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Philadelphia is often overlooked in favor of our popular neighbors just a little bit north in New York City and a little bit south in Washington, D.C.. But people who skip over us here in the City of Brotherly Love are missing out!
There are plenty of awesome things to do in Philadelphia, our adopted hometown of over a decade. In addition to the sites where the Founding Fathers walked, there is lots of contemporary culture. You’ll find great parks, unique museums, fabulous food and drinks, and loads of seasonal pop-ups and events that will make you want to come back to Philly again and again.
Here’s a look at some of our favorite attractions, whether you’re visiting for the first time or the fifth.
Things to do in Philadelphia
Spruce Street Harbor Park
Spruce Street Harbor Park is one of our favorite places to visit in Philadelphia. With colorful hammocks, floating gardens, and lots of food options, it’s the perfect place to spend a few hours hanging out on a nice day.
Located in the Marina at Penn’s Landing, Spruce Street Harbor Park is made of a network of landscaped barges, a net that lets you hang above the Delaware River, and floating gardens that aren’t just pretty but also help clean the water in the marina. Throw in some tacos from the Distrito food stand, some of Chickie’s and Pete’s famous crab fries, and a cocktail, and you have the makings for a great time.
The seasonal park has excellent waterfront views and is fun during the day and particularly at night when lit up by its shimmering fairy lights. If you’re in town from mid-May through late September, don’t miss this must see in Philadelphia.
Elfreth’s Alley is one of the most colorful places in the city. As the oldest residential street in the US, there is lot of history here, but we love it for its decorations and brightly painted doors.
The 32 houses currently along the cobblestoned Elfreth’s Alley were built between 1728 and 1836. The museum that now occupies 124-126 has been restored to its Colonial-era appearance and tells the history of the street and the tradesmen who originally called it home. Several of the main historic landmarks are just a few blocks away, so don’t miss Elfreth’s Alley when you’re in Old City.
Shofuso Japanese House and Garden
This city is full of unexpected surprises, and one of the biggest is the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. Just a few minutes from downtown, the house and peaceful garden span an acre oasis in Fairmount Park.
Shofuso was built in 1953 as a gift from Japan to American citizens as a symbol of peace following World War II. Constructed using traditional Japanese techniques, it was originally exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan and was later moved here in 1958.
The Shofuso Japanese House and Garden includes a traditional-style Japanese house modeled on an early 17th-century temple guest house and a serene garden complete with koi pond and 75-year-old weeping cherry tree. Visitors can walk through the house (no shoes allowed), learn about its art and function, and linger in the gorgeous garden that’s one of the prettiest things to see in Philadelphia.
Rooftop bars are my happy place, and, thankfully, Lance is willing to indulge me. Luckily, there is a considerable selection of places for a cocktail or beer with a view.
We love Assembly on the roof of the Logan Hotel overlooking Logan Circle and Continental Midtown, which has an indoor/outdoor bar that’s open year-round. Positano Coast in Old City is also good for a relaxed evening, and Bok Bar in South Philly has stunning skyline views.
Franklin Fountain is one of the best places for ice cream. It’s so popular that on summer weekends the line for its old-timey flavors and excellent sundaes can stretch around the block.
The handmade ice cream at Franklin Fountain comes in 25 flavors, including vanilla bean, peanut butter, and my favorite—Franklin mint chip. Some flavors change seasonally and almost all have an historic or local tie, such as their apple butter ice cream that includes local apples and apple butter from a Pennsylvania company founded in 1892. In addition to ice cream, you can also find homemade sodas, egg creams, and milkshakes.
Street art of the Mural Arts program
As lovers of street art, discovering new-to-us murals in the city is always a highlight of Philadelphia sightseeing. With the nation’s largest public arts program—Mural Arts Philadelphia—there are new pieces going up on the blank canvases of city buildings all the time.
Mural Arts began as an anti-graffiti program and has continued over the decades to beautify different spaces around the city. In its 35-year history, the program has been responsible for over 3000 murals, and 60–100 public art projects are added each year. That means that no matter which neighborhoods you visit, you’re likely to find something created by the Mural Arts artists (you might even see the one we contributed to in Fairmount Park).
If you’re interested in digging deep into the city’s street art culture, taking a mural tour is one of the best things to do when you visit Philadelphia. The Mural Arts program offers regular walking, biking, train, and vehicle tours of different neighborhoods and works of different themes.
World Cafe Live
World Cafe Live is our favorite music venue. A comfortable listening space, large concert venue, and bar/restaurant rolled into one, it welcomes nationally known acts and up-and-comers. World Cafe Live is also home to WXPN’s radio studios and the national radio show “World Cafe.”
In addition to the performances, there are open mic nights, trivia games, and other special celebrations. Even if there’s no music, the upper level is a great place to drop in for a bite to eat or something to drink near the University of Pennsylvania and 30th Street Station.
Reading Terminal Market
One of the top Philadelphia tourist attractions is also a popular place with locals. For over 100 years, Reading Terminal Market has been one of the main markets in the city, and it’s the oldest continually operating market in the US.
Originally opened in 1893, Reading Terminal Market is still the home of over 100 vendors on the ground floor and basement levels of the Reading Terminal’s former train shed. It’s now part of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, welcoming visitors every day.
You can find fresh produce, artisan cheese, baked goods, Pennsylvania Dutch specialties, flowers, and food counters. Our favorite stop is always Bassetts Ice Cream, the oldest ice cream company in America and the first company to sign a lease in the market—you really can’t go wrong with any of their flavors.
LOVE Park is one of the most iconic Philadelphia sites. It’s so well-known as one of the top symbols of the City of Brotherly Love that you’ll never hear anyone call it by its official name, John F. Kennedy Plaza.
Just a few steps from City Hall, LOVE Park takes its name from the red LOVE statue by Robert Indiana that’s resided here since 1976. It’s a popular spot for proposals and even the occasional wedding, thanks to the theme. But, most days, the park is a quick photo stop for tourists and a place where locals escape from their offices in the afternoon.
Several days a week, the park hosts a handful of food trucks at lunch. The schedule can typically be found on the LOVE Park Facebook page. There is a splash fountain, green areas, and walking paths along with plenty of seating. Throughout the year, there are markets, pop-ups, and various special events here.
Craft distilleries have experienced a boom locally in the last few years. That means there are lots of fun places to visit to learn about distilling straight from the distillers themselves, or you can simply pop in for a cocktail to appreciate the fruits of their labor.
We enjoy the modern tasting room of Philadelphia Distillers in Fishtown where you can try products not available elsewhere and see where they’re made. Pulling up a stool at New Liberty Distilling in nearby Olde Kensington is also fun—you can sample from their variety of whiskeys and fabulous cocktails. Suburban distilleries Bluebird Distilling and Manatawny Still Works also have tasting rooms in the city.
For many first-time visitors, a visit to Independence Hall is one of the top things to do in Philadelphia. I’m a little ashamed to say that it took my living here for several years before I saw the inside of this monumental building, which has been restored to its 1776 appearance.
The most notable purpose of Independence Hall is evident in its name—it is the site where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were adopted—but its history goes beyond that. In 1753, it was completed as the Pennsylvania State House and served as the capitol of Pennsylvania. It was also the principal meeting place of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783.
Essentially, everyone who was anyone in the early American government darkened the doors of this building in Old City. Along with the Statue of Liberty and Monticello, Independence Hall is one of only a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the U.S.
Independence Hall is impressive from the outside, but it’s in the 20-minute guided tour where the story comes alive. You’ll see George Washington’s “rising sun” chair in the Assembly Room, which is arranged as it was during the original Constitutional Convention. In the adjacent West Wing, the actual inkstand used to sign the Declaration of Independence and an original draft of the Constitution are prominently displayed.
Timed tickets (they’re free) are required March through December. If you’re visiting in January or February or after 5pm during summer hours, you won’t need one.
Just across from Independence Hall is another of the top historical sites—the Liberty Bell. Year-round, people line up to see this imperfect symbol of liberty.
Originally known as the State House bell, the Liberty Bell rang in Independence Hall for decades, calling people together and serving as a rallying cry for independence and the symbol of pride in a new nation. While there was no immediate announcement about the vote for independence on July 4, 1776, the bell was rung on July 8 when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in the place where the bell now stands.
The Liberty Bell can be viewed any hour of the day. When the (free) pavilion where the bell is now displayed is closed, it’s lit up at night.
The Bourse Food Hall
The Bourse is home to the city’s first artisanal food hall. It’s the perfect location for a good meal in Old City if you’re visiting the historic attractions there, but it’s also designed to be a destination in and of itself.
Once the site of the first commodities exchange market in the US, the historic building houses more than 20 vendors with a focus on local concepts. We loved the chicken sandwich at Freebyrd and the custom ice cream creations at Scoop DeVille. We’ve also been fans of Bluebird Distilling since long before they had a location in the city, so stop by for a cocktail made from their craft spirits if you have the time on your trip to Philadelphia.
Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania is located in the northwest part of the city in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Its 92 acres of gardens are a joy to visit any time of the year.
In the spring, the English and rose gardens flourish. The summer brings lush plants and trees around the ponds. Fall foliage is spectacular and punctuated by Halloween decorations, and winter brings the popular Holiday Garden Railway.
Mann Center for the Performing Arts
The Mann Center for the Performing Arts is one of the unique places to go to see a concert. Similar to venues like Wolf Trap in Virginia or the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Mann Center has both a covered pavilion and a sprawling lawn, making it the ideal place to enjoy a performance on a nice day.
Located in Fairmount Park, the nonprofit performing arts center is one of the top destinations for music lovers. It hosts concerts from artists of every genre from Bob Dylan to Jill Scott to Tony Bennett. The Bolshoi Ballet, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Buena Vista Social Club have performed on its stage.
In addition to more typical concerts, musicals, and festivals, you can also see the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has made its summer home at the Mann for decades. One of our favorite recent experiences there was watching the orchestra play the live score during Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—definitely an uncommon and fun way to watch a movie. Don’t miss the overlook point with views of downtown.
Founded in 1695, Christ Church counted among its parishioners some of the most notable people of the colonial period, including Presidents George Washington and John Adams, Betsy Ross, and signers of the Constitution and of the Declaration of Independence. The current building on 2nd Street is perfect for history lovers.
In addition to the beautiful Georgian-style building, Christ Church is known for its cemetery. The burial ground three blocks away is the final resting place of many Revolutionary War figures and early leaders. Its most famous resident is Benjamin Franklin whose grave can be seen through an opening in the brick wall. Every day, hundreds of people toss pennies onto the marble grave marker in honor of his famous words, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Christ Church is more than just one of the top tourist spots—it remains an active Episcopal church with regular services, and it hosts daily historical talks and tours.
Parks on Tap
In the summer months, Parks on Tap is the place to go in Philadelphia. The traveling beer garden goes to different parks throughout the city all summer long. Each park offers food, beer, and wine in a relaxed, family- and pet-friendly environment.
You’ll often find games, hammocks, and special programming like yoga classes at Parks on Tap. It’s an enjoyable way to relax in neighborhood parks, and a portion of the profit is donated to the Fairmount Park Conservancy to help maintain city parks.
We the Youth mural
We have loved Keith Haring’s work for decades and were happily surprised to learn that Philadelphia has one of a handful of the pop artist’s original murals that still exist where he painted them. Located at the corner of 22nd & Ellsworth, “We the Youth” is immediately recognizable as the cartoon-like, brightly-colored work of Haring.
“We the Youth” was created by Haring in collaboration with CityKids of New York and Brandywine Workshop in 1987. It was restored by the Mural Arts program and is open to the public. It’s one of the coolest things to see in Philly for lovers of Haring’s style.
The Mummers Museum
Few traditions are better known here than the New Years Day Mummers Parade. People playing music in wild, bright, Mardi Gras-like costumes parade through Center City in what is the oldest folk festival in the US.
Visitors who are interested in the Mummers outside of the wintertime can visit the Mummers Museum to learn about this singular event and the Mummer culture. Though the museum could use some polish, it’s clear how passionate the participants are about the history and camaraderie. You can learn about the roots of the tradition and even dress up as a Mummer.
Pizza Brain is the world’s first pizza museum and a restaurant serving some of the country’s best pizza rolled into one. In the Fishtown neighborhood, you’ll find this temple to all things pizza. It is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest collection of pizza memorabilia in the world, which you can see while munching on pizza topped with pepperoni, brisket, buffalo sauce, or just about any other topping you desire.
Originally part of a section of overgrown, unused rail lines, Rail Park has been revitalized into a free, pet-friendly park.
It features native vegetation, walking paths, and swings right near Center City. The quarter-mile stretch opened last summer, and organizers ultimately plan to expand it to 3 miles, which will make the Rail Park twice the length of New York’s famous High Line. A visit here is one of the best things to do in Philadelphia for lovers of the outdoors.
Laurel Hill Cemetery
A cemetery might not seem like a natural fit on a list of sites worth visiting, but Laurel Hill is not a typical cemetery. It was designed as a place where visitors could wander the grounds and enjoy views over the Schuylkill River in a park-like atmosphere.
In the nearly 200 years since Laurel Hill Cemetery opened, more than 30,000 monuments have been added to its landscape. Some of them mark the graves of city leaders, generals, social and industry pioneers, and even a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Tours of the grounds are a popular way to learn more, and they have many different themes from feminist leaders to soldiers to ghost tours and beyond.
South Street is home to one of the most creative attractions in the city, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. The unique museum, which bills itself as a “immersive mixed media art environment,” was created by artist Isaiah Zagar. It began as a project to beautify South Street and expanded into this unique place.
Using reclaimed materials, Zagar created this unexpected space that is essentially a giant, walk-through mosaic. The project weaves inside and outside, incorporating bicycle spokes, bottles, mirrors, and other items into the giant work. We’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else, so it’s one of our top places to visit.
Center City’s most expensive neighborhood is Rittenhouse Square, and, at its center, is a park by the same name. Rittenhouse was one of the five original parks planned by William Penn and was first constructed in 1683.
Today, Rittenhouse Square is a tree-filled park surrounded by luxury apartments, shops, and restaurants. It hosts a Saturday farmers market year-round and many special events such as the Rittenhouse Square Spring Festival and an annual Christmas tree lighting that attracts thousands of spectators. It’s one of the fun places to lounge and people watch, and when you’re done with that, visit one of the nearby top restaurants like French bistro Parc or Barclay Prime steakhouse.
Philadelphia has a collection of speakeasy-style bars. Through unmarked entrances and behind hidden doorways, they are bastions of classic cocktails, punch bowls, and tiki drinks. From Austin to Montreal, we seek out speakeasies when we travel, so we love finding new ones at home, too.
Our favorite speakeasy is the cocktail haven called Franklin Bar, and we also enjoy the uniquely-decorated Ranstead Room. Hop Sing Laundromat is also on the list of good speakeasies, but we haven’t tried it yet because it has a legendary list of rules that don’t seem overly welcoming. If you go, let us know your thoughts.
Miracle on 13th Street
If you’re wondering what to do in Philadelphia at Christmas, don’t miss taking a trip to the festival of Christmas kitsch known as Miracle on 13th Street. Every year, the residents in the 1600 block of South 13th Street work together to make their block overflow with the joy of Christmas.
The ultimate holiday light display has been a neighborhood tradition for the last decade. The lights for Miracle on 13th Street generally go up the Saturday after Thanksgiving and stay up through New Year’s Day. It’s free to visit, and the lights and decorations can be seen every night from 5pm to midnight. If you’re in town in the winter, it should certainly be on your list.
Each year between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve, LOVE Park transforms into the Christmas Village. With 80 merchants and artists featuring local and international products, it’s the largest Christmas attraction in the city.
For over a decade, the Christmas Village has been a must do in Philadelphia, showcasing seasonal decorations, gifts, and delicious food in the heart of Center City. It’s designed to be a traditional German market, so you’ll find classics like bratwurst and gluhwein (mulled wine) just as you would in the squares of Munich or Trier. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Christkind, the ambassador of the famous Nuremberg Christmas market. Grab some cider, try some raclette, and get to shopping!
Where to Eat
There are so many great restaurants that it’s impossible to mention them all. These are a few we love.
Federal Donuts – With seven locations, you’re never too far from a Federal Donuts. The quick serve restaurants are known for their fried chicken, za’atar fries, and fluffy donuts with unique flavors. Don’t miss it or you’ll regret it.
La Calaca Feliz – This is one of our favorite Mexican restaurants (beat out only by their location near our house). From their chorizo fundido with house made sausage to their carne asada entree and to-die-for carnitas tacos, it’s impossible to go wrong here.
Vedge– This amazing, James Beard-nominated vegan restaurant has been a favorite of ours for years (no, we’re not vegan–it’s just spectacular). In a cozy Center City brownstone, Vedge has great cocktails and dishes featuring seasonal vegetables. Our favorites include the rutabaga fondue and the seared maitake mushroom.
Amada – Spanish tapas and Basque pintxos are the stars at Amada in Old City. If you find yourself nearby on a Sunday evening, pop in for a selection of $5 bites and wines.
Day Trips from Philadelphia
Just a half-hour from Philadelphia, Valley Forge National Historical Park is 3500 acres of trees, meadows, and monuments to the Revolutionary War. The area is most famous as the site where George Washington and the Continental Army camped over the winter of 1777-1778. You can see Washington’s Headquarters, replica soldiers’ huts, and memorials, or simply walk the trails and enjoy the outdoors.
Southwest of the city is a lush landscape with rolling hills, dramatic estates, and the beautiful Brandywine River. You can visit the wineries of Chadds Ford and the Brandywine River Museum that has works by N. C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth. Don’t miss a visit to Kennett Square, dubbed the “mushroom capital of the world,” or Longwood Gardens, the 1000-acre botanical gardens that is stunning any time of the year.
A little over an hour north, Bethlehem is one of the fun places to visit near Philadelphia. It’s home to the Hoover-Mason Trestle, an elevated park on the reclaimed industrial site of Bethlehem Steel, and the Bethlehem SteelStacks, a fun arts venue that hosts the largest free music festival in the US. You can also visit the Martin guitar factory and see some of the area’s charming covered bridges.
Our favorite—and unexpected—part of a visiting Bethlehem is seeing the historic Moravian community. The sites here date back to 1741 and include the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, a working blacksmith forge, a colonial-era pharmacy, and more.
How to Get There
Philadelphia International Airport is just 7 miles from downtown, so it’s easy to get into the city by car, train, or rideshare. Philadelphia is also part of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service, which also serves Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C..