Philadelphia, Pennsylvania! “Philly” for short or “The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection” for long. Philadelphia is a vibrant and historical city, nestled between the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River (pronounced “skool-kull”), with plenty to offer.
Founded in 1682, almost 100 years before America was even America, Philadelphia holds the title to a number of “firsts,” such as the first library, first hospital, and first zoo in the United States. It played a major part in the American Revolution and was even the first capital of the newly minted country!
In this article I’ll be talking about two neighborhoods in particular: Old City, and Center City. Old City would be the historic part of Philly, while Center City would be Downtown. Center City is easy to find on a map because it’s located where Broad Street and Market Street meet to form the “crosshairs.” This “crosshairs” is also where the Broad Street Line and the Market-Frankfort Line of the SEPTA subway system meet. Between SEPTA and your own two feet (or wheels), Philadelphia is a pretty easy town to get around and explore.
I’d also like to add that, while many Northeastern US cities tend to get a bad rap for being “rude,” that wasn’t my experience in Philly. I had several people ask me for directions on the street, and likewise I asked other people on the street for directions, and was never ignored or responded to rudely. Sure, it’s not as openly warm as other places, but I had no problem with the people of Philly. It’s a great place, and definitely worth a visit.
Read on for 10 fun things to do in the Philadelphia!
1. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Everyone knows this place as the site of the “Rocky Steps,” although that claim to fame pales in comparison to the museum itself. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is probably my single favorite art museum in the world. It’s so much more than just framed pictures on the walls: there are entire rooms dedicated to Roman villas, Japanese tea houses, and Mughal pillars. It’s a massive complex in an historic structure, and the front steps offer some great views of the Center City skyline.
It’s also possible to catch some kind of social event going on at the base of the steps; the day I went, there was a mini soccer field set up for league play.
Pro Tip: The Rocky statue is no longer at the top of the stairs, but has been moved down to street level, a little ways to the right of the stairs.
2. Eastern State Penitentiary
Prior to Eastern State Penitentiary‘s founding in 1829, most jails bore little difference from madhouses. Men, women, and children were all thrown into essentially one building and left to fend for themselves in a hellish institution.
The designer of this radial-style prison, John Haviland, wanted to incorporate solitude into the design, where prisoners could reflect on their crimes and. Today we would call this solitude “solitary confinement,” but the idea was that the inmates would hopefully become penitent. Hence the word, “penitentiary.”
Eastern State Penitentiary operated until 1971, and housed such high-profile criminals as Al Capone. Today it is a National Historic Landmark, and one of the most sobering tourist attractions in Philly.
Pro Tip: They turn the whole prison into a massive haunted house for Halloween!
3. Reading Terminal Market
The first thing to know about Reading Terminal Market is that it’s pronounced “redding,” not “reading.” The second thing to know is that it’s massive. Operating since 1893, Reading Terminal Market, one of the largest city markets in the country, contains everything from pizza to pad thai, burgers to bratwurst. It’s pretty easy to get lost in this labyrinth of food and sweets, but in the best way possible.
4. Philadelphia City Hall
Constructed between 1871 1901, this has got to be one of the cooler city halls in the country. Standing in the literal heart of Center City, this ornate building was the tallest in the world until 1908. Today you can take guided tours, or just wander around it, marveling at its “Second Empire” architectural style. That statue at the very top? City founder and state namesake William Penn.
The two main branches of Philadelphia’s SEPTA (SouthEast Pennsylvania Transit Authority) subway service meet underneath the building, which makes it an excellent gateway into Center City.
5. Elfreth’s Alley
Elfreth’s Alley, located in Old City, holds the distinction of being the oldest residential street in the United States, dating back to 1702. Today there are 32 residences still standing on the narrow street, which were built between the early-18th and the early-19th centuries. Most of these old houses are inhabited, so please be respectful of the residents.
Pro Tip: The Elfreth’s Alley Museum is located at numbers 124 and 126.
6. National Mechanics
National Mechanics is a restaurant and bar (and dance club!) located in an historic building in Old City. The 1837 building was once home to the Mechanics National Bank.
Pro Tip: The historic building turns into an awesome nightclub on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 pm to 2 am!
7. Franklin Institute
The Franklin Institute is a major science museum in Center City. It’s a great place for people of all ages, and features interactive science exhibits, flight simulators, a rooftop observatory, and even an escape room. An upcoming exhibit, running from October 2019 to April 2020, will focus on the popular Worst Case Scenario survival books.
8. Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square is an historic, upscale mixed-use neighborhood near Center City. It’s an architect’s and city planner’s dream to stroll through, although everyone will find the eponymous town square a relaxing respite from the big city energy. If you like people-watching, look no further.
9. Philly Cheesesteaks
Philadelphia’s chief export, the cheesesteak is a delicious blend of sliced beefsteak, Cheese Whiz, and onions (although you can get it however you want) on a big hoagie bun.
The battle rages on for which establishment in Philly serves up the best cheesesteak, or even who was the first. Two South Philly establishments lay claim to being the first to put meat to hoagie: Pat’s King of Steaks, and Geno’s. Interestingly, both are located right across from each other, so maybe try both!
However, if you don’t have the time to go down to South Philly, you can’t go wrong with most places in the city. If you’re walking around Old City, I recommend Sonny’s Famous Steaks, right by the 2nd Street subway stop.
A regional convenience store chain that all contain Subway-style sandwich shops. I’ve included these unassuming little convenience stores because they make mean sandwiches. You can find their locations here and grab some Wawa for a picnic in many parts of Philly.
Honorable Mention: Independence Hall
I thought long and hard about this one, and while I couldn’t bring myself to call it “fun,” I do think you should do it if you’re in Philly. It’s of incredible importance to the history of the United States of America.
Independence Hall, originally built in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House, is the building where both the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were signed. The steeple of the building used to contain the Liberty Bell, which is now houses on ground level in its own exhibit.
Independence Hall is actually just one part of the Independence National Historical Park, located in Old City, and dubbed “America’s most historic square mile.”
And that’s it! I hope this list helps you plan out your trip to Philadelphia. If there’s anything else to add, please feel free to talk about it in the comments below.