In America's fifth-largest city, the historic past provides a backdrop for a present that's healthful and happening.

By Chris Rodel
March 20, 2007
Douglas Merriam

From a distance, present-day Philadelphia-number nine on our Best Cities list-appears to be all gleaming skyscrapers and shimmering glass. However, many of those modern structures cast their shadows on centuries-old cobblestone streets and sites of star-spangled history, including Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, and the Liberty Bell, a symbol of freedom for more than 200 years. The combination of old and new makes Philly a city you want to touch, taste, and toast.

Best farmers' market: Fresh flowers, produce, sandwiches, and even sushi await at Philly's famous Reading Terminal Market (215-922-2317). More than 90 vendors (including Michael Strange of Bassett's Ice Cream, a descendant of an original 1892 stand holder) bustle for business amid the smells and sensations of this uniquely Philadelphia attraction.

Best socially conscious restaurant: Owner Judy Wicks opened the White Dog Café (215-386-9224) in 1983 with the stated mission of "doing well by doing good." Along with its fine menu of food-entrées like citrus marinated tofu or grilled free-range lamb leg-White Dog hosts monthly talks on local and national politics, curates rotating art exhibits (a recent one featured farms that are the source of White Dog's menu), and coordinates community service days.

Best seafood: Old Original Bookbinder's (215-925-7027) has been in business since 1865. Maine lobster is the star here, as you'll undoubtedly notice-Bookbinder's features the country's largest indoor lobster tank.

Best takes on a Philly classic: Cheesesteak-shaved rib eye, sautéed onions, and gooey Cheez Whiz-is the city's most renowned contribution to our national cuisine. Invented by a Philly street vendor in 1930, these sandwiches are still a source of local pride. For a truly indulgent version, Barclay Prime (215-732-7560) elevates the fare with Kobe beef, lobster, truffle butter, and a whopping $100 price tag. For a lighter-and lighter on your wallet-sandwich, opt for a vegetarian version at Gianna's Grille (215-829-4448), where textured soy protein doubles for steak and soy cheese takes the place of Cheez Whiz. Six dollars buys a sandwich big enough to share.

Best outdoor excursions: Enjoy a preview of Philadelphia's premiere fitness venue as you approach the city. Driving toward downtown on I-76 east, keep a lookout for Boathouse Row, a series of charming 19th-century Tudor-Victorian structures that line a placid curve of the Schuylkill River. The river is ideal for rowing. PA Rowing Camps (267-971-9073) offers helpful instruction for beginners. However, water isn't a necessary ingredient for Boathouse Row fitness. The Schuylkill flows through Fairmount Park (215-683-0200), where twin four-mile paths border its banks. As one of the largest urban parks in the country-it accounts for 10 percent of the city's land-it's an outdoor fitness hub for Philly residents.

Best living-history walk: What's been judged the most historic square mile in America is best explored on foot. Starting at the Independence Mall, you'll have tour options that include The Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall. Heading east on Arch Street will take you past Christ Church Burial Ground and the penny-strewn grave site of Benjamin Franklin. Leaving a penny in homage to Philadelphia's favorite son is a good luck tradition.[pagebreak]

Beyond 3rd and Arch streets is the Betsy Ross Home, where America's first flag was sewn. Walking south along 2nd Street will take you past Christ Church, built in 1744, and the site where the signers of the Declaration of Independence sought spiritual courage. Three blocks farther south on the corner of Walnut and 2nd is is a reimagined version of City Tavern, the site of the historic pub where many of those same signers went for spirits and liquid courage. And don't miss Franklin Court on Market Street, the site of Franklin's home, workplace, and the B. Free Franklin Post Office. For more information on any of these sites, contact the Independence National Historical Park (215-965-2305).

Best way to explore the city: Philadelphia's broad avenues, secluded back streets, and expansive parks are ideal for cycling. Located in the middle of Philly's historic district behind the Atwater Kent Museum, Jeff Dolan's Philadelphia Bike and Moped Tours (215-334-0790) offers half- and full-day rentals or guided tours of sites from the Liberty Bell to historic Valley Forge, located 28 miles to the west. Dolan's cycle of choice: A Fuji comfort bike, which comes equipped with shock absorbers, in case your path takes you through the historic district's bumpy cobblestone streets.

Best way to bring the past into the present: Philly's role as the nation's birthplace receives an update at the gleaming National Constitution Center (215-409-6700). The four-year-old museum salutes the Constitution through more than 100 interactive exhibits, a live theater show, and more. The center features exhibits that provide insight into the democratic process. For example, don't miss the Palm Beach, Florida, voting booth from the 2000 Presidential election, which introduced "hanging chad" into the national lexicon.

Best place to seek serenity: More than 800,000 guests make their way 30 miles west of Philadelphia each year to the historic Brandywine Valley to enjoy the fragrant pleasures of Longwood Gardens (610-388-1000) and its 11,000 different types of plants and flowers. The 1,050-acre garden-the former country home of industrialist Pierre S. DuPont-is resplendent year-round with outdoor gardens, conservatories, fountains, and waterfalls amid fastidiously tended paths.

Best spot for film fans: Philadelphia is the birthplace of such film-related institutions as the indoor/outdoor movie studio (optician Sigmund Lubin built the first in 1911), the projector, and movie star Grace Kelly. It's no wonder, then, that the Philadelphia Film Festival (267-765-9700) is the largest event of its kind on the East Coast. You can catch one of its more than 300 showings held at venues around the city. In addition to more traditional awards, screenwriters from around the world vie for the "Set in Philadelphia" competition for the script that best portrays the city.


Best historical stay: The Sheraton Society Hill Hotel (from $190; 215-238-6000) is the best option for those who want an up-close experience of Philadelphia history. Located in the Historic District, it's a short stroll from City Tavern, Franklin Court, and Independence Hall.

Best bird's-eye view: The art deco beauty of The Loews Philadelphia Hotel (from $199; 215-627-1200), housed in the country's first modernist skyscraper, makes Loews a downtown landmark.

Best place to escape: Boutique hotel Rittenhouse 1715 (from $239; 215-546-6500) is tucked away in a quiet enclave of the posh Rittenhouse Square district.

Chris Rodell writes about life and leisure pursuits from his home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.