No visit to the City of Brotherly Love is complete until you’ve wandered inside at least a few of the best Philadelphia museums. And, given the diversity we’ve got going on in town, you’ll never have to worry about finding one that you like.
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway—a work of art in itself—is ground zero when you want to ogle art (and, yes, the Rocky Statue) by the world’s most famous creatives, like Picasso, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. Looking for history? Find it in spades in Old City, where the revolutionary era comes alive in a handful of high-tech museums that are fun for grownups and kids alike. The campus of the University of Pennsylvania is also home to a diverse group of destinations—including a couple of underrated gems that are absolutely free to enter.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Philadelphia
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is perhaps more widely known for its role in Rocky, but it’s so much more than that. Overlooking the Schuylkill River, this crown jewel on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway wows with a world-class art collection that spans the ages—from medieval relics to seminal Impressionist works and colorful wonders from the Modern era. Its permanent collection boasts masterworks by Picasso, Van Gogh, Brancusi, Kahlo, Duchamp and more, but blockbuster special exhibitions held throughout the year bring in even more pieces of must-see art from around the globe. Your ticket grants you two-day access to PMA, the Rodin Museum, Cedar Grove and the next-door Perelman Building, which holds the art museum’s acclaimed fashion and textile collection and features displays of prints, drawings, photographs and modern design.
Step inside this modern marvel of architectural design to explore the renowned art collection of Albert C. Barnes, a wealthy chemist who made his fortune by inventing a medicine called Argyrol. Barnes amassed one of the world’s leading collections of works by impressionist and modernist masters, including Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-August Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Henri Rousseau. With so many noteworthy artists, it’s no wonder that the museum’s 4,000 holdings are worth an estimated $25 billion. Check out the 2013 documentary The Art of the Steal for more on the Barnes’ fascinating backstory.
You’ll know you’ve found the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) on Broad Street when you spot a 51-foot-high inverted paintbrush and a crashed fighter jet stuck in the pavement. These works, respectively by Claes Oldenburg and PAFA alumnus Jordan Griska, are dramatically installed on the plaza outside the elegant Victorian-era museum and art school that opened in 1805. The destination takes the viewer on a chronologically arranged tour of American art from the 1760s to today, with works by notable art all-stars, such as Benjamin West, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, Alice Neel, Jennifer Bartlett, Alex Katz and Frank Stella. That's in addition to an itinerary of well-thought-out special exhibitions happening throughout the year.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, familiarly known as the Penn Museum, houses a staggering one million objects—including art and fascinating relics from far-flung lands, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia, the Middle East and ancient Greece and Italy. The star of the show is the Egyptian gallery with its 15-ton granite sphinx, ancient hieroglyph-inscribed columns and mummies. The Chinese rotunda, with a soaring ceiling that stretches to 90 feet, houses sculptures and the famous Qing Dynasty 55-pound flawless crystal ball. Wander down hallways and discover treasures in the Etruscan, African, Greek and Canaan galleries that will bring out your inner explorer. Also, don’t miss the spectacular artifacts, jewels and the famed Ram-in-the-Thicket statuette in the newly remodeled Middle Eastern galleries.
This is invariably the museum that out-of-town guests beg to be taken to when visiting Philadelphia. It houses a curious collection of antique medical oddities, deformed organs floating in jars of formaldehyde, and anatomical specimens and wax models. Get, as the museum touts, “disturbingly informed” as you ogle the 200-year-old conjoined liver of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, slices of Albert Einstein’s brain and the famed “Soap Lady,” a woman from around here whose body was exhumed in 1875 after being encased in a bizarre soaplike fatty substance. If that’s not enough to scare you away, maybe the interactive exhibit that lets you experience what it’s like to have your arm amputated will.
You can’t miss this imaginative museum on South Street, with its facade—and even some surrounding buildings—plastered with bits of colored glass and shards, broken ceramics and even bicycle wheels. The experience continues inside, as you wind your way through mosaicked hallways and step into glistening courtyards. The labyrinthine museum is the product of the insanely creative mind of local artist Isaiah Zagar, who’s gone on to contribute hundreds of mosaics throughout South Philadelphia. See how many you can spot while you’re strolling around the area.
Once the world’s most expensive prison, Eastern State Penitentiary is now a fascinating museum, charting nearly 150 years of criminal history. The imposing fortress closed its doors in 1971, but not before it held renowned inmates like Al Capone and Slick Willie Sutton, who famously tunneled out of the prison in 1945. Guests are able to walk through the creepy halls and peek into the empty cells, all while listening to a Steve Buscemi-narrated audio guide. If you’re here in the fall—and brave enough—the facility turns into a monstrous haunted attraction called Terror Behind the Walls, which offers multiple haunted experiences and a pop-up bar near Capone’s former holding cell.
The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is where you go if you want to see ultra-contemporary, experimental works and installations. The compact museum has been mounting exhibitions of works by major contemporary artists since its opening in 1963, when it vowed to bring in what was “new and happening on the art scene.” Andy Warhol presented his first-ever solo museum show here in 1965. Since then, the ICA has added artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Laurie Anderson, Glenn Ligon, Agnes Martin, Damian Ortega, Pepon Osorio and Lisa Yuskavage to its impressive roster. Another thing: the ICA is absolutely free, so stop in and get your culture fix completely gratis.
The Museum of the American Revolution is a fun, high-tech addition to the city’s historic offerings—and it’s a blast to explore for kids and adults alike. Located in Old City, where the rumblings of revolution began, the place boasts weaponry displays, interactive experiences and thousands of artifacts from the colonial era—including the tent George Washington used as his headquarters from 1778 to 1783.
Rising dramatically above Independence Mall in Old City, this sharp, modern museum utilizes thousands of artifacts, papers, photos and films to tell the story of being Jewish in America—beginning at the time Jews arrived here in 1654 and moving through the present day. The experience includes creative, interactive exhibits, like a booth where you can record you own story, and famous artifacts from Jews who have made an impact on American life and culture. You can check out a costume Barbra Streisand wore in the cult-fave 1980s musical Yentl, Stephen Spielberg’s first camera and a pipe that once rested on Albert Einstein’s brilliant kisser.
For better or worse, politics is a hot topic these days—all the more reason to make sure you know your rights. Get started at the National Constitution Center, devoted to telling the story of the U.S. Constitution—which was drafted and signed just across Market Street in Independence Hall. Learning is fun here, with high-tech exhibits—both permanent and temporary—interactive displays and historic artifacts. A display of life-size bronze statues of all 42 of the Constitution signers is great fodder for your Instagram feed, because who wouldn’t like a selfie with a founding father?
This spot on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a no-brainer for kids, with its towering dinosaur skeletons, hands-on fossil digs and animal dioramas, but it’s a must for lovers of natural history as well. Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Sciences is home to 18 million plant and animal specimens—both living and long-dead. There are more than 30 dinosaur and Mesozoic reptile species, including a fully constructed Tyrannosaurus rex; an exhibit where you can walk among a myriad of fluttering butterflies from around the world; and a hall filled with dozens of dioramas from the 1930s and ’40s, including Kodiak bears, bison, moosn, zebras, gorillas, tigers and pandas.
If your kid can’t find something at this science museum to get excited about, you better check their pulse. Step inside the rotunda to greet a 20-foot-high marble statue of Benjamin Franklin, the museum’s namesake, before zooming in to explore room upon room of fun, interactive exhibits in this historic—and super hands-on—science museum. Permanent exhibitions and attractions include the four-story Foucault’s Pendulum; a giant heart that you can walk through and hear pulsing with blood; the 350-ton Baldwin steam locomotive and the 1948 T-33 Shooting Star jet. While a lot of this is for kids—and kids at heart—adults can find plenty to love in two Escape Rooms, the Fels Planetarium and a host of virtual reality experiences.
Venture into South Philly and pay the cheap $5 admission to learn all about one of the city’s most time-honored, kooky traditions: the Philadelphia Mummers. For nearly 120 years, the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade has featured dozens of Mummer troupes made up of men, women and children who wear over-the-top costumes and put on outlandish musical shows for spectators lined up along Broad Street. The Mummers Museum delves deeper into the history of the trend with a colorful collection of costumes, videos and a demonstration on how to do the “Mummers Strut.” Keep in mind the venue is only open Wednesdays through Sundays.
Situated in a gothic Victorian library on the University of Pennsylvania campus, the 2,000-square-foot Arthur Ross Gallery is free and open to the public. Named after the New York investor, philanthropist and Penn graduate who founded it in 1983, the gallery showcases works from Penn’s collection in addition to four major exhibitions each year. The thoughtfully curated shows embrace a variety of cultures and mediums—from photography to painting and sculpture.
Learn about African American contributions to culture and art in the U.S. at this modest Old City museum that’s located just a few blocks from Independence Hall. The story unfolds through interactive computer displays, photographs, videos and an impressive lineup of rotating special exhibitions that explore the African American experience through fine art, multimedia storytelling and historic artifacts shipped in from across the country.
The trip to Chestnut Hill is totally worth it, if only to spend an afternoon art-peeping at the Woodmere Art Museum. Housed in a charming 19th-century stone mansion, the museum has an easily browsable nine galleries that spotlight Philadelphia art, artists and classic paintings and sculptures from the 6,000-works-strong permanent collection.
This contemporary art center just around the corner from Reading Terminal showcases art made with new materials and media. Shows include anything from sculpture to works on fabric to architectural exhibitions and video installations. Another perk? Admission is totally free.
Philadelphia’s mint does not print paper money, but it does stamp coins by the tens of millions per day. The free self-guided tour explains what the process entails from start to finish as well as how it has all changed from earlier days. Along the way, kids will get to design their own virtual coins, try to lift a sack of nickels and see what happens to all the money that falls off the conveyor belts.
Catch up on all the lessons you slept through in science class at this Old City museum that was founded to preserve and explore the history of science and teach the indelible impact that it has had on humankind throughout the ages. Step inside to look through one of the most renowned collections of rare books on chemistry, a host of historic scientific instruments and works that merge the worlds of science and modern art.
Just outside of Old City, this restored firehouse offers close-up looks at antique fire trucks as well as artifacts rescued from some well-known fire-related events. Upstairs, look through old ship registers and get up close and personal with some of the many antique fire extinguishers on display. This is a free self-guided tour not to miss—especially if you have little ones in tow.