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TRAVEL: PHILLY GOOD FACTOR; City that gave birth to the land of the free.

Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

IT may be an apocryphal tale - because I've never actually seen it - but apparently the inscription on the headstone of the late, great WC Fields reads: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

True or not, the famous bulbous-nosed movie actor dearly loved the city where he grew up and more and more tourists are beginning to discover just why.

Philadelphia, or Philly as it's known, is a delightful place and as far as US cities go it has an awful lot of history behind it. There are loads of historical buildings, leafy parks, a fine river waterfront (the Delaware) and some of the best restaurants on the East Coast.

It really does make for an excellent US city break - a perfect foil for the shoulder-rubbing hustle and bustle of New York - and if you hire a car the Pennsylvania countryside is right on your doorstep, from the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley to the simple Amish villages in Lancaster County. The Pocono Mountains are a year-round escape for golf, swimming, white-water rafting and skiing in the winter.

Apart from Fields, Philly's favourite sons have included Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Will Smith and boxer Joe Frazier. What did they see in the place? Well, here's a guide to this charming old American city...

WHAT TO SEE

FOUNDED way back in 1682 by the English Quaker William Penn, Philadelphia is technically the birthplace of modern America. Independence was declared here in 1776. It became a huge port and trading centre and by the 18th Century it was the second-largest English-speaking city in the world after London.

You can see this heritage still in the Independence Historical Park, America's most historic square mile, which contains the famous Liberty Bell - cast in 1752 at a foundry in Whitechapel, East London - Independence Hall, the Old City Hall and Franklin Court.

In nearby Society Hill you'll find some delightful old colonial homes and 18th Century cobbled streets. Elfreth's Alley is the oldest residential street in America and at nearby Christ Church Mass is held every Sunday in much the same way as when George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other colonial leaders were sitting in the pews.

The city is pleasantly walkable although an all-day bus pass costs just $5 (pounds 3). You shouldn't miss a stroll through Fairmount Park - the biggest landscaped park in the States - which contains a village of early-American houses, hiking and jogging trails and a well-run 25-acre zoo.

The Franklin Institute Science Museum is also a must. It's the home of the Benjamin Franklin Memorial and features an exciting display of hands-on exhibits (although flying a kite in a thunderstorm isn't one of them). There is also a planetarium and a giant five-storey IMAX cinema.

For nautical souls, the Independence Seaport Museum alongside the Delaware River has plenty of interactive stuff about the city's seafaring history plus a chance to tour the USS Becuna, a Second World War submarine.

Art lovers will have a field day in Philly, too. The Rodin Museum has the largest collection of his work outside Paris, including The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais.

Then there's the city's Museum of Art - moviegoers will remember Rocky pounding up its steps - and The Barnes Foundation, which houses hundreds of works by French masters such as Renoir and Monet. To see any six of the city's biggest attractions you can buy a cut-price Citypass for $20 (pounds 11) from www.citypass.org

SHOPPING

THE Reading Terminal Market is a farmers' market that has been running for nearly 100 years and sells locally-produced food, particularly from the Amish community.

For serious shopping - there is no sales tax in Philly - head just outside town to Franklin Mills or the King of Prussia Mall (no, I don't know why it's called that, either) which are two of the biggest malls in the US.

In the city centre, Rittenhouse Row has all the usual suspects - Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Nicole Miller, Jaeger and Lagos Jewellery - while The Gallery at Market East is America's largest urban indoor shopping centre with more than 170 stores on four levels.

If you really want to blow a hole in your budget, head down a few blocks to Jeweler's Row, the oldest diamond district in the US, for discounted rings, necklaces and watches.

EATING AND DRINKING

THE city loves its food. Walnut Street is known as Restaurant Row with several top-class eateries in old converted bank buildings.

Try Striped Bass, a seafood speciality restaurant with a huge domed ceiling and chandeliers or Circa, an upmarket steak and burger joint with a 45-foot long mahogany bar.

In the Old City district several colonial buildings have been converted into bars and restaurants. Lucy's Hat Shop - which was, well, a hat shop - offers a great French menu and has a relaxing lounge bar.

For cheap eats, head for the ethnic areas such as Chinatown, Germantown and the Italian Market district.

If you're feeling homesick - although you really shouldn't in this most colonial of cities - have a pint at the Artful Dodger Beef and Ale House in South Second Street, another at Downey's Pub on Front and Market Streets, followed by one for the road at the Elephant and Castle, near the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

WHERE TO STAY

YOU'LL find that Philly hotels are generally better value than those in New York.

The poshest place in town is the Rittenhouse (www.rittenhousehotel.com) in a pretty cobbled square in the Old City. Prices start at around $350 (pounds 185) a night for a stylish double.

The Sheraton City Center Hotel (www.sheratonhotels.com) is just that - bang in the centre of town. Doubles from around $240 (about pounds 130).

For a full list of hotels and prices visit www.gophila.com

GETTING THERE

BRITISH Airways (www.ba.com) has direct daily flights from Heathrow and US Airways (www.usairways.com) flies direct from Gatwick and Manchester.

Otherwise you might consider combining New York and Philadelphia as a two-centre holiday. The cities are linked by a high-speed Amtrak train and the journey takes barely more than an hour. Alternatively, once you've escaped the traffic jams of Manhattan it's quite a pleasant two-hour drive.

British Airways Holidays offer four nights in Philadelphia from pounds 429pp, including return flights from Heathrow and accommodation only at the four-star Radisson Plaza Warwick. Visit ba.com or call 0870 24 33 406.

You can get more info by visiting the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau website (www.pcvb.org/uk). For information on Pennsylvania go to www.visitpa.com

CAPTION(S):

MY LITTLE CHICKADEE: WC Fields' hometown' WITNESS: Visit simple Amish villages' INDEPENDENCE: Symbolic Liberty Bell
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 30, 2006
Words:1118
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