This World Heritage site is the birthplace of U.S. government. Built between 1732 and 1756, its Assembly Room saw delegates from 13 colonies meet to sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the design for the U.S. flag in 1777, the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and drew up the U.S. Constitution in 1781. It is also where the assassinated body of President Abraham Lincoln lay in state on April 22, 1865.
Here you can also investigate the first Supreme Court chamber, the Assembly Room and the West Wing, which houses some of the most exciting exhibits, including the copy of the Declaration of Independence that was read in public, and a copy of the Constitution edited by George Washington.
the liberty bell Philadelphia’s top tourist attraction is housed in a brand new building designed to best frame this symbol of American liberty under the rule of law. The plan was for the blue skies and Independence Hall behind it to frame its backdrop.
The bell itself was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s constitution enacted in 1701 by William Penn. It was made in the east end of London, weighing 2080 pounds of bronze, and bears an inscription from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto the inhabitants thereof.”
It was installed in the belfry of the Pennsylvania state house, which is now Independence Hall, and tolled on important occasions, most important of which was the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The bell gradually became badly cracked, however (surely not a testament to British engineering), and despite initial repairs soon became unusable.
It rose to great fame, however. After slavery, abolitionists, inspired by its inscription which was taken to epitomize liberty, adopted it in the mid-19th century and toured the country with it. It was for this that the “Liberty Bell March”, itself made famous again as the theme tune for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was specially written.
other notable sites
Bishop William White House: the restored house of the first bishop of Pennsylvania is a fine example of decadent upper-class life in Philadelphia in the 18th century.
Franklin Court: a tribute to Benjamin Franklin with many intriguing smaller museums about Franklin and life in Philadelphia during his time.
Old City Hall: simultaneously the capital of the US and the home of the Supreme Court until 1800 when Philadelphia stopped being the nation’s capital.
old city Old City picks up where the Independence National Historical Park leaves off and runs across to the banks of the River Delaware, the larger of the two main rivers in Philadelphia. This area is a hub of night-life activity with a multitude of charming bars, clubs, and not so charming bars!
benjamin franklin bridge The world’s longest suspension bridge at 1.8 miles when it was completed in 1926 dominates the skyline in Old City and is particularly pleasant when each cable is lit up at night.
betsy ross house This is the house of Betsy Ross, an 18th century seamstress who may or may not have sewn the first US flag. What’s more it may be her actual house or it may be next-door to the site where her house was. Either way, it is a good love-in for the romance of the U.S. flag as well as the only colonial upholstery shop remaining in the USA.
christ church burial ground Here in this somber but inspiring graveyard you can find Benjamin Franklin’s grave.
elfreth’s alley Between Front and 2nd Streets, this is America’s oldest continuously occupied residential street having been lived in since 1713.
national constitution center This somehow manages to make the U.S. Constitution sexy and interesting for a general audience and is worth seeing, especially as fewer than 5% of Americans can name the basic freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment!
Originally Philadelphia’s most active port area, today Penn’s Landing is severed from the rest of the city by the interstate that runs parallel to the Delaware. Having been done up fairly recently, however, it now offers an attractive destination for events, to view the spectacular Delaware, and the opportunity to take to the water in various craft and contraptions! The area’s northern edge lies around Market Street and its southern edge is in the vicinity of South Street.
center city This is Philly’s center of creativity, commerce, culture and everything else as well as being a restaurant and bar hub.
At its physical center, where Market and Broad Streets cross stands City Hall, topped by a statue of William Penn created by Alexander Milne Calder. City Hall is the world’s largest building without steel frames at 548 feet. It is also a treat to stand right in the center of the Hall, outside, where you can stand at the very intersection of the four dividing streets which mark the center of Philadelphia into its four squares. The other most notable landmark in this area is the Masonic Temple to the northeast of City Hall, with its bizarre tower.
Stretching south from City Hall is the Avenue of the Arts, where Broad Street is flanked by a series of theatres, arts centers, jazz bars, most notable of which is the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
chinatown The fourth largest Chinatown in America, has some great Chinese restaurants and a diverse range of other attractions.
reading terminal market A great jumble of butchers, grocers, take-out and Amish delicacy stalls is great for shopping but well worth the experience for visitors too.
rittenhouse square Rittenhouse, the most famous and prestigious of the city’s squares, is popular with residents and tourists who come here for the shade of the trees, to read, enjoy a drink or sandwich or to enjoy the faint sounds of opera you can sometimes hear from the nearby Curtis Institute.
South Street is the “coolest” place in Philadelphia, as a center for arts and alternative shops and centers. It is always bustling with parents taking children for colorful walks, as well as artists and punks remembering scenes from previous years. Many are drawn to the numerous record shops, the art-supply store and the Whole Foods grocery. It is also a popular place for a place for a night out. Definitely worth seeing for the art, the murals and the many great places to eat and drink.
the italian market South of South Street is South Philly – traditionally home to new immigrant groups. The Italian Market, on 9th street between Christian Street and Washington Avenue, is the largest outdoor market in the US with sights, sounds and smells rarely found in the modern age to be enjoyed.
arts and museums Philadelphia Museum of Art | This is the country’s third largest museum and is home to over 30,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and decorative arts, and modern arts. It would be better described as ten museums in one. Many of the major artists of the 19th and 20th centuries are present here in its collections of mainly Asian, American, and European art. Particular highlights include the 19th century European and impressionist galleries as well as the extensive array of medieval and post-medieval armour and weapons! Most months on the ground floor there is also a special guest exhibition.
Architecturally, the museum is built in the style of three neo-classical ‘temples’ with fluted columns supporting a blue-tiled roof upon which are mounted bronze griffins. Especially worthwhile are Wednesday and Friday nights when there are live music performances, films, talks, and guided tours, as well as dinner and drinks. Dinner at Friday night jazz is a Philadelphia must-do.
There are often Pay-What-You-Wish Wednesday Nights, check out the website for more details.
Before going up to the museum take the chance to re-enact the famous run of Rocky Balboa (from the Rocky movies) up the city-facing steps at the front. There was once a statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in front of the museum, but it was moved to the base of the steps.
The Barnes Foundation | Established in 1922 by Albert Barnes, a pharmaceuticals magnate from a working class background in Philly, the foundation has more than 800 paintings now estimated to be worth as much as $2 billion. Among its works are 180 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, and 60 Matisse’s, as well as numerous Old Masters and a range of African artworks.
The trust was set up in order to provide non-discriminatory access to fantastic art and education. To date, the Foundation carries on Barnes's belief that human creative genius is not bound by race, ethnic origin or nationality.
Yet the institution, despite its fantastic collection, has long struggled to generate income under the strict conditions placed on it by its founder, which lead many to worry about the future of these great works. Originally accessible by appointment only, beginning in 1946 the Foundation began opening one day a week. In 1961, the state successfully sued to increase access to 2.5 days a week, but the number of visitors remained strictly limited to 500 a week. Barnes also stipulated that works were to remain hung in the exact floor-to-ceiling arrangement he had chosen and were never to be deaccessioned or put on loan. In December 2004 a court ruled in favor of trustees of the Barnes Foundation who had argued for two years that they should be allowed to move the US’s finest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works to a new $100 million replica gallery to be built in the heart of Philadelphia.
*****UPDATE The new Barnes Foundation opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in May 2012, so now it is easy to visit.
Rodin Museum | Another of the many museums on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, this notable museum contains the greatest collection of Rodin sculptures outside Paris. Open 10am – 5pm, Tue – Sun.
Franklin Institute Science Museum | The museum that pioneered the ‘hands-on’ science concept which is now so widespread today. In the science center you can walk through a 4-ton, two-storey papier-mâché replica of a beating heart, as well as experiencing all sorts of other demonstrations of physics and biology at work. Downstairs is the Planetarium and the chance to look at the history of telecommunications and space travel in the Mandell Center. You can also check out the 79-ft movie screen of the Tuttleman IMAX Theatre for a small extra charge.
first fridays Between October and July, Philly’s art scene gears around ‘first Friday’. On the first Friday of each month the 40-plus Old City galleries, showrooms and co-operatives stay open until 9 or 10pm. Young artists, students and other onlookers hang out and enjoy the exhibits in spaces that get filled to the brim with the trendiest urban types. Many galleries offer complimentary food, drink and nibbles. This really is a part of Philadelphia culture you should try to sample if you can. Some of the best galleries to try might be Nexus, Muse, Third Street Gallery and Space 1026. Full details are available from the Old City Arts Organization (www.oldcityarts.org; 215 625 9200).
In 1855 Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park was established and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who designed Central Park in New York and the Fenway in Boston. Fairmount Park is the largest urban park in the country, with 8,900 acres of land comprising over 60 separate parks in nearly every neighborhood of Philadelphia. Most people, though, are only familiar with the 4,400 acres that run along the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek. Dating back to 1770, the park lays claim to a dramatic history, which includes several sales to private and public owners, fierce debates about its expansion, and stinging accusations that the park was only tailored to the wealthy. Today, it attracts visitors of every background and includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Robin Hood Dell, the Mann Music Center and the Philadelphia Zoo, the country’s oldest zoo, housing over 1800 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians – the refreshing thing is that despite being housed in a Victorian site it offers natural habitats for most of its stars. The seasonal highlight is a 400ft. high view of the city aboard a tethered balloon.
You'll find pools, tennis courts, gardens, ballparks, playgrounds and much more. One of the most beautiful unsung treasures is the miles-long Forbidden Drive, which sprouts various other hiking trails. Check out Forbidden Drive during the fall: The season's stunning colors make for a perfect photo op at every turn. For naturalists and bikers, the eight-mile looped path behind the museum along Kelly and West River drives, joined by the Falls Bridge, is one of the best places for a leisurely stroll or a good workout.
eastern state penitentiary A fantastic chance to see what Quaker-style punishment (they believed firmly in strict isolation) was like in an 1829 prison. Now open to tourists, when it was first built it was the most expensive building in the USA and the most famous prison in the world.
Open 10am-5pm, Wed-Sun, Apr-Nov.
outside philadelphia Valley Forge | The site of the Continental Army’s renowned winter encampment from December 19 1777 to June 19 1778 contains 5.5 square miles of scenic beauty and open space not 20 miles from Philadelphia. Not itself a battlefield, the site is a great symbol of bravery and endurance of George Washington’s 12,000 troops. 2,000 of them perished here from freezing temperatures, hunger and disease. The short film at the Welcome Center is well worth seeing (610-783-1077). Valley Forge is a pretty cycle ride along the Schuylkill River Trail, alternatively SEPTA bus 125 from 30th Street Station takes you right to the Welcome Center.
Chadd’s Ford and Brandywine Valley | Home of Andrew Wyeth, one of America’s greatest living artists, the crucible of the DuPont Empire and site of the Brandywine Battle Field, this 45 minute trip is well worth a day at some point during your time in Philadelphia. History buffs will revel in the annual reenactments of the Brandywine Battle – one of the few sites where the British actually won, though be careful on re-enactment day which battle you watch. Visiting Brits tend to become confused when the Americans win one of the reenactments – it is apparently only fair for those dressed up in costume! 5 minutes from the battlefield is the Brandywine Valley Museum – close to the site where Mr. DuPont first set up his mills to make gunpowder. The museum houses an excellent collection of Andrew Wyeth’s as well as the art of his father, the renowned illustrator NC Wyeth, along with the art of his son, James. The quaint nearby valley has many buildings and barns Andrew uses in his works.
Bucks County | Bucks County is right next-door to Philadelphia to the north and is a tranquil rural area packed with cute towns and lovely countryside.
Pennsylvania Dutch Country | Pennsylvania Dutch Country is home to the community of Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren collectively known as “the plain people.” The Old Order Amish in particular are a great tourist attraction, making the area the most visited in Pennsylvania.
The numerous Amish (www.800padutch.com/amish.shtml) and plain communities here give this area a whole different ambience. These people as a whole are not as materialistic as modern society today. Instead, they adhere to more traditional ways and family values. Their influence is felt throughout their local society.
Here’s what they say about themselves!
“As you see these plain people working in their fields or clip-clopping down a country road in their horse and buggy, don't just rush by. Instead, take time to reflect on the values that make them so ‘different.’ There is a lot to be said for their slower-paced lifestyle.”
For more information about the Amish and visiting the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, see www.800padutch.com and pavisnet.com/dutchcountry
traveling elsewhere Atlantic City, with all the fun and even more of the tack of Las Vegas, is just $12 and just over an hour by Greyhound bus and even less by the Jersey Regional Transit Service. Not something you’ll want to do often, but it could lead to an amusing day trip.
useful websites for what’s going on in philly