FROM a general scan of Philadelphia's skyline of skyscrapers, its massive fin de siècle piles, and equally drab office blocks and empty car-park lots, it's difficult to believe there was a time when Philadelphia was the epicentre of the American universe.
Founded by William Penn in 1682 at the junction of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers as the capital of Pennsylvania Colony, the city was named after the ancient Greek words for "brotherly love", a sentiment that was to find its truest expression during the revolutionary turbulence of the 18th-century when it hosted the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress that signed the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention.
After the historic victory that forever ousted the British, the city was, briefly, the capital of the United States while Washington, DC was being built.
For over a century, Philadelphia was America's intellectual, cultural, financial and political centre. It thrived on its reputation as a safe haven for refugees, while its booming economy attracted droves of new settlers from across America.
It was the country's first major industrial city, leading the charge with powerful textile and locomotive industries. The ranks of its working and middle classes swelled, as did its built environment of impressively grand Federal and Greek Revival architecture. The country's first International Style skyscraper was built here in 1932.
By the middle of the 20th-century, however, Philadelphia was losing its visual charm as property developers and zealous town planners began hollowing out the city's centre. Vast tracts of attractive Georgian architecture and Victorian-style row houses were demolished to make way for highways, anonymous shopping malls, parking lots and an unconscionable number of unrequitedly ugly buildings.
A steady influx of immigrants from Ireland and Germany in the mid-19th century, African-Americans in the early 20th-century, and more recently, Hispanics and Asian refugees had pushed out the urban city limits. Philadelphia sprawled ever outwards as the upper and middle-classes abandoned the centre and headed further out to leafier places like Haverford.
At the same time, businesses shut down forcing the city to shift its marketing efforts away from manufacturing and towards tourism. The legacy of empty shop-fronts and vacant lots is still too evident today in many parts.
In many ways, this explains why Philadelphia is one of those American destinations that slips right under the radar of most travellers, even though it's just a couple of hours away from New York on the fast Amtrak train.
Which is a shame really, because for all its flaws, there is still plenty in this most historic of American cities for a pleasant day trip or even a planned stop in its own right, not least for movie buffs who will recognize many parts of the city from Hollywood flicks like World War Z' Philadelphia and, of course, Rocky.
Joggers will find the river bank a picturesque way to shake off jet-lag, while shopaholics will find retail contentment on Walnut Street. The quarter holding the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall is an especially lovely montage of 200-year-old architecture, quaint little cobble-stoned squares and the distinct murmurings of hipster chic as boutique hotels and little buzzy restaurants bars and cafés move in and spruce up abandoned spaces.
Here's our tip-sheet on how to make the most of your trip.
Where to stay
Yes, given its long history and association with political and economic power, it's no surprise that Philadelphia is replete with grande dame hotels like the cavernous Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com), but there's something to be said for the breath of fresh air provided by upstarts like the Hotel Monaco (www.monaco-philadelphia.com). Here, in place of grand columned stuffiness are wild patterns and eye-popping Alice in Wonderland kookiness. More importantly, beneath the crazy fun décor, the rooms are spacious and comfortably stocked with plush leopard-print bathrobes. A late afternoon cocktail hour in the lobby is another plus. If you can, ask for room 502 where the bathroom literally looks over Independence National Historic Park and the milling crowds.
Where to relax
Amid the somewhat desolate tracts and poor housing that seem to lurk around so many of Philadelphia's street corners, there are surprising pockets of green calm. Clocking in at 9,200 acres, Fairmont Park - really a collection of parklands and neighbourhood parks - is the world's largest landscaped urban park and the perfect spot to soak up some sun, run around with the kids, have a picnic, or just chill.
In every respect, Philadelphia is the spiritual and historic birthplace of the United States. Which is why a trip to Independence National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/inde) is essential for taking in the famed (and cracked) Liberty Bell - which attracts around two million visitors a year - and the site of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the historic buildings in the quarter - many familiar to historic figures like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington - have been lovingly restored.
Where to shop
Get your brand name retail fix (Ralph Lauren, Diesel, Abercrombie & Fitch and the like) around the Walnut Street precinct - start at Broad Street and head up Walnut Street to 20th Street, or at Shops at Liberty Place (www.shopsatliberty.com), and the Gallery at Market East (www.galleryatmarketeast.com). For more off-the-radar stuff, the area between Front and 6th Streets, and Walnut and Vine, boast original artwork and interior design pieces by both local and national artists.
Foodies should head to the Reading Terminal Market (www.readingterminalmarket.org), a vast rambling food market filled with local wines, oyster bars, home-made cookies, and hefty servings of cheese steaks and hoagies. Look out for the Amish vendors - fully decked out in their distinctive dress - who sell freshly baked goodies from Wednesdays to Saturdays.
Culture vultures will be thrilled by the city's impressive collection of museums and arts centres. Many, such as the National Constitution Center (www.constitutioncenter.org), are connected to the founding of the United States, while others - including the Franklin Institute, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the African American Museum and the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia History - relate to the city's many layered waves of immigrants and cultural legacies.
The lovely Philadelphia Museum of Art (www.philamuseum.org) is worth a visit for its incredible capsule collections of Noguchi, Monet, Van Gogh, Cy Twombley and a clutch of French cloister, Japanese and ancient Indian temples. When you're done, stand at the top of the entrance stairs and strike a pose - this is where Sylvester Stallone performed his triumphant jig in Rocky. Meanwhile, the Rodin Museum (www.rodinmuseum.org) boasts the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of Paris.
For now, the destination du jour is the new Barnes Foundation (www.barnesfoundation.org). This tranquil light-box made of cool pale stone and glass attracts daily droves to its flawless collection of Cezanne, Matisse, Manet, Goya and Picasso.
Philadelphia's melting pot of immigrants from Europe and Asia is reflected in an unusually diverse range of cuisines. First timers will probably need to have a bite of the city's famed cheesesteak, basically a roll stuffed with thin strips of steak and melted cheese. But beyond that, settle in for some very good cooking.
The Red Owl Tavern (www.redowltavern.com), for instance, is perfect for icy beers, home-cured charcuterie, and dazzling smoked baby back pork ribs. For something a little more inventive, you can't go wrong with the incredible buzz of beautiful people and pan-Asian menu at the futuristic Pod (www.podrestaurant.com).