On the trail of art, history and cheesesteaks in Philadelphia

Philly, as Philadelphia is affectionately known, is proving an impressive place to view world-class art

Photo by Stuart Forster
Photo by Stuart Forster

By Stuart Forster

Published: Thu 13 Jan 2022, 11:46 PM

Two-thirds of the way up the stone staircase leading towards Philadelphia Museum of Art, I realise that Sylvester Stallone makes running up the 72 broad steps look easy in the films Rocky and Rocky II. After featuring as a location for two of the most memorable scenes in the popular boxing movies of the 1970s, the landmark is today best known as the Rocky Steps.

My sprint tails into a lethargic jog long before I reach the top step. Breathing hard and mimicking Stallone as Rocky Balboa, I raise my arms aloft like a victorious boxer and turn to gaze along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. An impressive view of Philadelphia’s cityscape, rather than a world champion’s belt, is my reward. I’m staring towards the vast statue of William Penn, the founder of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on top of Philadelphia City Hall, when the next middle-aged man to replicate the famous scenes shuffles breathlessly past.

Near the foot of the staircase, people queue to snap selfies by A. Thomas Schomberg’s bronze sculpture depicting Stallone playing Balboa. To me, the piece symbolises the importance of maintaining self-belief to achieve success. When the original Rocky movie was filmed, Stallone was still largely an unknown actor and reputedly short of money. Despite the offer of a sizable payment to step down, so that an established star could play the role, Stallone insisted on playing the lead role of the screenplay that he wrote. The film went on to receive the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture and launched its lead actor towards Hollywood stardom.

The statue stands within easy walking distance of many more bronze artworks at the Rodin Museum — the only museum dedicated to Auguste Rodin outside of his homeland, France. Philly, as Philadelphia is affectionately known, is proving an impressive place to view world-class art.

The Barnes Foundation, opposite the Rodin Museum on North 21st Street, features a notable and eclectic collection of objects from around the world. In addition to the likes of Greek antiquities and European furniture, Albert C. Barnes collected artworks painted by masters including Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh.

Having recovered my breath, I step inside the grand interior of the enormous Philadelphia Museum of Art and make a beeline for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. After pausing to appreciate Pablo Picasso’s grinning Old Woman and Juan Gris’s Chessboard, Glass and Dish, time seems to accelerate while I view the wealth of works up on the third floor. Much of the afternoon slips by before I set foot inside the wing displaying American art from the second-half of the 19th century.

The United States of America was around 100 years old by then. Being in Philadelphia enables me to learn about events associated with key moments in the country’s early history. In 1776 the USA’s Founding Fathers met at Pennsylvania State House, the brick building today known as Independence Hall, to discuss and ratify the Declaration of Independence.

US National Park Service uniformed guides lead tours of the building where the United States Constitution was also debated. Exhibitions within the nearby National Constitution Center contextualise the significance of the document enshrining the laws by which the country is governed.

As afternoon moves towards evening, I begin thinking about where to dine. Yesterday I visited South Philadelphia’s Italian Market district and sampled a cheesesteak at Pat’s King of Steaks. The 24-hour restaurant is named after Pat Oliveri, the business’s founder and creator of Philadelphia’s signature sandwich back in 1930.

Thinly sliced ribeye beef and cheese are the staple ingredients of the Philadelphia cheesesteak. Served in a long, crusty bread roll, I chose to have my cheesesteak topped with onions. Moderately priced and filling, the dish impressed.

Today I head to Reading Terminal Market, a sizable indoor farmers’ market a couple of blocks from Philadelphia City Hall. Neon lights suspended above aisles advertise gourmet produce and flavour-packed dishes from a mouth-watering cross-section of global cuisines. Oysters, barbecued spareribs and burgers count among orders placed by locals while I meander between stalls.

As I’m in Philadelphia, I decide to go for yet another cheesesteak. Served with mushrooms and peppers, the version prepared by Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies and Cheesesteaks strikes me as popular, judging by the queue. While waiting to place my order, the sizzling ingredients and clang of cooking implements on the grill’s metal surface reminds me of the sound of teppanyaki cooking. The sandwich leaves me pleasantly full ahead of walking to my hotel.

To work it off I could rise early tomorrow, run through the city and have another go at the Rocky Steps. Strolling back towards the market for a leisurely breakfast before viewing the urban landscape from the observation deck of Philly’s City Hall Tower also appeals. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.


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