When the concrete jungle that is city living has you down, Philadelphia parks provide a welcome respite when a trip out of town just isn’t in the cards. Philadelphia parks can be found all around town and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes—from charming Center City oases to green spaces like Fairmount Park that are so expansive, you’ll forget you’re in the middle of a thriving metropolis. Philadelphia parks are an excellent option when you’re looking for worthwhile free things to do in Philadelphia, and they’re always a hit with out-of-towners looking to take in the very best of Philadelphia attractions.
The most stunning Philadelphia parks
The perfect day trip leads just outside the Philadelphia grid to this lush wonderland of greenery. Comprising 1,800 acres and 57 miles of trails, you can explore the wilderness for days at a time and still leave parts untouched. Follow the beginner-level gravel trails along the creek or venture up the surrounding mountains for a more challenging adventure. Stop at the historic Valley Green Inn if you need sustenance along the way and don’t forget to inquire about permits if you plan to picnic, off-road bike or horseback ride (and yes, these are all options!).
Valley Forge Park is both a beautiful collection of rolling hills and a living monument to the Revolutionary War. This site housed the Continental Army encampment under General George Washington in the winter of 1777-78. Stop in at the Visitor Center to learn more about the rich history and the many significant sites you will see such as Washington’s Headquarters, Muhlenberg Brigade Huts, Washington Memorial Chapel, Varnum’s Headquarters and the PC Knox Estate. Aside from hiking and exploring the area on foot, you can also opt for a self-guided driving tour, cell phone-guided tour, 90-minute trolley tour (ADA accessible), private guided tour or bicycle tour (bike rentals and guided bike tours are available).
The thousands of acres that make up Fairmount Park system are Philadelphia’s pride and joy. It is the largest municipal park in Philadelphia, covering both the eastern and western sides of the Schuylkill River. There are plenty of access points for nature-seekers across the city. Whether you need a quick escape on your lunch break or a day to get lost in the woods, Fairmount Park is your solution. Throughout the park system you’ll find everything from the Fairmount Water Works near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an Azalea garden, Victorian-style and Colonial-era mansions, outdoor concert venues, Boathouse Row, picnic areas, ball parks, fishing spots, you name it!
Although it is located within West Fairmount Park, the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden deserves its own spot in the limelight. This traditional-style Japanese house was originally conceived as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, but was moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s to the site of the Japanese garden that has roots dating back to the 1876 Centennial Exposition. When in need of a moment of Zen, visit Shofuso and enjoy the koi pond, tea garden and house. Check the website for ongoing programming, classes, events and exhibitions. Shofuso is especially popular in the spring during cherry blossom season.
South Philly is famous for more than just the cheesesteaks. Visit FDR Park, just south of the stadiums, to find remarkable lagoons, creeks and lakes. Fish, boat, golf, bird watch, play sports, picnic or just meander through this glorious gem. Note the internationally renowned FDR Skate Park, which draws professional skaters and bladers from around the globe. The boathouse, gazebo and American Swedish Historical Museum are relics from the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition, America’s 150th birthday celebration, so make sure to show them some love.
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.
This 45-acre National Historic Landmark sits on land originally purchased by John Bartram in 1765. Bartram, appointed the “Royal Botanist” by King George III, amassed the most varied collection of North American plants in the world in his garden. Today, the space functions as a living laboratory, outdoor classroom and a surreal oasis along the lower Schuylkill River. You can even find a playground, ball fields, picnic areas and a boat dock all complete with spectacular views of the Philadelphia skyline. The garden is open year-round, but if you visit April through October you can opt for a guided tour of the garden and the Bartram House.
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.
One of William Penn’s five original squares, Washington Square has a rich history. It originally served as a burial ground and pasture but in the 19th century trees, paths, benches, lamps and fencing were added to turn it into a true park. In the mid-20th century, a memorial to Washington and an eternal flame for unknown soldiers of the American Revolution made their debut. Don’t forget to check out the Moon Tree, a clone of a sycamore tree whose seed was carried by an astronaut on Apollo XIV.
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.”
Dilworth Park, originally William Penn’s Center Square, is hard to miss. Located on the west side of City Hall, it provides respite right in the heart of Center City. With its central location, it serves as a gateway to public transportation. Dilworth Park was completely renovated and reopened in 2014 and now boasts an interactive fountain, lawn, tree grove, seating areas, café and seasonal activities. Visit in the winter to go ice skating or in the summer for live musical performances, outdoor movies and happy hour at the Dilworth Park Café and Air Grille.
Another original square, Franklin Square boasts endless opportunities for family-friendly fun. Here you’ll find the Parx Liberty Carousel, the 18-hole Philly Mini Golf course (modeled after iconic Philly landmarks), a spacious playground and delicious SquareBurger all flanking the central fountain. Be sure to check online for upcoming events such as the Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival, held May through June each year. This particular event includes illuminated silk sculptures, performances, crafts and adult beverages served in the Dragon Beer Garden.
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.
The newly renovated and named, Race Street Pier opened in May 2011. While still a young park, it has quickly gained a following of lunch-breakers, yogis, tourists and runners. Check the website for upcoming events, such as free yoga, to take full advantage of this little haven under the Ben Franklin Bridge. Keep an eye on this area over the next few years. The pier is the first completed project of an ongoing master plan that proposes open space improvements every half mile along the central Delaware River.
Just as the name suggests, Penn Treaty Park is the site where William Penn signed the “Great Treaty” with Native Americans. Whether such a meeting ever occurred may be debatable, but the stunning views of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River are not. The newly installed playground equipment will surely delight the younger crowd; while the whole family enjoys picnicking on the expansive lawn and watching the boats pass by.
Located next to the historic Logan Square, Sister Cities Park offers a family-friendly reprieve from the bustling city grid. The park was first dedicated in 1976 as homage to the international Sister Cities program and was recently renovated in 2012. Here you’ll find stunning views of the surrounding skyscrapers, museums and cathedrals while you sprawl out on the lawn, grab a bite at the café or watch the kids play in the fountain or children’s garden.