Things to do in Philadelphia, US: From historic sites to film locations for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky

Philadelphia has a lot going for it: it's the first meeting place of the Founding Fathers, birthplace of the United States Marine Corps, home to the nation's first hospital (founded by Benjamin Franklin), first stock exchange and first zoo, the Liberty Bell (and its crack), Sylvester Stallone/Rocky running up those steps and … basketballer Ben Simmons. I didn't know who he was until one of our group mentioned how excited he was to be going to see the Philadelphia 76ers while we were there, especially as Simmons was playing.

Yeah, nah. Who? And yet when we did get to the arena there's a whole group of Basketball Victoria schoolkids there to worship at the big old feet of the 22-year-old NBA basketball sensation from Melbourne. It seems Simmons is a superstar and, if you're into basketball, regularly pulls off turnover-free triple-doubles (which sounds like a gut-busting waffle order in an American diner, if you ask me), was picked this year for LeBron James' NBA All-Star team (the first Australian ever) and was, is, maybe, perhaps dating someone called Kendall Jenner.

This is all in the way of saying that sport is a big deal in Philadelphia and the ethos of its teams says much about how the city sees itself, and how it's being increasingly seen from the outside – as the perennial underdog finally making good. Rocky, anyone?

And nothing sums this up more than the speech the Philadelphia Eagles centre Jason Kelce delivered on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (yes, the Rocky steps) when his team won the Super Bowl in 2018: He said: "I'm going to take a second to talk to you about underdogs … we were a bunch of underdogs. And you know what an underdog is? It's a hungry dog." And then added: "Any of you know who the biggest underdog is? It's y'all, Philadelphia."

Well, no longer. Philadelphia is finally coming out from under the shadow of nearby New York, no longer the poor relation. And if this is what underdogs look like then book me a kennel.

Philly, as those of us in the know call it, is like a less frenetic, politer, more user-friendly New York (and only a 90-minute train ride from the Big Apple if you fancy a day trip). It is both modern and, in American terms, old. This, after all, is where the seeds of the American Revolution took root.

Founded in 1682 as the capital of the Pennsylvania colony it was the meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States, whose First Continental Congress met at Carpenters' Hall in the city in 1774 to decide how to respond to the harsh vagaries of British rule. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 at the city's Pennsylvania State House. Which means that, architecturally, it's a palimpsest of a city, layer upon layer of everything from old "row" housing to the red-brick of the Georgian era (Independence Hall and Christ Church, for example) and on to the classical pomp of Greek revival and the art deco movement of the early 20th century.

A perfect example of row houses can be found at Elfreth's Alley, a dinky, partially cobblestone laneway sandwiched between Second Street and the Delaware River. Dating from 1702, it is America's oldest continuously occupied residential street and its 32 terraced houses with their pretty flower boxes and shuttered windows are still occupied today. It's a living, breathing example of how people lived in the early days of the Philadelphia colony. Minus the outside dunnies, smell and yellow fever.

Philadelphia contains 67 National Historic Landmarks and became a member of the Organisation of World Heritage Cities in 2015. What this means is there's a lot of old stuff laying around, but rather than come across as a city preserved in aspic it also has a strong youthful feel thanks to its many universities and colleges.

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It's a city of firsts, a city of funky wall murals and funkier bars, of Philly cheese steak and giant pretzels. This is a city where you can pay homage to the Liberty Bell in the morning, toss coins on Benjamin Franklin's grave in the afternoon and then drink cannabis cocktails in the evening. It's also a very walkable city, at least in the central Center City districts. It's less than a two-hour stroll from Lincoln Financial Field (the home of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles) in the south, to the famous Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the north where the leafy riverside stretch of Fairmount Park begins.

A west-to-east walk from the Schuylkill River to the Delaware River (which marks the border with New Jersey) takes about 45 minutes on streets named after trees: Chestnut, Cypress, Walnut, etc.

After getting the obligatory photograph with the Rocky statue down below the museum steps (and running up them a la Balboa, of course) a short walk around the corner will bring you to one of Philadelphia's great unsung attractions – the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). Opened in 1829, ESP was a revolution in its day for emphasising reform rather than punishment and for its wagon-wheel shaped design where all the cell block "spokes" were controlled and visible from a central hub.

It was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world but closed in 1971 and today, after being saved from possible redevelopment as a shopping mall or luxury apartments, is a "preserved ruin" museum that attracts 220,000 visitors a year.

It's wonderfully evocative and gloomily beautiful, a not-quite-vanished world of decaying, mildewed cell blocks, rusted gates, creepy operating rooms, abandoned guard towers and the haunting, church-like melancholy of the vaulted cell blocks.

Take a moment, also, to visit the Old City District down towards the Delaware. Here you'll find the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Museum of the American Revolution and a wonderful Visitors' Centre where, among knick-knacks quoting Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and posters proclaiming "The United States of Philadelphia", you can purchase a T-shirt printed with the immortal words "Yo Adrian".

FIVE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN PHILADELPHIA

MURAL WALKING TOUR

There are some 3600 murals scattered around what's called Philadelphia's Mural Mile. There's even one celebrating actor Kevin Bacon's dad, Edmund Bacon, who was executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970 and is widely regarded as the father of modern Philadelphia. Of course, you probably wouldn't know that without taking a tour. The artworks are colourful, inspiring and thought-provoking. See muralarts.org

PENN MUSEUM

Three gallery floors dedicated to art and artefacts from Egypt, the Middle East and the ancient Greek and Roman worlds all housed in a grand arts and crafts building founded in 1887. If nothing else, take the Ancient Alcohol: A Taste of Bygone Booze tour. See penn.museum

VISIT FISHTOWN

Not so long ago Fishtown was a place to be avoided but today it's a throbbing and thriving hub of cool bars, quirky restaurants, craft beer, music venues and art galleries. See discoverphl.com

TOUR CITY HALL

Built in the grand Second Empire style from 1871 to 1901, City Hall was, for a time, the tallest habitable building in the world at 167 metres (including the statue of city founder William Penn atop the tower). There's an interior tour and a tower tour. For details visit phlvisitorcenter.com

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN MUSEUM

Not actually a native, Franklin nonetheless is synonymous with Philly. One of the Founding Fathers of the USA, he was a polymath who was known as an author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist … you name it. Learn more about this amazing man at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Franklin Court, where he lived for many years. There is even a plaque on the ground marking his "privy". Now, that's fame. See nps.gov

TRIP NOTES

Keith Austin was a guest of Philadelphia Convention & Visitors' Bureau.

MORE

traveller.com.au/philadelphia

discoverphl.com

FLY

Qantas flies from all major Australian airports to Los Angeles and then on to Philadelphia with American Airlines. See qantas.com

STAY

Five-star Loews Philadelphia Hotel is housed in a 1932 National Historic Landmark building and is said to be the United States' first modern skyscraper. It has 581 rooms over 36 storeys, including 12 suites. See loewshotels.com

TOUR

Eastern State Penitentiary is open daily, 10am-5pm. There are guided tours as well as a self-guided tours narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. Tickets US$16 and US$12. Not recommended for children under seven. See easternstate.org

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