Greg Fleming visits the City of Brotherly Love
You know Philadelphia even if you've never been — that's the steps of Philadelphia Museum Rocky jogs up; it inspired the best song Elton ever wrote (Philadelphia Freedom is a tribute, in part, to the original purveyors of Philly Soul) and it's home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
Sorry, that Philadelphia Cream cheese in your fridge has nothing to do with Philly; Kraft Foods grabbed the name as the city was back in 1880 considered "home of top quality foods" — and if that description wasn't always on point, it certainly is today.
Philly's one of the most exciting culinary destinations in North America — offering great fast food, as well as forward-thinking fine-dining.
The city is often over shadowed by flashier neighbours New York or Washington DC (it's a sub-two hour train ride to each) but has found itself on a winning streak of late — voted one of America's coolest cities by Forbes in 2017 thanks to areas like Fish Town and Northern Liberties experiencing rapid growth and refurbishment; and then the Philadelphia Eagles went and won the Super Bowl.
The celebrations in February were legendary and had locals climbing the city gates, the victory representing another Rocky-like triumph against the odds that had been too long coming.
What is less well known is that Philly's also a city rich in art, history and culture — its famed Museum Mile has the Rodin Museum, the Barnes Foundation (chocka with $25 billion worth of modern art) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It's a town where you can go from eating a cheesesteak to viewing a Cezanne in minutes.
But first let's talk cheesesteaks, because the subject is hard to avoid in Philly. It's Philly's most famous dish and inextricably bound with the city's identity. Locals take theirs seriously and show fierce loyalty to their shop of choice.
When I asked at a restaurant on my first night in town who served the best cheesesteak, my waiter came back with a list of half a dozen establishments, with a detailed run down of the (slight) differences in their preparation.
Essentially a cheesesteak is a sandwich of chopped rib-eye beef, onions and cheese (either provolone or Cheez Whiz — cheese in a can) served in a specially baked roll, most often by Amoroso's baking company (cheesesteak aficionados attest — "it's all about the bread").
My first encounter with the iconic sandwich came early in my stay at Campo's in the Old City District. They've been making them since 1947. Mine came with mushrooms, sweet bell peppers, grilled onions and provolone and — washed down with a cold soda on a scorching summer's day — its appeal was undeniable.
The morning had been spent on a walking tour of Philly's Historic District which included a visit to America's oldest residential street, Elfreth's Alley — 32 Federal and Georgian residences which were home to 18th century artisans and trades-people who were the backbone of colonial Philadelphia.
A short walk away is the famous Liberty Bell (expect a queue) and the new Museum of the American revolution — the latter especially worth a visit as it features cutting edge audiovisual displays detailing the 18th century colonial revolt (against the British) which led to the creation of the United States Constitution.
Philadelphia played an instrumental role in both and was a meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
At the end of the tour make sure you catch the film and the unveiling of George Washington's tent — which is revealed in situ at the end. The tent was home and command centre for Washington for five years during the wars — and is often called the "first oval office".
THE FOOD OF LOVE
I wondered if the name of my dinner venue that night, The Love, just off Rittenhouse Square, had anything to do with Philly's other moniker "The City of Brotherly Love".
A little background: William Penn named the city Philadelphia, Greek for brotherly love. As a Quaker, Penn had experienced religious persecution and wanted his colony to be a place where anyone could worship freely. I'm still not sure if there's a connection, but this Steven Starr restaurant, which focuses on new American cuisine, was very easy to fall for.
My buttermilk fried chicken, grits, collards and "comeback sauce" (a slightly spicy mayonnaise) was among the best meals I've had Stateside — the collard greens light and sharp, the chicken moist and not at all greasy, the grits creamy and perfectly cooked.
Later in my stay we'd lunch at another Steven Starr creation, Parc — a chic bistro a few minutes up the road which pays tribute to French cafe culture.
A Parisian-based journalist deemed it a perfect echo of a real French brasserie and proclaimed the bread (all baked in-house) better than any she'd had in Paris.
Somehow a Parisian bistro in the centre of Philly made perfect sense as there's a sense of old world glamour about the city reflected in its many 19th century brick buildings and quaint green spaces and squares.
That Parc sits opposite the very European Rittenhouse square — one of Philly's most beloved green spaces — seemed entirely apt.
READING TERMINAL MARKET
No visit to Philly is complete without braving the crowds and countless food stores at Reading Terminal Market — America's oldest continuously operating farmers' market.
Whatever your taste it's here, freshly made mozzarella, award-winning ice cream, Thai, Indian and Chinese food and perhaps most famously DiNic's — home of what has been described as the "best sandwich in America".
Of course I had to try it and joined the long line.
The roast pork sandwich — has been called "the third juggernaut in Philly's sandwich triumvirate" after the cheesesteak and hoagie (a sub-like sandwich, made with an Amorosa roll, meat, cheese and either sweet or hot peppers) and DiNic's version is legendary.
The sandwich I unwrap at a nearby table is massive — packed full of hot peppers, melted provolone cheese, broccoli rabe (cooked with garlic and pepper flakes and lemon) and a good two centimetre thick slab of that delicious sliced roast pork.
You may need a nap after eating it, but you'll be back for another sooner than you think.
The food in Philly mirrors the increasing cultural diversity — there's lots of Italian but there's also great Ethiopian food in West Philly, great Chinese food in Chinatown (the third largest in America) and standout Mexican too — if you get time check out the tacos at El Compadre by the Italian Market — and there are good and inexpensive food carts on most corners.
SPORT MAD TOWN
Though the Eagles have grabbed the spotlight, the Phillies (baseball), Flyers (ice-hockey) and 76ers (basketball) personify a city that often seems to live and die by their teams' collective success. If you visit in baseball season take the time to go see the Phillies play at their home stadium in Citizens Bank Park — I did, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.
Watching the Phillies play the St Louis Cardinals on a perfect late spring evening while snacking on Chickie and Pete's famous crab fries as the beverage and food hawkers strolled up and down barking their distinctive calls (one guy selling Stella Artois had obviously seen A Streetcar Named Desire and yelled "Stella" with Brando-like intensity as he plied his trade) was unforgettable and a sporting experience so different from those on offer back home.
What I didn't realise was that the game here often takes a second place to the experience.
The stadium is crammed with great food and drink options and other entertainment — a baseball diamond and rock climb for the kids has recently been installed — and while the game's on much time is spent eating, drinking and just soaking up the experience.
Families can bring food in and watch the game while picnicking — and dressing up in
your Phillies gear is a must.
Sadly the Phillies lost by one run that night, but that didn't seem to affect anyone's enjoyment.
At a particularly fractious time for America, when the values of inclusiveness, tolerance and liberty so fundamental to this fine city are under threat, I left Philly filled with hope.
Its people are perhaps the city's best advertisement — hardworking, passionate and garrulous and every one inordinately proud of their town.
My Kiwi accent always prompted cries of "Welcome to our city!" and though that Super Bowl victory is one for the history books, it's a town that will just as readily win your heart if you give it half a chance.
American Airlines flies direct between Auckland and Philadelphia, via Los Angeles. Economy Class return fares are on sale until August 22 from $1740, for travel in selected periods.
The Sonesta — a centrally located hotel — is just a short walk to Rittenhouse Square.