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Founded by William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia has a long and fascinating history. Home to some of America‘s top museums, it also has parks and lively markets that are regularly visited by locals. Here’s Culture Trip’s guide to what to see in the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia’s stately City Hall breaks all kinds of records. Built between 1871 and 1901, it was the tallest habitable building in the world from 1894 to 1908, and it remains the largest municipal building in the United States, with around 15 acres (6ha) of floor space spread over 700 rooms. It’s also the tallest free-standing masonry building on the planet, at 548ft (167m) high (including the statue of William Penn that tops the tower). Guided tours are available and there’s an observation platform at Penn’s feet.
Spanning both sides of the Schuylkill River, Fairmount Park is a 2,000-acre (809-ha) expanse of unspoilt greenery, woodlands and shaded picnic areas. It’s the perfect spot in which to escape the city for a morning or afternoon, offering visitors miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Fairmount is also home to two outdoor concert venues, the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, ball parks, tennis courts, swimming pools and colonial-era mansions.
Located in the city’s southwestern corner, Mount Moriah Cemetery is the final resting place of some of Philly’s most prominent Victorian families. Opened in 1855, it featured an ornate Romanesque entrance and enormous stone mausoleums resembling those found in Paris’s city of the dead, Pere Lachaise. It fell into neglect in the late 1990s and 2000s, but since 2011 a non-profit group has dedicated itself to clearing the site and displaying Moriah’s original features in all their gracefully ageing glory.
The 72 steps leading up to the entrance of Philly’s Museum of Art in Fairmont Park are now known simply as the Rocky Steps, after their appearance in one of the legendary Sylvester Stallone boxing films. Stallone himself commissioned the three-ton bronze statue of the underdog hero for Rocky III, which was released in 1982. Be sure to run up the steps yourself, striking Rocky Balboa’s triumphant pose at the top, and take a photo next to his bronze incarnation.
Located on the western shore of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden is the oldest botanical garden in the United States. It was founded in 1728 by avid plant scholar John Bartram, who established a booming trans-Atlantic horticulture trade with a London-based merchant. Today, visitors to this 45-acre (18-ha) site can see Bartram’s house, a greenhouse dating from 1760 (that was crucial to the business) and wander gardens that have been meticulously preserved in their original layout.
Opened in 1860, the year Lincoln became president, McGillin’s Olde Ale House is Philly’s oldest continually operating bar, and has been owned by just two families since that historic year – the McGillins and present-day proprietors the Mullinses, who took over in 1993. It’s a hub for beer-lovers, offering over 30 on-tap varieties to choose from, including O’Hara’s Irish stout and three house specialities – McGillin’s Real Ale, McGillin’s Genuine Lager and McGillin’s 1860 IPA.
Built in 1771, Fort Mifflin was the setting of a crucial battle in the fall of 1777, when its American occupants fought off the British navy for six weeks before fleeing in defeat. The fort was extensively restored in the late 18th century, serving as a prison during the Civil War and as part of the local home front defenses throughout the First and Second World Wars. You can tour the well-preserved buildings, which are said to be some of the country’s most haunted.
The Frankford Avenue Bridge takes a street of the same name across Pennypack Creek in the Holmesburg area of the city. It’s the oldest surviving roadway bridge in the United States, and probably also the country’s oldest stone bridge, so be sure to take a stroll across it before you leave Philly. Its construction was ordered by William Penn to connect his mansion with the city, and to link Philadelphia with northern hubs such as Trenton and New York.
Commissioned in 1751, the Liberty Bell once rang in the great tower of the building now known as Independence Hall (formerly State House). The crack that runs down one side is thought to have appeared after around 90 years of daily use, and was actually widened to preserve the bell’s tone. Viewable and snappable in the Liberty Bell Center opposite its former home, it bears an inscription from the Bible reading, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Philadelphia’s contribution to world cuisine is not, as its name might suggest, a well-known dessert. The Philly cheesesteak is actually a sandwich, consisting of a long, flat roll known as a hoagie filled with sliced steak, cheese (of one kind or another) and an optional topping of fried onions. There are, as you might expect, dozens of establishments claiming to do the best cheesesteak, but Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks, located opposite each other, are indisputable market leaders.
Additional reporting by Mark Nayler