Historic Philadelphia: exploring America’s first World Heritage city

When Philadelphia was named the first World Heritage City in the USA in 2015, the honor recognized the town’s indelible imprint on American history, and by extension, the modern world. It was a well-timed award for one of the oldest cities in the USA; even as Philly’s history, from architecture to iconography, was lauded, the city has been experiencing a new bloom of dining and nightlife.

When the award was announced, you may have heard a slight groan of dismay from the vicinity of New York and Boston – rivalries between Northeastern cities are as old as the towns themselves. Perhaps at the same time, the City of Brotherly Love allowed itself a smile, a Yards Pale Ale and a bit of boasting. That’s Philly: when you travel here, get past the clichés – yes, there are cheesesteaks, and they are good – and you’ll find an attitude that refuses to play second fiddle to, well, anything.

Philadelphia's skyline sparkles after dusk, from iconic City Hall to the tips of the sleek modern skyscrapers. Image courtesy of R. Kennedy / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Philadelphia's skyline sparkles after dusk, from iconic City Hall to the tips of the sleek modern skyscrapers © R. Kennedy / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

While the World Heritage City award wasn’t given for Philadelphia’s swagger, the implicit recognition of the town’s importance in the USA was a reinforcement of the area’s confident sense of self. Pennsylvania Senator Robert Morris said as much himself in the 18th century; for Morris, Philadelphia was ‘to the United States what the heart is to the human body in circulating the blood’.

Exploring the Old City

The USA simply would not exist in its current incarnation without Philadelphia, founded in 1682. This the city of Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence, which outlined America’s aspirations of self determination, and the Constitution, which set out America’s mode of governance, were debated and adopted.

The Hall is located in Independence National Historical Park, which anchors Philadelphia’s Old City, popularly known as the country’s most historic square mile. The area is lined with cobblestones, red brick townhouses, and businesses that adopt a decidedly ‘colonial quaint’ aesthetic (which admittedly vanishes at night, as there are some popular bars in the area).

Philadelphia's iconic Independence Hall © M. Fischetti / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Philadelphia's iconic Independence Hall © M. Fischetti / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Nearby, you’ll find the Benjamin Franklin Museum, dedicated to the eccentric Founding Father, inventor, ambassador and legendary kite-flyer. About a half-mile away is the excellent National Constitution Center, a fabulously interactive, in-depth museum that explores all of the history and ideology of the USA’s guiding document.

Just west of the Old City is Center City, the densest area of Philadelphia. It’s an area packed with some of the city’s Trinity Homes, three floors connected by a staircase, one room per floor. Sort of fun to live in, until you get to the front door and remember you left your keys on the nightstand two floors up.

This is also where you’ll find Philly’s gorgeous City Hall, a standby on the American Institute of Architects’ favorite pieces of American architecture list. Just down the street is the Reading Terminal Market, a multi-ethnic food court that’s great for a quick bite.

Interactive exhibitions within Philadelphia's National Constitution Center. Image courtesy of G. Widman / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Interactive exhibitions within Philadelphia's National Constitution Center © G. Widman / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Old ethnic eats meet urban dining trends

Speaking of food, Philadelphia does not lack in the culinary stakes. This is still a town associated with cheesesteaks and scrapple (a Mid-Atlantic breakfast and lunch meat made from all the bits of the pig that didn’t make it into anything else). But the city’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods are providing a glut of contemporary dining that often sits alongside old-school standbys.

Philly cheesesteak, the city's classic gut-busting sandwich © bhofack2 / Getty Images

Philly cheesesteak, the city's classic gut-busting sandwich © bhofack2 / Getty Images

Fishtown fills out the classic gentrification checklist: a formerly working class neighborhood, now increasingly inundated with 20- and 30-somethings fleeing the suburbs. They munch on mussels in the artfully austere Kraftwork (kraftworkbar.com), or head to Paesano’s (paesanosphillystyle.com) for reinventions of classic sandwiches. We know, why mess with a classic? Because as good as an Italian meatloaf sandwich is, when it’s made with impeccable ingredients, it’s even better.

One to watch: northeast of Center City, Fishtown is one Philadelphia's rapidly changing neighborhoods. Image courtesy of M Kennedy / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

One to watch: northeast of Center City, Fishtown is one Philadelphia's rapidly changing neighborhoods © M Kennedy / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

While the lines may be long, the pie at Pizzeria Beddia (pizzeriabeddia.com) operates on a different level. This is classic East Coast pizza, but created with farm-to-table sensibility. When you need a drink and some live music after your eats, head to Johnny Brenda’s (johnnybrendas.com), which mixes Philly’s down-to-earth passion for music with a lack of pretension.

Passyunk Ave has long been a miracle mile for food in Philadelphia. These days, restaurants seem to pop up on a weekly basis in the area around East Passyunk. The salmon, shellfish and dark bread of Noord (noordphilly.com) do a good job of representing Scandinavian cuisine. If you want to skip to the other side of the world, indulge in fragrant rice dishes and rich Indonesian curries at Ramayana (facebook.com/ramayanadepot).

Old meets new in East Passyunk, a hub for great drinking and dining in Philadelphia. Image courtesy of J. Fusco / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Old meets new in East Passyunk, a hub for great drinking and dining in Philadelphia © J. Fusco / VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Two restaurants of note bridge the USA and Europe. Laurel (restaurantlaurel.com) is a brilliant French restaurant informed by ingredients sourced from the best American produce. Philly is heavy on Italian joints, which are always a perfect source of comfort food. Brigantessa (brigantessaphila.com), with its wood oven-braised goat and sausage stuffed quail, takes this classic immigrant cuisine to a new level.

While you’re in the area, don’t miss Mr. Martino’s Trattoria (1646 E Passyunk), a red-sauce Italian nook that feels like a spot Rocky would take Adrian to dinner. If you want to grab something sweet after, Cambodian-run Artisan Boulanger Patissier (1218 Mifflin St) is a wonderful source of fresh baked pastries.

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