Whether you’re looking for historic colonial buildings, world-class art, fabulous antiques or up-and-coming restaurants, Philadelphia is the place to find it. A thriving metropolis that takes great pride in its historic role as the birthplace of America, the City of Brotherly Love makes its pleasures accessible to everyone; thanks to the orderly grid system of its streets and a number of affordable tourist transportation systems, the city is easy to navigate and explore.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, the city’s public transportation system, offers reduced fares or even free rides to seniors and disabled travelers on its buses, subways and trolleys. Personalized paratransit service is also available; call for details. Another good bet is the Philadelphia Phlash buses, which shuttle visitors around to all the major sightseeing areas and are free for seniors 65 and up.
Home Away from Home
The Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia is one of the most luxurious properties in the city, located right on Logan Square in the museum district. Rooms, appointed with Federal-period furnishings, provide views of the city or of the lovely inner courtyard and garden. The hotel offers complimentary car service throughout Center City, but you won’t have to go far for a fabulous dinner; the hotel’s Fountain Restaurant is rivaled only by Le Bec-Fin for best-in-town status.
If you’re looking for a more affordable option, try the Hyatt Regency at Penn’s Landing. This high-rise property offers comfortable rooms with great views of the Delaware River or the city skyline. The hotel is a short walk from Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia’s riverfront promenade, and a 15-minute walk (or five-minute cab ride) from Old City and the historic district. Ask about senior discounts up to 50 percent off regular room rates.
For reasonable rates and an ideal location, head to the Holiday Inn in the heart of the historic district. The rooms don’t have an over-abundance of character, but the location puts you steps away from Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center and the other attractions of Philadelphia’s historic district. You can also easily catch a trolley or Phlash bus nearby to take you to other areas of the city.
Head first to the area of Philadelphia known as America’s most historic square mile. Here, in Independence National Historic Park, are the buildings where the United States was born — where the Founding Fathers met to plan a revolution, sign the Declaration of Independence and write out the tenets of American government in the Constitution. If you’d like to see Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed, we suggest either reserving your tickets online in advance for a small fee, or visiting the Independence Visitor Center as soon as you arrive in the area. Tickets are free the day of your visit, but they are limited — so arrive early.
A good way to get an overview of the area is to take a Philadelphia Trolley Works city tour, providing 90 minutes of narration and sightseeing throughout the city. It’s a great way to see a lot without walking too much, and also to figure out which attractions you’d most like to visit while you’re in town. Your ticket includes all-day on-and-off privileges, enabling you to get around the city easily even after the tour is over. (You can purchase on/off privileges for a second day for a small fee.) The company has a courtesy shuttle van that will pick you up from your Center City hotel before the tour; call ahead to reserve this service.
Note: If you need a handicap-accessible trolley for your city tour, please call at least a day in advance to make arrangements. As most of the fleet is not fully handicap-accessible, you may not be able to enjoy the all-day on/off privileges; however, the regular trolleys have only two steps, as well as space onboard for wheelchairs, and drivers will make all efforts possible to accommodate those with physical limitations. An alternative is the bright-purple Philadelphia Phlash buses, which offer handicap-accessible on/off privileges throughout the city and are free to seniors 65 and older. These buses do not offer narrated tours.
After your city tour, you should have some background on Philadelphia’s history, as well as an idea of what you might want to see next. Besides Independence Hall, you’ll of course want to sneak a peek at Philly’s famous Liberty Bell, now in a brand-new building. It was cast in England in 1751 but cracked for the first time after only a few years. After it was recast, it served as the official bell of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), was rung in celebration of the Declaration of Independence and eventually was adopted as the symbol of the abolition movement. The bell is now located in its own glass-enclosed pavilion, complete with informational exhibits and a video presentation.
You may also want to check out the National Constitution Center, where you’ll learn the history of America’s most important document through interactive exhibits and a multimedia presentation. You’ll also find out how the Constitution continues to impact current national and world events.
There are a number of other buildings worth seeing in Independence National Historic Park, such as Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774, and the Second Bank of the United States, an impressive example of Greek Revival architecture. Amidst the colonial brick buildings are plenty of green spaces (many holding the foundations of buildings past) and benches where you can sit, rest and even listen to tales from colonial days told by local storytellers.
Keep the historical spirit alive over lunch in the City Tavern, a replica of the colonial establishment where many of the Founding Fathers ate. Entrees include such fare as “Martha Washington style colonial turkey pot pie,” and among the fresh-made bread and pastry options are sweet potato biscuits supposedly beloved by Thomas Jefferson.
After lunch, continue exploring Independence National Historic Park, or head to the National Liberty Museum, a unique, oft-overlooked space that celebrates democracy and its heroes both here and around the world. Displays are by turns poignant and inspirational, particularly in the exhibits on Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela and the victims of September 11, 2001. There are other rooms dedicated to religious liberty, conflict resolution and immigration, as well as a sample of White House china from various presidential administrations. The displays are accompanied by exquisite blown-glass artwork, including the intricate Flame of Liberty, which stretches some 20 feet between the first and second stories of the museum. In the religion display there is also a Chagall painting, “Abraham and the Three Angels.”
If there’s still time before dinner, take the trolley down to Pine Street, where you’ll find Philadelphia’s famous Antique Row. These three cobblestone blocks between 9th and 12th Streets are brimming with treasures from the past, from one-of-a-kind furniture to vintage jewelry and antique dolls. Most stores will be happy to ship items to your home if you’d rather not lug that 1920’s armoire with you on your flight home.
Head back to your hotel to dress for dinner, which you’ll enjoy on a river cruise aboard the Spirit of Philadelphia. (The ship leaves from Penn’s Landing; the easiest way to get there is by cab.) You’ll enjoy a buffet dinner with an unmatched view of the city skyline as you sail under the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges. After dinner, enjoy music and dancing under the stars.
Make your way to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where you’ll find some of Philadelphia’s finest museums, including the neo-Classical Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Tip: Both the trolleys and the Phlash buses stop here.) Don’t worry — you don’t need to run up the steps like Rocky in order to get in; there’s a handicap-accessible entrance around to the left if you need it. Exhibits particularly worth tracking down include a recreated 18th-century Japanese tea house; a peaceful 13th-century medieval cloister; and a pillared Indian Temple Hall, the only one of its kind in America. Otherwise, let your interests guide your visit; though European art is well represented, there are collections from all around the world. If you can, visit on the first Sunday of the month, when admission is “pay what you wish” all day.
After your visit to the Art Museum, it’s time to pick and choose what you’d like to do for the rest of the afternoon. One alternative is to head along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Franklin Institute or the Academy of Natural Sciences, two excellent science museums. Both are popular with kids of all ages; see day two of 3 Days in Philadelphia with Kids for details.
Also nearby is the 19th-century Eastern State Penitentiary, the first of its kind. (The museum and gift shop are only accessible via steps, but the rest of the property is fully ADA-compliant.) This castle-like edifice was built in the early 1800’s as a revolutionary new kind of prison. Rather than housing all its prisoners together, the penitentiary’s Quaker founders gave each inmate a private cell and a small yard for exercise, and did not allow any contact with other human beings. This solitude was supposed to make the prisoners consider their crimes and perhaps arrive at true penitence (hence the name of the building). The prison is no longer in use, and its crumbling, empty cell blocks and high vaulted ceilings now hold a haunting beauty.
Finally, the Rosenbach Museum and Library, while not close enough to walk to, is worth a special trip for folks interested in literature and history. Here you’ll find an original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Joyce’s manuscript for the novel “Ulysses,” samples of George Washington’s personal correspondence, and the papers of poet Marianne Moore. The museum is located in a 19th-century townhouse in Rittenhouse Square, one of Philadelphia’s most charming residential neighborhoods. The trolley stops about eight blocks away from the museum, so the most direct way to get there is to take a cab.
Where you eat lunch depends on where you are when you get hungry! The Art Museum has a surprisingly good restaurant, and a cafe that’s ideal for a quick bite before you head off to your next stop. If you’re up near the Eastern State Penitentiary, enjoy a laid-back meal at Jack’s Firehouse, serving up “downhome” American cuisine made with fresh, locally grown ingredients. Options on Rittenhouse Square near the Rosenbach are pricier, including Smith & Wollensky (for steaks) and Rouge (for Parisian-influenced American cuisine).
Head back to your hotel to gussy up for an evening at one of Philadelphia’s most elegant restaurants. Located in the posh Rittenhouse Hotel, Lacroix at the Rittenhouse offers inventive French-American dishes in a setting that’s lovely inside and out; each table has a view of verdant Rittenhouse Square, and the dining room is accented by creamy tablecloths, high-back chairs, fresh flowers and flickering candles. Servers are attentive and happy to explain any unfamiliar French terms on the menu.
Today is the day to rent a car and see the sights of the greater Philadelphia region. The place where Philadelphians go to play is Atlantic City, New Jersey, about an hour and a half away by car. (Beware the Philadelphia rush hour — leave around 9:30 or so on weekdays to miss the worst.) For those who’d rather not rent a car, Greyhound bus service is also available from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. This popular seaside resort combines the historic charm of its famous boardwalk with the modern-day glitz and glamour of its casinos. To learn more about the history of the town, stop in at the Atlantic City Historical Museum, where you’ll find vintage photos and plenty of Miss America memorabilia.
The museum is right on the Boardwalk, a fabulous place for strolling, shopping and people-watching — not to mention enjoying views of the beach and the ocean. There are plenty of places to grab a casual lunch.
The main attractions on the Boardwalk are the casinos, and it’s well worth wandering into several before choosing a spot to hedge your bets. One of the newer kids on the block is the elegant, Italian-style Borgata, featuring a landscaped pool and gardens; it’s been compared to the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Older favorites include the delightfully tacky Caesars and the exotic Trump Taj Mahal. In any of the casinos you’ll find dining options to meet all tastes and budgets, and widely varied entertainment in their theaters and lounges. Check the Atlantic City visitors’ Web site to see who’s playing when you’re in town.
If you’re not up for the bright lights of Atlantic City, you might enjoy Pennsylvania’s serene Brandywine Valley, where major sights include the spectacular Longwood Gardens (wheelchairs and motorized scooters are available at the Visitor Center), Winterthur (a country estate in nearby Delaware) and the Brandywine River Museum. See day three of Love Is in the Air: 3 Days in Philadelphia for Couples for more details on these attractions.