W.C. Fields' gravestone doesn't really read, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." But the comic actor loved to poke fun at his native city. When I was a student in Philly way back when, I did too. There wasn't much to do. It seemed like every corner in Center City had a travel agency or a bridal shop or a restaurant: people wanted to escape. Sure, there were some good restaurants, a couple of museums, the Liberty Bell, some beautiful houses, and Bassett's Ice Cream at the Reading Terminal Market, but not much else.
Fast forward to 2012 and it's a different city. A recent visit found Philly in fine form. Here's some of what I liked.
Philly is a museum town. The Rodin Museum, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Franklin Institute, the Rosenbach Museum (housing the manuscript of James Joyce's Ulysses among other treasures), to name a few. And a short drive away, there's the Brandywine River Museum with its trove of Andrew Wyeths.
But the big news, of course, is the opening of the new Barnes. If you love French Impressionist painting, this is reason enough to visit PHL. The old Barnes on the Main Line was famously inaccessible; the new one in Center City is much more visitor-friendly. Just be sure to make advance reservations.
Food and Drink.
Philly is still a restaurant town. In fact, I've made several trips by car from my home in Manhattan for the sole purpose of eating at Zahav in a nondescript building at the far edge of Society Hill. This Middle Eastern hot spot was justifiably named as the best restaurant in the city by Philadelphia magazine. The baked-to-order pita bread alone is worth the drive (why can't you get freshly baked pita bread any longer?), but everything else is authentically magical. Grilled octopus and drinks at the bar at Water Works Restaurant at dusk is another reason to get in the car (or on the plane). Better yet, get an outside table on this historic site overlooking the Schuylkill River, followed with a walk along the Schuylkill River Trail. If you're into beer, check out Monk's or the beer garden at Silk City.
The Eastern State Penitentiary.
This massive, shabby-chic Gothic-style prison takes up an entire city block in Fairmount. Fascinating to tour with standouts such as Al Capone's cell, the chapels and the art installations; but the most powerful thing is the site's history and decaying grandeur. Opened in 1829, and known for "pampering" inmates, it had central heat, running water and flush toilets even before the White House did.
The Ice Cream.
Everyone loves ice cream, right? Bassett's in the famous Reading Terminal Market is still spectacular and hasn't sold out to franchising or a conglomerate (hello, Bryer's). Also not to miss: Capogiro Gelato Artisans, voted "best ice cream in America" by National Geographic Traveler.
Philadelphia is often called the "Mural Capital of the World" thanks to its collection of over 3000 outdoor murals painted on building walls throughout the city. The Mural Arts Program is celebrating its 25th anniversary and gives fascinating tours.
Walking in Society Hill.
If you like just strolling around a city looking at beautiful houses, you can't do better than exploring the gaslit streets of this fascinating neighborhood. Named after the Free Society of Traders, an organization sponsored by William Penn, the area stretches from Walnut to Lombard Streets and from Front to 8th Streets and is home to some of most beautiful 18th and early 19th century homes in America. Hard to believe that the area became derelict before the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority sold these Federal-style houses to citizens for a song with the proviso that they restore them. The Society Hill Civic Association offers an open house and garden tour every May.
A Great Hotel.
On a recent visit I stayed at the centrally-located and budget-friendly Hotel Palomar, a Kimpton Hotel fashioned out of a re-purposed office building, and discovered why it's number one rated on TripAdvisor.com (with 736 reviews, it's one of the very few hotels on TripAdvisor that has no "terrible" ratings; check some other reviews out if you don't believe me).