Penn's Greene Countrie Towne

Penn's Greene Countrie Towne photo

After more than 400 years, Philadelphia is still a charmer, with a habit of winking when visitors least expect it. They see it in small ways, like the sudden change from the frown of an old building to the warm smile of a patch of green in a tiny courtyard.

The people are charming, too. Philadelphians simply don't feel compelled to get there fast, furiously and first, like their counterparts in Manhattan. They go about their daily business quietly and pleasantly, as if they belonged to the city and the city to them.

Like so much else here, this sense of belonging has its roots in history. William Penn, who founded the city as his "holy experiment" in 1682, named it after the Quaker ideal of "brotherly love." Penn's idea was to arrange his "greene countrie towne" in four green squares radiating out from Center Square where City Hall now stands. From there, the city fans out to become a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character. In 1854, the city fathers consolidated many little townships and boroughs into one political entity. Though they erased the boundary lines, the neighborhoods remained.

Though Penn is Philadelphia's founder, Benjamin Franklin is it's patron saint. In fact, hardly any public institution in the city can't trace its roots to Franklin. Thanks to him, Philadelphia has more firsts and oldests than any other city in the nation — the first fire company, the first streetlights, the first insurance company, the first magazine, the first art museum, and the first postal service, to name a few.

Before the revolution, Philadelphia had been the commercial and intellectual capital of the Colonies. Afterwards, it became the capital of the new nation and America's most cosmopolitan city.

But when Washington, D.C., later became the U.S. capital, Philadelphia lost some of its pride. In 1907, the city commissioned a team of designers lead by Jacques Auguste Greber to create the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, linking downtown to Fairmont Park, the country's largest city park. Along the way he added the Rodin Museum — with the largest collection of Rodin works outside France — and the monumental Museum of Art.

During the mid-1960s, the city turned its attention to the restoration and reconstruction of Society Hill. The rundown buildings in the city's oldest section — including a square mile in which there are more 18th-century structures than anywhere else in the country — became the chic residences of the city's affluent class. From Society Hill, the renaissance moved through Head House Square, site of the old market, to Queen's Village, and eventually to midtown.

It used to be an unwritten law that no city building should rise higher than the hat brim on the statue of William Penn that adorns City Hall. Now sleek highrises reach to the sky high above Penn, transforming Philadelphia into a modern highrise city. Another area that's received a lot of attention in recent years is Penn's Landing, Philadelphia's waterfront promenade. Originally the place where Penn's ship first anchored in the New World, it's now the site of the Philadelphia Marine Museum, a Great Plaza where free summertime concerts and festivals take place, and an outdoor ice rink that thrills both residents and visitors alike throughout the winter.

But Philadelphians still love the old traditions. People still buy their scrapple, pepper pot soup and delicously rich ice cream — all Philadelphia originals — at the Reading Terminal Market in midtown. Here vendors sell Philadelphia cheesesteaks, hoagies and those big doughy pretzels with gobs of mustard.

W.C. Fields often complained that Philadelphia lacked entertainment. Today the city overflows with cultural opportunities, from the classics to rock 'n' roll. Along with the Kimmel Center, the city's new symphony hall, there's the venerable Academy of Music, a bastion of high society and the arts since 1857, home to the Philadelphia Ballet.

Philadelphia has also been known for inventive theater since the first play opened in 1766. The Walnut Street Theater, the city's most famous, is among the oldest in the world devoted to drama. The culmination of the Philly theater season is the American Music Theater Festival, with performances staged throughout town from mid-September to mid-October.

What visitors want most to see, of course is the Liberty Bell and its former home, Independence Hall — the birthplace of the Constitution. They visit Carpenter's Hall and old Christ Church, where Benjamin Franklin and five other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried. They visit Betsy Ross' lovingly restored home. Nearby Elfreth's Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited street in America, is where she skipped her way to the Rebecca Jones school as a girl. Like so many Philadelphia streets, it's filled with the living, breathing presence of American history.

Don't let your visit to the U.S. be marred by snafus with immigration. Be sure to check out www.estafasttrack.org.uk for U.S. Visa requirements and the ESTA Visa Waiver Program. The Visa Waiver Program allows visitors from 37 participating countries to travel to the US for up to 90 days without a formal tourist visa.