Hopping over a grate steaming with hot air from the metro system below, I stroll past the gleaming plate glass wrapped around the ground floor of the towering skyscrapers of downtown. As I swing open the door of the city’s chicest fashion boutique, the rooftop bar next door breaks through the traffic noise with an eruption of laughter, drowning out the honking yellow cabs and clacking heels.
Sound like New York? Well, it’s not: it’s Philadelphia. The east coast’s second largest city may be less renowned than the Big Apple but it is fast garnering a cultural and fashion scene to make even the most hardened New Yorker sit up and pay attention.
My first taste of Philly fashion is at Joan Shepp’s inimitable boutique on Walnut Street – and it’s a memorable one. Joan herself is here to point out the gems in her collection of impeccably classy pieces from Marni, Phillip Lim, Amelia Toro and Ann Demuelemeester. She has an excellent eye and I am sorely tempted by a bag from high-end American designer Reed Krakoff but decide I should at least wait for the jetlag to subside before clobbering my credit card.
I spend the next few days visiting boutiques including Bus Stop (for shoes), Briar Vintage (for men’s fashions) and Art in the Age (for fashion-forward T-shirts and chic homewares). Thanks to Pennsylvania’s lack of sales tax on “essential” items, which includes – of course – clothes and shoes, I shop up a storm and return to my hotel each day laden with bags.
By night, the streets of Philadelphia really begin to fill and returning to Walnut Street I find restaurants and bars to rival anything New York has to offer. At Urban Enoteca I feast on platters groaning with delicious cheeses and charcuterie, washed down with a cracking Californian cabernet, while at Alma de Cuba I drink the tastiest mojitos I can remember outside of Cuba itself. Around the corner, on the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place, I raise a glass of moscato to the view below – a chequerboard of city blocks marked out by endless lines of red and white taillights.
Now indoctrinated into the nightlife of the City of Brotherly Love, I am let into its dirty little secret: tucked away down narrow alleyways and beneath the sidewalk in hidden basements are some of America’s best speakeasies. These are places where you’ll be welcomed with a knowing smile and served good stiff drinks and concoctions you’ll never remember.
As the snaking queues to its door attest, the city’s best is Franklin Mortgage and Investment. This basement bar on 18th street is named after the company that served as the front for what was, in the 1920s, the largest illicit booze ring in the US and inside I find contemporary décor right down to the lightbulbs and artists masquerading as bartenders. These dangerous men will mix you anything from a Red Viper to a Cripple Creek, but I plumped for what turned out to be a very honestly titled The End of You, a cocktail of gins, cynar liqueur and vermouth that made the room spin and the night end with a bang.
Fortunately Philly also offers the antidote to this sort of excess – in the form of further excess. The next morning I head to brunch at Lacroix on Rittenhouse Square, where the all-you-can-eat buffet includes everything from sushi and salads to a chocolate fountain and – of course – bacon and eggs. Although everything is self-service, the hot food is served up in the kitchen itself and I find myself entranced watching a chef making pastries with a concentration that reminds me of those fashion boutique owners putting the finishing touches to their displays.
This sort of near-neurotic attention to detail is starting to seem like something Philly excels at and, on visiting the Barnes Collection on the city’s Museum Mile, I start to understand why.
The Barnes Collection began with a man who had an unwavering desire to get things just right. This world-class collection of post-impressionist and early modern paintings, African sculpture, metalwork and decorative arts was collected by Albert C Barnes throughout his lifetime and on his death in 1951 it was given over to a Board of Trustees on the express instruction that it was never moved from its site in Merion, on the outskirts of the city.
Well, today, here it is on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, miles from its original location – and yet, in a way, nothing has been moved. Every single wall from the original building has been recreated exactly, right down to the paint colour. Moving the Barnes may have caused controversy, but the experience of visiting is spellbinding and Barnes’ vision shines through. In the end, Philadelphia got it right.
On Museum Mile you will also find the Philadelphia Museum of Art (visited mostly by Rocky fans keen to run up its famous steps) and the brand new Rodin Museum. But you’ll need to head back out of town for the city’s newest cultural icon. A quiet street lined with unremarkable mid 19th-century tenements in previously down-at-heel East Kensington has been brought to life by the world’s first pizza museum. Part pizzeria, part museum, Pizza Brain is the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia – a fact verified by the Guinness Book of Records – and includes everything from pizza-related VHS tapes (Mystic Pizza, Pizza Man) to whole walls of magazine covers, film posters and vintage adverts for pizza joints.
It is without doubt the most colourful, bizarre museum I have ever seen – and the pizza’s good too. Tucking into a slice I ask owner Brian Dwyer: why Philly? Why not build his temple to pizza in New York? “I think Philly is the perfect place to do this”, he says, “It’s fertile ground for esoteric ideas. And I fell in love with it.” Well, Brian, so did I.
NEED TO KNOW
■ British Airways has four nights room-only at the 4* Sofitel Philadelphia from £849 person, based on two sharing and including return British Airways flights from Heathrow. For reservations visit ba.com/philadelphia or call 0844 493 0758.
For more information on Philadelphia visit www.philadelphiaUSA.travel or call 0115 922 9255.