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 and the Ben Franklin Museum—speak to its extraordinary role in the founding of the nation.
Pro tip: Go early to get one of a limited number of free tickets released every morning from 8.30am at Independence Visitors Center for the popular Independence Hall tour.
Established in 1892, the historic Reading Terminal Market is the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market. It’s also something of a destination for fromage fans, offering a mind-melting selection of the good stuff—from rare Pennsylvania Dutch specialties to incredibly fresh mozzarella made on site at the Valley Shepherd Creamery. There are some 80 local foodsmiths plying their trade here, but if you’re stopping for lunch, seek out Tommy DiNic’s roast pork sandwich, one of the best sandwiches outside a cheesesteak you’ll find around these parts.
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 space has a rich history and 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 and watch the show go by—from chic mommies and daddies playing with their kids to tattooed bike messengers hanging out on the 18th Street corner. Besides the daily parade of Philadelphians, there’s often also summer concerts, holiday celebrations, art fairs and farmers’ markets in and around the square.
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.
At more than twice the size of Central Park, sprawling Fairmount Park offers activities both outdoorsy and cultural. Not only is it home to several historic mansions and the intriguing Shofuso Japanese House and Garden (transplanted from a mid-century MoMA exhibition), but also America’s oldest zoo—a graceful 42-acre Victorian garden containing more than 1,300 animals. After a day of exploring, stick around for an alfresco concert at the Mann Center. The outdoor performing-arts center also hosts the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer series each year.
For a blissed-out walk, run or bike ride, head to the Schuylkill River Trail, 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 best-be-avoided spot into a child’s heaven. Head here and you'll find a beautiful fountain at the centre, a delightful carousel that spins and projects jubilant music, and even a Philly-landmark-themed miniature golf course, modern playground and gourmet burger vendor.
While this fascinating spot used to be the world’s most expensive prison, today it houses a load of intriguing history and information about criminal life. Sometimes hauntingly eery and at other times downright thrilling, it's probably not the best destination for those looking to revel in a peacefully zen afternoon stroll. For everyone else, though, it's completely unmissable—in part thanks to the engaging audio tour voiced by modern marvel and character actor, Steve Buscemi. As you explore the facility, you'll be guided through over 150 years of prison life, learn about inmates (Al Capone is amongst some of the more famous criminals) and recount some famous prison events (Slick Willie Sutton famously tunnelled out in 1945). As if that wasn't enough, you can also enjoy “hands on” experiences, including how to unlock an escape-proof cell door (well, you never know when that skill could come in handy).
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, which reopened in May after a controversial refurb that left it a bit, erm, industrial. But at least you can see Robert Indiana's iconic LOVE sculpture back in its spot.
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.
Everyone has hummed Bill Conti's “Gonna Fly Now”, whether they've run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art or not. It is the Rocky theme after all. If you've been living comfortably under a rock for the past half-century, then you might want to brush up on movie history before you sprint up the 72 steps and raise your arms aloft victoriously. Rocky, the film 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 ten-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.
Philadelphians take great pride in telling you where to eat—and where not to. A common refrain you’ll hear when the topic of the cheesesteak arises is that you should avoid Pat’s and Geno’s, the two most prominent griddlers in the game, due to their much-hyped status. Yes, the South Philly intersection of Ninth and Passyunk is touristy, but the neon-covered area known as “Cheesesteak Vegas” is also a cultural crossroads that boasts a delightfully immersive quality for out-of-towners. You don’t go there just to eat, you go for the experience.