Wherever I am in Philadelphia, I know that I am truly in the birthplace of America. Here on these same streets that our forefathers walked a mere two centuries ago, I can feel the presence of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.
This history-steeped city still bears the mark of its founder, William Penn. When Penn arrived on the shores of the Delaware River in 1682, he had a vision—and a set of values—that carried him forward successfully. His vision was to lay out a modern city on an innovative grid plan and sell lots to colonists who would follow him to the new land.
Perhaps as important for the early success of the city as its well-thought-out street plan was Penn’s ability to deal with the Native Americans who occupied portions of what was to become Philadelphia. Penn traded with the Indians fairly, treating them with honor and dignity. That policy produced lasting peace: Philadelphia was one of only a handful of early American communities that did not have city walls to protect against Indian attacks.
Penn’s remarkable tolerance became an enduring Philadelphia legacy. The City of Brotherly Love has always been known for its inclusion of all religions, races, and nationalities. During most of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia was the seat of congress of the American colonies. Delegates were able to gather here safely without fear of religious persecution or other rights violations, which might have been a problem in other colonies.
From the Revolutionary period up through the mid-19th century, there was no firm color barrier in the industries of Philadelphia. Some of the city’s earliest merchants were African Americans, and black crews manned many of the early trading ships sailing from Philadelphia. A center of abolitionist effort in America, the city served as a major stop on the Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia today ranks as one of America’s great walking cities, a place where you can stroll through three centuries of architecture. The aura of the city’s beginnings still permeates the whole of the Old City and Society Hill. Center City is so beautifully contained between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, and one can walk from river to river in less than an hour. A walk around and through City Hall, one of America’s great buildings, is a must, as is a visit to the Liberty Bell and Reading Market. And no one should miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the exceptional Barnes Collection, or an evening with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Not to mention the dozens of top restaurants offering everything from the freshest of seafood to famous Philly cheesesteaks. And for people-watching, just grab a ringside seat on Rittenhouse Square.
But for me, a stop at Independence Hall remains the highlight of any Philadelphia stay. To make your visit a lifelong memory, brush up by reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It makes us all proud to be Americans.
TONY GOLDMAN has won renown for revitalizing declining historical districts in New York, Miami, and now Philadelphia.
2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest
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