You’ve snapped a selfie with the Liberty Bell, toured the hallowed halls where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and climbed Rocky’s steps up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But that doesn’t mean you’ve seen everything the City of Brotherly Love has to offer. Travelers with extra time to explore can head off the beaten path to discover the gems of hidden Philadelphia—including vibrantly colored murals, museums full of unexpected treasures, and one of the country’s oldest candy shops. Below are a few of my favorite Philadelphia hidden gems.
Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
Tucked away in Philadelphia’s massive Fairmount Park is Shofuso, a 17th-century-style Japanese house that was built in Nagoya in 1953, exhibited at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and then moved to Philadelphia in 1957. Its traditional Japanese garden, complete with a pond, stone lanterns, and a small waterfall, is one of the city’s most serene spots. You can take off your shoes and walk through the house to appreciate the murals, created by contemporary Japanese artist Hiroshi Senju.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Did you know that the first permanent Jewish settlers in America came not from Europe but from Brazil, all the way back in 1654? That’s just one of many new things I learned at the National Museum of American Jewish History, which isn’t hidden so much as hidden in plain sight. It’s got a prime location just across the street from Independence Mall, and yet it was surprisingly quiet during my recent weekend visit. The museum is a fascinating place for travelers interested in history and culture, telling the stories of Jewish people in the U.S. from the American Revolution to the Holocaust and beyond.
Mural Arts Tours
As you wander around Philadelphia, it’s not uncommon to turn a corner and happen upon a colorful mural wall overlooking a parking lot or community garden. Many of these were created as a part of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which works with artists and local communities to produce up to 100 public art projects each year.
You can check them out on a guided tour by trolley, train, or foot, learning about the artists and inspiration behind each mural. Can’t make it for a guided tour? Mural Arts offers maps so you can take your own self-guided walking tour.
Literature lovers won’t want to miss a stop at The Rosenbach, where you can see a re-creation of the poet Marianne Moore’s New York City living room, discover the personal letters of George Washington, and marvel over James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript. These and other rare books and documents are displayed in a 19th-century townhouse near Rittenhouse Square, amid a collection of decorative arts and antique furniture.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Once threatened with demolition to make way for a cross-town highway, South Street has since become one of Philadelphia’s hippest districts, thanks in large part to visionaries like Isaiah Zagar—the artist behind Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. While you can spot Zagar’s mosaic artwork on hundreds of walls across the city, his most celebrated achievement is this unique conglomeration of colorful mosaic tiles and found objects such as bottles and bike tires, covering every square inch of what was once a vacant lot. Zagar began working on the site in 1991, and it opened to the public in 2008.
In addition to tours, PMG also offers special events including family programs, happy hours, and meditation workshops.
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Often called simply the Penn Museum, this institution on the University of Pennsylvania campus is the spot to marvel over Egyptian mummies, Middle Eastern funerary relics, Greek pottery, Roman statues, and other treasures of the ancient world. Highlights include the headdress and jewelry of Puabi (a Mesopotamian queen) and Sumerian cuneiform tablets with some of the world’s oldest examples of writing.
Indulge your sweet tooth at Shane Confectionery, which claims to be America’s oldest candy store. Located at the eastern edge of Old City, the store has been serving up chocolates and other sugary confections since 1863. Employees in period dress ring up your purchases at antique cash registers, just as they would have in the old days.
Be sure to go all the way to the back of the shop to the Chocolate Cafe, where you can sip drinking chocolate spiced with cinnamon, orange zest, jasmine petals, or even chili pepper. If all that isn’t sweet enough, you can stop next door at the Franklin Ice Cream Bar for a Keystone Bar dipped in chocolate from Shane Confectionery.
Schuylkill River Trail
Join the locals for a jog, walk, or bike ride along the Schuylkill River Trail, which follows the river for about 10 miles through Philadelphia, passing by the Museum of Art and the University of Pennsylvania along the way. (The full trail covers some 60 miles, extending well outside the city.) One particularly popular section is the Boardwalk, which continues the trail out over the river from Locust Street to South Street. This 2,000-foot stretch offers four scenic overlooks where you can stop, rest, and take in the city skyline.
National Liberty Museum
The family-friendly National Liberty Museum tells the stories of inspiring figures from around the globe, including Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and the heroes of September 11, 2001—as well as “ordinary citizens who make a difference” such as teachers and firefighters. The recently renovated Flame Gallery features a monumental, 21-foot glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. The museum is located just a few blocks from Independence Hall and is one of the area’s hidden gems.
South 9th Street Italian Market
Escape the crowds at Center City’s Reading Terminal Market with a stroll down 9th Street in South Philly. Here’s where you’ll find the Italian Market, one of America’s oldest open-air markets. Shops and sidewalk stalls offer up everything from fresh produce and meats to infused olive oils and specialty cheeses. Visiting at lunchtime? There are plenty of restaurants in the area as well, including the city’s most famous cheesesteak joints: Pat’s and Geno’s.
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- 11 Fun Things to Do in Philadelphia
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- 22 Amazing Philadelphia Restaurants (That Aren’t Known for Cheesesteaks)