Aim high in Philadelphia
by Steve Hartridge | 29 August 2019
Philadelphia’s ranking as the sixth-largest city in the U.S. is best appreciated from on high.
The City of Brotherly Love, with a population of around 1.6 million, is seen in all its sprawling glory from atop one of ‘Philly’s’ several high-rise buildings.
New this summer is the brand-new Four Seasons Hotel, located at Comcast Center, the city’s tallest tower and thus its best vantage point.
Take the free glass-enclosed elevator up to the very top floor of a 60-storey landmark that is the genius of Lord Norman Foster.
Say a few polite words to the floor’s hostess and then step out into a bright and breezy open space occupied by a funky bar and super-chic restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Pretend to peruse the cocktail list – lychee raspberry bellini anyone? - or faux-ponder making a dinner reservation whilst actually glimpsing stupendous views of three sides of the city through 40-foot windows.
Mirrors placed along the length of the ceiling are cleverly angled to reflect diners in the restaurant and cars and pedestrians 1,000 feet below on the street.
From such a lofty viewing point, see how most of Philadelphia sits between two rivers – the Delaware and the Schuylkill.
Look towards the Schuylkill and spot The Museum of Art, with its famous Rocky Steps – although Sylvester Stallone only ran up 10 of them during the filming of the first Rocky movie (what kind of training for a world title fight was that?)
The museum marks the start of Fairmount Park, the world’s largest landscaped urban park. Other places in the green lung worth a visit include the Philadelphia Zoo (if zoos are your thing), historic mansions and Philly’s famous Boathouse Row. It’s also the place to head for a scenic walk or cycle.
From high above you can also make out the stone walls of the now closed Eastern State Penitentiary – a prison in all but name but with a mission to inspire penitence, or regret, amongst prisoners. Apparently the concept wasn’t a great success but tours of a complex that included Al Capone amongst its resident are available.
Then let your eyes drift down The Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which is adorned with almost 100 flags of countries that have significant populations in Philadelphia.
The tradition of displaying flags on the Parkway began in 1976 as a part of the bicentennial celebration. Every year since then their installation on Memorial Day weekend in late May marks the start of the beginning of summer in the city.
Set your eyeline on the Barnes Foundation building that’s home to a fabulous private art collection, then past Logan Square and downtown to Reading Terminal Market, one of America’s largest and oldest public markets which since 1893 has been housed in a National Historic Landmark building.
Then look for the city’s historic Old City Cultural District, with attractions that date back to the founding of the nation in the late 1800s - like the quirkily narrow Elfeth’s Alley, Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the National Constitution and the newish Museum of the American Revolution.
Head to the Four Seasons before the crowds that currently flock to the One Liberty Observation Deck get wind of the better views on offer across town.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that experience. Tickets cost $15 and the brief tourist video on the way up to the 57th floor gives a nice overview of the city. A helpful guide will point out city sites and there’s a telescope and interactive descriptive panels that help you get orientated with Philly’s lay-out and some of its estimated 100-plus neigbourhoods.
One Liberty is no longer the lankiest tower in town and, looking to Fairmount Park, some of the iconic sites like the aforementioned Museum of Art and Boathouse Row are obscured by taller buildings - although it’s hardly what you would call a restricted view.
If the Four Seasons and the One Liberty Observation Deck haven’t satisfied your head for heights, make a final climb at City Hall and Tower, one of the city’s most iconic buildings and the holder of another Philly world best: the world’s tallest masonry load-bearing structure.
A tour of the tower offers sweeping and open-air views of the cityscape from 548 feet up.
Finally, back to Jean-Georges, that Michelin-starred restaurant in the Four Seasons. Here, according to Joe, its amiable concierge who once owned restaurants of his own in the city, you can get a nine-course taster menu for under $135 – try getting something similar from an award-winning chef in Las Vegas or Los Angeles for even double that price.
Restaurant prices in a city becoming populated by excellent dining establishments still lag behind those of regional rivals New York, Washington DC or Boston - perhaps a sign that Philly hasn’t yet quite got there as a can't miss stop on an East Coast tour.
But with new hotels, attractions and a flood of Michelin-starred and James Beard-winning chefs arriving to add to its already long and impressive list of reasons for visiting, that tag of ‘America’s Most Underrated City’ surely won’t be appropriate for much longer.
So see Philadelphia now – and aim high when you get there.
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