I'm loitering on the edge of the court in the 20,000-seat Wells Fargo Centre in Philadelphia with one of Australia’s most exciting sporting exports, Ben Simmons, who’s just a couple of metres away practising his jump shot. I imagine a scenario where his aim is a little off and the ball ‘bricks’ off the ring towards me. I nonchalantly flip it back to him with a “Here you go, Ben” and he picks up on my accent and we chat . . . but not tonight. Time after time the ball swishes through the net before he moves onto his next mark. To Simmons I remain another gawking admirer with a courtside pass.
When I think of Philadelphia a timeline of characters from different stages of my life pops into my head. In my distant youth there was, of course, Rocky, then the Fresh Prince, and Tom Hanks in that movie. But these days it’s Simmons and his newly fashionable 76ers that I most closely associate with Pennsylvania’s largest city.
Philadelphia is feeling pretty good about itself right now. Last year, in the spirit of Rocky, the NFL’s eternal underdogs, the Eagles, finally beat the odds and sensationally won the Super Bowl, ending the city’s 58-year wait for a title. The Creed movies have brought the city to life for a new generation, just as the original Rocky movies did for mine. US GQ just named Philly the ‘City of the Year’ and now the place boasts one of the most talented and likeable basketball teams in the NBA. Tonight, the Detroit Pistons are no match for them as Simmons helps his team to an emphatic 116-102 win.
Far away from the razzmatazz of the arena is the most historic square mile in the country, dominated by Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers gathered and the Constitution of the United States of America was signed, and the nearby Liberty Bell, a cracked but powerful symbol of American independence. Around the corner you can wander down America’s oldest continually inhabited Street, Elfreth’s Alley, where I’m surprised to find you can still buy a place today for a mere US$900,000.
In amongst the historic landmarks, a thriving artsy cafe and bar scene has developed. One of its more alluring ventures is Art in the Age, which started as an artists’ collective before founder Steven Grasse developed his line of locally produced spirits. It’s worth the trip for the stunning artwork on the bottle labels alone. I decide to try what they claim is the world’s rarest whiskey, Eau de Musc. This is a rich bourbon, flavoured with the castoreum gland from a beaver’s backside. It goes down smoothly on this particularly cold winter’s afternoon, and I’m assured no beavers were knowingly harmed in the pursuit of the perfect tipple.
The atmosphere is laid-back and relaxed as I explore the city’s wide boulevards. It’s hard to believe that just across the Delaware River lies New Jersey, while it’s only a two-hour drive to the relative madness of New York City
I head back towards the CBD by taking a brief tour of some of the city’s 3600 murals. Incredible, large-scale works by the likes of Keith Herring and Shepard Fairey bring to life parking lots and dead spaces throughout the city.
This is not a CBD of endless towering skyscrapers. Invitingly compact, you can explore much of the city on foot. I decide the best way would be on an early morning run, so I pull on sweats and a beanie and channel my inner Balboa to power along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the long, straight, flag-lined avenue modelled on the Champs-Élysées. In the distance I can see the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And so, with Gonna Fly Now playing in my head, I bound up two at a time, shamelessly punching the air at the top.
The Rocky statue here is probably Philadelphia’s most photographed attraction. So popular, in fact, that the museum tried to relocate it as the administrators felt it distracted from their world-renowned art collection. Public demand brought it back.
For those wanting to take their devotion a step further, you can take a Rocky tour and see sights like his home, Mighty Mick’s gym, the church where ‘Rock’ got married, and even hang out at Adrian’s final resting place: Mount Laurel Cemetery.
But the attraction that gets more foot traffic than even the statue of Sly is the Reading Terminal market. Here the city’s many cultures come together under one roof, with Italian, Dutch and even Amish snacks on offer. Of course, you can’t really leave town without trying a world-famous Philadelphia Cheesesteak. Apparently, if you really want to get authentic, you need to get yourself down to South Philly, where two bitter rivals, Geno’s and Pat’s, are right across the street from each other. Down-to-earth Pat’s claim to have the original cheesesteak, but the flashier Geno’s reckons theirs is the best. Debate has raged since the 60s, so best decide for yourself.
If your culinary tastes are more ambitious the city has a number of establishments in Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants list. Setting the bar high with over 20 exuberant restaurants is local hero Stephen Starr. Also, be sure to check out the formerly working-class neighbourhood of Fishtown, which has been transformed into a must-go food zone and the coolest spot for a night out.
It’s hard to believe this relatively small city was once the nation’s capital, but burgeoning local pride is never more evident than when I’m watching the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Centre. Simmons’ No. 25 jersey is proudly worn by a new generation of kids with no memory of the city’s tougher times as habitual losers. Right now, Philly feels like a winner. And, just like its famous cheesesteak, it’s well worth a taste.
For additional info go to discoverphl.com
WHERE TO EAT
High Street on Market
Nestled among the landmarks in the heart of Old City, try healthconscious organic delights accompanied by the aroma of house-baked breads. highstreetonmarket.com
White Dog Cafe
Located in a Victorian brownstone, you get eclectic dishes from nearby organic farms and a cosy setting that’s like a doggy-themed Grandma’s house. In a good way! whitedog.com
Frankford Hall/Fette Sau
Legendary restaurateur Steven Starr has transformed this industrial structure into a German biergarten with a modern edge. If you love meat or whiskey hit the adjoining Fette Sau for the finest American barbeque with butcher shop chic. frankfordhall.com fettesauphilly.com
Bank and Bourbon
at Loews Hotel
Creative interpretations of classic American dishes set on the ground floor of an old bank, now an iconic hotel. Treasure your spirits? There are safes to lock away your bottle for next time. bankandbourbon.com loewshotels.com artintheage.com
Eastern State Penitentiary
Visit America’s most historic prison. Once home to Al Capone, this prison has been left to age since closing in 1970. Find out how just one guy – from the 100 or so who tried – managed to escape, on the fascinating prison tour. easternstate.com
Penn Museum-Ancient Alcohol: A Taste of Bygone Booze
If you like your drinks seriously vintage take the tour in this worldrenowned museum. See one of the earliest wine vessels in the world and learn about ancient Greek drinking games. A biomolecular archaeologist has collected samples to bring these bygone brews to life. Try one at the end. penn.museum
Philadelphia 76ers tickets
Mural Arts walking tour