When I planned this trip I had a couple of ideas: I wanted to spend at least a week in every place I visit (so I can experience it in a bit of depth) and make at least one side-trip (so I have something to compare it to). After a week in Buenos Aires, I took a ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. From New York I caught a train to Philadelphia. The Amtrak sped through Bruce Springsteen territory – the vacant lots and forlorn weatherboard houses of New Jersey – and then pretty wooded lakes, the trees a riot of yellows and greens and rust-reds. After only an hour it dropped me at 30th Street Station.

I felt an almost immediate sense of relief. Philadelphia may be near New York, but the feeling there is very different. In colonial times, it was the largest and most important city in North America (and the second-largest English-speaking city in the world, after London); it’s the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was drafted. It even served as the U.S. capital while Washington was constructed. However, it ceded much of its significance as Washington began to fulfil its official functions and New York overtook it in size. In more recent times it has struggled – in the second half of the twentieth century it lost almost a quarter of its population. It has at once a small-scale grandeur and a slightly careworn appearance. Coming from Manhattan, where the buildings soar away from you in great vertiginous planes, its neat squares and red-brick terraces were on a reassuringly human scale. It feels like a place intended for people.

My first stop was the Liberty Bell. Cast in Britain and hung in the Pennsylvania State House, the Bell kept cracking because of its unstable compound of metals. It was re-cast a number of times before the crack was accepted as permanent. Now it hangs soundlessly in its own museum, a national icon and a site of pilgrimage. (There’s some disagreement as to how the Bell cracked and when it was actually used, but tradition holds that it rang out to celebrate the Declaration of Independence.) In some ways, it’s not a very likely symbol for can-do America – it’s not a place that’s very tolerant of brokenness or has much patience for things that don’t work. I treasure its admission of frailty, its acknowledgement of imperfection – it testifies to a state that has not arrived at its destination, that continues to amend itself. Leonard Cohen sums up its appeal in the chorus of his song “Anthem”:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

After submitting to a search by security guards, you file through the museum – past exhibits on the various groups that have invoked the Bell in support of their cause, campaigners against slavery and suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement – to the dull dark-brown Bell itself. It’s hard to think of anything in Australian life that does a similar double-duty as symbol and actual, physical object – we have icons like the Harbour Bridge, of course, but none that embody an idea. Mounted in its nondescript visitors’ centre, the Bell has a lovely mute power.

The following day I visited the Eastern Penitentiary. Built in 1829, it was intended as a new kind of prison – concentrating on the rehabilitation of convicts rather than their punishment or use as public example. From the outside, though, it’s all intimidation – an imposing medieval structure, the thick walls complete with turrets, arrow slits and fettered gargoyles. (It’s a front; the turrets and slits are false.) When you pay at the gate, you’re given a pair of headphones and an audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi: it combines spooky atmospherics and intellectual heft in perfect proportions. Inside it’s chillingly rational. The intentions of the prison’s designers were humane, but their methods were pretty extraordinary. Prisoners would serve their sentences in almost total isolation. They were led into the prison hooded so that no-one would be able to recognise them – after that, their only contact was with the warden. Each convict had a cell with its own walled yard – a place where they could walk circuits and glimpse a small rectangle of sky. Meals were served to them in their cells. Conversation was forbidden. The idea was that they would be thrown entirely on their own resources – forced into self-examination. There’s not much evidence that this succeeded in improving their characters, but economically it was unviable – eventually the Philadelphia Model (as it was known) was abandoned due to the sheer number of convicts needing housing. A prisoner might at last expect a little company.

The Prison was also influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s ideas about supervision – the cells radiate out from a central station in seven spokes, so that a guard standing at the centre could see all seven blocks simply by turning around. The geometry is at once beautiful and a little frightening, testifying as it does to an institutional logic impervious to the vagaries of human nature. The prison was abandoned entirely in the early 1970s, and the place is in a fascinating state of semi-ruin – some areas with their symmetry and their monastic cleanness and their vaulting ceilings intact, others piled with rubble.

Just up the road – and impressive in a different way – is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sitting beside the Schuylkill River in Fairmount Park, the Museum proudly shares an axis with the City Hall, looking down over downtown Philadelphia. Much like the National Gallery’s position on St Kilda Road in Melbourne, it’s a testament to the importance of the arts in this city. It’s a massive Greek Revival building – all columns and gods in relief – with the set of stairs that Sylvester Stallone conquered in Rocky. (There’s a statue of him out front, gloved hands raised in triumph.) It’s grander – more monumental – than anything in New York, because of the space it’s allowed to command. (The galleries in Manhattan are wedged in among other things, which somewhat mutes their impact.) There’s intelligence too in its juxtapositions – the foyer is dominated by a huge statue of Diana, drawing her bow, and an Alexander Calder mobile that resembles the skeleton of a whale. They couldn’t be more different in style, yet they trace the same taut arc.

I was especially excited about seeing the work of Thomas Eakins. He was an American painter of the nineteenth century; a realist who was nonetheless controversial because of his subject matter and his uninhibited approach to nudity. He changed people’s sense of what it was appropriate to paint. One of his most famous paintings is The Gross Clinic, the portrait of a Philadelphia surgeon. Its setting is a lecture theatre; the doctor pauses mid-surgery, ringed by his students, his sleeves speckled with blood, his patient lying prone while his assistants hold open an incision. In its sobriety – Dr. Gross is the sole point of light, the rest of the canvas deep in shadow – and its frankness about the facts of his profession it’s a shocking image even now, and a powerful one. Eakins’ portraits are extraordinary too – though his insight into his sitters often made them uncomfortable (and probably cost him commissions). He does not present his subjects’ social faces but burrows into them: there’s a raw emotion to their eyes in particular, a glistening sense of exposure.

Alas, I only had a few hours to spend at the Museum before I left for New York. I had that sense – both sweet and melancholy – of having only scratched the surface in Philadelphia. (It’s sad because you wish you had more time; sweet because it retains a sense of unexplored possibilities.) It’s a wonderful city.