar and inventor, located where his house once stood. Elfreth's Alley is one of the oldest streets in the area, a narrow passageway where you can pop into an early 18th-century home and imagine what life must have been like at that time. And then there's the bell, 2,080 pounds of bronze which have come to symbolize freedom and liberty to people around the world (there are replicas of the bell in Japan, Germany and Israel). The bell was last rung in 1846 to commemorate George Washington's birthday. It was cast in 1753 and originally hung in Independence Hall, where it was used to call Philadelphians for important announcements, special occasions or in cases of emergency. The famous crack occurred while repairmen were trying to fix a smaller crack -- oops. While it will probably never ring again (ringing would only cause further damage), its presence alone is powerful and moving.
The Old City Arts district is a collection of galleries, furniture shops, boutiques and performance spaces housed in converted warehouses. Roughly bounded by Third, Market, Second and Race Streets, this is also the scene of First Fridays, a once-a-month cultural event where gallery owners throw open their doors from 5-9 PM and host receptions and special exhibitions, all of which are open to the public. Many new restaurants, cafes and bars are opening nearby, adding to the vibrancy of this neighborhood. Pay a visit to Studio 54 1/2 for pretty clothes with a vintage feel, Lumiere for furniture and accessories "from deco to disco" and Terme Di Aroma for a scent-sual spa experience. The Muller-Biello gallery has both functional art and fantastical light fixtures (think Sputnik gone haywire), while Snyderman/Works is a temple of contempo art. Big Jar is the place for books 'n coffee, while Hot Soup is a glass-blowing studio which should not be missed.