Philly's long been one of the premier destinations for art lovers, writes Greg Fleming.

I remember an artist friend, years back, lamenting the fact that he went to Europe to see the great Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings and was annoyed to discover that many of the most iconic pieces resided in a museum in Philadelphia.

And here I was in the Barnes Foundation building looking at them.

The Barnes has 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and seven van Goghs, not to mention the odd Soutine, Manet and Modigliani. Albert C. Barnes was a native and, it has to be said, rather strange Philadelphian who got rich making a cure for gonorrhoea and ear, nose and throat infections and started collecting art in 1902.

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Today the collection is valued at $36 billion and is housed in a splendid, purpose-built building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For anyone with just a cursory knowledge of modern art it is a breath-taking experience, with the paintings so familiar in reproductions hung three deep on the wall, it is often hard to know where to look.

A highlight was seeing some of Modigliani's finest work — with 12 paintings each, the Barnes and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, have the world's largest collections of his work.

Do splash out and get a guided tour — otherwise the experience may seem overwhelming. Better still set aside two days.

Also on the beautiful Benjamin Franklin Parkway (modelled after the Champs Elysees) is the Rodin museum (with nearly 150 sculptures from every phase of Auguste Rodin's career — rodinmuseum.org) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art — often described as Philadelphia's answer to the Parthenon and the third largest art museum in the US (philamuseum.org). It's home to more Picassos and Van Goghs, plus baroque masterpieces by Rubens — and my favourite, Rogier van der Weyden's 15th-century diptych The Crucifixion.

Just 15 minutes' walk from the Barnes Foundation, it, too, deserves a full day of your time and has a Pay What You Wish Admission on the first Sunday of the month and every Wednesday evening. And you'll walk — or come on, run — up the infamous "Rocky Steps" to get there.

The statue of Rocky — which was filmed and based in Philly — used to be at the top of the steps leading to the Philadelphia Art Museum, but was removed as it argued the statue was not "art" but a "movie prop". Predictably this impacted visitor numbers and a compromise was reached, with the statue being replaced with a bronze inlay of Rocky's Converse sneaker footprints and the statue itself placed on a pedestal near the foot of the steps to the right of the museum. Both spots are a popular with tourists and countless poses of a triumphant Rocky are struck day after day.

There's no sign of Rocky-mania slowing down — when I visited, the sequel franchise to Rocky, the excellent Creed, had just completed filming its sequel in the city.

Once that's done get ready for more art — the Philly Museum has a superb collection of Renaissance, American, Impressionist and Modern masterworks and also blockbuster special exhibitions throughout the year.

FACT FILE

GETTING THERE

United Airlines

flies from Auckland to Philadelphia, via San Francisco, with return Economy Class fares from $2549.

DETAILS
discoverphl.com
visithteusa.com