By Marian Betancourt
When I lived in Philadelphia for two years in the 1990s I missed New York. Although I enjoyed the art museum and the Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia didn’t seem as vibrant as my native city. Well, that view has been quashed forever by a recent visit during Philadelphia’s International Festival of the Arts (PIFA). And I’m not alone. Last year The New York Times ranked Philadelphia the number one place to visit in the U.S. Hotels are going up faster than you can say high-rise and dining has evolved from the infamous cheese steak to one of the most exciting culinary destinations anywhere.
During the American premier of “Knitting Peace,” a performance by Cirkus Cirkor, a Swedish circus troupe, I couldn’t help but hold my breath while watching an acrobat balance on one hand atop an enormous ball of yarn, or worse, on the end of a tall knitting needle. This was one of more than 60 performances that brought spectacle and excitement to Philadelphia for 16 days in April, the third PIFA festival since 2011.
Trapeze artists interacted with elaborately woven and strangely entangled knitted structures and props posing the question, “Can you use an ancient art like knitting to create peace?” I don’t know the answer to that, but the yarn was recycled from a sock factory in Finland, so perhaps that is a step in the right direction. During the festival community knitters were encouraged to make and donate knitted white objects—hats, shawls, and other garments–that would later travel with the Cirkus.
Like the Cirkus Cirkor, many PIFA performances took place in the beautiful Kimmel Center for the performing arts established in 2001. The main building covers an entire block and has a vast multi-story plaza, which was the setting for the Kinetic Tree, designed by 2015 MacArthur Genius Award winner Mimi Lien. Twice daily lights and music created a spectacular effect as the tree “bloomed,” expanding its branches outward and upward. When the tree was static, small children played in the trunk area.
Also for children was Paper Planet, a forest of cardboard trees and vines of twisted strips of brown wrapping paper created by Australia’s Polyglot Theatre as a space for play and exploration. Another tree installation at the Kimmel Center was “Stand” created by environmental artist Shay Church, who constructed a small forest from reclaimed wood. Local people were invited to apply thousands of pounds of clay, which took on the appearance of tree bark as it dried, creating a beautiful mini forest.
The Barnes Foundation, the newest of the city’s art museums, was the setting for “My Soul’s Shadow,” a cinematic shadow puppet installation based on the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca. The Barnes houses one of the world’s largest and finest collections of Impressionist, Post-impressionist and Early Modern paintings collected by Albert Barnes (1872-1951). It opened in 2012 after years of court battles to overcome Barnes’ will, which mandated that the collection remain in his home in suburban Merion.
Inside this modern building with open space and gardens, are 23 rooms, each about the size of a modest living room, where the paintings are installed as they were in Barnes’ home, grouped with metal art objects and some furnishings that harmonize with the art. Renoir, a particular favorite of Barnes, made a marvelous rarely seen painting of his family when his children were young. Barnes also bought several of the best works of William Glackens (1870-1938), a friend and native Philelphia artist, who became well known as part of “The Eight” or the Ashcan School in New York. Glackens often scouted out paintings for Barnes on his travels through Europe. You will need to visit the Barnes more than once to take it all in.
The remaining festival days included musical performances from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Rivers of Sound, Jazz Bridge, and the Veterans’ Dreams Project of poems set to original music. Artists from around the world, and some locals created what was the city’s largest street fair on Broad Street on the last day of the festival.
One of the most charming areas of Philadelphia is Rittenhouse Square, centered around a beautiful park of tree-lined walkways and benches. It is one of several such areas laid out by the city’s founder William Penn and this one named for David Rittenhouse, an astronomer and clockmaker. Hotels in this area range from the pricey luxury of The Rittenhouse to the more moderate priced such as the Sofitel and the Sonesta. Both feature changing exhibitions of local artists in their lobbies. Philadelphia is also rated the nation’s second best shopping city and in this area you’ll find such tempting outlets as Nordstrom and Bloomingdales.
At Parc Brasserie, one of many of the city’s fine restaurants operated by the Stephen Starr group, you’ll enjoy bistro fare and French café culture that blends right in with the Left Bank ambiance of Rittenhouse Square. Bouillabaisse is a Friday special and as authentic as if you were dining in Marseille. The baguettes and boule de pain are baked in-house, and while you sip an aperitif at a table overlooking the park, indulge in a simple appetizer of fresh radish with sea salt and butter.
And if you think food courts are a modern culinary creation, stroll a few blocks over to Reading Terminal Market, which has been thriving since 1892. Try the very special and unforgettable hoagie at Salumeria with all the trimmings including artichoke hearts.
Philadelphia has long been the nation’s first World Heritage city, the place where all those founding fathers hashed out the Declaration of Independence and other important matters. Independence National Historical Park is a favorite with tourists taking “selfies” by the Liberty Bell, or if they are really in luck, with one of the official Ben Franklin re-enactors who frequent the area.
On a clear day, you can literally see forever with a 360-degree view of the city from the top of One Liberty Observation Deck, 883 feet up. This is just a taste of all this city has to offer. As the second largest city on the East Coast, Philadelphia is a great way to escape the clamor and noise of New York, and via Amtrak, it is only hour and change away. I’m looking forward to my next visit.
For more info, go to Visit Philadelphia
Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel + Leisure and others. She is the author of several books and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. Her latest book, Heroes of New York Harbor: Tales from the City’s Port will be published in October.