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.
Treat your senses at Reading Terminal Market
Bakery, Deli, Farmers' Market, Market, American, Street Food, Healthy, $$$
This indoor farmers’ market was founded in 1893 and features a diverse range of food stalls, as well as many Amish specialties. It’s a place that calls on all the senses, but most importantly smell and taste, as home-made confections and baked goods are produced on-site and beg to be tasted. For those who aren’t hungry, there are several small shops that sell souvenirs, cookbooks, herbs and flowers.
The first capital of the United States and the place where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, Independence Hall is a must-visit when in Philadelphia. Visitors can pick up free tickets at the visitors’ center, head over to check out the Liberty Bell and finish up right on time for their scheduled tour of the famous building. In the east wing, visitors get the chance to see the historic rooms for themselves and learn more about the history of the nation.
The first zoo to open in the United States, the Philadelphia Zoo is both historic and modern, due to many renovations carried out over the years. Adults and children alike will enjoy exhibits such as Big Cat Falls, home to lions and tigers, and Bird Valley for small monkeys and exotic birds. At scheduled times, there are keeper presentations that include feeding and training sessions, enabling visitors to see the animals’ behavior first-hand.
Eastern State Penitentiary was founded in 1829 to rehabilitate inmates through solitary confinement. It was closed in 1971 when the amount of repairs needed became too costly, but before then it was home to many infamous criminals, including Al Capone. Today, visitors to the facility can listen to an audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi and former guards and inmates. Every October, the penitentiary is turned into one of the most successful and popular haunted houses in the country, known to frighten even the most stoic.
At the end of the Ben Franklin Bridge is one of the five parks planned by William Penn when he dreamed of Philadelphia. Franklin Square has many things to offer a family looking for a fun morning or afternoon out, such as a playground and a beautiful, century-old fountain. The park also features mini-golf – where each of the holes is styled after a location in Philadelphia – and an ornate carousel. When the fun is over, stop by SquareBurger for burgers, hot dogs and milkshakes.
A museum devoted to the study of science, The Franklin Institute is an exciting and interactive museum for all ages. Key exhibits include a giant model heart big enough to walk through and a Space Command station where visitors can pretend to be astronauts on a mission, while also learning about the stars and planets. The Franklin Institute is also home to a massive IMAX theater, and is the temporary stop for many traveling exhibits.
See classic artwork at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Building, Museum, Art Gallery
Built in the Greek revival style in 1876, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a beautiful building inside and out, and is one of the largest art museums in the nation. It’s home to over 227,000 items, including Medieval suits of armor and a Japanese ceremonial teahouse, and rooms upon rooms of paintings. Picasso, DuChamp, Rembrandt, O’Keeffe and Warhol are just some of the artists featured here. Before leaving, don’t forget to run up the famous Rocky Steps and pose at the top.
A medical museum full of various specimens and oddities, the Mütter Museum is a biologist’s dream. The building holds a number of wax models, as well as antique medical equipment and wet specimens, all set up to be seen through glass cabinets. The goal of the museum is to spread awareness about the beauty, mystery and utter weirdness of the human body, so that visitors can truly appreciate the history of medicine and the treatment of disease.
A museum aimed solely at children aged seven and under, the Please Touch Museum is an interactive place where children can let their imaginations run wild and do as they please. It was built in 1976, and has become a popular spot for parents to take their kids on rainy afternoons or for birthday parties. Their mission is to enrich the lives of children through play, and they also offer a variety of puppet shows and musical theater.
An educational institution for art and horticulture, The Barnes Foundation is separated into two locations, one in central Philadelphia and another (which includes the arboretum) in the suburbs. The museum showcases many well-known post-impressionist and modern paintings, from painters such as Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Prendergast and Demuth. At the arboretum, visitors can walk around and admire over 2,000 different species of trees and plants, many of which are rare.
Philadelphia is home to one of the most important collections of works by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), widely hailed as the founder of modern sculpture. Located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway – an avenue styled on the Champs Elysee in Paris – the Rodin Museum has close to 150 bronze, marble and plaster sculptures by the French master, including two of his most famous pieces, The Thinker and The Gates of Hell.
Literature fans visiting Philadelphia will want to make the pilgrimage to 532 North 7th Street, to see the house in which American writer Edgar Allen Poe lived with his wife and mother-in-law between 1843 and 1844. Poe wrote two of his most famous short stories while living here – The Tell-Tale Heart and The Gold Bug– and is thought to have derived inspiration for another (The Black Cat) from its slightly spooky basement, which visitors can see for themselves on the guided tours.
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.
Society Hill is one of Philly’s most historic and exclusive neighborhoods, and is well worth exploring on foot. Settled in the late-17th century, it had fallen into disrepair by the early 1900s, although many of its original buildings remained standing. This inspired a renovation project in the 1950s, and now Society Hill contains one of the country’s largest and most important collections of 18th- and early 19th-century mansions.
Philly’s Magic Gardens are the zany creation of artist Isiah Zagar, who tasked himself with beautifying the run-down South Street area in the 1960s. Zagar started work on the Magic Gardens in the early 1990s, using scrap items such as bottles, handmade tiles, broken mirrors and old bicycle wheels to create layered walls and mosaics that now cover half a block. You can stroll through this weird and wonderful labyrinth solo, take a guided tour or even attend one of the workshops led by Zagar himself.
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 world’s first pizza museum is located in the trendy Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown. Opened in 2012 by three friends and pizza enthusiasts, no wall in the Pizza Brain Museum of Pizza Culture is free of pizza-themed items, from old posters and boxes to toys and books, making it the biggest such collection on the planet. The attached restaurant, Pizza Brain, does a great selection of home-made pizzas to eat in or take out.
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.
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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.