If you’re visiting Philadelphia for the first time, you’re in for a treat. With a clutch of world-class museums, a bevy of intriguing historical sites, and no shortage of parks and outdoor recreation activities, there’s enough to keep you entertained from dusk to dawn. The only problem is deciding which of the many attractions to tackle first. To help out, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 very best things to do in Philadelphia for first-timers.
20. See The Sights On A Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus Philadelphia Tour
If you’re short on time and want to see the best of Philly in half a day or less, the Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus Philadelphia Tour is a no-brainer. The comprehensive tour takes visitors on a whistle-stop journey through the most famous neighborhoods, historic landmarks, and top attractions of the city. With each tour lasting just 90 minutes, you may not get the opportunity to explore the city in depth (unless you do, quite literally, hop on and hop off at regular intervals) but you’ll at least get plenty of photo opportunities (and, perhaps most importantly of all for weary travelers, a seat).
19. Take A Selfie At The John F. Kennedy Plaza (Love Park)
If you’re looking for a great place to take a break from sightseeing, you’ll find it at John F. Kennedy Plaza (or, as it’s sometimes known, LOVE Park). Built around a huge reproduction of Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture, the park boasts a water feature, a welcome center, and a lovely green area to sit and relax. Admittedly the site does get a little crowded at times, but its’s more than worth a visit (especially if you happen to coincide your trip with the annual Christmas Village, during which the plaza becomes abuzz with vendors hawking everything from European food to Christmas ornaments).
18. Cheer On The Philadelphia Phillies At The Citizens Bank Park
For sports fans, no trip to Philly is complete without a visit to Citizens Bank Park. The intimate, friendly atmosphere of the ballpark (which, lest you didn’t know, is home to the Philadelphia Phillies) is legendary, while there’s still enough on offer to warrant a visit outside of game days. The food and beverage vendors offer a superb selection of snacks, while the 90-minute tours give you a great opportunity to explore the stadium to your heart's content.
17. Take A Hike At Wissahickon Valley Park
Outdoor enthusiasts are sure to love the delightful Wissahickon Valley Park. Located just 5 miles from downtown, the park consists of over 50 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails. Those who like a bit of history with their nature shouldn’t miss a visit to the man-made cave that John Kelpius (a 17th-century cult leader) summoned his followers to after predicting an apocalypse, nor North America's first paper mill. Otherwise, the park is simply a great place to unwind with a picnic and some bird song.
16. Get Handsy At The Please Touch Museum
If you’re traveling with your family in tow, a visit to the Please Touch Museum at the Memorial Hall comes highly recommended. The museum houses dozens of interactive displays that let kids fully engage in the learning experience -even if they’re having too much fun to realize it. Some of the star attractions include the Please Touch Garden (an excellent way of encouraging youngsters to engage with nature), and an incredible, 100-year-old Woodside Park Dentzel Carousel. Just bear in mind that many of the exhibits are geared towards kids below the age of 7 – if yours are approaching their teens, you may find they spend more time on their phones than on the exhibits.
15. View The Collections At The Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Modeled in the style of ancient Greek temples, the Philadelphia Museum of Art impress even before you walk through the doors. Once you do, you’ll be met with one of the most remarkable art collections in the country, housing Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cézanne and more besides. Just as awe-inspiring as the fine art are the structures: don’t miss the 16th-century Indian temple hall, the 17th-century Chinese Palace hall or the Japanese teahouse. The Designs for Different Futures exhibit, meanwhile, is a thought-provoking exposition of designs that promise to change how we live, love travel, heal, and eat.
14. Visit The Founding Fathers At The National Constitution Center
Anyone with an interest in the origins of the US should take a tour of the National Constitution Center. The fascinating center houses a plethora of exhibits dedicated to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. The judicial robe worn by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, one of the few surviving copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln, and 42 bronze, life-size statues of the Founding Fathers are just a handful of the type of thing you can expect to see.
13. Get Inspired At The National Museum Of American Jewish History
The National Museum of American Jewish History’s mission is to inspire an appreciation of the Jewish experience- and in that, it succeeds beautifully. The center is home to over 30,000 artifacts detailing the political and personal history of Jewish Americans and reflecting on how identity can influence and be influenced by the American experience. Exhibits do occasionally rotate, so be sure to check the website for a taste of what to expect.
12. Indulge Your Inner Child At The Magic Gardens
If the name alone wasn’t enough to tempt you, the fascinating, quirky galleries and sculptures at Magic Gardens surely will. Work on the space began in the late 1960s, and today, it’s one of the most intriguing, beautiful, and downright riveting mixed media art museums in the country. The two indoor galleries and two-story outdoor sculpture garden are jam-packed with sculptures and art pieces designed to celebrate different aspects of creator Isaiah Zagar's life, and in that, they succeed beautifully. Best of all, the garden is small enough to manage within just an hour or so, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy the area’s other attractions.
11. Tour The Art At Mural Arts Philadelphia
In the 1980s, Philadelphia decided on a new, novel approach to tackling the ugly graffiti cropping up over the city’s walls. Rather than ban street art altogether, it decided to celebrate it instead by offering aspiring artists the chance to showcase their creativity in a constructive way. Fast forward several decades and the wisdom of the decision is reflected in the 3600 plus stunning murals scattered around the city. Join one of the regular walking tours to appreciate the artwork in all its glory.
10. Walk In Benjamin Franklin’s Footsteps At Elfreth’s Alley
No visit to Philadelphia is complete without a visit to Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest, continually inhabited residential street in the United States. Constructed in 1702, the street is packed with history, giving visitors the unique chance to experience what living in Philadelphia would have been like over 300 years ago. The route itself isn’t long, but considering how it gives you the chance to walk in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross, it’s one worth lingering over.
9. Get Gruesome At The Mütter Museum
It may be based on a slightly curious conceit, but the Mütter Museum is one of Philadelphia’s most fascinating cultural sites. Dedicated to medical oddities in all their various shapes and forms, the museum is an intriguing mix of skeletal specimens, anatomical models, instruments, and wet specimens. Although some of the exhibits are slightly gruesome (a tumor removed from Glover Cleveland's mouth being just one example), few will leave without feeling thoroughly entertained, informed, and engaged.
8. Tuck Into The Samples At Reading Terminal Market
For a true insight into Philly’s growing food scene, visit Reading Terminal Market. With over 80 different vendors selling everything from Greek, Thai, Mexican and Indian specialties to homemade local produce, there’s truly something for everyone, regardless of taste or budget. Many of the vendors offer seating, giving you the chance to sit back with a picnic of collected samples and spend an hour or so people watching. For those who feel slightly intimidated by the sheer size of the place, get some navigational assistance by joining a guided tour.
7. Frighten Yourself Silly At Eastern State Penitentiary
Most vacations don’t include a prison visit (unless you happen to be very unlucky). That said, a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary isn’t like most prison visits (and not just because you’re free to leave whenever you want). Built in 1829, the prison attempted to reform inmates by using isolation and reflection rather than traditional methods of punishment. After leading the way in judicial reform, it now stands as one of Philadelphia’s most important historic buildings. Bear in mind the site can feel slightly disturbing, so it may not be appropriate for young children – teens, however, are likely to love the mix of intrigue and creepiness, especially if you coincide with your visit with Halloween.
6. Practice Your Handshake At The Masonic Temple
The Masonic Temple is a hidden gem: built in the late 19th century, its stunningly decorated interior is awe-inspiring. The seven meeting rooms are each dedicated to a particular style: Oriental, Gothic, Egyptian, Renaissance, Ionic, Corinthian, and Norman. Visitors aren’t allowed to wander freely, so be sure to book a tour (which, as an added boon, will give you a great insight into the history of the site).
5. Discover The Franklin Institute
For a family-friendly destination that’s guaranteed to please all ages, the Franklin Institute is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. The range of interactive exhibits on offer is inspiring; while all are a delight in their own way, the IMAX theater, escape rooms, Fels Planetarium, and SportsZone are particularly recommended. While there, don’t miss stopping by the 30-ton statue of Franklin at the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.
4. People Watch At Rittenhouse Square
How times change… a few hundred years ago, Rittenhouse Square was a grazing area for animals. These days, it’s one of Philadelphia’s most upmarket areas, featuring a clutch of designer stores, world-class restaurants, and swanky nightspots. Even if you can’t quite afford to take advantage of the numerous spending opportunities, the square is a great spot none-the-less, providing the perfect place for a peaceful stroll, or relaxing with a picnic.
3. Walk With The Animals At Philadelphia Zoo
Whether you’re 5 or 50, you’re sure to love Philadelphia Zoo. The 42-acre facility is home to 1,300 animals, from lions, tigers, and jaguars to gorillas and orangutans. While all the exhibits have their merits, the Tortoise Trail, Penguin Point, the African Plains, Bear Country, and Water is Life with its red panda’s and playful otters are particularly delightful.
2. Visit The Barnes Foundation
The 4 ½ acre Barnes Foundation is home to some of the most impressive French impressionist, post-impressionist and early modernist works in the county. Paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Van Gogh compete for attention with African pieces, wrought-iron metalwork, Native American pottery. Despite its small size, the sheer abundance of world-class pieces will keep you enthralled for hours, so be sure to dedicate enough time to explore the delightful center properly.
1. Remember History At The Liberty Bell & Independence Hall
Even if you’re only in Philadelphia for a fleeting visit, it would be remiss of you not to take a quick peek at the Liberty Bell. Located in the Liberty Bell Centre in front of the Independence Hall, it’s free to visit and you can take as many pictures of the iconic monument as you like. Seeing as you’re already in the vicinity, a tour of the Independence Hall is a perennial crowd-pleaser and a must for anyone with even the vaguest interest in history.
Written by Dana Hanson
Read more posts by Dana Hanson