Philadelphia holds an important place in American history, but its attractions extend far beyond Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. There are countless things to do in the City of Brotherly Love: Tour the Eastern State Penitentiary, get an eyeful of iconic masterpieces at renowned museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, browse unique shops and get your hands on some of the best cheesesteak sandwiches in the country. Whether you’re a newcomer or a lifelong local, check off these essentials.
Best things to do in Philadelphia
Once the world’s most expensive prison, the notorious Eastern State Pen is now a fascinating museum, charting nearly 150 years of criminal history. Before it closed in 1971, the imposing correctional facility counted Al Capone and Slick Willie Sutton (who famously tunneled out in 1945) among its inmates. A trip to this crumbling Gothic fortress is enhanced by the official Steve Buscemi–narrated audio tour and “hands on” experiences, including how to unlock an escape-proof cell door (you never know when that skill could come in handy). Some people believe that some of the prisoners never left the fearsome institution, and in the fall you can take the “Terror Behind the Wall” ghost tour. You’ll be in good company—nearly 60 paranormal investigation teams explore the site each year.
Philly is home to the world’s largest collection of outdoor public art, thanks to the city’s Mural Arts Program, which has been running since 1984. As a result, the city is decorated with no fewer than 3,600 official murals, including Kenny Scharf’s Philly Chunk Pack and the epic mixed-media Theater of Life by local artist Meg Saligman. Take a bus or walking tour (guided or self-guided) of the Mural Mile (an online map charts its route), or if you’re pushed for time, simply hop on the Market–Frankford subway from 46th to 63rd Streets for an elevated view of Stephen Powers’ iconic “Love Letter” series.
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum is one of the most unique and interesting institutions anywhere in the country—and indeed the world. Among the collection of antique medical oddities and equipment, anatomical specimens and wax models, you can marvel at the 200-year-old conjoined liver of famous Thai-American Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, study pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain (one of only two places in the world where you can do so), and pore over the mystery of Philadelphia’s famous “Soap Lady”—an unidentified local woman whose body was exhumed in 1875 and found to be encased in a soaplike fatty substance. Check the website before you visit: The Mütter also hosts a number of eye-popping public lectures and workshops on the mysteries and secrets of the human body, which are well worth checking out.
No, we’re not talking about the only girl James Bond ever loved—in Philadelphia, Vesper is a Prohibition-inspired joint known for great seafood, live music and strong cocktails. Accompany your shaken-not-stirred martini with oysters or the “colossal crab.” And for a 007-style escape, ask the bartender for the password (which changes daily) when you order your drink to access the secret speakeasy hidden behind a bookshelf.
Take a Constitutional
Like all old cities, Philadelphia is best seen on foot. And the easiest way to explore its unique role in the history of the nation is via a Constitutional Walking Tour. This 75-minute saunter through Independence National Historical Park manages to pack in more than 20 of the most historic sites at Philadelphia’s 330-year-old heart, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, as well as Betsy Ross House, Declaration House and the National Constitution Center. It’s a bargain at just $19 too—not least because all that walking will help you justify a juicy cheesesteak afterwards.
Cheesesteak joints aren’t generally noted for their plush environs, but Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop, a new offshoot of a beloved grill in Northeast Philly, delivers on both style and substance. A classic sandwich is still a mere $7.25 for a small or $10 for a large. The place has the feel go a spick-and-span retro soda fountain, reinforced by a selection of shakes and sundaes (the chocolate flavor is out of this world).
First it was a tombstone manufacturer’s HQ, then home to DJ Diplo’s Mad Decent record label. But the former showroom of memorials and mausoleums in Callowhill—the area that inspired David Lynch’s 1977 movie Eraserhead—is very much alive and kicking. The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA) is now an alternative concert and gallery space with a particular emphasis on film, music and performance, hosting more than 250 events a year from burlesque shows to indie-rock concerts.
“Love Park” (officially John F. Kennedy Plaza) takes its nickname from Robert Indiana’s famous Love sculpture, which sits proudly at its center. One of the most photographed objects on the East Coast, the iconic pop art piece stands within feet of City Hall—fittingly, right at Philly’s heart. The plaza was created by renowned city planner Edmond Bacon, father of the actor Kevin, and also has a large fountain which regularly changes color to commemorate or celebrate events. Directly across the street is brand-new Dilworth Park, a lively urban garden with four curated tree groves, lush lawns, a Jose Garces café and another fountain, which converts to an ice-skating rink in winter.
Check out new styles in Old City
Browse the many design and home decor emporiums in Philadelphia’s earliest commercial area, Old City, which is still its most stylish neighborhood. Hop between high-end boutiques and thrift stores, and fortify yourself with delicious street food, or duck into one of the many bistros. Stay north of the Market Street divide for the best shopping, in particular US*U.S. (323 Arch St), a co-op of nine talented local designers, and Sugarcube (124 North 3rd St, 215-238-0825), which sells a mix of indie-designer and vintage clothing for both genders. For handmade gifts, head straight for Philadelphia Independents (35 North 3rd St, 267-773-7316), which is stocked with a mix of wares by a platoon of Philly’s finest young creatives.
The National Museum of American Jewish History contains a lot more than just Sandy Koufax and Barbra Streisand memorabilia (though its free “Only in America” Gallery offers an engaging glimpse at their lives, among others). Located steps from the Liberty Bell, this is the only museum in the world dedicated to telling the story of Jews in America, from 1654 to the present day. Interactive displays track that evolution, from the Thirteen Colonies to Seinfeld. While you’re there, be sure to check out the impressive Hall of Fame, which has 18 incumbents so far, including Irving Berlin and Steven Spielberg.
The South Seas meets Philadelphia’s Fishtown at the city’s only true tiki bar. A gloriously kitsch cocktail venue constructed from reclaimed wood and thatched grass, The Yachtsman is owned by the people behind bizarro burger joint P.Y.T and funky cocktail nook Emmanuelle—a potent seal of approval in these parts. After you’re welcomed with a lei in true island-hopping style, order from a bevy of tropical concoctions including the stiff Zombie Punch and the Caribe Welcome Coconut, served in a fresh, cored-out coconut. Who needs a beach anyway?
Located at the heart of the University of Pennsylvania campus, and housed in a Victorian Gothic library, the 2,000-square-foot Arthur Ross Gallery is free and open to the public. Named after the New York investor, philanthropist and UPenn graduate who founded it in 1983, the gallery presents four major exhibitions a year. The thought-provoking shows embrace a variety of cultures and mediums; recent themes have included Mexican photography and Japanese painting. For summer and fall 2015, the gallery is dedicated to more than 120 artworks, jewels and other extravagant objects from the collection of Thomas W Evans, an American expat and the dental surgeon to Napoleon III.
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.
You don’t have to be Sly Stallone to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and there’s no harm in muttering a couple of Rocky quotes as you pay your entrance fee either). The museum boasts a renowned collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century paintings, including masterpieces by Picasso, Duchamp and Dalí. If you’re still standing after that cultural onslaught, take the short walk to the PMA’s sister institution, the Rodin Museum, for another round. This beautiful 1920s Beaux-Arts building is home to the largest Rodin collection outside of Paris, including the first bronze cast of The Gates of Hell and the sculptor’s iconic statue The Thinker.
Take advantage of Philadelphia’s tax-free clothes and shoe shopping with some retail therapy on stylish Rittenhouse Row. The upscale stretch combines major national chains like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters with eclectic local boutiques like Joan Shepp (quirky international designer garb for both genders) and hip home and accessories emporium Omoi Zakka. When you’re shopped out, grab a coffee and flop in Rittenhouse Square at the end of the Row, a prime people-watching patch. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, its the site of an excellent farmers’ market.
Established in 1892, the historic Terminal (at 12th and Arch Sts) 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, which was recently hand-picked as the “Best Sandwich in America” by the Travel Channel’s Adam Richman.
The history of the Barnes Foundation, established by self-made pharmaceutical magnate and collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes in 1922, is as fascinating as the collection it houses. Early modern masterpieces share gallery space with African sculpture, Pennsylvania German furniture and more. In its new 93,000-square-foot home designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the eclectic collection remains true to the founder’s vision, arranged in ensembles according to light, line, color and space instead of chronology, style or genre. It also houses the largest private collection of early French modern and Postimpressionist paintings in the world. Yes—larger than any single collection in Paris, or France as a whole. For this period of art, the Barnes Foundation is the place, boasting more than 600 paintings by masters such as Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, and an incredible 181 works by Renoir alone.
Since brothers Eric and Ryan Berley bought 152-year-old Shane Confectionery in 2010, it’s become one of the sweetest stores in town. The siblings have restored the former Victorian candy emporium to its colorful glory, and use the floors above it to create classic treats like buttercreams in a two-ton 1920 machine. Our recommendations? Their honey lavender caramels. And their brandied cherries. Even their dark-chocolate dipped bacon, which shouldn’t work but does, so well. If you’re still craving more, the siblings also own Franklin Fountain, the retro ice cream parlor two doors down.
Philadelphia is justly famous for its wonderful art museums, but it has a number of other world-class institutions too, notably the Franklin Institute Science Museum. With an emphasis on hands-on displays, exhibitions are spread over three floors, including an area devoted to brain science and the walk-through “Giant Heart” at the building’s core, which is accurate in size and shape for someone the height of the Statue of Liberty. The theatrical “Live Science” shows (think fireworks pyrotechnics and demos using liquid nitrogen) and are well worth checking out too.
Containing roughly a million artifacts from across several millennia, the Penn Museum (a.k.a. the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) is the kind of place that might employ Dr. Indiana Jones between expeditions. The largest university museum in the U.S., it also has one of the finest Egyptian collections this side of the Atlantic, including an incredible 15-ton granite sphinx. During the summer months it’s a good idea to visit on Wednesdays, when there are evening concerts in the picturesque courtyard.