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The Philadelphia Experiment

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH

Philadelphia took more than 150 years to develop, and three of its neighborhoods generally chronicle that spread, from east to west. For your own self-guided walking tour, start at the Delaware and work your way toward the Schuylkill.

Historic District

STAY AT: SHERATON SOCIETY HILL Set back from a wide, tree-lined drive that sweeps around the Greek Revival-style Philadelphia Merchant's Exchange (the first stock exchange in the country), this compact hotel is built low to match the scale of the neighborhood and to preserve river views from Society Hill Towers, the I. M. Pei-designed apartments across the drive. 1 Dock St.; 800/325-3535; www.starwood.com; doubles from $179.

EAT AT: FORK A graceful, non-gimmicky American bistro where everyone will be happy. Order the house-baked sour cream coffee cake or mascarpone-stuffed French toast with warm currant compote at the friendliest Sunday brunch in town. 306 Market St.; 215/625-9425; brunch for two $30.

SNACK AT: PETIT 4 PASTRY STUDIO There's finely detailed, French-influenced pastry work going on here: classic tortes, tarts, and éclairs. If you're lucky, the bakers might be working on a tray of their trademark petits fours—Tiffany-blue boxes with a ribbon of icing, or pink squares featuring Robert Indiana's distinctive LOVE logo. 160 N. Third St.; 215/627-8440.

SHOP AT: FOSTER'S URBAN HOMEWARE If New Yorkers are obsessed with their city, and Californians with their cars, Philadelphians fixate on their interiors. Nothing exemplifies the city's metro-modern mojo better than Foster's, a sort of glamorous hardware store carrying a well-edited mix of streamlined glassware, utensils, and textiles. A savvy staff offers design and decorating advice to shoppers more concerned with the question, "Does this go with my life?" than "Does this match my couch?" 124 N. Third St.; 267/671-0588.

DON'T MISS: The Dream Garden is a 15-by-49-foot mosaic mural by Louis Comfort Tiffany, based on a Maxfield Parrish painting; it's housed in the lobby of the Curtis Center, a 1910 Georgian Revival that served as headquarters for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1998, developer Steve Wynn bought the iridescent mural (100,000 pieces of glass in some 260 tones) for his art collection, but civic-minded Philadelphians helped reverse the sale, and The Dream Garden stayed put. Walnut and Sixth Sts.; admission free.

Market District

STAY AT: LOEWS PHILADELPHIA HOTEL Designed by Howe and Lescaze and built in 1932, the landmarked Philadelphia Saving Fund Society building was the first International Style skyscraper in the country. Its 27-foot-high, red neon PSFS sign (lit 24 hours a day during the Depression to reassure customers) is a fixture in the Philadelphia skyline. The Loews Philadelphia Hotel now occupies the structure; on the three concierge levels (29th floor and above), you can see the 27-ton, cast-iron William Penn crowning nearby City Hall, the largest statue in the world to top a building. 1200 Market St.; 800/235-6397; www.loewshotels.com; doubles from $215.

EAT AT: VIETNAM Clean, light, fragrant, and energized are the words for the cuisine at Vietnam. Owner Benny Thuan Lai attributes such adjectives to the leaves: almost every dish is served alongside mint, lettuce, or lemongrass. Order No. 8, charbroiled pork rolls wrapped in rice paper, followed by No. 75, "seafood spicy salt," along with a Vietnamese beer. 221 N. 11th St.; 215/592-1163; dinner for two $35.

DON'T MISS: Philadelphia's legendary cheese steaks are really neither about the cheese nor the steak, they're about the story—where it is, how long it took you to find it, and who went along for the ride. Seven years ago, Sheila Lukins, my former boss at the Silver Palate, asked me to write about cheese steaks for her USA Cookbook. I was driven around Philadelphia by Wayne and Bob Aretz, brothers who knew every culinary nook and cranny of the city and asked lots of questions. Was the roll crusty enough and the interior soft but still substantial?Is Cheez Whiz the right choice?(If so, order "wit Whiz.") After three days of discussion and tasting—including several from the Reading Terminal Market at 12th and Arch Streets—we decided upon Tony Luke's (39 E. Oregon Ave.; 215/551-5725), a well-balanced cheese steak "wit." Truth is, I really don't remember the sandwich all that well. But riding around town in pursuit of hot meat was unforgettable.

Museum District

STAY AT: FOUR SEASONS HOTEL PHILADELPHIA From the Four Seasons, you get a sense of the span of the Ben Franklin Parkway, marked by "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," works from three generations of the Calder family. Alexander Milne Calder created the famous statue of Penn that tops City Hall; his son Alexander Stirling Calder's Swann Memorial is at Logan Circle, and the white Ghost mobile in the Philadelphia Museum of Art was designed by grandson Alexander (Sandy) Calder. 1 Logan Square; 800/332-3442; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $310.

EAT AT: FOUNTAIN RESTAURANT AT THE FOUR SEASONS Chef Martin Hamann challenges his hometown's cheese steak image with citified dishes such as Muscovy duck dressed with red onion tarte Tatin and star anise game reduction. This is mature, intelligent cooking—refined without being rarefied—and Hamann never loses his footing. 215/963-1500; dinner for two $125.

DON'T MISS: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts houses American art ranging from Thomas Eakins to Georgia O'Keeffe. But the real jewel is the building itself, designed by George Hewitt and Frank Furness; Furness was influenced by art critic John Ruskin's book-length 1849 essay Seven Lamps of Architecture (adhering to the Lamp of Truth meant that everything used was real—no plaster painted to look like wood). The building is strange and wonderful and slightly hallucinogenic: black, pink, and white marble; a starry, brilliant blue ceiling; ornamental birds and flowers everywhere. 118 N. Broad St.; 215/972-7600.

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