Philadelphia is famous for its colonial history. The city, founded in 1682, can rightly 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. Visitors can explore Independence Mall, gawk at the Liberty Bell and wander 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 miss 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 numerous festivals and attractions. Feeling hungry? Philly’s food landscape goes far beyond the humble cheese steak, with restaurants and food trucks offering tastes from around the world.
Philadelphia, which lies at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill River, also has amazing green spaces — of particular note is Fairmount Park, one of urban America’s largest parks. And just outside the city limits are whole other worlds to explore, from the country’s most prominent Amish settlement to the battlefields of Gettysburg and the Atlantic beaches of South Jersey.
The National Constitution Center chronicles all things related to the U.S. Constitution, and its interactive exhibits make that era come alive. These days, the center is the diamond in the center of Philadelphia’s most important “birth of America” sites.
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 Liberty Bell is 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).
Beyond the usual Independence Mall attractions, the Old City neighborhood features a number of other sights to see, including the Betsy Ross House, Christ Church and the United States Mint.
Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which houses the city’s most stellar collections and 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, a smaller museum that 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.
You’ll find two other popular museums right on the Parkway. Our favorite thing to do at the Franklin Institute is to walk through the bigger-than-life human heart (trust us, you’ve got to be there) — but it offers a wealth of other creative and informative exhibits on science. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University is beloved by families for its fun collections of dinosaur bones and other wonders of natural science.
A fun option for kids is the Philadelphia Zoo, America’s first, which in addition to the usual animal suspects also has a fantastic “Zooballoon.” This hot-air balloon rises to 400 feet and offers wonderful views over the city.
Adjacent to the gorgeously 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. The highlight here is the Independence Seaport Museum, displaying numerous maritime artifacts.
In Center City, don’t miss a stroll through Chinatown (centered at 10th and Race Streets) or the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which showcases a fabulous collection of American masterpieces within a landmark Victorian building.
Enjoy one of Philadelphia’s loveliest neighborhoods: Rittenhouse Row. Centered around an urban park, Rittenhouse Square, the neighborhood is full of Philadelphia’s hippest, trendiest and chic-est restaurants and boutiques (the park is plenty nice too). Aim for Walnut and Sansom and explore from there.
A trip to a prison may not top your must-do list on vacation, but the 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.
The Mutter Museum may be Philadelphia’s most unique attraction, exhibiting medical oddities such as a human skull collection and a tumor removed from the jaw of President Grover Cleveland.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens are a beloved indoor and outdoor art installation stretching along half a block on South Street. Created by local resident Isaiah Zagar, the installation is made of mirrors, bicycle wheels, glass bottles and other found objects.
The Mural Arts Program runs various tours (foot, trolley, train) to explore the city’s colorful public art.
Just across the Delaware is the city of Camden, New Jersey, which is experiencing a rebirth of its own. 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, America’s most decorated battleship. Families can also wander through the Camden Children’s Garden. To get to Camden from Philadelphia, board the RiverLink Ferry at Penn’s Landing.
Philadelphia is famous for its cheese steaks, but this cosmopolitan city also offers a variety of more sophisticated fare — from Mediterranean small plates to farm-to-table vegetarian dishes. Pack your appetite!
Founded in 1773, the historic City Tavern is kitschy but fun; waiters dress in colonial costume, and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin really did eat here! On the menu are traditional dishes like braised rabbit and Martha Washington-style colonial turkey pot pie, but also fried tofu, the directions for which were inscribed in a 1770 letter from Franklin.
One of Philly’s favorite spots for lunch is Reading Terminal Market, housed in a huge, late-19th-century railroad shed at 12th and Arch Streets. Vendors at the market offer nearly every imaginable cuisine from smoothies and seafood to gyros and pad thai. Local favorites include traditional cheese steaks and Amish home-baked goods.
Barbuzzo is on 13th Street, in a once-desolate neighborhood that has recently transformed into a trendy midtown village with new restaurants and boutiques. The Mediterranean-inspired fare includes seasonal pastas, pizzas and main dishes such as grilled octopus. Top it off with a chocolate tasting for dessert. Small plates, sophisticated farmhouse decor and rather reasonable pricing will help you forget about the cramped tables.
More casual but still hot and trendy is the Devon Seafood Grill, located in the Rittenhouse Square area. The menu changes depending on the fresh catch of the day, but usually includes favorites such as jumbo lump crab cakes, fresh shucked oysters and Maine lobster bisque.
For pub fare try Monk’s Cafe, offering comfort food favorites like burgers and macaroni and cheese, as well as a wide selection of fine brews. “If you think that you don’t like beer,” the restaurant’s website claims, “then you have never really tasted quality beer.”
Cuba Libre, a restaurant and rum bar in Old City, is eclectic and dynamic (and has fabulous mojitos). The menu offers Cuban and Latin favorites like paella, arroz con pollo and, of course, the classic Cuban sandwich.
Even dedicated carnivores find themselves savoring the cuisine at Vedge, a vegan restaurant in Center City. The ever-changing menu emphasize seasonal local vegetables, with indulgent desserts such as blueberry “cheesecake” and zucchini blondies.
Shopping in Philadelphia
From antiques to vintage clothes, Philadelphia’s shopping scene has special finds in just about every neighborhood — as well as one of the nation’s biggest malls in the nearby suburbs. If your wardrobe needs a few additions, don’t be afraid to whip out that plastic: Pennsylvania charges no sales tax on most clothing or shoes (formalwear and swimsuits are a couple of exceptions).
Philadelphia’s historic Old City District is a popular shopping spot for art, housewares and clothing. If you’re in town at the beginning of the month, don’t miss “First Friday,” when local art galleries and shops stay open into the evening.
The funky, alternative side of Philadelphia’s shopping scene is showcased on South Street, where vintage clothing boutiques meet eclectic gift shops and quirky music stores (there are also a few places to pick up more “adult” merchandise). Most of the action occurs between Front and Seventh Streets.
Seek out shiny baubles along Jewelers’ Row. Running along Sansom Street between 7th and 8th Streets, it’s the country’s oldest diamond district
Hipsters should head to Manayunk, a historic town on the Schuykill River (within the Philadelphia city limits). The renovated buildings on the main drag house a selection of unique boutiques and cutting-edge restaurants. It’s a particularly good spot to pick up one-of-a-kind furniture and housewares.
For serious shoppers, the massive King of Prussia Mall — one of the largest in the country — is worth the trip out of town. Offerings include department stores such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, as well as multiple food courts and hundreds of smaller boutiques and shops. It’s possible to get here from Philadelphia via public transportation (train and bus), but as it’s out in the suburbs it’s best reached by car.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown and Sarah Schlichter