Standing ahead of me are 72 steps that lead to the world-renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art. But Cezanne, Picasso et al are not why I am here. Not today, at least. Having flown in from England just a couple of hours earlier, there was only once place to start a whistlestop tour of the United States’ founding city – the Rocky Steps.
Forty years ago, a low-budget film about a boxing nobody was released to little fanfare. Rocky, however, went on to become a sensation and by the following year had swept the board at the Oscars.
Its appeal has endured, as underlined by the latest instalment in the life of Rocky Balboa, Creed, being released just last year. Casting a glance around at the number of tourists either doing what we were just about to do – namely, running up those famous steps a la Sylvester Stallone in the film series – or contemplating it, that fondness for Rocky shows no signs of abating any time soon.
Thirty seconds later and with the dart up the steps complete along with the customary bounce around at the top with fists thrust into the air, the bird’s eye view of Philadelphia was one to savour. It has changed a lot since that first film. Back in 1976, the ornate City Hall complete with a statue of William Penn, the city’s founding father, dominated the skyline. Now, it is dwarfed by several skyscrapers with, judging by the number of cranes that can be seen, several more well on the way. This is very much a city on the up.
Penn’s grid system makes the city easily navigable on foot, with the best place to start any tour of discovery being the Independence Historical Park. A Unesco world heritage site, it houses Independence hall, Congress Hall, the first Bank of the United States and the iconic Liberty Bell. Nearby, there is also America’s oldest residential street, the delightful Elfreth’s Alley, plus the hugely imposing National Constitution Center. Both are well worth a visit, as too is the Reading Terminal Market.
Touted as the “greatest food market in the world” soon after opening in 1892, it is home to vendors of every food imaginable and the perfect stop-off for refuelling. It was also where I enjoyed the city’s staple food, a Philly Cheese Steak, a long roll filled with beef and melted cheese.
If, however, something more substantial is required after a day’s sight-seeing then look no further than the City Tavern. Past patrons include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who famously called it “the most genteel tavern in America”. Revolution was discussed here, followed later by the foundations for the new country.
Little has changed since those days, and that includes the food with owner – and Emmy-award winning presenter of the TV show A Taste of History – Walter Staib sticking true to the 18th century culinary history of the tavern. I can honestly say I have never left a restaurant as full as I did on my visit for lunch.
Thankfully, that day’s main activity had been in the morning. A two-hour tour of the city’s 4,000 murals may not typically get pulses racing. This, though, involved travelling by Segway, a form of transport I had never used before. After a couple of initial wobbles, however, I loved every second.
Having made the Rocky Steps our first port of call on arrival in Philadelphia, what better way to round off the visit than an organised tour of all the iconic locations that have provided the backdrop to the entire franchise of films.
Micky’s gym, Rocky’s old flat and the Italian market were all visited along with the church where Rocky married Adrienne. We travelled by people carrier, which just happened to be fitted with a DVD player. It meant wherever we stopped off on the drive around the various neighbourhoods, our guide was able to show us the relevant scene before we then clambered out for photos.
The tour ended at the Rocky Steps and, as with our first day in the city, a steady stream of fans could be seen recreating that run or aping the pose of the Rocky statue that made an appearance in the third film co-starring Mr T.
By then, Rocky was the undisputed champion but it wasn’t always so with that first film in the series seeing our hero beaten by Apollo Creed.
Towards the end of that titanic bout and before the judges had given their verdict, an exhausted Creed said to his bloodied opponent: “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.”
“Don’t want one,” was all Rocky could manage in reply. Of course, Rocky II brought that rematch and, after an enjoyable three days following in the footsteps of America’s most famous fictional boxer, I have to admit to fancying my own rematch. With the city of Philadelphia.
Richard travelled to Washington DC with Brand USA – VisitTheUSA.co.uk/Philadelphia
He stayed at warwickrittenhouse.com and travelled with British Airways, which flies daily from Heathrow to Philadelphia. Prices start from £368 return, including all taxes and charges. For reservations visit tba.com/philadelphia or call 0344 493 0787.
The Rocky Driving Tour is available from awfullynicetours.com