Philadelphia is justifiably famous for its colonial history. The city, founded in 1682, can be credited as the site of America’s birth—the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were created here. So was the first American flag. The most popular things to do in Philadelphia include exploring Independence Mall, gawking at the Liberty Bell, and wandering along streets lined with old colonial homes.
But to think Philadelphia’s only attraction is its historic sites is to miss out on a huge part of the city’s appeal. Don’t overlook its vibrant art scene, from major museums to contemporary galleries and colorful murals, or the thriving—but not over-commercialized—waterfront, Penn’s Landing, which hosts festivals and attractions. There are also a number of fun day trips within easy driving distance. Start planning your itinerary with this list of fun things to do in Philadelphia.
Discover the Constitution
The National Constitution Center chronicles all things related to the U.S. Constitution, and its interactive exhibits make that era of U.S. history come alive. These days, the center is the diamond in the center of Philadelphia’s most important “birth of America” sites.
Visit Independence National Historical Park
Nearby, Independence National Historical Park is home to Independence Hall, considered the birthplace of America. Tours are free, but for most of the year you’ll need a timed ticket to enter. You can reserve in advance online or by phone (for a small fee), or show up the morning you want to visit. Arrive early during the busy summer months.
The historical park is also home to the Liberty Bell Center, which houses another symbolic Philadelphia classic, full of legends relating to America’s early days (in fact, the bell was hidden away in nearby Allentown to keep it from falling into British hands during the Revolutionary War). Entry is free, though you may find yourself waiting in a lengthy line.
Wander Through Old City
Beyond the usual Independence Mall attractions, the Old City neighborhood features a number of other sights to see, including the Betsy Ross House, where the first American flag was sewn; Christ Church, where George Washington and Benjamin Franklin once worshipped; and Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow cobblestone lane lined with brick homes that date back to 1702.
The neighborhood is also home to one of the newest Philadelphia attractions, the Museum of the American Revolution, which opened in 2017 and offers fascinating interactive exhibits about America’s war for independence.
Take in an Art Museum
Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which houses the city’s most impressive collections, plus visiting exhibits. Be sure to stop in the lovely medieval cloister and the tranquil Japanese teahouse. It’s also got the famous set of steps featured in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky.
Just down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the Rodin Museum, which showcases the largest collection of the French sculptor’s work outside of Paris. Also nearby is the Barnes Foundation, an incredible collection featuring Post-Impressionist and early modern paintings from artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir, and Matisse. Finally, don’t miss the oft-overlooked Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the artwork is rivaled only by the stunning architecture.
Learn About Science
Alongside the popular art museums on Benjamin Franklin Parkway are two family-friendly scientific institutions. One of the most fun things to do in Philadelphia with kids is to walk through the bigger-than-life human heart at The Franklin Institute, which also offers a wealth of other creative and informative science exhibits. The nearby Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is beloved by families for its collections of dinosaur bones and other wonders of natural science.
Meanwhile, the Mutter Museum may be Philadelphia’s most unique scientific attraction, exhibiting medical oddities such as a human skull collection, the livers of conjoined twins, and pieces of Albert Einstein’s brain.
Spend Some Time in Prison
A trip to a prison may not top your must-do list on vacation, but Eastern State Penitentiary is a surprisingly fascinating stop. You can wander the haunting, crumbling corridors that once housed Al Capone and numerous other criminals, and learn how revolutionary the “penitentiary” concept was at the time of the prison’s founding in 1829.
Hit the Zoo
A fun option for kids is the Philadelphia Zoo, America’s first, which recently added an innovative system of see-through mesh trails that run around and above the zoo, allowing animals to roam freely between exhibits. Creatures who live here include gorillas, tigers, lions, hippos, giraffes, lemurs, and many more.
Hit the Waterfront
Adjacent to the picturesque streets and houses of historic Society Hill (home to Philadelphia’s wealthy in the 18th century) is Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia’s waterfront on the Delaware River. Aside from panoramic views and summer events, the highlight here is the Independence Seaport Museum, displaying numerous maritime artifacts.
Marvel Over Murals and Mosaics
Aside from its excellent museums, Philadelphia is home to plenty of outdoor art as well. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens are a beloved indoor and outdoor art installation stretching along a once run-down section of South Street. Created by local resident Isaiah Zagar, the colorful installation is made of mosaic tiles, bicycle wheels, glass bottles, and other found objects.
Philadelphia also has thousands of murals—many of which you can discover on a Mural Arts tour. Travel on foot or by bike, trolley, or train to see these unexpected splashes of colorful art on walls across the city.
Cross the River to Camden
Just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia is the city of Camden, New Jersey. Major attractions include the Adventure Aquarium—the most popular exhibit there is a 40-foot shark tunnel, where viewers are surrounded on all sides by a variety of circling sharks—and the Battleship New Jersey, which served in three wars. Families can also wander through the Camden Children’s Garden. The most fun way to get to Camden from Philadelphia is to board the RiverLink Ferry at Penn’s Landing.
Take a Day Trip
Though there are plenty of Philadelphia attractions to keep you busy within the city limits, it’s worth considering a day trip outside of town if you’ve got a little extra time. About an hour west of the city are the spectacular blooms of Longwood Gardens, where you can easily spend a full day—or combine a garden visit with a few hours exploring the American collection at the nearby Brandywine River Museum of Art.
Over the summer months, Philadelphia can get hot and muggy, so a day trip to the Jersey Shore can offer a welcome respite. The city is within easy driving distance of the elegant seaside resort of Cape May, the glitzy casinos of Atlantic City, and the family-friendly beaches and boardwalk of Ocean City. For more advice, see The 8 Best New Jersey Beaches to Visit This Summer.
Other Philadelphia day trip options include a shopping excursion to King of Prussia Mall, the largest mall on the East Coast, or a drive up to the arts community of New Hope, where a bevy of galleries, boutiques, and riverside views make for pleasant strolling.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Hidden Philadelphia: 10 Under-the-Radar Gems Worth Discovering
- 22 Incredible Philadelphia Restaurants (That Aren’t Known for Cheesesteaks)
- The 8 Best Spots for Shopping in Philadelphia
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Sarah Schlichter visited the city as a guest of Visit Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration. Carolyn Spencer Brown contributed to this story.
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