Globe-trotters' bible Lonely Planet on Wednesday released its annual "Best in Travel" list of U.S. cities, ranking Philadelphia fourth. But it's not the city's carriage rides or colonial tours that caught the attention of U.S. Travel Editor Robert Reid and his team of contributors.
"Philadelphia needs no introduction – people know about it," Reid said yesterday. "I think what they don't realize is that it isn't just the Liberty Bell or Philly cheesesteaks." He said the decision to include Philadelphia was chiefly due to its growing culture scene. "It isn't on list for the usual attractions people come for around July 4 – which I appreciate as a bonus – but it's really about people coming for the art," he said. "Art is the headline."
But with Philly by far the most populous and well-known city on the Lonely Planet list, which largely features under-the-radar destinations like American Samoa and Verde Valley, Ariz., what is it about the city's art landscape that remains undiscovered?
"There's the galleries," Reid said. "You have neighborhoods like Fishtown and Kensington with Crane Studios and Icebox. The gallery scene is really big and Philly has become a contender in its arts."
He wondered if rising rents in more established artist strongholds have driven many to Philly's periphery. "New York has been pricing out artists," he said. "Just as people have moved from Manhattan to parts of Brooklyn, it seems logical more and more would think about Philadelphia."
Reid also cited as huge draws the city's well-known art destinations, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the newly-relocated Barnes Foundation. "With the Barnes Foundation, it was kind of an enigma for many people not in Philadelphia – how to get there, how to arrange to see it," he said. "Now it's so much more accessible. I think it means a weekend for a lot of people who live in the area."
Reid said the challenge now is how to best marry the city's established cultural institutions with its contemporary up-and-comers, citing the former Divine Lorraine Hotel as one example of a historic idiosyncrasy that's ripe for modernization.
"It's fascinating and you don't have anything like that in New York – here, you mostly see new buildings," he said. "I love that about Philadelphia, you see things like that. There are elements of the past just sitting there. What can you do to preserve and show that more? I wish I knew the answer."
Kensington the new Old City?
Crane Arts is a hub of multidisciplinary studio and performance spaces housed in a former plumbing warehouse near Kensington's intersection with Northern Liberties and Fishtown.
“I think it’s an up-and-coming area, said Sarah Stolfa of the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, one of many organizations that calls Crane home. "I think there are a lot of great groups doing a lot of great things. The thing I love about Philadelphia and this neighborhood is that you don’t have to be the Art Museum to display art. A lot of us are doing it on our own terms and in our own spaces."
The Ice Box, a huge exhibition space featuring a 2,500 square-foot video wall and state-of-the-art sound system, is home to Crane's newest endeavor. The International Curatorial Exchange invites installations from international artists and is sure to garner even more attention. Lonely Planet drew parallels with Old City's long-running gallery scene.
"The area is becoming more recognized, but we’ve been around for three years and many people in the city don’t know who we are. There’s still room for visibility," Stolfa said. "Will this area turn into Old City? Probably — and then we’ll all move somewhere else."
The full list of cities on Lonely Planet's "must-see" itinerary for 2013 is:
1. Louisville, Kentucky
2. Fairbanks, Alaska
3. San Juan Islands, Washington
4. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
5. American Samoa
6. Eastern Sierra, California
7. Northern Maine
8. Twin Cities, Minnesota
9. Verde Valley, Arizona
10. Glacier National Park, Montana