Must-see Philadelphia attractions
Don’t be surprised if you spot people dressed in character from tricorn-hat down to square-buckled shoe in this historic part of the city. After all, Philly is the Cradle of Liberty. Visiting these 55 acres of National Park is a must for anyone coming to Philadelphia. The abundance of landmarks in this park—including Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Congress Hall and the Ben Franklin Museum—speak to its extraordinary role in the founding of the nation. (Pro tip: Go early to procure the required free tickets at Independence Visitors Center for the popular Independence Hall tour.) There are plenty of beautiful green spaces to wander through and wonder about the courage it took Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the other freedom fighters to declare independence from England.
A bustling hive of locals and tourists, the Reading Terminal Market has more than 75 vendors and promises a sensational blend of smells and flavors. Your taste buds will thank you, but what to choose? Amish soft pretzels, shrimp pad thai, chicken pot pie, lobster mac and cheese, roast pork or po’ boy sandwiches, organic juices, artisanal coffee, maple bacon doughnuts, cannolis.… When President Obama visited a few years ago, he went for a sweet pepper and mushroom cheesesteak—and mint chocolate chip ice cream from Bassett’s. Operating since 1892, the food hall is a true Philly kind of experience, yo.
This funky and historic section of town close to the Delaware River is a blend of cafés, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and some amazing historic gems. We all learned about Betsy Ross making the country’s flag back in grade school. Visit her house to see the birthplace of the flag and the stories behind its making. Want to see the oldest—and cutest—residential street in America? Check out Elfreth’s Alley, dating back to 1702, and stop in the Elfeth’s Alley Museum to learn more about this National Historic Landmark. Walk a few minutes to the historic Christ Church, founded in 1695, and active today. Revolutionary-era attendees of the Episcopal house of worship included Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Rush and Sally Franklin Bache.
For those who love people-watching, Rittenhouse Square is endlessly fascinating. This elegant square with a rich history is one of the five open-space parks throughout the city originally planned by William Penn and built in 1683. Grab a sandwich from any of the nearby cafés, park yourself on a wooden bench in the beautifully maintained square and watch the show go by—from chic mommies and daddies playing with kids by the goat statue and busy professionals striding along to their offices to tattooed bike messengers hanging out on the 18th Street corner and crunchy hipsters playing hackey sack on the green. Besides the daily parade of Philadelphians going about their business, there’s also evening summer concerts, holiday celebrations, art fairs and farmers’ markets in and around the square. After you’ve relaxed, head east along Walnut Street and shop the thoroughfare’s high-end boutiques. When you hit Broad Street, you’ve reached the end of the loosely used term, “Rittenhouse Row.”
Whatever your views are on animals in captivity, the Philadelphia Zoo’s Zoo360 project is giving its inhabitants more room to roam and choice locations to observe visitors. Pay attention, there may be a Sumatran orangutan checking you out from overhead. Though it’s the oldest zoo in the nation—opened in 1874—it is a leader in this innovative system to get those animals up high. Begun in 2011, the zoo-wide project of animal exploration is built on a series of mesh wire trails about 20 feet above ground. These trails have expanded to include special paths and mazes including the Big Cat Crossing, the Treetop Trail for monkeys and lemurs, Great Ape Trail for bigger primates, Meerkat Maze, and the Gorilla Treeway running 300 feet. If you want to get high, too, take the 10 -minute ZooBalloon ride over the Schuylkill River. The hot air balloon goes up 400 feet and offers stunning views of surrounding Fairmount Park.
This sprawling park that runs on both sides of the Schuylkill River is the city’s largest and has bragging rights to dozens of cool attractions. The park is also home to many ongoing sports leagues (soccer, basketball, rugby, baseball) for locals. Same with the boathouses that accommodate the rowing clubs along Kelly Drive, tennis courts, pools, equestrian facilities, mountain bike trails and the pump track for BMX-style riding. But there’s plenty to do for visitors who may have a shorter window of time. The Philadelphia Zoo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art are both within the park. Kids will thank you for taking them to the kid-friendly Please Touch Museum or Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, famous for its radically awesome huge wooden slide dating back to 1905. Don’t miss the stunning Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, built in 1953 in Nagoya, Japan. There are also 18th-century historic homes to tour, including Mount Pleasant, Strawberry Mansion, Lemon Hill and Sweetbriar. In the mood for some music? See what's playing at the open-air Mann Center or Dell Music Center. Told you there was a lot happening there. Get out and explore.
Some city dwellers love the challenge of going for a run through the streets and dodging distracted drivers barreling past them in cars. But for the rest of us who just want to go for a blissed-out run or bike ride, head to the Schuylkill River Trail. It is an extraordinary example of communities and local governments working together for the greater good. It’s currently a 26.5-mile protected trail that begins in Center City, winds its way through Valley Forge National Historical Park and ends up in Chester County’s Phoenixville. The approximately 10-mile section through Philadelphia runs along the Schuylkill River Banks and—in addition to being a place for walking, running and cycling—offers plenty of room for activities,like yoga, boarding in a skate park, moonlight kayaking tours and summer outdoor movie screenings.
There is so much to delight in at this 92-acre Victorian arboretum in Chestnut Hill. There’s the elaborate miniature train display that features a series of tiny railcars motoring around a landscaped garden on a quarter-mile of track. Also designed for kids—and intrepid parents—is the Tree Adventure, a walkway built in the canopy of the trees 50 feet up with a “Squirrel Scramble” hammock-like nest made of steel mesh so visitors can hang out up in the trees. There’s also a beautifully manicured formal rose garden, mature trees and plants, a fernery, a romantic gazebo and pond with swans, a log cabin, rolling hills, sculptures and the occasional small woodland creature scampering in the underbrush.
Join the warm-weather party (May through October) at Spruce Street Harbor Park along the Delaware River. Features and activities include live music, floating gardens, bocce, ping pong, shuffleboard courts and arcade games. Hungry visitors can chow down on boardwalk food including pizza, tacos, cheesesteaks, fried chicken, funnel cake, doughnuts and ice cream. Or you could just snag one of the highly coveted hammocks and watch the whole scene unfold.
This square, one of William Penn’s original five open-space parks, underwent a radical transformation in 2006 when Historic Philadelphia Inc. restored it from a creepy spot to be avoided into a child’s absolute, must-see destination. The beautiful fountain at its center has been restored, a delightful carousel spins and projects happy music, while a Philly-landmark-themed miniature golf course, a modern playground and a gourmet burger spot all beckon.
This massive Gothic-styled fortress, now mostly in ruins, was built almost 200 years ago in 1829. With encircling walls as high as thirty feet, the pen represents a rejected institutional idea that through isolation and complete silence, criminals would become penitent and feel true regret. Take the self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi and learn about the prison, once the most famous in the world that housed Al Capone and “Slick Willie” Sutton. Closed in 1971, today it remains only partially renovated with many crumbling cell blocks still on view. If you think you can handle it, check out the venue's annual “Terror Behind the Walls” Halloween haunted-house event each fall.
Walk the halls of this magnificent Beaux Arts-style building, topped with a massive bronze statue of William Penn. It’s open for tours of its public rooms as well as to the observation deck for a tremendous 360-degree view of the city. On the apron of City Hall sits the recently renovated Dilworth Park. Go there for ice skating in the winter or live music, barbecue, beer and outdoor movie screenings in the summer. Across the street is LOVE Park, scheduled to reopen in September of 2017, after undergoing a thorough spiffing up. Its iconic Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture is set to return then, too.
You’ll know you’re approaching the entrance to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a non-profit art museum and gallery on South Street, when you start to notice bits of colored glass and shards of broken pottery embedded into the facades of the buildings surrounding you. Once you do arrive, there’s no mistaking that you’re in the midst of something cooler than you’d ever expected. Artist Isaiah Zagar has been creating art on South Street since the 1960s and this half-block collection is an immersive experience you won’t want to miss.
“Gonna Fly Now.” That’s the song written by Bill Conti that everyone hums as they run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you don’t know the Rocky theme, learn it. And maybe get in a few training runs before you sprint up the 72 steps and raise your arms aloft victoriously. Rocky, the movie starring Sylvester Stallone, is still as inspiring as it was when it won the 1977 Academy Award for best picture. At the foot of the steps, off to the north side, is a 10-foot statue of Rocky Balboa created for Rocky III. Don’t be a bum. Snap a selfie with the champ—just be prepared to wait in line for it.
Many out-of-towners associate the city with Philly cheesesteaks. It’s the famous grilled beef and onion sandwich on a hoagie roll with a glazing of cheese (Pro tip: “Wit Whiz?” means do you want Cheese Whiz instead of, say, provolone.) Though plenty of locals never go near the greasy belt-busting sandwiches, we get that it’s a bucket-list kind of thing. A couple sandwich joints that get the most attention are Pat’s King of Steaks where the cheesesteak was invented in 1930, and its across-the-street neighbor—and rival–Geno’s Steaks. If you’re still hungry after wolfing down one of their sandwiches, walk through the gritty 9th Street Italian Market from Wharton to Fitzwater streets. It’s one of the oldest open-air markets in the country, brimming with fish and fruit sellers, coffee and cheese stands, paninis, banh mi, freshly made pasta, water ice and gelato.
Have the little ones in tow?
Our guide to the best things to do in Philadelphia with kids includes visits to museums, zoos and tons of outdoor fun