"Last week I went to Philadelphia," comedian W.C. Fields once said, "but it was closed." Formerly America's capital and its largest city, Philadelphia lost much of its population and influence over the centuries. But it's open now. As America gets ready for Barack Obama's inauguration, anyone looking for a dose of U.S. history and culture would do well to skip Washington D.C. and head to the City of Brotherly Love.
What to See
All over the city, the old has become new again, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's recently renovated Perelman Building currently showing exhibitions on Matisse and African-American quilts to the Pantheon-like Ritz-Carlton, housed in the refitted century-old Girard Trust bank. America's past also gets a fresh approach at the National Constitution Center, a high-tech temple to the country's cornerstone legal document. On Jan. 19 Martin Luther King Day the center opens "America I AM," an exhibition celebrating the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history. Among the artifacts on display are the key to King's jail cell, Malcolm X's Koran and Muhammad Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle" robe.
Where to Buy
A few blocks from the National Constitution Center, you'll find good shopping in the Old City, which the neighborhood's chamber of commerce has cheesily (if accurately) branded "hipstoric." This is where Benjamin Franklin used to live his house was torn down long ago, but many 18th century townhomes survive. The area's mostly 19th century factories and warehouses have been transformed into cafés, galleries and shops such as Minima (www.minima.us), where the trove of gorgeous furniture includes Cappellini's must-have lacquered Uni cabinets and an elegant, eco-friendly credenza made from bamboo and cork by local designer Michael Iannone.
Where to Eat
There's good eating in town, too, beyond the famed cheesesteak (chopped grilled beef on a greasy roll, topped with melted cheese). One of the city's favorite new places is the year-old Supper (www.supperphilly.com), where transplanted New Yorker Mitch Prensky offers up a menu featuring broccoli tastier than any kid could imagine (it's frittered with parmesan and bacon) and a luxurious financier pastry spiked with bourbon. The slow-roasted pork belly served with spiced yams, pineapple mustard and greens is a best seller. "Traditional, but re-imagined," Prensky says of the dish. "There are so many things happening and it's awesome." That's a pretty good description of Philadelphia today.